Harpsichord News

April 5, 2017

Where next?

So, you have mastered Couperin’s eight preludes from L’Art de toucher le clavecin. What harpsichord repertoire should follow these basic pieces?

To my ears Domenico Scarlatti was the ultimate artist/composer when it came to varying textures in writing for our instrument. I have advised more than a few curious contemporary composers to consult the 500-plus keyboard sonatas from this Baroque genius and then to emulate his wide palette of various densities of sound: one of the best ways to create a varied dynamic range.

Suggestions: perhaps the most-assigned to first-semester students have been two A-major Sonatas, K (Kirkpatrick) numbers 208 and 209. There are several fine editions from which to choose, but, once again as with my choice for the first Couperin pieces, I have found that another “made in America” publication works well on several levels. The sometimes-maligned yellow-bound Schirmer Editions offer Sixty Sonatas by Scarlatti in two volumes. Chosen and edited by the formidable scholar and artist Ralph Kirkpatrick (he of the most-used numbering system for this composer), these 60 were published as Schirmer Library Volumes 1774 and 1775. (Too bad they could not have waited until number 1776, which would have been even more patriotic!) K. 208 and 209 are found in the first of these collections.

Kirkpatrick, working midway in the 20th century (the copyright is dated 1953), used source materials transmitted to him via microfilm. In a rare misreading of the dim and hazy film, he mistook the tempo indication for K. 208, transcribing Adº as “Andante” rather than the indicated “Adagio,” providing once again a perfect teaching moment when one presents the proof of this mistake. Also, it does make quite a difference: Andante, a moving or walking tempo, is not at all the same as Adagio, which, in the composer’s native Italian, means “at your ease” and thus should suggest more flexibility with rubato and a quieter, more involved personality—perhaps that of a lovesick flamenco guitarist. As for texture: the sonata begins with only two voices, soprano and bass, and adds a middle line in measure three, introduces a fourth voice in the chords of measure seven, and builds a terrific crescendo in the penultimate measure thirteen of the A section, before cadencing on an open dominant octave.

The B section begins with a single bass note, and in its first measure we are confronted with the instruction “Tremulo,” indicating a needed ornament in the melodic line. There has been much speculation and some gnashing of musicological teeth about this particular instruction in Domenico’s works. I have tried various solutions, but fairly late in my career I decided that it might possibly indicate the mordent! My reasoning: the mordent is one of the two most generally prevalent ornaments in Baroque music, but there is no indication of it in Scarlatti’s sonatas; and the mordent seems to be feasible each time a Tremulo is indicated.

Vis-à-vis that other musical ornament, the trill, it was the Iberian music specialist Guy Bovet who, during our one semester as Dallas colleagues, reminded me that the usual starting note for Scarlattian trills should be the main (written) note! I realize that many of us were heavily influenced by our piano or organ teachers who taught us to begin all Baroque trills with the note above; but in actual musical practice, this is rather silly: trills normally do begin on the written note in this Italian-Iberian repertoire, but here, and in general, I refuse to be bound to one invariable rule, and frequently substitute an upper-note trill, particularly in cadential figures that seem to ache for a dissonance (or, occasionally, simply to avoid ugly-sounding parallel octave movement of the voices). My advice is to follow Bovet’s instruction as a general practice, but also to use one’s musical instincts when required: after all, we have yet to hear those “recordings” from the 17th and 18th centuries that would prove once and for all what the local practice was. (Do, please, let me know if they are discovered.)

The paired sonata, K. 209, could not be more different from its shorter sibling: an Allegro (Happy) with some technical challenges (as opposed to the many musical challenges offered by K. 208) should prove again the inventiveness of the composer, especially in his use of varied textures. One spot that particularly delights is found in measure 70, where, after the vigorous cadence begins with two voices, the resolution is one single soprano E, a totally unexpected surprise! Kenneth Gilbert, in his eleven-volume edition of 550 sonatas for Le Pupitre, adds the missing bass note, choosing the reading found in a different manuscript source in which the next iteration of that same figure (measure 147) does resolve with an open octave in the bass. I still prefer Kirkpatrick’s reading for these passages: rather than adding notes in the first example, he does away with them at the second iteration . . . and thereby preserves an equal surprise for the B section.

