A tribute to Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (October 7, 1929–July 11, 2017)

February 28, 2018


Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini—organist, harpsichordist, musicologist, teacher, and composer—died July 11, 2017, in Bologna, Italy. Born October 7, 1929, in Bologna, he studied, organ, piano, and composition at the conservatory in Bologna, and later studied organ with Marcel Dupré at the conservatory in Paris, France. He graduated from the university at Padua in 1951, and then taught at universities and conservatories in Bologna, Bolzano, and Parma in Italy, and Fribourg in Switzerland. Tagliavini was a guest instructor at various universities and presented recitals and lectures for several chapters of the American Guild of Organists throughout the United States. He regularly taught organ courses at Haarlem, the Netherlands, and at Pistoia, Italy. He served as organist of the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna, sharing duties with Liuwe Tamminga. With Renato Lunelli, he founded the journal L’organo in 1960. An active performer, he presented recitals throughout Europe and the United States. Tagliavini was a recognized authority in historical performance practice for the Baroque organ and harpsichord, and was a strong supporter of the historic organ movement in Italy. A prolific recording artist, earning several awards for his LP and CD discs, he was awarded several honorary degrees, including a doctorate in music from the University of Edinburgh and a doctorate in sacred music from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. As a musicologist, he published numerous papers and edited critical editions of music.


Editor’s note: the staff of The Diapason invited Susan Ferré to assemble some remembrances of Maestro Tagliavini. What follows are remembrances from Ferré, Marc Vanscheeuwijck, Bruce Dickey, Etienne Darbellay, and Margaret Irwin-Brandon.


It was during a long bus trip to see organs with Maestro Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini that we became friends. He was not obliged to sit beside me. Making sure I boarded the bus first gave him the opportunity of sitting somewhere else. I had interviewed him on public radio, and he knew of my interest in early music and organ restoration. He had read my thesis on Respighi’s organ works and knew of articles I had written on links between Sweelinck and Frescobaldi, through such Neapolitan composers as Giovanni de Macque, Giovanni Maria Trabaci, and Ascanio Mayone, their connections to Antonio de Cabezón, who had traveled to the Netherlands with Prince Phillip, and the numerous questions those links posed, especially concerning the 1635 Frescobaldi Preface.1 We had a lot to discuss, and I was eager to hear his thoughts, which he shared enthusiastically, even with relish. He could have retreated to safety, but instead, engaged fully, listening as intently as he spoke.

During the years I lived off and on in the French Pyrenees (1969–1972), I enjoyed Italian neighbors and friends whose homes I later visited in the Italian mountains. During those visits and traveling to play concerts with Luis de Moura-Castro in Spain and Italy, Maestro Tagliavini took me to play historic organs not yet restored. It was then I met Susan Tattershall, who, with help from Martin Pasi, was busy restoring some of them, much to the delight of Tagliavini. Our paths crossed in Switzerland, in Haarlem, and in Dallas. His passing removed a most brilliant, most informed thinker, and most generous musician from my world. I didn’t know him well, but the loss of this unassuming, humble, gentle, yet wildly virtuosic musician touched me profoundly. It is with joy that I give voice to the following tributes from those who knew him best.

—Susan Ferré

Director, Music in the Great North Woods, www.musicgnw.org

Director, Texas Baroque Ensemble, 1980–2005


I first met Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini in November 1986 at an exhibition at San Giorgio in Poggiale, Bologna, where he was displaying his vast collection of harpsichords and organs for the first time. My next encounter with him was at San Petronio in Bologna, during concerts for the celebration of the church’s patron saint in 1990. Of course, I had also encountered his numerous publications on the history of Baroque music in Bologna while I was working on my dissertation at the University of Ghent and was deeply honored when he agreed to be the external expert reader for my dissertation and defense in 1995. In those years I had also discovered his importance as a scholar in Italian and European musicology, organology, and historical performance practice.

When I was a student in the 1980s, historical performance practice was not considered to be part of “serious” musicology (certainly not in Belgium), which could only be either historical or systematic. Performance questions belonged in the conservatories, not in the university. As a musicologist and Baroque cellist myself, I always needed to have both “sides” inform each other and the idea of being institutionally penalized by seeking a perfect collaboration between musicology and performance practice forced me to look for a job as far away from Europe as Oregon.

Tagliavini managed to be a leading authority as a musicologist and a professional keyboard player—specialized not only in performance practices on organ, harpsichord, spinet, clavichord, and fortepiano, but also in organology and in the preservation and restoration of historical instruments through his collection.

