Harpsichord News

January 31, 2017

The A Team:
Antoinette Vischer’s
Commissions for Harpsichord

Marguerite Bertha Antoinette Vischer (born February 13, 1909, in Basel, Switzerland) was the only child of a wealthy banker and his wife. She began her musical career as a pianist, and, with the connections that her affluent family was able to provide, had a fair success, although her hands were smaller than ideal for a pianistic career. In 1931 Vischer began her harpsichord studies in Vienna with Herr Erhard Kranz, and there she made her debut as a harpsichordist on an instrument of undoubtedly sturdy character, as was the wont of Germanic production instruments of the time. A brief press notice of the concert informed the public that “Fräulein Vischer played Bach’s C Minor Fantasia and Fugue on a harpsichord loaned by Herr von Hoboken.”

During the same year, probably at the suggestion of Basel’s musical guru Paul Sacher, Vischer studied with Wanda Lan-dowska, the reigning priestess of the harpsichord, at her “temple of early music” in St-Leu-la-Fôret, near Paris. Although it is not known just how many lessons Vischer had with Mme. Landowska, a communication regarding the price of study exists in the Vischer Collection at the Sacher Foundation: private lessons cost 400 French francs each; a bargain package of three could be had for 1,000.


Rolf Liebermann

Back home in Switzerland, Vischer spent the next 21 years concentrating on “old” music. She developed a group of devotees for her early music house concerts, many of them with collaborators Max Meili, tenor, and Fritz Wörsching, lutenist. It was the Swiss composer and international opera administrator Rolf Liebermann who initiated Vischer’s interest in contemporary music, beginning with a question to her, “Why only old music?” Since the harpsichordist admired Liebermann’s polyphonic style of writing, she offered her first commission to him, resulting in his Musique pour clavecin in 1952. An astute multi-faceted musician and administrator, Liebermann encouraged Vischer to record. Her first essay in this format included Liebermann’s new piece as well as a work by another Swiss composer, George Gruntz.


Bohuslav Martinů

Liebermann also served as Vischer’s conduit to other composers: a 1958 letter affirms his fulfillment of Vischer’s wish that he contact Bohuslav Martinů, the Czech composer, at that time resident in Switzerland. This connection led to one of Vischer’s finest commissions, Martinů’s 1958 Sonate pour clavecin, as well as his Deux Impromptus, two small satellite pieces completed in 1959, the year of the expatriate composer’s death.

From that first 1952 commission until Vischer’s death in 1973 she commissioned at least 44 new works that bolstered (and sometimes battered) the contemporary harpsichord repertoire. Composers rarely refused her offers: that she was the only daughter of a Swiss banker doubtless helped, but it was evident as well that she was interested in novel forms of musical expression—the more startling the sounds, or the method of producing them, the better.


Maurice Ohana

In 1960 Vischer turned to the French-Spanish-Moroccan composer Maurice Ohana. His Carillons for the Hours of the Day and of the Night incorporated bell-like clusters, the French folksong Frère Jacques, and, for the accommodation of her small hands, two wooden rulers, one 12-inch, one 13½-inch, to achieve the spans of large diatonic and chromatic tone clusters, triple forte, composed as conclusion for the evocative work.


Luciano Berio

Vischer first met Luciano Berio during the intermission of a concert in Basel, and she gladly accepted the composer’s invitation to visit him in Milan. Was it, perhaps, the influence of the “many shared whiskeys” which led to the unusual format of that harpsichord composition, Rounds? This graphic work is to be played right-side up, then upside down, and finally repeated in its original format, but at a faster tempo. Perhaps because of the vocal prowess of Berio’s wife Cathy Berberian, a voice part was added for an alternative version, which was the one Vischer chose to employ for her recording of the work.