Quite a few other sonatas that serve well as technique-enhancing pieces are to be found in the set comprising the first Kirkpatrick numbers 1 through 30: works published in London (1738) as Scarlatti’s Essercizi per gravicembalo. If your student (or you) want a bit of narrative music, the final entry in this set, K. 30, is particularly fun to play and hear: nicknamed the “Cat” Fugue, it is easy to imagine a favorite feline frolicking treble-ward on the keyboard to create a fugue subject spanning an octave and a half. Several years ago, when preparing a program of Iberian music to play on Southern Methodist University’s Portuguese organ (a single-manual instrument built in 1762 by Caetano Oldovini for Portugal’s Evora Cathedral), I turned to the Alfred Edition print of this sonata, which incorporates some of the quite useful (and interesting) minor corrections offered in a second edition from the year 1739, also published in London by the English organist and Scarlatti-enthusiast Thomas Roseingrave. 

Finally, should one become entranced by Scarlatti’s delightful catwalk, there is a rarely encountered piece by the Bohemian composer Antonín Rejcha (1770–1836) from his 36 Fugues, op. 36, published in Vienna (1805). Fugue Nine is subtitled “On a Theme from Domenico Scarlatti.” In it our musical cat, elderly and more reserved, is heard ranging a keyboard that extends to top F, before settling down, finally, with quiet cadential chords. The score, published by Universal Edition, is found in Bohemian Piano Music from the Classical Period, volume 2 (UE18583), edited by Peter Roggenkamp.


Some contemporary components

It will come as no surprise to our loyal readers that, during my lengthy tenure at the Meadows School, Southern Methodist University, I required at least one 20th- or 21st-century composition to fulfill repertoire requirements during each semester of harpsichord study. Among the most admired of these pieces were the twelve individual movements of Lambert’s Clavichord by Herbert Howells. These, the first published 20th-century works for the clavichord, are true gems, and equally delightful both to play and to hear. Issued by Oxford University Press in 1928, they are not widely available now, but I have been told that they may be obtained as an “on-demand print” from the publisher. Howells’s own favorite of the set was De la Mare’s Pavane, named for his friend, the distinguished poet Walter de la Mare. Indeed, it was a question about one chord in this piece that precipitated my first visit with the composer in 1974. Dr. Howells did not answer me immediately, but before we parted he took a pen in hand and drew in the missing sharp sign before the middle C on the second half of beat two in measure 24. That had been my concern, that missing sharp! Thus, I was relieved to have a correction from the only person who could not be doubted, the great man himself.

Other works recommended for investigative forays into this literature (works offering a great deal of good examples for the development of dynamic, articulate, and musical playing) include Rudy Davenport’s Seven Innocent Dances (which I have dubbed the “With It” suite): With Casualness, With Resolve, With Playfulness, With Excitement, With Fire, With Pomposity, With Steadiness­—available in the Aliénor Harpsichord Competition 2000 Winners volume published by Wayne Leupold (WL600233); Glenn Spring’s Trifles: Suite Music for Harpsichord comprising the miniatures A Start, Blues for Two, Burlesque, Cantilena, Habañerita, Recitative, and Introspection, lovely pieces indeed, as are Spring’s more recent Bartókian miniatures: Béla Bagatelles (2011). Both sets are available from the composer ([email protected]). Finally, from the late British composer Stephen Dodgson, three movements of his Suite 1 in C for Clavichord: Second Air, Tambourin, and Last Fanfare (published by Cadenza Music in 2008) form a delightful group of pieces. Equally effective at the harpsichord, they have proven to be very audience-friendly.


A May reminder

Do not forget Lou Harrison’s centenary (May 2017), the perfect month in which to investigate the American composer’s Six Sonatas, as detailed in Harpsichord News, The Diapason, October 2016, page 10.


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