In that sense Tagliavini was probably the most influential figure in my entire career, and he has continued to be so. This influence continues through one of his most eminent and talented students, Liuwe Tamminga, who first became his colleague as an organist in San Petronio, and then the curator of Tagliavini’s collection of instruments when it became a public museum in the former convent of San Colombano in the center of Bologna. Thanks to this collection and my friendship with Liuwe and Ferdinando, I have been able to play such beautiful instruments (his collection is the only one in the world in which every single instrument has been restored in a historically relevant manner), and I have also been able to introduce many of my students from Oregon and from various European conservatories and universities to these sounds of the early modern period and, maybe even more importantly for me as a performing musicologist, to Tagliavini’s approach to musicology and historical performance practice as a scholarly discipline, which fortunately is becoming more mainstream even in European universities. His influence thus continues on both continents, and I am trying to make it happen as far as I can through my own teaching.

—Marc Vanscheeuwijck

Associate Professor of Musicology, Area Head, Musicology and Ethnomusicology

University of Oregon,

School of Music and Dance


I think I must have met Maestro Tagliavini about 40 years ago, soon after my arrival in Basel at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. I remember that he came to give a talk on tuning and temperament, and that I was astonished, not only by his knowledge of the topic, but also by his extraordinary ability to speak German and English, almost without a trace of an accent and always with eloquence and clarity. After I moved to Bologna in 1985 I came to know him much better and came, at his insistence, to call him Ferdinando, an honor I cherished. I have seldom if ever known anyone who carried his erudition (and in his case it was very substantial) with such lightness and modesty. 

I would like to relate two anecdotes that I think give an impression of his character and personality. Both of these stories relate to rehearsals with the wonderful organs of the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, whose renovation he was, of course, instrumental in securing. On one occasion many years ago, I was rehearsing with him for a concert with some pieces for cornetto and one organ. The morning rehearsal was dragging into the early afternoon, and I asked if we could do one more piece before breaking for lunch. He paused for a moment, then said, “Yes, of course, but I will have to call my mother to tell her to hold off tossing the pasta in the water!” I think he was into his 70s at this point.

The other occasion was some six months before he died. He had been very ill in the hospital and then made a sudden miraculous recovery. Enough of a recovery that he was able to participate in a concert at San Petronio with two organs and two cornetti, together with Liuwe Tamminga and Doron Sherwin. I was with the organ played by Tagliavini. Though he was able to play well enough, he did not have the strength to depress the stop levers without climbing down from the bench and putting all of his weight on the lever. That created some remarkably long pauses between sections of the canzona we were playing. Still, I was thrilled that he was able to play the organs he so loved one last time, and I felt enormously privileged to be a part of it.

—Bruce Dickey

Cornettist, Scholar, Professor of cornetto and 17th-century music, Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (1976—2016)

The following is a personal reflection delivered at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) on September 21, 2017, excerpted and translated by Susan Ferré:

Tuesday, July 11, 2017, “Ferdinando has disappeared!” That’s what was announced to me in a pithy email message from Liuwe Tamminga. It was like a return to the ice age. The image as dizzying as the sound of a scaffold falling: now a world without him, an impossible world that rocked silently in the real one. As this was surely the case for many of us, it took me time to understand. Decidedly, I hate the inexorable. Occasionally, time, a matter essential to the musician, an engine full of promise, now raw, delivers us dirty tricks, chilling, unacceptable, engaging mercilessly on a path without return. It was not only as announced by our friend Liuwe Tamminga the collapse of an entire library, but even more, it was the final disappearance of a point of fundamental support for the evolving science and art of music, an emulator without precedent, for all those who, like me, had the great good fortune to know him. There are circumstances in which we truly learn the opaque meaning of the word “vacuum.”

More than a teacher who would become a master and a friend, Ferdinando was for me a true spiritual father, a support, a reference of wisdom, insight, and intelligence coupled with rare kindness. Always ready to enter into any serious area of knowledge, whether a random encounter or to solve a particular problem, he was at the same time ready to come out with a joke that demonstrated his unfailing sense of humor, which from a natural distance also afforded him his magical freedom in interpretation, both musical and scientific, open to suggestion and to listening.

His tutelage and his inspiring presence accompanied me in all circumstances of my life in the days when, blessed as a young student and apprentice musician, I met him at the University of Fribourg. His influence had convinced me to sign on to the track of musicology rather than physics, with which I was still hesitant. I have never regretted this choice, and this, was because of his presence in the early days, which never wavered in the following ones.

