Harpsichord News

August 14, 2015

Pedaling the French: 

A ‘Tour de France’ of Revival Harpsichordists 1888–1939


I. Near-death and slow rebirth

“Make what you want: this upstart piano will never replace the majestic claveçin!” Thus began my 1989 book Harpsichord in America: a Twentieth-Century Revival with these combative words from the composer Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727–1799). Looking back from our historical perspective, we all know how that prediction turned out! Even for Balbastre himself: his capitulation was a work for the new “upstart” keyboard instrument, a Marche des Marseillois, “arranged for the Forte Piano by Citizen Balbastre, and dedicated to the brave defenders of the French Republic in the year 1792, the first of the Republic.” At least Citizen [Citoyen] Claude-B B survived!

Following a very few antiquarian-inspired appearances throughout the piano-dominated 19th century, the harpsichord’s return to the musical scene as a featured instrument occurred during the Paris Exhibition of 1888 at the instigation of Louis Diémer (1843–1919), a piano professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Diémer was able to borrow a 1769 Pascal Taskin harpsichord to play in several concerts comprising concerted works by Rameau and solo pieces by various French claviçinistes. Of the latter the most popular composer was Louis-Claude Daquin, whose Le Coucou became one of the most-performed works during the early harpsichord revival period.

Diémer and his concerts must have inspired the salon composer Francis Thomé (1850–1909) to write a Rigodon for this most recent French harpsichordist, and thus provide history with the very first new piece for the old instrument. Inspired by Daquin, but also meant as a tribute to Diémer’s “legendary trilling ability,” Thomé’s pièce de claveçin was published by Lemoine in 1893. Around the middle of the 20th century this work was discovered and later recorded in 1976 by harpsichordist Igor Kipnis on a disc of favorite encores. After being captivated by its simple antiquarian charm, I too was able to acquire an original print of the work, thanks to my German friend and European “concert manager” Dr. Alfred Rosenberger, who found it at Noten Fuchs, Frankfurt’s amazing music store, where, apparently, the yellowed score had been on their shelves ever since its publication date. 

As a somewhat-related aside, the probable first harpsichord composition of the 20th century, or at least the earliest one to appear in print, is a Petite Lied by French organist/composer Henri Mulet (1878–1967). This aptly titled work of only 17 measures in 5/4 meter was issued in 1910. (See Harpsichord News, The Diapason, January 2011, p. 12, for a complete facsimile of the score.)

The solo harpsichord works of François Couperin, in a fine 19th-century edition by Johannes Brahms and Friedrich Chrysander, also found some popularity among pianists. From the musical riches to be found in Couperin’s 27 suites, came the lone musical example to be included in the 20th-century’s first harpsichord method book: Technique du Claveçin by Régina Patorni-Casadesus (1886–1961), a slim volume of only eight pages, most of them devoted to stop-changing pedal exercises (thus the genesis of my title—“Pedaling the French”). This one tiny bit of Couperin’s music is the oft-performed Soeur Monique from his 18th Ordre, a work admired and used by many church musicians—some of whom doubtless would be shocked to read in the authoritative reference work on Couperin’s titles, written by Historical Keyboard Society of North America honorary board member Jane Clark Dodgson, that “Sister Monica” may not be a religious “sister,” but refers instead to girls of ill repute, as in a “lady of the night,” according to the definition of the word Soeur by the 17th-century lexicographer Antoine Furetière (1619–1688), “our sisters, as in streetwalkers, or debauched girls.” (See Jane Clark and Derek Connon, ‘The Mirror of Human Life’: Reflections on François Couperin’s Pièces de Claveçin, London: Keyword Press, 2011, p. 170.)


II. Early recorded sounds

Beyond printed music and pedagogical writings, how did the classic French keyboard repertoire fare in the newly emerging medium of harpsichord recordings?

After giving a historical salute to the 16 rare 1908 Berlin wax cylinders that share surface noise with some barely audible Bach performed by Wanda Landowska, the earliest commercial recording of a harpsichord dates from about 1913 and was issued on the Favorite label. It preserves an anonymous performance of a work with at least tangential connections to France: the Passepied from J. S. Bach’s French Overture in B Minor (BWV 831). (See Martin Elste, Meilensteine der Bach-Interpretation, reviewed by Larry Palmer in The Diapason, June 2000.)

