Harpsichord Notes

May 4, 2018

Seeking Haydn

A recent compact disc of compositions by Joseph Haydn performed on the harpsichord has provided novelty for the ears as well as provoking a lot of thought as to which keyboard instrument best serves this great composer’s creations. This conundrum occurs rather frequently for music of the later eighteenth century, especially since the extensive recording of classical sonatas by Haydn has been achieved most frequently by pianists, and similar endeavors seem to have been somewhat lacking from those of us who play instruments that pre-date the nearly-ubiquitous eighty-eight-keyed instrument.

Recorded early in 2017 by Finnish harpsichordist Pierre Gallon (born 1975), the compact disc Joseph Haydn per il Cembalo Solo is a recent release by l’Encelade (ECL1701: information available at www.encelade.net). Playing a 2004 harpsichord built by Jonte Knif (based on mid-eighteenth-century German instruments), Gallon has selected a varied repertoire of rarely heard Haydn works, including these five multi-movement compositions­:

Partita, HobXVI:6 (Divertimento per il Cembalo Solo): Allegro, Minuet, Adagio, Allegro molto [before 1766];

Sonata per Clavicembalo, HobXVI: 27: Allegro con brio, Menuetto, Presto [1776];

Divertimento, HobXVI:12: Andante, Menuet, Allegro molto [before 1766];

Sonata per Cembalo “a Principe Niccolo Esterhazy,” opus 13, HobXVI:24 [ca.1773];

Capriccio, HobXVII:1: Theme and Variations “Acht Sauschneider müssen seyn” [1765], a humorous popular folksong about the eight persons required for castrating a wild boar[!], a charming example of Haydn’s legendary sense of humor.

Interspersed with these large-scale compositions are three short pieces from the second set of 12 Lieder für das Clavier (1781/84): Geistliches Lied [#17], Minna [#23], and, as the compact disc’s final track, a gentle benediction: Auf meines Vaters Grab (At my Father’s Grave) [#24]­—each serving as a sonic “sorbet” to clear the listener’s aural senses.

Pierre Gallon displays a secure and brilliant technique, sometimes too much so, perhaps. Allegro (“happy”) and Presto (“fast”) frequently seem to be identical tempi, thus presenting a jet-fueled interpretation of music originally conceived in a horse and oxcart age. Occasionally I wished for more vocally inspired phrasing that would allow slightly more time before forging ahead to the next musical idea. There is, however, much sensitive and beautiful playing in the slower and gentler movements, and overall the disc is recommended as a welcome introduction to these rarely heard Haydn works. 


Some relevant Haydn research

So: which should it be? Harpsichord or piano? If I may quote myself, “The best answer is ‘Yes,’” as I stated in the notes to an edition of Samuel Wesley, Jr.’s Sonata in F Minor (published in 2007 by Skyline Publications, Eau Claire, Wisconsin). Wesley’s 1781 autograph manuscript was acquired by the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University. To honor the 300th anniversary of the birth of the senior Charles Wesley, the library mounted an extensive exhibition celebrating the musical Wesleys. I was asked to play the modern premiere of the sonata, for which Clyde Putman prepared a more legible “Finale” performing score that subsequently served as the basis for the modern publication. It is a beautiful edition that also includes full-sized facsimiles of the entire previously unknown manuscript as well as the essay from which I continue to quote:


The manuscript indicates that Wesley’s Sonata is “per il Cembalo,” the Italian word for harpsichord, an instrument not much associated with carefully calibrated dynamic changes, even in our own time. It is true that Cembalo (as a broader generic term for a keyboard instrument) was retained on title pages of keyboard publications well into the 19th century (notably by Beethoven, and continuing as late as several early piano works of Liszt!). However, dynamic indications alone do not negate harpsichord performance, especially since some late 18th-century British harpsichords could offer quite a range of volume and color. Larger instruments by Shudi, Kirkman, or Broadwood might include machine stops operated by foot pedals, thus allowing a player to change from the softest to full registrations, and back again, in an instant. A few harpsichords even had organ-like louvers, placed above the strings and soundboard, and also operated by a pedal. . . . With minor adjustments the Sonata works well as a harpsichord piece; but, given the rapidly changing aesthetic of the time, and the performance indications in the manuscript, there should be no deterrent to a performance on the piano, or, for that matter, the clavichord!