It was here, 50 years ago, seen at the top of the stairs, with a firm footing, he would head toward a large table on which he posed some music or a book. He would concentrate for a few moments, then, without emphasis or oratorical effect, he would begin to speak on the topic of the day, sometimes with a slight smile and an enigmatic look without a target, which gave us the impression that he was reading in his head. He never stumbled or searched for his words, and in all these various data he was consistently accurate. Throughout his life, he possessed a phenomenal and infallible memory, regardless of the field. What struck me most as a student was his mastery, almost discouraging to his colleagues and students, in all areas of music history and in all languages, including Latin. He would jump without difficulty from the exegesis of a grimoire of the eleventh century to the explanation of a technique of composition in “our” century (the twentieth), or the rapport between the voice of the piano in a song of Schumann opposed to Schubert. Nothing would escape his expertise or encyclopedic knowledge. Recently, I actually saw him in Bologna where, as usual, I went to consult with him about a few issues related to the completion of the edition of the Frescobaldi manuscripts.

Often he demonstrated at the blackboard, very precisely, an idea or a particular mechanism, whether a problem of solemnization or even a calculation of temperament. This last area in which he was incredibly competent (in the image of his friend Patrizio Barbieri) was one of his favorite areas of exploration: at the end of the explanation, the board was covered with numbers, fractions, with values of four or five numbers, which he knew by heart, and which he could infallibly recognize by ear! Often he created a demonstration on a small harpsichord that he himself had brought before class for the occasion, or he would gather us, clustered around the instrument, opening our confused ears.

Noting our notorious incompetence in counterpoint, knowledge of which was indispensable in order to follow his course on any particular writing technique of the Renaissance, he set up a kind of accelerated pro-seminar where he taught us with his usual virtuosity the basics and essential tips, the best courses of “music theory” I have ever had!

The biggest revelation of all—when we were touched by his teaching—was without a doubt, those blessed moments when he rose from his small chair to go to the keyboard—normally one of the big beautiful old Steinways, brown from use. Everything became pure magic. Whether sight reading from any large keyboard or full score (for example a Mahler symphony), he gave us a living example of how to prepare a concert following the rules. His virtuosity, his ease, and his proverbial musical insight were marvels. For example, during a course on Frescobaldi, I discovered this fascinating music­—totally unknown to me­, and with which I became a prisoner—a music that served as a passage between us, a ford over the river of life that separated us until the last months before his death. Having become my preferred subject of study and subsequently an area of specialization, it was this bridge that brought me back constantly to him, after my degree and my PhD, as part of the complete critical edition by the Italian Society of Musicology, an edition for which he was the initiator and, always, the ultimate validating reference. I owe so much to Frescobaldi: it is thanks to Frescobaldi that I stayed in almost permanent contact with Ferdinando, Frescobaldi’s first and most important prophet, both as a performer as well as a musicologist.

He loved teaching, and he loved his students. He spent as much time as he could with them. When he conducted a thesis, I think that none of those who have lived the experience would contradict me in saying that he followed it relentlessly, helping the student in the face of difficulties while reading the work with unfailing attention. For me, it was not only a help, but a pleasure, and major assurance as I walked with my clumsy feet in his most personal garden. I cannot forget to mention that his sympathy for his students almost always brought him to share with them his fondness for fondue. How many times did the fondue at the Café du Midi in the street of Romont (Fribourg) serve as an extremely joyful and festive climax to a semester or a business meeting? Besides, the tradition continued in Geneva, where Ferdinando agreed repeatedly to the thankless task of thesis jury, accepting this burden for many of my students who, even today, are grateful. But the fondue there was not as good . . . .

One of the aspects that characterized Ferdinando the best throughout his life was his taste in riddles—perhaps a form of self-satisfaction in view of his incredible ability to solve them. His students of the 1970s and ’80s remember: be it the Album of the Countess (a nineteenth-century manuscript that he had found, containing if I remember correctly a piece by Liszt and which offered several weeks of hilarious and passionate discussions), or a mysterious inscription between two planks of a newly found old instrument that he had discovered in Italy or elsewhere. Each week he reserved for us the surprises of these little mysteries that he presented with his characteristic smile of satisfaction, that he could still be the one to rule over his new find. With his proverbial passion for antique musical instruments, the organ at the top of the list, these are clearly the different traits of passionate curiosity that led him to establish, almost despite himself, the most important collection in the world of instruments of this type, which he gave to the Foundation Carisbo de Bologna, in order to institute at San Colombano a museum of “living sonic monuments.”  

His immeasurable respect for history and masterpieces of the past rendered him uncompromising in the face of inaccuracies in modern editions of early music. When he was confronted in a modern edition with an inaccuracy due to a colleague, he gave us an informative example without blaming or judging, sometimes even excusing it as a teaching example. His tolerance and kindness were also as proverbial as his mastery without compromise.

In the field of organology, it was the same for thoughtless and reckless restorations of organs or harpsichords. One of his recent battle cries was the problem of successive restorations with the set of choices to which they led. It is the same problem as in the restoration of art: does one scrape the Van Gogh in order to find the Courbet, and then the Courbet to find the Cantarini? The evolution of taste is part of the story: the traces that it leaves on the witnesses, too, are newsworthy, which must be documented. In fact, the ideal situation is the reversibility of any intervention. Ferdinando taught us the vital importance of respect for all who, in history, made history.