More easily accessible today are the earliest harpsichord recordings made in 1920 for the Gramophone Company in England by the Dolmetsch-influenced harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse (1871–1948). Her repertoire included Couperin’s L’Arlequine from the 23rd Ordre (as played on Great Virtuosi of the Harpsichord, volume 3, Pearl GEMM CD 9242) and Rameau’s Tambourin, from his Suite in E Major. Mrs. Woodhouse became something of a cult figure among British music critics (George Bernard Shaw), upper-class society (the Sitwells), and adventurous musicians (including the avant-garde composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji [1892–1988]), who wrote of Violet’s powerful musical presentations that her playing was “dignified, moving, and expressive, and of a broad, sedate beauty, completely free from any pedagogic didacticism or stiff-limbed collegiate pedantry.” (Quoted in Jessica Douglas-Home: Violet, The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse, London: The Harvill Press, 1966, p. 228.) This should put many of us in our rightful places, although Sorabji’s own excursions into keyboard literature lasting from four to nine hours in performance (example: a Busoni homage with the title Opus Clavicembalisticum) just might call his own authority into question.

Eight years younger than Woodhouse, the better-known Wanda Landowska (1879–1959) made her first commercial recordings for the Victor Company in 1923, just prior to her American concert debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. These six sides included short pieces by the three 1685 boys (Handel, Bach, and Scarlatti) as well as the Rigaudon and Tambourin from Rameau’s Suite in E Minor, and what might be considered the first recording of a contemporary harpsichord work, Landowska’s own Bourée d’Auvergne #1

Lesser-known players got recorded, too: Marguerite Delcour recorded Couperin’s Le Tic-toc-choc [Ordre 18] in 1924. The following year, 1925, one of Landowska’s Berlin students, Anna Linde, recorded the ubiquitous Rameau Tambourin and the even more ubiquitous Coucou by Daquin. If you recognize Linde’s name it might well be for her edition of Couperin’s L’art de toucher le Claveçin—with its translations into English and German offered side by side with the original French, and the printed music made unique by her Germanically precise “corrections” to the composer’s picturesque (but occasionally unmathematical) beaming of some quick roulades in his preludes. Both of Linde’s recorded legacy pieces sound amateurish enough that I seriously doubt that Sorabji would have enjoyed hearing these performances.

As a matter of history, however, it is quite possible that Anna Linde’s 1925 disc was the first harpsichord performance to be recorded electrically (rather than acoustically), and the difference in sound quality became even clearer in the years immediately following. A 1928 Woodhouse performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto sounds surprisingly present even today, and the performance shows—perhaps best of all her recorded legacy—what her admirers so rightly admired. Indeed her artistry is such that I have thought, often, that had Mrs. Woodhouse needed to earn her living as Landowska did, she could have eclipsed the divine Wanda as a concert harpsichordist. However, as the wife of a titled Englishman she could not make a career onstage for money . . . and that was that! It would have been fascinating to have had two such determined women competing for the title of “the world’s most famous harpsichordist.” 

Realistically, however, Landowska’s tenacity, as well as her superb musical knowledge and sensitivity, should not be denigrated in any way. The 1928 recording of her own second Bourée d’Auvergne (Biddulph LHW 016) especially highlights the rhythmic dimension of her exciting artistry.

In the United States, where Landowska was a welcome visitor during the 1920s, there were several earlier players of the harpsichord; and, not too surprisingly, all of them attempted at least some pieces by French composers. Some of these participants in harpsichord history are nearly forgotten: one of more than passing importance was the Princeton professor Arthur Whiting: a well-received artist in nearby New York City and a campus legend at Princeton, he was known for his ability to attract huge crowds of undergraduates for his popular recitals on both piano and Dolmetsch-Chickering harpsichord. I have not located any recordings by Professor Whiting. The New York Times did mention his concert at Mendelssohn Hall (NYC) on December 11, 1907, which included a Gigue and Rigaudon by Rameau. The unnamed reviewer praised Whiting’s playing as “clear, beautifully phrased, and skillful in ‘registration’ if that term may be used to denote the employment of the different timbres that the instrument affords.

Writing a letter to the editor of The Times on January 11, 1926, the prominent music educator Daniel Gregory Mason offered a response to a letter from Landowska in which she made the statement that she had “single-handedly [!] restored the harpsichord to its rightful position in the world of music.” In this correspondence Professor Mason called attention to some other “‘Harpsichord Pioneers’—among whom he named the Americans: Mr. Whiting, Miss Pelton-Jones, Miss Van Buren, and Lewis Richards.”

The two ladies differed greatly: Frances Pelton-Jones was one of those wealthy women who could afford to pursue her artistic ambitions (rather similar to the would-be soprano Florence Foster Jenkins). Her recitals in New York were of the club-lady variety; baffled critics most often mentioned the stage decoration and the beauty of Pelton-Jones’s gowns. Lotta Van Buren, however, was a thoroughly professional player and harpsichord technician whose work with Morris Steinart’s instrument collection at Yale was very beneficial, as was her association with Colonial Williamsburg and its program of historical recreations, including musical ones. 

As for Lewis Richards, Mason proceeds: “Mr. Richards, who has played the harpsichord throughout Europe as a member of the Ancient Instrument Society of Paris, was, I believe, the first to appear as a harpsichordist with orchestra (the Minneapolis Symphony) in this country, and contributed much to the interest of Mrs. F. S. Coolidge’s festival in Washington . . .” 

