Harpsichord News

September 30, 2017

From the Harpsichord Editor’s mailbox


Four recent harpsichord scores 

Carson Cooman (born 1982) is a prolific composer who writes accessible music. He serves currently as Research Associate in Music and Composer-in-Residence at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. A surprise packet containing four elegantly printed scores by Cooman arrived in my mailbox recently. All are “for keyboard” (in the composer’s notes, appropriate instruments are listed as pipe organ, harpsichord, clavichord, lautenwerk, harmonium, reed organ, piano, or electronic keyboard). All are published by Zimbel Press (www.zimbel.com) and distributed exclusively by Subito Music Corporation (www.subitomusic.com).

All four are well-suited to the harpsichord: textures are consistently spare (ranging from two to four voices), and Cooman indicates that long-held notes should be restruck ad libitum on instruments that have a faster sound decay.

Of the four pieces my personal favorites are Three Renaissance Dances, op. 1079, and Prelude, Fughetta, and Allegro, op. 1064, both composed in 2014. The Dances—Pavane (Adagio), Tordion (Vivace), and Allemande (Andante espressivo)­—are faithful to the rhythms and chords expected in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the order of the movements guarantees both variety and interest. Comprising only five pages of music, these dances will not be boring to an audience.

Cooman’s Prelude, Fughetta, and Allegro is “loosely inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998—a late composition seemingly intended for harpsichord, lute, or most especially, the lautenwerk [a ‘lute harpsichord’]—apparently a personal favorite instrument of Bach,” to quote the composer’s introductory notes. Dedicated to the instrument maker Steven Sørli, these three movements in E-flat major, C minor, and E-flat major are beautifully crafted and could make an interesting pairing with Bach’s work. Use of the harpsichord’s buff stop would suggest the sound of the gut-strung “lute-harpsichord.” Cooman also mentions that “equal temperament is neither expected nor required” for this music.

The two additional scores in the packet are Ricercari, op. 1014 (2013), “inspired by the keyboard music of the early and mid-17th century.” The work consists of one page (3-voice texture) dedicated to Kimberly Marshall, two pages (2 voices) for James Woodman, and a final two pages (4 voices) for Peter Sykes.

Number four, Toccata sequenziale sopra “ut re mi fa,” op. 1063, dedicated to the New England instrument maker Allan Winkler, is a contemporary work inspired by the early Italian keyboard toccatas of Frescobaldi and his followers. In the style of the 17th century, this six-page piece is meant to be played freely, and it comprises both the longest and most harmonically adventurous of these Cooman compositions.


A musicological detective story

Knowing my deep appreciation for well-plotted mystery stories, dear colleague and longtime friend harpsichordist Jane Clark sent me the journal of The British Music Society (aptly named British Music, Volume 38, 2016, #2) in which John Turner’s article “Thank you, Norman Dello Joio! A Voyage of Discovery” appeared in print (pages 24–32). Turner traces the twists and turns that led to his finding of a major musical score by Alan Rawsthorne (1905–1971). The composer’s manuscript was destroyed together with many other pieces and musical instruments during the November 1940 Luftwaffe bombing of his lodgings in Bristol. Unexpectedly, a copy of Rawsthorne’s Chamber Cantata for Voice, Strings, and Harpsichord (1937) was found among the papers of Southern California composer Halsey Stevens (1908–1989), whose legacy is now archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The link between the UK and the United States must have been the harpsichordist Alice Ehlers (1887–1981) who played the keyboard part at the premiere of the Chamber Cantata in 1937. Ehlers, an early student of Wanda Landowska, immigrated to the United States in 1938, where she was, for many years, a fellow faculty member together with Stevens at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Turner surmises that it must have been she who brought her copy of the cantata score to the United States, where, somehow, it became part of the Stevens Collection. (My quick look at Frances Bedford’s Harpsichord and Clavichord Music of the 20th Century provided the information that Stevens composed a two-minute solo harpsichord work for Ehlers—La quarte-vingtaine—in 1967, the year of her 80th birthday!)

There is much more concerning this exciting rediscovery of a “lost” Raws-thorne composition as well as a reference to Walter Leigh’s delightful Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings, which Turner posits may well have been familiar to the cantata’s composer. The connection to American composer Norman Dello Joio is also explained in his article, together with a reference to this American composer’s 1980 solo harpsichord work Salute to Scarlatti and the welcome news that “the first modern performance of the rediscovered Rawsthorne work took place on October 29, 2016, at the Royal Northern College of Music, with Harvey Davis at the harpsichord.”


Mark Schweizer’s 14th
liturgical mystery

It was The Diapason’s editor Jerome Butera who sent me a review copy of Mark Schweizer’s first liturgical mystery, The Alto Wore Tweed. It was, I suppose, not surprising since I had written several columns concerning “Murder at the Harpsichord” (citing mystery novels with a harpsichord connection, not referring to recitals by students or colleagues). My Schweizer review was published in the July 2003 issue of our favorite magazine (on pages 8 and 10), from which I quote:


Here is the answer to all your gift needs: buy a copy of this slim paperback for every person on your Christmas list. Any 144-page book that manages to include references to Charles Wood, Charpentier, Mendelssohn, Hugo Distler, bagpipes, an anthem text in which “Holy Jesus” rhymes with “moldy Cheeses” and “Martin Luther’s Diet of Wurms (the only Diet of Wurms with the International Congress of Church Musicians Seal of Approval)” gets my vote for book of the year.


Well, here we are, 14 years later, at liturgical mystery number 14, and I have read every one of the intervening volumes, each of which has produced a similar (or greater) sense of euphoria, merriment, and admiration for the author’s continued droll sense of humor, ability to create madcap plots, and sheer ability both to instruct and to entertain.

The newest, The Lyric Wore Lycra, which clocks in at 192 pages (like most of us, it has added a little extra heft around its middle), still maintains the Raymond Chandler sub-story set in distinctive typewriter script, is still replete with welcome musical references, and still displays the author’s ability to poke gentle barbs at liturgical matters, the current ones involving Fat Tuesday and Lent, all side by side with several dead bodies and, thus, enough crimes to be solved by sleuth Hayden Konig, police chief of St. Germaine, North Carolina, and part-time organist-choirmaster of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in that small village.

And yes, it is gift-worthy in the extreme, available directly from St. James Music Press (www.sjmpbooks.com). (Request an autographed copy if you wish.) My package of two copies arrived within three days, so the book accompanied me to Santa Fe, where I shared news of its July publication with my hosts, also devoted Schweizer fans. They rushed away from our dinner table to place their order immediately, and they, too, had their books in hand, ready to be read while on their vacation.


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