Returning to research specifically about Joseph Haydn, a fortuitous find in my personal library was a single copy of the magazine Harpsichord & Fortepiano for June 1998 (Volume 7, number 1: ISSN 1463-0036) in which Richard Maunder’s article “Keyboard Instruments in Haydn’s Vienna” details a fascinating overview of some choices that must have been available to our composer of the month. Originally delivered as a lecture for the British Clavichord Society, Dr. Maunder’s six-page, amply illustrated article offers information designed to refute three common myths: (1) that harpsichords were out-of-date by about 1770; (2) that the piano was well established by 1770, and that all of these pianos were made by Viennese builders; (3) that the clavichord was most prevalent in north Germany, but was rarely used in south Germany and Austria. Citing existing instruments, eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements, and documentary evidence from some Mozart family letters and the Eszterháza archives, the author successfully rebutted all of these assumptions. Known as a brilliant mathematician as well as a prominent musicologist, Maunder subsequently published a 288-page volume amplifying his premises (Keyboard Instruments in Eighteenth-Century Vienna, Oxford University Press, 1998; ISBN 0-19-816637-0). This information is the result of an online search using the author’s name. I have not seen the full text, but noted that used copies of the book are available, starting at $136.

The front cover of the June 1998 magazine cited above is graced with a lovely portrait of my first harpsichord mentor, Isolde Ahlgrimm, which, I believe, must be the reason I received the single issue, most likely from Ahlgrimm’s biographer Peter Watchorn, whose fact-filled Ahlgrimm discography, list of chamber music colleagues, publications, and instruments, plus three additional period photographs of the superb artist make this a periodical to cherish. It also reminded me of two important comments from our dear teacher—the first, describing an invitation she had received to perform music on Haydn’s own harpsichord in a Viennese museum: “It was, of course, a great honor, but I would have preferred less honor and a better instrument that did not sound like clacking false teeth!”

The second vignette is my grateful memory of “Ille’s” counsel as I prepared for my first performance as continuo harpsichordist for the recitatives of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation in Salzburg during spring 1959. “Check the ‘Applausus,’” she told me. I had never heard that word before, so she explained that it referred to a letter that Haydn sent to the performers of his cantata of the same name when he was unable to attend its premiere. Comprising ten specific items to observe in the performance, the most important for me at this time was number three, which stated “In the recitatives the instrumentalists should come in immediately after the vocalist has finished, but on no account is the vocalist to be interrupted, even if such a procedure were prescribed in the score.” (For a complete translation, see Karl Geiringer, Haydn—A Creative Life in Music. I note that a third edition, 1982, is one of the options available; my own paperback copy is the second edition [1963].)

Incidentally, I became a lifelong fan of Haydn after the soul-searing conclusion of the first chorus in his Creation oratorio: the quiet recitation, “And God said ‘Let there be light,’” segued into “and there was light”—surely one of the simplest, but most arresting choral/orchestral explosions in all of the oratorio literature! 

Two further volumes of great interest are both by A. Peter Brown. The larger volume is Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Music: Sources and Style, published in 1986 by Indiana University Press. At slightly more than 450 pages, it is the most comprehensive collection of information about its subject. Brown’s second publication, also from Indiana, 1986, is Performing Haydn’s The Creation (Reconstructing the Earliest Renditions), 125 pages.

Also recommended is “Haydn’s Solo Keyboard Music” by Elaine Sisman, published as the eighth chapter of Eighteenth-Century Keyboard Music, edited by Robert L. Marshall as a volume in the Routledge Studies in Musical Genres series, second edition, 2008.

As I draw this column to its conclusion, I share with you a slight possibility that I have recently observed in Haydn’s Sonata No. 60 (Hob. XVI/50 in Volume Three of Christa Landon’s Complete Wiener Urtext Edition, UT 500029). In the first movement of this Sonata in C Major, dating from c. 1794–1795, I note that the indication “open pedal” is printed several times. Landon suggests this might mean “with raised dampers,” and would thus assign the piece to the piano. I wonder if it might refer instead to the harpsichord louvers I mentioned many paragraphs ago? Haydn had experienced several long visits to London by this time . . . . Hmmm. The possibilities continue to expand and excite. Seeking Haydn is a continual exploration, as are the mysteries of his genius and the joys to be found in his many contributions to our keyboard literature. The search for enlightenment never ends; therein lies its beauty.

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