Harpsichord News

November 29, 2016

Christmas musings:

Several suggestions for a
“Giving or Receiving” book list

While surveying the vast array of books, scores, and recordings packed into nearly every room of our house, I often reflect on the immense amount of research, practice, and sheer hard work required to produce each item. Quite a number of them have been gifts from family, friends, students, or the authors/performers themselves. Since vacating my university studio-office in August 2015 the ability to locate specific items from this large collection has decreased exponentially. Piles of music are found in closets and stacked in random spots, including the garage, which is filled to overflowing with filing cabinets. Newly installed bookcases are loaded with items needing to be shelved in some logical order. Thus, I seem to spend more and more time searching, which allows less time for researching. But, on the positive side, I have rediscovered many items not accessed for decades, and, as the author Charles R. Ballard wrote, circa 1890: 


I hear of many a ‘latest book’;

I note what zealous readers say;

Through columns critical I look,

With their decisive ‘yea’ and ‘nay’!

At times I own I’m half inclined

O’er some new masterpiece to pore;

Yet in the end I always find

I choose the book I’ve read before!

Such was the case during the last weeks of autumn as I spent many pleasant hours renewing acquaintance with Joseph Wechsberg’s The Best Things in Life. This author, born in Moravia, found himself in the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite his less-than-rudimentary knowledge of English (but equipped with a sturdy brain and a multi-linguistic background) he was able to become a stylish writer and prominent contributor to The New Yorker, where his essays on travel, gourmet dining, and amateur chamber music (in which he participated as a violinist who owned a genuine Stradivarius) catalog only a few of the delightful offerings that were anticipated eagerly as they appeared in print in the iconic magazine, well known for its literary standards.

My copy of Wechsberg’s 224-page tome held even more delights than I had remembered. (Note to readers: be sure not to overlook the chapter on “The Art of Listening.”) One thing that I had totally forgotten was that the book had been a gift from organist Cameron Johnson (deceased far too soon in 1993), my fellow student and best friend during our Eastman School graduate years. Cam sent it as a Christmas present in 1966, only three years after our mutual final commencement. When I came upon his generous inscription on an inside blank page, I was moved to tears. As I face the nearly impossible task before me of cataloguing all the hidden treasures in the collection I am sure there will be many more such discoveries, but few will bring back such golden memories as these. Wechsberg’s memoir (published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston and Toronto) may be located in antiquarian sources: an online search revealed prices for it that ranged from four cents to $189, so acquiring this book could fit nearly any budget. For an instructive read from an author who immediately becomes a friend, I recommend The Best Things in Life.

Among the better things for pursuing life, library, and happiness are thirteen enchanting books written by Mark
Schweizer. Shortest of these, related to his St. Germaine mystery series, is the “Seasonal Entertainment” (so designated by the author) The Christmas Cantata (2011), a slim offering of just slightly less than 100 pages. It is the heartwarming tale of a fictional Christmas Eve “miracle” told in alternating flashback and present-time installments. Mentions of composer/master teacher Nadia Boulanger, Mozart, Paris, Widor, and Virgil Thomson (to drop only a few names) set the scene and a gently moving conclusion comforts the soul, but might cause some furtive tears, as well. A story rather reminiscent of O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi in its ability to warm the heart while allowing plenty of laughter, it is available from St. James Music Press (sjmpbooks.com). I suggest ordering multiple copies to share with others. Your music- and mystery-loving friends will thank you not only for this novella, but also for the introduction to the madcap escapades of Hayden Konig, police chief and organist-choirmaster of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in this imaginary (but slyly realistic) North Carolina town.


A recommended recording


Luca Oberti disc

French composers Louis Marchand (1669–1732) and Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676–1749) are quite well known to organists, but I do not recall having seen their names very often (if ever) on harpsichord recital programs. I do own the scores for each man’s complete works for our instrument but I must confess that I had not spent much time delving into these slim collections. Recently, however, I purchased Italian harpsichordist Luca Oberti’s single-disc offering of the complete Pièces de Claveçin from both composers (Stradivarius CD STR37025, recorded in 2014, with a total playing time of 62 minutes and 55 seconds), and his sensitively played recital encouraged an examination of the printed pages. The disc comprises four dance suites (two from each composer), all four of which begin with a Prelude (more or less un-measured). Marchand’s suites are in D Minor (nine movements) and G Minor (eight movements) each originally published in a separate volume, the first in 1699, the second in 1702. There are, additionally, three pieces, one (La Vénitienne) that appeared in a collection (1707), the other two found in manuscripts. Clérambault’s first suite (C Major) consists of eleven movements: my favorite among the unmeasured preludes begins it, and the finale is a second menuet: a miniscule rondo that Oberti chooses to play on the buff stop for an enchantingly delicate ending. Suite Two (C Minor) comprises only five items: the Prelude and four dances: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. The fine-sounding instrument is by Andrea Restelli (1990), based on an instrument by Goujon-Swanen.