In the waning years of the twentieth century when I visited the Sacher Foundation for some research in the Vischer Collection, it was a delight to discover a letter to Vischer from my first harpsichord teacher, Isolde Ahlgrimm, who wrote:


Congratulations on the recording [of] the Berio piece . . . . I find it fantastically played. I am, presently, in need of help because one of my students wishes to play the Berio without voice part, and I cannot read this notation. Never-the-less I am of the opinion that one cannot disregard this music, which is much better written than all the ‘Pseudo-Bach’ with wrong notes. (Letter dated February 10, 1970)


Cathy Berberian

The visit to Milan also resulted in a second commission: “Hurrah!” wrote Vischer. “Cathy [Berberian] will make for me a piece. I think some sort of moscitos [sic] played with the right hand, and the left has to kill the moscito with claps on my knee!” The “score” of this creation consists of a pre-addressed postcard to be mailed to the composer, with the request for a return message; a table for translating that message into a rhythmic form of Morse code; a sample sketch of how this all works, followed by an outline of a possible performance, illustrating how the right hand begins playing notes at the very top of the keyboard, then descends gradually to the bass register, finally killing the imaginary buzzing mosquito by slapping the right hand with the left and exclaiming loudly “SPLAT.” The title of this “drama in music,” Morsicathy, is a four-way pun: Morsi is the Morse code used for the rhythm; Cathy is the author of the original message and the piece; Morsicat(h)y is the phonetic spelling of the Italian word “morsicati” or “bitten”—the fate of mosquito victims; Mors is the Latin word for death, and also the fate of THIS imaginary insect.


John Cage and Lejaren Hiller

Berberian’s piece is a jolly scherzo compared to the mega-happening created by Americans John Cage and Lejaren Hiller. As early as 1962 Vischer had requested a work from the bad boy of chance music (John Cage), and had been put off with the suggestion that she consider performing a work that already existed: his models of indeterminacy Variations I and II. By 1967, however, Cage was thinking forward to a grand-scale extravaganza that came to be known as HPSCHD (the computer’s six-letter name for the instrument).

While engaged in another of his “chance” performances, Cage typed a letter to Vischer (the amplified sounds of his typewriter forming one strand of the in-progress composition), requesting that she consider a trip to Illinois for the realization of his HPSCHD master plan. Eventually, it all came together, comprising the simultaneous collaboration of seven harpsichordists playing random bits, Mozart excerpts chosen according to patterns from the Chinese I Ching, together with the assistance of 52 tape machines, 59 power amplifiers, 59 loud speakers, 40 projected motion-picture films, 208 computer-generated tapes, 6,400 slides shown by 64 projectors . . . a dizzying and overwhelming four and one-half hour assault on the senses in this May 16, 1969, premiere at the Assembly Hall of the University of Illinois, Urbana. The New York Times described it as “the multimedia event of the decade.”

In a review of the Nonesuch recording of HPSCHD, Igor Kipnis commented that “At first noisy, this ‘experience’ ultimately becomes one of tedium and almost unrelieved boredom. Personally, I find the New York Subway offers as much sonic anarchy, and at least there you are getting from one place to another.” (Stereo Review, May 1970, p. 121.)

The price for this celebrity commission was 1,000 Swiss francs, the same amount paid to Martinů for his Sonate.


Duke Ellington

Another Vischer commission is the only harpsichord-related piece from the great jazz artist Duke Ellington, who at the request of a friend, had sent a copy of his A Single Petal of a Rose to Vischer at Christmas 1965. A longtime aficionado of jazz, Vischer included it on her Wergo recording Das moderne Cembalo, although correspondence shows that she was not certain if this work was dedicated to her, or whether the Duke planned to write something else for her. When at last she had the opportunity to meet Ellington following his concert in Basel, she presented him with a tape of her performance. As she remarked, “The tape fit under the arm more easily than a harpsichord.” Ellington was quite pleased with the sound of the piece on her instrument, but he had to admit that he could not dedicate the work to her because it was “already dedicated to another lady.” “Who might that be?” she inquired. “Why, Her Majesty, the Queen of England,” Ellington responded. 


