Harpsichord News

July 1, 2015

ARTEK goes German

Two days before Johann Sebastian Bach’s 330th birthday, while exercising my daily morning custom of reading The New York Times I was happily surprised to see a picture of a very ornate harpsichord being played by Gwendolyn Toth. What a pleasant way to begin a March morning, I thought. Accompanying the photo was a Critic’s Notebook piece, “Plucking Away, 300 Years Later,” by James R. Oestreich. A quick scan of his essay convinced me that I wanted to know more details about this festival of German music played on four Germanic harpsichords, so I contacted Dr. Toth, who responded to my request with an electronic copy of the 16-page program booklet as well as the illustrations that brighten this column.

Gwen Toth founded ARTEK (The Art of the Early Keyboard) in 1986. Various programs under her direction have been lauded in the New York media, and several of us in Texas have benefitted from the generosity of Toth and her husband Dongsok Shin, who have shared difficult-to-find replacement parts for at least two of our Willard Martin harpsichords (one of them a Saxon-style instrument). So it was with particular empathy that I read the programs and extensive notes from this festival and forthwith decided that there was much of interest to share with the readers of this column.

To celebrate Toth’s new two-manual harpsichord, a close copy by John Phillips of the celebrated 1739 instrument made by Johann Heinrich Gräbner the Younger of Dresden, Toth devised two concert programs plus several associated events to occur on Friday and Saturday, March 13 and 14. One might be quite certain that Johann Sebastian Bach would have approved of these particular dates, especially the second!* The venue was New York’s Immanuel Lutheran Church, where Toth is the music director (in addition to her positions as orchestra director at Manhattan College and harpsichord teacher at Montclair State University). 

The first program comprised the complete second part of Bach’s Clavierübung, but with a most interesting twist: because the Gräbner instrument has an expanded bass range (the lowest note is DD rather than the usual FF), Toth decided to play the French Ouverture in the key of G minor rather than its published key of B minor, a downward transposition of a major third. As she wrote in notes to the program, “ . . . Ultimately one faces the question of, having the extra lower notes, how does one make use of them?” Since the composer himself had made a downward transposition from its original C minor to B minor for the published version of his monumental work, it seemed to be an apt way to revel in the magnificent possibilities provided by the added bass strings. Following intermission came the Italian Concerto, but in this case an attempt at a similar downward change of key did not prove satisfactory, so Toth decided to play it in its usual key of F, thereby “displaying the beautiful sound of the high range of the instrument” as well.

Master harpsichord builder John Phillips continued the festive evening with a question and answer session. In his eloquent written notes to the program, Phillips provided two possible explanations for the unusual range of this harpsichord’s prototype: 


If it were intended for ecclesiastical use the low DD would, at Kammerton, sound the same pitch as the CC (16-foot C) of the organ at Chorton—a whole step higher. If it were to be played in consort with the organ, including its 16-foot range, there would be no need to go below DD. Since it was tuned to Kammerton, it could still play with other instruments without transposing. If the intended use were for the theater orchestra, the low DD would be the same as the lowest note of a violone in the most usual tuning. In either case, this instrument would have excelled as a ‘big band’ continuo harpsichord. 

Additionally Phillips mentioned his surprise that he had produced a total of 13 Gräbner-inspired harpsichords since the first commission for one in 1998: 


Even though the first copy of the 1739 instrument was musically revelatory to many, I assumed that no one else would be interested in such a big . . . and heavy harpsichord. I was wrong. Musicians took to them. The one before you is my third 1739 . . . and there are ten more Gräbners of other somewhat smaller varieties as well.

Events on day two began in the afternoon with several free workshops: the first was concerned with “Concepts of Early Keyboard Technique,” led by Dr. Toth, who utilized both a harpsichord and a clavichord, a favorite pedagogical instrument in the 18th century, for her presentation. The second workshop, “Lessons in Harpsichord Quilling and Maintenance,” was guided by Dongsok Shin, who serves as harpsichord technician for both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera.

At eight that evening a concert of music for multiple harpsichords engaged four distinguished New York harpsichordists: Bradley Brookshire (assistant conductor and harpsichordist at the Metropolitan Opera), Stephen Rapp (assistant organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral), Gwendolyn Toth, and Dongsok Shin. The music, most of it rarely heard in concert, included Concerto in D for two harpsichords by Joseph Schuster (Toth and Shin), Duetto in C Minor for two harpsichords by Müthel (Shin and Rapp), Sonata in G Minor [Allegro] by Mattheson (Brookshire and Shin), Sonata in F for two harpsichords by W. F. Bach (Rapp and Brookshire), Concerto in B-flat Major for two harpsichords by Graun (Toth and Rapp), and, for the grand finale, Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1065, by J. S. Bach, with the entire ensemble, including ARTEK strings.

Four diverse Germanic instruments by three builders provided appropriate keyboards for this stylish presentation. In addition to John Phillips’s magnum opus, Owen Daly of Salem, Oregon, contributed his newly finished harpsichord based on one built in Hamburg in 1728 by Christian Zell. Daly’s harpsichord, with a compass of FF–d′′′, has a classic disposition of three stops: 8, 8, and 4 registers, with manual coupler and buff stop. Of special interest is its stringing in Stephen Birkett’s historically produced iron and brass wire. 

Philip Tyre was the builder of Bradley Brookshire’s 1990 harpsichord. Originally a single-manual instrument (GG–e′′′) with two 8 stops and a 4 register, strung in brass throughout, its prototype was a harpsichord built in 1738 by the organ-maker Christian Vater of Hannover. In 2005 Willard Martin added a buff stop and enlarged the case to accommodate a second keyboard. 

The fourth harpsichord, owned by New Jersey resident Edward Brewer (an Oberlin classmate of mine, who often transported me as a passenger on his motorcycle during our junior year in Salzburg), was built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf of The Plains, Virginia, and is also a two-manual instrument based on Vater’s single-manual harpsichord, “but with rather different sound results,” according to Dongsok Shin’s note in the program.

Director Toth ended the program note to her solo recital with these wise words, “Playing Bach on a German harpsichord has been truly a revelation. Both the orchestral quality of the full sound and the clarity of the individual notes serve his music in a way no French harpsichord (for many years the instrument of choice for Bach) can ever match. A perfect marriage of instrument and repertoire.” 

I would concur, having experienced one of John Phillips’s instruments slightly more than a decade ago during the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society’s conclave at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. There, on our quest to hear Bach as Bach might have heard Bach, we tried to absorb into our minds and ears not only the fullness of sounds produced by the magnificent nine-foot harpsichord, but also those created through the quiet beauty of Willard Martin’s Lautenwerk, a gut-strung keyboard instrument; and those dynamically controllable sounds made possible through David Sutherland’s fascinating recreation of a Dresden fortepiano: all three instruments based on prototypes that Bach almost certainly knew. Many years earlier, Isolde Ahlgrimm had noted wryly that “Bach probably would have been quite surprised to hear his music played ‘authentically’ on the ubiquitous French-style instruments of the mid-20th-century harpsichord revival, lovely as they are.”

I daresay that ARTEK’s German odyssey is yet one more hopeful journey in the ever-ongoing attempt to bring more historical accuracy into our performances of music from the past.


* Should you have difficulty making sense of this sentence, please e-mail me at [email protected] or write to Dr. Larry Palmer, 10125 Cromwell Drive, Dallas, Texas 75229. I will be happy to send an explanation. As always, news items and comments are welcome.