Students of Ralph Kirkpatrick shared the spotlight with Landowska’s progeny as the next generation of harpsichordists began to make its impression on the concertgoing public. And on others:
Midnights in Manhattan
One day last spring a young (28) Manhattan musician named Fernando Valenti found himself stuck in a customs office in Peru. That big instrument he had with him, said the officials, was undeniably a piano, and therefore subject to import duty. It was not a piano, insisted Valenti; it was a harpsichord. Then and there, the oldtime mechanism of strings and quills was uncrated, and Valenti sat down to play while some 150 people listened. After an hour of music, officialdom was satisfied, and Valenti proceeded on his concert tour. “I have never refused to do anything unusual,” he says, “so long as it is within the bounds of respectability.”
Last week he was nestled in the respectable but unusual surroundings of Manhattan’s Little Club, a dim East Side spot with some Broadway overtones, for a series of Sunday-midnight concerts. Looking a little like a pudgy, scholarly Satan, Harpsichordist Valenti threaded his way among the tables, mounted the platform and affectionately patted the maple-colored instrument. Then he launched into pieces by such 18th century composers as Rameau, Domenico Scarlatti and Bach. The music was brief, gracefully decorated with trills and curlicues, and its precise pinpoints of sound and muffled thunder filled the small room better than they do a larger concert hall. Customers found the music relaxing and, after the strangeness of the first few notes had worn off, a good blend with bourbon or Scotch.
As a direct musical descendant of modern harpsichord greats (he is a pupil of Ralph Kirkpatrick, who is a pupil of Wanda Landowska), Fernando Valenti thinks harpsichordists must play for wider and wider audiences if interest in the instrument is not to die out. He is building a reputation as one of the most imaginative harpsichordists in the U.S., giving some 20 solo recitals a year and lecturing about the music he plays. Valenti has begun a musical marathon: recording all 555 of Scarlatti’s gemlike Sonatas (for Westminster). In the past three years he has completed 72, but half seriously, wonders whether he will ever be able to finish the lot.1
Valenti was born in New York in 1926 of Spanish parents. Piano studies with José and Amparo Iturbi, who were friends of his parents, prepared him for a debut at age nine. Valenti went to Yale University as a history major, but his contact with Ralph Kirkpatrick led him to the harpsichord. “I discovered that I liked to play Bach and Scarlatti better than Liszt. And so I played Bach and Scarlatti,” said Valenti.2 Just how far the harpsichord revival had progressed might be inferred from the fact that there was no question but that Bach and Scarlatti would now be played on the harpsichord.
A concert tour of South America during Valenti’s undergraduate years was so successful that it was repeated by popular demand. Shortly after his graduation Valenti was invited to play in Pablo Casals’s historic first Bach Festival in Prades during the Bach celebratory year of 1950. His New York debut in Town Hall, soon followed. The Times reported that Valenti “played with assurance, with technical expertness and often—as in a group of Scarlatti sonatas—with a romantic ardor that belied the reputation of the harpsichord as a whispering collection of wires and bones.”3 A movie soundtrack, a television appearance, and Poulenc’s incidental music for the run of Jean Giraudoux’s play The Enchanted at New York’s Lyceum Theatre kept Valenti in the public eye (and ears) during the season. In the academic year 1951–52 he became the first harpsichordist to join the faculty of the Juilliard School.
New music for the harpsichord figured in Valenti’s recitals and appearances at this time. Vincent Persichetti’s Sonata for Harpsichord, opus 52, was premiered on 10 January 1952. The three-movement work proved to be wonderfully idiomatic for the instrument, a splendid prelude to the flowering of harpsichord sonatas later composed by Persichetti. Several commentators suggested dubbing him “Domenico,” since no other twentieth-century composer had written so many major works for the instrument.4 The Recitative and Toccata Percossa by Mel Powell was another new work composed for Valenti. Its first hearing was at one of the four midnight concerts in New York’s Little Club, a not unusual venue for Powell, who had made quite a name for himself as a jazz keyboard artist.
Valenti’s claim to marathon status began with the project of recording all the Scarlatti keyboard sonatas for Westminster. The history of this undertaking is best told by the artist himself, a witty and entertaining writer.5
I became involved in this amiable lunacy about two years ago  while in full possession of the knowledge that the "old boy" wrote well in excess of 550 works of this species. My eyes were wide open. I was as sober as any musical masochist ever is, and there was full consent of the will. If since the outset I have occasionally felt like a man who is going on an exclusive diet of Chinese mustard for five years, my friends at Westminster Records have skillfully prevented my temperamentalities from unfavorably affecting the outcome of the project. All through the recently completed recording of more than 1 00 of these Sonatas they seem to have known unfailingly when to scold, cajole, sooth and refresh me, and when to “give me my head!”6
At the outset there was no thought of recording the complete Scarlatti opera, but the favorable reception and excellent sales of the first releases moved Westminster’s vice president to ask:
“Can you give me a dozen more by the end of the month?”
