Harpsichord News

September 4, 2017

Recital programming: Program notes

Seated one day at the harpsichord, I was weary and ill at ease because the mid-July deadline for this column was approaching too rapidly, and my mind, in its summer mode, seemed frail as a lily, too weak for a thought as I searched for a topic. And then, a miracle: the printed program from my harpsichord recital at the 2012 East Texas Pipe Organ Festival fell out of a score. Rereading it brought not only a wave of nostalgia, but also a sense of continued satisfaction at both the balance and variety of the chosen pieces, selected painstakingly to present contrasting musical styles as well as offering a bit of respite to the ears of the festival participants who heard a number of organ recitals each day.

Some vignettes about the unusual logistics required to present this program at Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview on my 74th birthday may be found in The Diapason’s Harpsichord News column published in February 2013 (page 20). If any readers are curious, I refer them to that issue, which also contains Neal Campbell’s thoughtful commentaries on the entire 2012 festival. What follows in this month’s column has not appeared previously in The Diapason. These are my “notes to the program.” I present them now as examples of brief word pictures intended to aid a listener’s understanding of music that, for many, was probably being heard for the first time. As for the selections, I specifically tried to choose at least some works by composers who might be familiar to organists, while offering a variety of musical styles, durations, and tonalities both major and minor. 


The program notes

Introduction to the Program: The Italian composer Giovanni Maria Trabaci wrote in the Preface to Book II of his Pieces ‘per ogni (all) strumenti, ma ispecialmente per i Cimbali e gli Organi’ [1615]: “the harpsichord is the lord of all instruments in the world and on it everything may be played with ease.” [“il Cimbalo è Signor di tutti l’istromenti del mondo, et in lui si possono sonare ogni  cosa con facilità.”]  

While I am not totally convinced of the ease of playing offered by some of these contrasting selections from the contemporary and Baroque repertoires, I do suggest that each one of them has musical interest. The pieces by John Challis and Duke Ellington are probably unique to my repertoire since they remain unpublished.


The program

A Triptych for Harpsichord (1982)—Gerald Near (b. 1942). In addition to writing a wonderful Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings for me to premiere at the American Guild of Organists national convention in the Twin Cities in 1980, Gerald responded to my request for a new work to play at a recital for the Dallas Museum of Art’s major El Greco exhibition in 1983. The three brief contrasting movements suggest bells (“Carillon”), an amorous dance (“Siciliano”), and a homage to the harpsichord works of Domenico Scarlatti and Manuel de Falla (“Final”). 

Sonate pour Claveçin (1958)—Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959). During the final year of his life, in response to a commission from the Swiss harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer, Martinů composed this compact, but major, Sonate. Essentially it is a piece in one movement with three sections: the first and last are kaleidoscopic, filled with brief colorful musical ideas; the second is gentle and nostalgic, as the homesick expatriate composer makes short allusions to two beloved iconic Czech works: the Wenceslaus Chorale and Dvorák’s Cello Concerto. While quite “pianistic” in its demands, the Sonate also allows brilliant use of the harpsichord’s two keyboards in realizing both Martinů’s magical sonorities and his occasional use of bitonality.

“Chaconne in D Minor” (Partita for Solo Violin, BWV 1004)—Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), arranged for harpsichord solo by John Challis (1907–1974). One of Bach’s most-often transcribed works, this particular setting for harpsichord by the pioneering American early instrument maker survives only in a manuscript submitted for copyright (on Bach’s birthday in 1944), now preserved in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., Challis also was an early advocate of variable tempi in Baroque music, serving as a mentor in that respect to organist E. Power Biggs, who proudly owned one of the builder’s impressive large pedal instruments.1

A Single Petal of a Rose (1965)—Duke Ellington (1899–1974), edited in 1985 by Igor Kipnis and Dave Brubeck, and by Larry Palmer in 2012. Edward Kennedy Ellington responded to Antoinette Vischer’s request for a piece by sending her a piano transcription of his A Single Petal of a Rose, a work already dedicated to the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II. When American harpsichordist Kipnis asked if I could point him to Ellington’s unique work for harpsichord, I referred him to the facsimile of Ellington’s manuscript published in Ule Troxler’s book Antoinette Vischer, which details the works to be found in the Vischer Collection at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. (See “The A-Team,” The Diapason, February 2017, pp. 12–13.) Years later, Kipnis sent me his one-page transcription for harpsichord, an arrangement made in collaboration with his friend, the jazz great Dave Brubeck. To fit my hands and harpsichord I have made some further adjustments to their arrangement of this lovely, gentle work.2

La D’Héricourt; La Lugeac—Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727–1799). These are two of the most idiomatic of French harpsichord works from the eighteenth century, and none is more so than the one honoring M. l’Abbé d’Héricourt, Conseiller de Grand’ Chambre. With the tempo marking “noblement,” this composition stays mostly in the middle range of the harpsichord, a particularly resonant glory of the eighteenth-century French instruments. In contrast, the boisterous, “music-hall” qualities of La Lugeac suggest that it may be named for Charles-Antoine de Guerin, a page to King Louis XV. Known subsequently as the Marquis de Lugeac, the former page became secretary and companion to the Marquis de Valery, the king’s representative to the court of Frederick the Great. The American harpsichordist and conductor Alan Curtis, who edited Balbastre’s keyboard works, noted that “few Italianate jigs—Scarlatti not even excepted—can match the outrageously bumptious and attractive La Lugeac.”