Györgi Ligeti

When Hungarian composer György Ligeti moved to the West in 1956 he espoused electronic music and the current avant-garde musical scene almost immediately. It was, however, not until 1965 that Vischer contacted him to suggest the possibility of a commission. He assured her right away that he was interested, and that the size of her hands would present no difficulty, since he planned to write something using narrow intervals. Completed in January 1968, Ligeti’s ”four-minute-or-less” composition Continuum is undoubtedly THE masterwork of all Vischer’s commissions. It holds the position, for many of us, as the single most original solo harpsichord composition of the twentieth century.

Some of the composer’s written comments to Vischer are enlightening: “I conceived the work completely from the instrument.” [January 30, 1968.] “It should sound like a Zephyr wind—more like Debussy, had he composed for harpsichord.” [April 11, 1968.] “Play Continuum irrationally fast: even faster than possible.” [February 15, 1968.] Improbable velocity is exactly what Vischer achieved in her recording! That the notes may have been recorded an octave lower and re-recorded at double speed is made clear by Ligeti’s constant urging Vischer to play faster and his additional comments about recording studio manipulation in a letter of June 19, 1968, and by the known fact that Vischer’s virtuosity did not extend to this level of dexterity in any other of her known performances.

It was, as well, an expensive commission for her: Ligeti refused to accept the standard 1,000 Swiss franc honorarium and charged her double that amount, explaining, “I spend much time on small works, reworking them to my satisfaction.” [October 16, 1965.] The sheer physical effort of writing so many notes was certainly worth the higher fee, as was the outstanding masterpiece received. At last a genius had provided a harpsichord work totally without any neo-baroque tendencies or antique references, but one that fit the instrument’s capabilities in a perfectly idiomatic manner by exploiting the trill and tremolando throughout.


Mauricio Kagel

The final work added to the Vischer catalog was Recitative-Varie for Singing Harpsichordist by Mauricio Kagel. This creation is yet another mini-drama in which the female performer makes her entrance very slowly, proceeding with small steps while uttering some German titles from Bach cantatas, the words connected in such non-sequential ways that they become obscene. The vocal technique required is known as Sprechstimme, half speaking, half singing while employing non-specific pitches. The two hands are placed together in an attitude of prayer, these visual requirements all meant to remind an audience of the pre-performance mannerisms associated with Wanda Landowska. After being seated at the instrument, the harpsichordist accompanies herself only with the left hand in “um-pah-pah” bass patterns borrowed from a Chopin nocturne, while continuing her vocal Bach-babbling. At the end, a lethargic exit from the stage completes the choreography.

Vischer never performed this ultimate work. She wrote to Kagel that her voice would not be adequate for the task, and that for someone else to learn the part would take an immense amount of time. He replied that “apparently, she had not understood the humor of the piece, and that a beautiful voice was unnecessary for its authentic performance.” One doubts that a faux-Landowska performance of the Kagel work would have done any damage to Vischer’s reputation, just as one imagines that this “camel” [meaning a hybrid constructed of opposites] was probably much better for her health than the number of Camels [American cigarettes] that she chain-smoked every day.

Vischer died of a heart attack in December 1973, just three months after the death of her father; the only child did not survive for long without family. Her legacy of 44 new works for the harpsichord almost certainly means that she will not be forgotten. Her friend, the distinguished Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt, contributed these perceptive words to the notes for her first major recording (dated December 24, 1966):


Antoinette Vischer has gone down in the annals of musical history in the most legitimate manner: as patroness. She caused the modern and ultra-modern composers of our time to interest themselves in an old-fashioned instrument—the harpsichord. As a result, an old-fashioned instrument became modern, and its abstract quality suited modern music. By commissioning compositions for it, Antoinette Vischer led modern music on to new paths. The manner in which she did this proves how consciously she proceeded
. . . . She knew whom she was ordering from, and was supplied with what she wanted: musical portraits by composers of themselves, in that they had to occupy themselves with apparently unfamiliar tasks. Thus, through the wiles of a woman once again, something new was born.” [Reprinted in Ule Troxler, Antoinette Vischer: Dokumente, p. 10; translated from the German by LP]


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