A few weeks ago, in a hospital in England, my friend Stephen died from the coronavirus. Like so many, he died alone, and, of course, those of us who mourn him now do so alone. Stephen and I became friends through music. A few years ago, having come to some harpsichord concerts I gave in London, he introduced himself in the modern way: first on Twitter, and then in real life. He was in his late sixties then, and described himself with his characteristic self-deprecation as a “recovering barrister”: he’d spent much of his career in Hong Kong, in the days when being a lawyer there meant three-piece linen suits, three-cocktail lunches, and three-day weekends in Manila and Tokyo. He spoke with a confidently fluent voice that somehow never rose above a gentle mezzo piano, and, though he was modest, huge reserves of knowledge would emerge in passing, along with remarkable details about his life: in the nineteen-fifties, as a boy soprano, he’d performed in the première of Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde.” At concerts, he always sat stage left—in other words, within my sight lines. If you’re a musician, that’s the last place you want an acquaintance to sit, but with Stephen it was different. He would envelop you in the generosity of his spirit just by sitting there in that same seat, time after time.

欧洲杯买彩票Stephen, who was divorced, usually came to concerts with a friend or two, and they would always turn out to be fascinating; several have since become close friends of my own. Four or so years ago, a woman was next to him whom I hadn’t seen before. As I tore into the unforgiving, angular thickets of “Set of Four,” by the American ultra-modernist Henry Cowell, it seemed to me that she radiated the same kind of engaged benevolence that he did. “She’s the one,” I said to myself. By the third movement, “,” in which we can hear early American psalmody being ripped apart, I had the odd feeling of no longer being a performer but rather a member of the audience, as if I were sitting next to Stephen and taking it in with his unmatched ears and heart. The piece made a new kind of sense to me. I heard it as Cowell’s scream of rebellion at a country which had wrecked his life—in the thirties, he spent four years in prison for homosexuality—and never really understood him. The lesson I learned that evening is a surprisingly hard one for a musician: how to listen with the listener. The woman with Stephen that day, a Britten scholar named Imani, became his fiancée, and she was the last person to speak with him, via FaceTime, when he was in the hospital.

The coronavirus lockdown is an odd time to be a musician. I don’t mean just that work has dried up; any number of professions have it harder. But the communion that a concert represents—all those people travelling to a particular place at a particular time to listen to a particular thing—brings into focus what all of us have lost. If you’ve learned to listen with the listener, it’s a strange experience now to play without any. As a harpsichordist, I’ve spent much of the past few years trying to make my slightly esoteric and (in some minds) inconveniently quiet instrument louder and somehow more “relevant” to modern concert life; I even had a new instrument made for me, designed to project more volume to an audience. But lately I have been turning inward, and have gravitated to an instrument that’s even quieter, one which, it occurs to me, might be the quintessential lockdown instrument: the clavichord.

Among early keyboard instruments, the clavichord is about as esoteric as it gets. First developed around the same time as the harpsichord, in the late Middle Ages, it was in widespread use until the end of the eighteenth century. But it was never as prominent as the harpsichord, for a simple reason: it is unbelievably quiet. Rather than relying on a hammer that strikes a string (like a piano), or a quill to pluck it (like a harpsichord), the clavichord operates with tiny metal blades, known as tangents. The tangents don’t so much strike the string as graze it, making it vibrate very slightly. This mechanism, combined with the instrument’s small rectangular case and tiny soundboard, produces the most hushed of sounds, somewhere below the volume of finger-tapping on a guitar. Even the hum of normal stage lighting can overpower it. Clavichords had their devotees down the ages, but, because they were mostly played privately, in the home, music historians often dismiss them as mere “practice instruments.” But who thinks practicing is bad? I prefer the inimitable tribute of the late-eighteenth-century music theorist C. F. D. Schubart:

欧洲杯买彩票Have no regrets when under the moonlight you improve, or when you cool yourself on a summer night, or when you celebrate a spring evening. Ah! Do not lament the thundering of the harpsichord. Look, your clavichord breathes as sweetly as your heart.

I bought a clavichord—a tiny rectangle made of English walnut—a few years back, but I was always too busy with the harpsichord to give it my attention. Recently, though, stuck at home and wary of taxing my neighbors’ patience too much, I started playing it and soon fell under its whispered spell. Now that there is no pressure to impress, I spend hours a day with it, particularly in the evenings, and I have begun to see the seductive qualities that may have made it—according to some writers—J. S. Bach’s favorite instrument. Playing it is an intimate act, not just because of its quietness but also because of another feature of its unique mechanism. Once a harpsichord string has been plucked, the job of whoever pressed the key is basically over (until the next note), but a clavichord tangent stays in contact with the string for as long as the key is held down. Your fingers are suddenly responsible for the entire duration of each sound. This delicate responsiveness makes endless shadings and colors possible. If you shake your finger a little on a key, you can even get a vibrato effect, known as Bebung欧洲杯买彩票, in German, which was long one of the instrument’s most prized attributes.

欧洲杯买彩票The more I play, the more I realize there’s a whole repertoire of pieces that suit the clavichord perfectly: Bach’s and two- and - , the suave chaconnes of Pachelbel, the miniature suites of Henry Purcell. Great as this music is, it can be hard to put it across in a concert hall; something about the scale feels all wrong. Where the harpsichord, in music from Bach toccatas to Cowell’s “Chorale,” often likes to declaim, the clavichord prefers to suggest. It sketches its sound as if in light pencil strokes, in a way that makes one lean in to listen hard. Then nuances that were once only hinted at start to reveal themselves.

I think about Stephen endlessly as I play, mourning the fact that he’s gone and that his friends—Imani most of all—couldn’t be in the room with him in those last days. I want to tell him that he gave me a new way of listening, and that now the clavichord is doing the same, in tones as soft-spoken as his were. Quietness has a subtle but tremendous power, and, when I think of Stephen and play the clavichord, its tones become the loudest noise in the universe.