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Outdoors: Bach's birthday

J.S. Bach
Cleland Rimmer - Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in March, but his birthday? That’s a matter of opinion.

You see, the great composer was born when the Julian calendar was still in use, but before he died, Germany had adopted the Gregorian calendar, so Bach was born on March 21 or March 31.

Maybe we could celebrate with ten days of enjoying his marvelous organ and choral works - and of course, his little keyboard pieces.

My childhood piano lessons were filled with minuets and inventions, so I always assumed Bach wrote for piano.

He did not.

Understand that early pianos were not all that impressive, and though he had the opportunity to play a piano, apparently Bach was not impressed.

He wrote for the harpsicord.

What is the difference between a piano and harpsichord?

Well, today’s pianos have more volume, three very useful pedals and the ability to change dynamics, but the fundamental difference is that a piano is technically a percussion instrument.

Sound is produced when a felt-covered wooden hammer strikes the strings.

A harpsichord is considered a string instrument.

The strings are plucked by a little device called a plectra, which was shaped from a feather, and not any feather would do.

It had to be a strong, slightly flexible flight feather - a pinion from a raven or a crow.

The shafts of pinions are very hard on top, but soft, even hollow on the underside, enabling instrument makers to carve them into the shapes necessary for proper voicing.

In summary, a piano is a percussion instrument in that sound is produced when a hammer strikes the strings, and because harpsichord strings are plucked, it is considered a string instrument.

So, the difference between a piano and a harpsichord is really just a matter of a pinion.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.