Richards did indeed precede Landowska as the first known harpsichord soloist with a major symphony orchestra in the U. S. He was one of the few American musicians to record commercially in the 1920s. His Brunswick 10-inch discs of The Brook by Ayrlton, Musette en Rondeau by Rameau, Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith, and the Mozart Rondo alla Turca were played for me by Richards’ daughter, whom I was able to visit in her East Lansing, Michigan, home (on the day following an organ recital I had played there). The sound is somewhat compromised, for I was recording a scratchy 78-rpm disc that spun on an ancient turntable in a garage; but one gets the impression that Mr. Richards was a charismatic and musical player.  

These discs went on to make quite a lot of money in royalties, and Richards actually taught harpsichord at the Michigan State Institute of Music in East Lansing, which almost certainly certifies him as the first formally continuing collegiate teacher of harpsichord to be employed in the United States in the 20th century.

All of these players played early revival instruments. All have, therefore, used their pedal techniques to obtain a more kaleidoscopic range of colors than we may be used to. Of great interest (at least to me) is the recent emergence of curiosity about, and interest in these revival instruments and their playing techniques, frequently demonstrated by questions received from students. One of the finest concert figures of the “pedal” generations was the distinguished Yale professor Ralph Kirkpatrick (now more knowable than previously, courtesy of his niece Meredith Kirkpatrick’s recently published collection of the artist’s letters; see our review in the April 2015 issue). In his early Musicraft recordings, especially those from 1939, we are able to hear the young player show his stuff, just before his 1940 appointment to Yale, displaying superb musical mastery of his Dolmetsch-Chickering harpsichord. From Kirkpatrick’s program that included four individual Couperin pieces, culminating in Les Barricades Mistérieuses, and five movements from Rameau’s E-minor set, I ended this essay with the Rameau Tambourin (as played on The Musicraft Solo Recordings, Great Virtuosi of the Harpsichord, volume 2, Pearl GEMM CD9245). Kirkpatrick’s mesmerizing foot-controlled decrescendo gives a perfect example of his skill in “pedaling the French.”

(From a paper read in Montréal, May 23.)


HKSNA 2015 International Conference in Montréal

Hosted by McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, the fourth annual conclave of the Historical Keyboard Society of North America (May 21–24) offered lectures, mini-recitals, and evening concerts, far too many events for any single auditor to encompass. Two papers that followed mine, Elisabeth Gallat-Morin’s beautifully illustrated “The Presence of French Baroque Keyboard Instruments in New France” and Graham Sadler’s innovative “When Rameau Met Scarlatti? Reflections on a Probable Encounter in the 1720s” attested to the depth of innovative scholarship.

McGill’s instrument roster includes the superb Helmut Wolff organ in Redpath Hall and 15 harpsichords. One third of these came from the workshop of the Montréal builder Yves Beaupré; among the other ten instruments is a 1677 single-manual Italian instrument from the collection of Kenneth Gilbert. This unique historic treasure was available for viewing and playing for small groups of attendees.

The Vermont builder Robert Hicks was the only harpsichord maker who brought an instrument for display. Max Yount demonstrated this eloquent double harpsichord in a masterful recital presentation of Marchand’s Suite in D Minor. Clavichord took center stage for Judith Conrad’s program. Karen Jacob’s thoughtful memorial tribute to Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society founder George Lucktenberg was enhanced by several solicited remembrances from others whose lives had been touched by the late iconic early keyboard figure.

Evening concerts were presented by harpsichordist/organist Peter Sykes and six former students who organized a tribute to McGill organ professor emeritus John Grew. Saturday’s concert brought the final stage of the ninth Aliénor international competition for contemporary harpsichord music. Six winning works (selected by a jury from nearly fifty submitted pieces) were performed by HKSNA President Sonia Lee (Laura Snowden: French Suite), Larry Palmer (Sviatoslav Krutykov: Little Monkey Ten Snapshots), James Dorsa (Ivan Bozicevic: If There is a Place Between, and his own composition Martinique), Andrew Collett (playing his own Sonatina for Harpsichord), and Marina Minkin (Dina Smorgonskaya: Three Dances for Harpsichord). Following an intermission during which the audience submitted ballots naming their three favorite works, Aliénor presented world premieres of two commissioned works for two harpsichords: Edwin McLean’s Sonata No. 2 (2014), played by Beverly Biggs and Elaine Funaro, and Mark Janello’s Concerto for Two (2015), played by Rebecca Pechefsky and Funaro.

And the three pieces chosen by the audience? Smorgonskaya’s Three Dances for Harpsichord, Collett’s Sonatina, and Dorsa’s Martinique. Bravi tutti.


Comments, news items, and questions are always welcome. Address them to Dr. Larry Palmer, e-mail: [email protected].

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