Ferdinando was world renowned as an interpreter, even if his audience was unaware of his other talents, which, in the first place, was musicology. We have witnessed many times the enthusiastic way in which young people followed him with lots of gear to record and preserve some exceptional moments, like the amazing concert in Bösingen to inaugurate a restoration of the organ. The exceptional quality of his playing, both in vivacious music and in its technical perfection, always had the same impression on his audience which was to experience one of those exceptional moments of existence that one remembered always, between ecstasy and levitation, of “musical Tiepolo.”

I still think back more than 30 years ago of a concert at San Petronio (Bologna) on two organs, with Tamminga: dazzling, aerial virtuosity played with acrobatic garlands of sixteenth-century Venetian ornamentation, the rhythmic vivacity of which has had no parallel. Not so long ago, he told me the amazing story that just happened to him in Messina where he had inaugurated the restoration of a famous organ. Approaching in a car with a friend, he found himself stuck in the city because of incredible traffic. He then said to his friend in the form of joke. “It is because of my concert!” And the last straw was that it was true! It almost didn’t happen, as they had to clear a passage for him in a crowd estimated by newspapers the next day to be about 5,000 people. As the maximum that the church could hold was about 400–500 people, he had to give the concert two more times in the following days to satisfy the frustrated audience.

Thanks to him, therefore, I discovered the organ, its stylistic peculiarities so differentiated in its creation according to Italian or Nordic styles. This is true for the harpsichord in its extreme refinements. Ferdinando also gave us several organology classes dedicated to his chosen instruments, their construction, their sound principles, and their history.

With his disappearance, it is really the first time he leaves us. I have the impression of floating in a world without anchor, disoriented, whose entire grounding has disappeared. This weightlessness confuses me, and the void it digs is called loneliness, a kind of erasure of all landmarks, a general loss of meaning. As with all of those who have had the chance to appreciate him, I will need much courage to continue without him who will remain in our memories and our hearts until we face our own deaths.

­—Etienne Darbellay

Honorary Professor

University of Geneva,



It was 1962 when I first heard the name “Tagliavini”—a name associated with Italian organs and “early” Italian music. He was, I believe, on his first visit to the United States to give a course on playing the music of Frescobaldi. A young woman in our church choir had attended this course and, knowing I was an organist, would speak of nothing else. Six years later I began to understand why, when I attended the Haarlem (Netherlands) Academy for Organists and took the Maestro’s course. This mind- and life-altering experience, three weeks of daily classes, excursions, concerts, and earnest discussions led me to further investigations of the Italian organ landscape—first through participation in a traveling conference of the Gemeindshaft der Deutsche Orgelfreunde, under the guidance of Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, during which we visited mostly antique organs, many of which were still playable but in need of restoration—and finally concluding at the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, where the two now-famous organs (da Prato and Malarmini) face each other across the choir, both restored under his watchful eye.

There has never been a greater evangelist for the Italian organ and its music than Tagliavini. Through his herculean efforts, and in support of the efforts of others, scores of organs now shine as they once did in centuries past. The treasures of musical composition are opened to new eyes, hearts, and minds. But perhaps the most tangible evidence of his passion is to be found in the Museo San Colombano, Tagliavini Collezione, where upwards of 80 keyboard instruments (and a couple dozen various others) are now on display, in playing condition, and open to the public without charge. In October 2017, a convocation dedicated to Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini, “Il cembalo a martelli: da Bartolomeo Cristofori a Giovanni Ferrini” (the harpsichord with hammers: from B. Cristofori to G. Ferrini), was held at San Colombano, with concerts in the museum and in the Basilica of San Petronio, and papers by scholars in the field. It was my honor to be included as a harpsichordist in one of these memorial concerts, one particularly unusual, in that it included ten of his former students and colleagues, in a program that moved chronologically from Frescobaldi, 1615, to Johannes Brahms, op. 118. This breadth of musical composition in no way traced the boundaries of Tagliavini’s interests, but was clear in its meaning. Music. Music, at the center of his life.

Attending the events of this colloquium the maestro’s two brothers, extended family and friends, shared in the legacy that I believe will accompany his memory in years to come—his keen scholarship, illuminating performance, insightful and inspirational teaching, love of life, jokes, puns, frivolity—all evident in his brilliant fulfillment in a life of music.

—Margaret Irwin-Brandon

Founder/Director, Desert Baroque, Southern California; Director Emerita, Arcadia Players Baroque Orchestra, Western Massachusetts;

Originator, Organs of Italy Tours.


1. Preface to Fiori Musicali (1635) and its relation to Il secondo libro di toccate (1627).

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