“Lambert’s Fireside,” “De la Mare’s Pavane,” and “Hughes’ Ballet” (from the collection Lambert’s Clavichord, 1926–1928)—Herbert Howells (1892–1983). The composer was the next to youngest person pictured in a 1923 book of Modern British Composers comprising 17 master portraits by the photographer and clavichord maker Herbert Lambert of Bath. As a tangible expression of gratitude for this honor, Howells requested 11 of his fellow sitters each to contribute a short characteristic piece to be presented to the photographer. All acquiesced, but one year later, only Howells had composed anything for the project, so he wrote the additional 11 pieces himself. Issued in 1928 by Oxford University Press, Lambert’s Clavichord was the first new music for clavichord to be published in the twentieth century. Several questions regarding names found in the titles as well as a few printed notes that were suspect led me to schedule a London interview with the composer during a 1974 trip to the UK, a meeting that led ultimately to my commissioning the Dallas Canticles, as well as a respectful, unforgettable friendship with the elderly master.3

Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914—J. S.
Bach. The shortest of the composer’s seven toccatas for harpsichord, the E Minor consists of an introduction (with an organ-pedal-like opening figure insistently repeated six times); a contrapuntal   “poco” Allegro; a dramatic recitative (Adagio); and a driving, perpetual motion three-voice fugue. Musicologist David Schulenberg (in The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach; Schirmer Books, New York, 1992) noted the close similarity of the fugue’s opening and some subsequent passages to an anonymous work from a Naples manuscript ascribed to Benedetto Marcello. While it was not unusual for Baroque composers to borrow from (and improve upon) existing works, the amount of pre-existing material utilized in this particular fugue is greater than normal; however, as Schulenberg concludes, “[Bach] nevertheless made characteristic alterations.” I would add that in no way do these borrowings detract from the visceral excitement of Bach’s propulsive and dramatic conclusion.


Heads up: Registration for the 2017 ETPOF

According to the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival website there is still an opportunity to register (at discounted prices) for the star-studded programs planned for this year’s festival. But do not delay: the opportunity for savings expires on September 15. Visit: http://easttexaspipeorganfestival.com.


Recent losses 

Elizabeth Chojnacka (born September 10, 1939, in Warsaw) died in Paris on May 28. Celebrated for her virtuosic keyboard technique, Chojnacka was known primarily as an avid and exciting performer of contemporary harpsichord music. Her renderings of all three of the solo harpsichord works by Ligeti are highly lauded, and the composer honored her by dedicating the third, Hungarian Rock, to her.

Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (born October 7, 1929, in Bologna) died in that Italian city on July 11. Organist, harpsichordist, scholar, and instrument collector, Luigi was well known to us in Dallas, having been a guest at Southern Methodist University on several occasions. Most memorably, he was part of the so-designated “Haarlem Trio” organized by Robert Anderson as a week-long postscript to the 1972 American Guild of Organists convention in Dallas. The three major European visiting artists for that event—Marie-Claire Alain, Anton Heiller, and Tagliavini—each gave daily masterclasses for the large number of participants who remained in Dallas for a second week of study with these annual leaders of the Haarlem Summer Academies in the Netherlands, resulting in what may be the only time in Southern Methodist University history that the organ department achieved a financial surplus rather than a deficit!

Two vignettes from that stellar week have become an unforgettable part of   Dallas’s musical history: Luigi’s chosen workshop topic was the organ music of Girolamo Frescobaldi, and he had assigned to the prize-winning finalists from the AGO Young Organists’ Competition all of the pieces contained in that composer’s liturgical settings for organ, known as Fiori Musicali. One of the finalists who had not won an AGO prize left Dallas in high dudgeon. Unfortunately, this participant had been assigned the very first piece in this set of “Musical Flowers.” Professor Tagliavini began his afternoon class with a brief overview of the work’s history and importance, and then peered over his glasses as he announced, “And now we will hear the first piece, Frescobaldi’s ‘Toccata avanti della Messa’.”

The total lack of response became embarrassing; there was no respondent. So our guest teacher moved on to the next piece. And thus it was that each afternoon session began with the same question from Luigi: “And who will play the ‘Toccata avanti della Messa’?”—always followed by total silence. A stickler for completeness, on the fifth and final day of the course Luigi made his same query, again to no avail. So with his usual smile and slight lisp he intoned, “Then I shall play the ‘Toccata avanti della Messa’!” And so he did with total mastery and grace. And all was well within the Italian Baroque solar system,  for Frescobaldi’s magnum opus was, at last, complete in Dallas!

The second vignette, equally Luigi-esque, occurred when Dr. Anderson, always volatile and energetic, and I were awaiting Tagliavini’s arrival to play an evening organ recital for the workshop audience. It was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. and by five minutes before that hour Dr. Anderson was pacing the corridor near the door to the Caruth Auditorium stage. With less than two minutes to spare, Luigi ambled down the hallway. Bob called out, “Luigi, hurry!” To which the unflappable Italian stopped walking, carefully placed his leather briefcase on the floor, and, with his characteristically kindly smile, said, “Why, Bob? Has the recital already begun?” ν



1. For further information see my essay, “John Challis and Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor,” in Music and Its Questions: Essays in Honor of Peter Williams, edited by Thomas Donahue (Organ Historical Society Press, 2007); and my CD recording of the Bach transcription on Hommages for Harpsichord (SoundBoard 2008).

2. Concerning Lambert’s Clavichord, see my chapter on Herbert Howells in Twentieth Century Organ Music, edited by Christopher Anderson (Routledge, 2012).

Related Content

May 31, 2020
Time flies. Elaine Funaro’s compact disc Time Flies (Centaur CRC 3783) is this valued artist’s valedictory musical program to mark her stepping down…
March 31, 2020
Photo: Thomas Gallia and Paul Déry in Milan, 1971 (photo credit: János Sebestyén) New offering of János Sebestyén recordings Longtime Southern…
February 27, 2020
Marches for March March: the third month of the year in the Gregorian calendar—the only month with a name that has a musical connection. March: a…