Harpsichord News

May 2, 2017

Italian Christmas: 

Fiesole Revisited

Reader Mark Dirksen, business manager for John-Paul Buzard Pipe Organ Builders of Champaign, Illinois, wrote in response to the Christmas excerpt from my Salzburg memoir in our December 2016 Harpsichord News column:


. . . I am writing to acknowledge your lovely reminiscence of a Christmas Day in Fiesole in 1958 because it uncannily mirrors my own.

In 2004–05 my wife and I were fortunate enough to go on a “pilgrimage to an unknown destination.” That academic year took us on many adventures: mission work in South Africa and three glorious months living in Paris to mention just two highlights.

Christmas found us in Florence. It was a lovely December day in mid-Italy, just such a one as you describe, and we motored up to Fiesole, having been told of the glorious views. And lo! There was that same Monastery and the same Chapel, with Christmas Day Mass in progress: the monks, a handful of parishioners, and two very blessed Americans. It was truly a Christmas to remember­—followed by a lovely picnic lunch beside the Arno in a plaza all to ourselves. Thanks for bringing that memory back!


Paul Wolfe Remembered

Born in Waco, Texas, in 1929, Paul Wolfe grew up in the small town of Hico (a unique name that he used as a prime element of his e-mail address). Only 16 when he graduated from high school, Paul continued his education at the University of Texas (Austin), earning his undergraduate degree at 19! A fine pianist, he became interested in the harpsichord and was counseled to study the instrument with either Ralph Kirkpatrick or Wanda Landowska. Paul chose the latter option, and, together with Rafael Puyana and Irma Rogell, had the distinction of being in the final group of students to be taught by the iconic artist.

For an interesting and comprehensive report on Wolfe’s Landowska years and his career as a harpsichordist in Europe and the United States, I refer our readers to the feature article, “Mamusia: Paul Wolfe Remembers Wanda Landowska” (The Diapason, October 2012, pp. 23–25), copiously illustrated with ten rare photographs. Author Craig Smith, currently a freelance writer on music and the arts, was formerly a classical music critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican and a longtime friend of Paul Wolfe. When I invited Paul to reminisce about his Landowska years at our final Southern Methodist University summer harpsichord workshop in New Mexico (Summer 2008), he agreed to speak to the class, but only if Craig Smith were engaged to be the “host questioner” for the interview.

My own fondly remembered friendship with Paul Wolfe came about when Nick Fritsch of Lyrachord Records decided to transfer to compact disc and reissue Paul’s path-breaking harpsichord recordings made in the mid-1950s for Expériences Anonymes. Rightly concerned that many listeners in the 1990s might not understand the colorful sounds and frequent changes of registration available on earlier revival harpsichords, Nick commissioned me to write an essay, “When They Had Pedals,” to be published together with Paul’s original extensive notes on the music. As a consistent attendee of the Santa Fe Opera I travel every summer to that most wonderful arts mecca; so, during one of these annual visits I was able to make an appointment to meet and speak with Paul Wolfe concerning the reissue project.

He liked my essay, I enjoyed his company, and consistently, through the ensuing years, we continued to share quite a number of delightful dinners or lunches at several of Santa Fe’s better restaurants. Later in that tradition it was settled that our favorite spot was SantaCafé, where, on a shaded dining patio, Paul could order his favorite lunch—an all-beef frankfurter on a bun, with sauerkraut slaw, jalapeño mustard, and rosemary potato chips, Santa Fe’s take on New York-style cuisine.

Paul’s association with and eventual marriage to Brigitta Lieberson (also known as Vera Zorina) brought him into a highly artistic family that included the composer Peter Lieberson and his wife, the irreplaceable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, both of whom thus became Paul’s stepchildren. Mental vignettes of his love for two pet dachshunds and his racy sports car driving at “Presto” speed, my memories of Paul are those of a vibrant and charming human being who was blessed with a fine musical talent as well as a quiet gift for warm friendship. No longer playing the harpsichord, Paul turned to writing as an artistic outlet. The resulting novel Choices (2006), a racy story of intrigue at a fictitious Italian music festival (cleverly dubbed Lospello by the crafty author), is a good read for those not offended by adult situations and language.

And now his hands and voice are stilled: Paul passed away on Christmas Day 2016, the last of Landowska’s American students. The two Lyrachord double-disc albums, When They Had Pedals, issued in 1998, comprise works by Frescobaldi and the English virginalists (LEMS-8033), played on Wolfe’s 1907 Pleyel instrument, and
G. F. Handel’s Suites 3, 8, 11, 13, 14, and 15 (LEMS-8034), performed on the well-loved Rutkowski harpsichord Wolfe purchased in 1958.

Masterful Froberger by Glen Wilson

Referencing admired compact discs brings us to 23 Suites for Harpsichord plus Tombeau and Lamentation by the 17th-century composer Johann Jacob Froberger, recorded by harpsichordist Glen Wilson. American-born, a Juilliard graduate who studied with Albert Fuller, then a favored pupil of Gustav Leonhardt (1971–75), Glen Wilson has pursued his stellar career in Holland and Germany. The music heard on this two-disc album from Naxos provides more than two hours of evocative and individual harpsichord playing. I recommend this set highly and suggest that referencing Wilson’s extensive 15-page online essay (in which he sets forth his well-researched ideas that form the bases for the performances on Naxos 8.573493-94) will provide all readers a fascinating study of both composer and player.

An Internet search for “Glen Wilson Harpsichordist” will lead directly to his website: www.glenwilson.eu/. After chuckling at the home page’s whimsical drawing “Flying Harpsichord” by Emma Wilson, age 7 (1997), click on Articles and Sound Clips to access Article 6 (the Naxos-connected one). Also of immense interest and import is Article 1, “The Other Mr. Couperin,” in which Wilson, a deft and determined musicological sleuth, presents the probable answer to a dichotomy that has puzzled me for a number of years: why is Louis Couperin’s harpsichord music so much more polished and interesting than his compositions for the organ? Read Wilson’s quite remarkable online report and consider his well-reasoned conclusion!


A Recital Program by J. William Greene

Finally, in a fortuitous e-mail, I received a program recently played at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, by J. William Greene. Readers of this column may remember encountering Greene’s winsome compositions for organ or harpsichord, especially his Christmas Ayres and Dances (see Harpsichord News, June 2015, p. 11).

In Part One of his recital the artist played a Peter Fisk single-manual harpsichord (2011), tuned in meantone. Works performed were by Frescobaldi, Dirck Janszoon Sweelinck (son of the better-known Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck), Delphin Strungk, Dieterich Buxtehude, and (to continue our previous theme) the Suite XXVII (27) by J. J. Froberger, a formerly incomplete set of pieces now fleshed out to suite-length, thanks to several recent discoveries of additional source material. This suite begins with the short, but extremely pictorial Allemande, “written to document a marine tragedy that took place on the Rhine [River].” (A facsimile of the original manuscript is to be found in the Froberger/Wilson article cited above.)

For Part Two of this imaginative program, Dr. Greene offered four Couperin preludes from L’art de toucher le clavecin (recently the focus of Harpsichord News), and the artist confided that he added Prelude Four as an encore! The remaining selections were J. S. Bach’s Ouverture, BWV 820, Carlo Antonio Campioni’s Sonata II in E Major, and Fandango by Padre Antonio Soler. The harpsichord was a Frank Hubbard French 18th-century double-manual instrument from 1979, tuned in a well-temperament.

I am certain that a “Zugabe” [Encore] was well earned, and could only wish that I had been present to hear this decidedly unusual harpsichord repertory. Bravo!

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