Twenty-first century music
for harpsichord

The British Harpsichord Society, an organization founded in 2002, is “free and open to all.” Simply accessing its website will reap information on enrollment (recommended) and grant access to its online journal. Under the rubric “Listening” one may find detailed information about the society’s pioneering disc of prize-winning compositions selected by jury at the UK’s first-ever contemporary harpsichord composition competition, a 2012 event that garnered more than ninety entries from composers representing eighteen countries.

The site also contains information about the resulting compact disc, Shadow Journey, issued by Prima Facie records (http://ascrecords.com/primafacie/). The list of participating players is a stellar one: Maggie Cole, Mahan Esfahani, Goska Isphording, Penelope Cave, Jane Chapman, Christoph Kaufmann, and our own Elaine Funaro (who plays music by Aliénor-winning composers Thomas Donahue and Ivan Božičević among others). The BHS kindly sent a copy of their premiere disc, but having not seen scores for any of the fourteen pieces recorded, I do not wish to comment on likes or non-likes. For those who are both adventurous and curious about new trends in harpsichord repertoire, this disc will be a welcome guide, but not an easy listening experience nor particularly genial background music. The idea of including music by the competition’s jurors is a good one, allowing, as it does, some possible windows into the soundscape of ears and minds that selected the winners. Congratulations to the British Harpsichord Society for this valuable addition to the ever-expanding repertoire of the harpsichord.


In conclusion: One small Christmas gift for our readers

Since our column began with a recommended memoir, here, in a sort of ABA form, is a short excerpt from Letters from Salzburg (A Music Student in Europe, 1958–1959), published by Ivar Lunde’s Skyline Press (Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 2006). Comprising more than fifty letters I wrote to my parents, as well as excerpts from personal travel diaries, comments (in bold italics) about things better not shared with the elders, and a generous sprinkling from photographs taken during the European sojourn, this book preserves a period-picture of post-war Austria, Italy, France, and northern Europe during their gradual rebuilding from the devastation caused by two consecutive world wars. This unprecedented educational experience changed the lives of all 88 students who participated in the first year-long program of required foreign study initiated by Oberlin College: the entire class of junior music majors was sent to spend a full academic year at the Salzburg Mozarteum. No exceptions possible: not a single junior music class was available at the Ohio campus.

What follows is excerpted from pages 46–50, documenting my first Christmas away from home (I had just turned 20). Four of us expatriates pooled our finances to rent a Volkswagen for the holiday trip south from Salzburg to Rome and Tivoli, with a return via Assisi and Venice.


Interlude I: Christmas in Italy

[Organ major teacher] Professor Sauer’s unmarried daughter Lotte worked as a secretary in the administrative office of the Mozarteum. Always kind and helpful to us students, Fräulein Sauer was a pleasant person to “pop in” and see. She surprised me with her response to my excited announcement, “We are going to Italy for our Christmas vacation.” 

“Oh,” said Lotte Sauer, “how I envy you.”

“Fräulein Sauer,” I replied, “surely you have been to Italy many times. Why would you envy us?”

Yes, Herr Palmer, I have been to Italy many times . . . but I envy you the first time.”


Florence, 25 December 1958: We hopped into the car and drove up the winding road to Fiesole. After parking the car in the main square we began to climb the hills, reveling in the warm sunshine, the panorama stretched before us, and the wonderful feeling of being out in nature after a large meal.

Passing a Roman ruin, I climbed faster than the rest, and lost them—not intentionally. It was, however, gratifying to have a few moments alone. I found the St. Francis Monastery, built on Roman-Etruscan ruins of the Fiesole fortifications and then saw one of the rare views of a lifetime: the red sun setting over Florence. As twilight came on swiftly, I heard the monks sing the closing lines of a Palestrina motet, and I rested and worshipped briefly in the small chapel before going out again into the dusk, the Italian dusk of Christmas.

Walking back down to the church I met the others, and led them up for the magnificent view. We all sat in silence watching the day of Christmas fading away, and quietly we thought our thoughts of home and loved ones. While the last red rays still lingered over Florence, while the tall, slim pines and leafy olive trees were still silhouetted against the approaching night, we turned to the picturesque tearoom on the hill. It was six o’clock.

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