While harpsichords are mainly associated with classical music, their distinctive sound crops up in the most unlikely places. Back in the 1940s, boogie-woogie legend Meade Lux Lewis played the blues on harpsichord, and Johnny Guarnieri swung with it as a member of Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five. During the 1960s, harpsichords were used in recordings by everyone from Tim Buckley and the Beatles to Albert Ayler and John Cage.

The harpsichord is descended from the clavisymbalum, or keyed dulcimer, a hybrid instrument dating back to the Renaissance. The fanciest eighteenth-century harpsichords come densely decorated with Rococo paintings of flowers, landscapes, and mythological beings.

Harpsichords are intricately put together marvels of ingenuity. Rather than striking the strings with copper blades (like the clavichord) or felt hammers (like the piano), harpsichords live up to their name by plucking the strings with a specially designed apparatus called a plectrum. Traditionally, each plectrum was fitted with a stripped-down quill from a bird’s feather, preferably raven or gull. Modern harpsichord plectra tend to be made from Delrin, a plastic used for guitar picks.

Faythe Vollrath’s fascination with the instrument began at the age of ten, when she was treated to hands-on interaction with several harpsichords while visiting Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg with her family. Stephen Gamboa’s fate was sealed at age sixteen by what he describes as an instinctual response to a recording of French Baroque harpsichord music. The two became friends while studying harpsichord in grad school, and in 2009 they began performing together as Zweikampf–the German word for duel. Although they live and work on opposite coasts, Zweikampf performs regularly across America, tapping into a repertoire spanning more than five centuries.

On Saturday, February 18, they will appear at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in a program entitled “Face Off: Dueling Harpsichords.” The concert will open with a sonata by composer, polemicist, and music theoretician Johann Mattheson. Vollrath singles out this piece as her favorite, because “the combined sound of two harpsichords coupled with rich harmonies and electrifying passagework creates the effect of a ‘super-instrument.'”

Zweikampf will also perform works by Alessandro Scarlatti and Johann Ludwig Krebs, dazzling arrangements drawn from operas by Handel, and a double harpsichord transcription of a concerto for two violins by Antonio Vivaldi. Vollrath points out that two of the featured composers had a quarrel that led to an actual duel, with swords, right in front of everyone while an opera performance was in progress. “It’s a great story,” she promises, “and you’ll learn more about it at our concert.”

Calls and letters

“I address an egregious error in the article [“Zweikampf: Dueling harpsichords”] by arwulf arwulf which appears in your February edition,” Pennsylvania reader John Brodsky wrote. “The strings of a harpsichord are not plucked ‘with a specially designed apparatus called a plectrum’; the apparatus is a JACK … and each plectrum is not fitted with a stripped down quill. The quill is the plectrum; and it is fitted into the tongue which is part of the jack.

We scanned Brodsky’s handwritten note and emailed it to arwulf–who responded humbly, “he’s right.”