Harpsichord News

July 3, 2017

By Larry Palmer 


Celebrating Scott Ross

The Diapason for October 1971 (62nd year, number 11, whole number 743) featured a non-organ event on the front page for the first time in the magazine’s venerable history. Under a bold headline that read “Bruges International Harpsichord Competition and Festival,” the article was my several-page review of the triennial event that had taken place in Belgium during the previous summer, July 31 through August 6.  


The text began: A First Prize


At 1 o’clock in the morning, a weary, but exhilarated audience applauded an extraordinary winner: Scott Ross, born 20 years ago in Pittsburgh, Pa., and now a resident of France, became the first harpsichordist ever to be awarded a first prize in the Bruges International Harpsichord Competition. Ross had been an electrifying personality since the opening round, when, playing next-to-last on the third afternoon, he gave flawless and illuminating performances of the Bach Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Minor (WTC II) and of the William Byrd Fantasy III. He received so much applause from a heretofore soporific audience that the secretary of the jury had to ring the bell for order.

The seven-member jury for the 1971 competition certainly highlighted the international scope of the event, comprising Kenneth Gilbert (Montreal), Raymond Schroyens and Charles Koenig (Brussels), Colin Tilney (London), Robert Veyron-Lacroix (Paris), Isolde Ahlgrimm (Vienna), and Gustav Leonhardt (Amsterdam). This distinguished panel had selected five finalists and ultimately ranked them in this order: following Ross’s triumphant first, second place went to John Whitelaw (Canada), third to Christopher Farr (England), and fifth place to Alexander Sung (Hong Kong). No fourth prize was awarded, but a finalist’s honorable mention was presented to the French contestant, Catherine Caumont.

During my long tenure as harpsichord contributing editor, a position to which I was appointed in 1969 by The Diapason’s second editor, Frank Cunkle, there have been other issues with non-organ cover art and quite a few featured articles celebrating harpsichords and harpsichordists. Festive issues dedicated to Wanda Landowska (1979) and William Dowd (1992) come to mind most vividly. But in claiming the surprising novelty of a first-ever cover position, I am relying on the historical acumen of Robert Schuneman, the editor who succeeded Mr. Cunkle. Although I have bound copies of each year of The Diapason beginning with 1969 (and some single issues prior to that), I cannot claim that I have perused every one of the magazine’s copious publications. If any reader knows of a prior non-organ event that was featured on a first page or cover, I would appreciate being informed.


Scott Ross and a Prélude Non-Mesuré

It has been true in many instances that I have learned a great deal from my students, and now that my studio comprises only two adults, each of whom visits for a monthly harpsichord lesson, I am still the beneficiary! One of these delightful individuals surprised me with a two-page unmeasured prelude composed by Scott Ross. Notated entirely in whole notes in the style of a French baroque composition, Ross’s short piece was created as a sight-reading exercise for one of the Paris Harpsichord Competitions. As far as we can ascertain, the work has never been published, but there are at least three performances posted on YouTube, and a computer-generated score may be followed. An Internet friend alerted my student to this work, provided her with his photo-montage of the score, and she generously shared a copy with me.

I am absolutely entranced by this modern adaptation of a French genre in which all the notes are present but grouping and shaping of the musical ideas is entirely up to the performer. In this case Ross’s Preludio all’Imitazione del Sig. Vanieri Tantris Soldei is a wickedly clever evocation of chromatic harmonies to be found in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (as revealed by the acrostic Tantris Soldei, obviously a slight scrambling of the opera’s title). This prelude should engender smiles of recognition from any operatically savvy listener, and it gains a most lofty status among clever recital encores, so far as I am concerned.

Not the least of pleasures is that Ross’s clever addition to our repertoire brought back such vibrant memories of his Bruges triumph and reminded this writer of what we lost when Scott Ross succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia and died at his home in France, at the age of 38. The Prélude joins Scott’s recorded legacy of French claveçin pieces and his complete recording of the 500-plus Keyboard Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti to remind us of what was silenced by such an early demise.


From a Letter to the Harpsichord Editor:

Beverly Scheibert comments on the March and April harpsichord columns:


Re the Italian trill: In all Italian sources I have seen, it begins on the main note, except from those who were working abroad (and one of these illustrates in another writing a long trill beginning on the main note). My article in The Consort 64 (2008: pp. 90–101, by Beverly Jerold) documents that the upper-note trill was confined primarily to perfect cadences, where it forms a dissonance against the bass. Most other trills are simply an inverted mordent.

Re Couperin’s petites notes: You are perfectly right, except that many are to be played on the beat, but with “no value,” so that the main note seems to retain its rightful position. I have located six French sources that describe this ornament as having “no value whatever,” eight that say it “counts for nothing in the measure,” and fourteen that illustrate it as falling before the beat. Because of all the harmonic errors created, D’Anglebert’s illustration (and that of his four copiers) cannot be taken literally. Notation standards 300 years ago were not ours, as confirmed by two French (and several German) sources whose explanatory text contradicts their musical example. There is no accurate way to notate a realization of an ornament that has “no value whatever.”


Our thanks to Ms. Scheibert for these musicologically supported and eminently sensible observations.


Early Keyboard Journal

Early Keyboard Journal Volume 30 (2013) is available at last. After many publishing delays the intriguing and extensive article, “The Other Mr. Couperin” by Glen Wilson, is finally in print, as is David Schulenberg’s “Ornaments, Fingerings, and Authorship: Persistent Questions About English Keyboard Music circa 1600.” It is available from the Historical Keyboard Society of North America:



Remembering Isolde Ahlgrimm on her birthday (July 31)

Born in 1914 in Vienna, my first harpsichord teacher Isolde Ahlgrimm was truly a citizen of the musical world, which lost a major figure of the harpsichord revival when she died in 1995. However, her legacy lives on, well documented in Peter Watchorn’s Isolde Ahlgrimm, Vienna and the Early Music Revival (Ashgate Publishing, 2007) as well as in the pedagogical gem Manuale der Orgel und Cembalotechnik (Finger Exercises and Etudes, 1571–1760, Vienna: Doblinger, 1982) in which Ahlgrimm presents a collection of useful technique-building examples from the heyday of our instrument. Her descriptive texts are printed in parallel columns of German and English, so there is no need to fear this book if German does not happen to be a comfortable language.

Of particular interest are the pieces I plan to play in celebration of Frau Ahlgrimm’s natal day: three single-page fugues (pages 54–56) designed to be played by one hand only (with the choice of right or left to be decided by the player). These pieces were composed by Philipp Christoph Hartung for his Musicus-Theoretico-Practicus, published in Nürnberg in 1749. As the composer wrote, “(These three numbers) are to be played by the right hand or left hand alone. From this one gains an ability which can be put to good use at times when it is necessary to take one hand or the other away from the keyboard.” Ahlgrimm always laughed at the suggestion made by some keyboard teachers that Baroque composers did not use exercises. Her levity is proven to be deserved: she made her point with these 78 pages of period examples and her explanations. Those who use the Manual will surely be more technically secure for having done so.

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