That does it, I thought! Spanish fire came sizzling through the telephone, right in the face of the innocent recording vice-president. What did he think I was, anyway, a small-town super-market with double-keyboards where you could order Scarlatti Sonatas by the dozen as if they were Grade-A eggs? Or by the pound, like jelly-beans at Easter time? I was an artist, a musician, not a musical artesian well! “Well,” he said, in the tone of a man who was wearied of word-mincing, “you can take all the time you want about it, but you might as well get used to the idea that we are going to cover this Scarlatti boy just like a tent. So hang up, stop being such a gas-bag, and start practicing.” I did.7
Critical reaction to Valenti’s Scarlatti was glowing:
Those who think of the harpsichord as a frail instrument, to be stroked by the pale, thin fingers of antiquarians will learn a salutary lesson from Mr. Valenti’s virile, exuberant, and richly sonorous performances. He plays the Sonata in F minor, Longo 475, with intoxicating power. Mr. Valenti emulates Wanda Landowska in thinking of the harpsichord as an heroic as well as a lyric instrument. His registrations are sometimes too rich, and he pounds occasionally, but the fire and intensity of his playing more than compensate for these indiscretions. Every one of these twelve sonatas is a masterpiece, and one can listen to them scores of times without ever tiring of them.8
Even more distinguished approval came from an unimpeachable source:
Shortly after it was tacitly understood between me and Westminster that I would be wallowing in Scarlatti for years to come . . . I had occasion to interview a prospective pupil. His musical credentials were good, his playing excellent and his enthusiasm unbounded, so I decided to accept him. I arrived at this decision in spite of his having confided to me that he was a “spiritist” and benefitted from frequent communications with the “other world.” He assured me that he was on a “first-name” basis with the majority of the Ptolemies and had shared many a chuckle with President Martin Van Buren. After six months of instruction he requested permission to bring a portable tape-recorder to one of our lessons. I tried to be adamant about this but his entreaties were heart-breaking and I am, at best, not very adamant at all. The result was that he brought this little toy to our next meeting, turned it on, and I went through two of the most inhibited and tutorially unsatisfactory hours I have ever experienced in my life.
When the session ended I made the mistake of asking him what he was planning to do with the tapes. He said he was going to play them for his friends. Deeming this a strangely tasteless bit of procedure, I inquired as to the identity of these “friends.” He then explained to me, in a tone as casual as if he were asking to borrow my lawn-mower, that he intended to play the tapes for his good friend Brahms, who, he was sure, would put him in touch with Domenico Scarlatti, who would then pass judgment on my approach to his keyboard music and make manifest either his approval or its opposite. When the student left I thought it might be a good idea to take a cold shower.
A day or so later the pupil telephoned to say (my telephone answering-service is a witness to this in case the reader does not believe the story) that Scarlatti was very pleased indeed with my handling of his Sonatas and would be very much in favor of my going ahead with making recordings of all of them. Thinking this was rather a funny story (“funny” having both meanings here), I told it to some Westminster people at lunch one day. The idea enchanted them. The Scarlatti project became half-music, half-necromancy. There could be no quitting now!9
Matters supernatural (or even infernal) have long been associated with Fernando Valenti: “It has been said that you play with such brilliance and fire that you must be possessed by the Devil. What is your comment to that statement?” asked an interviewer. “The statement is flattering and I accept it as graciously as I can. But with it, I also accept the sometimes intimated criticism that my playing should be more controlled. There is a force that I feel which carries me with it. It comes from the music. And I guess my Spanish blood starts going . . . you know . . . the bull fights and all that.”10
Even the harpsichordist’s Spanish fire could not keep the Westminster project alive to its completion. In 1960, after nearly 300 of the sonatas had been recorded, Westminster ran into financial difficulties. Not only was the recording effort curtailed, but all except three of Valenti’s records were dropped from the catalog. Valenti’s (and Westminster’s) very subjective approach to the project—twelve randomly selected sonatas per disc, without the now-accepted Kirkpatrick pairings (which were only announced at the publication of the Scarlatti biography in 1953, after the recordings had commenced)—made for some adventurous presentations, but this attitude was scarcely designed to create an enduring research document for libraries or scholars. The use of inappropriate instruments—Valenti’s Challis in the United States and whatever German production instruments happened to be available for those discs recorded in Vienna—also lessened the value of the project. But for a non-specialist’s sheer musical enjoyment, the brilliance, fire, and the Spanish blood infusing Fernando Valenti’s playing could not be faulted.
Valenti’s identification with the Scarlatti repertoire continued throughout his career. He enjoyed opportunities to perform consecutive evenings of sonatas, as, for instance, the week of 26-30 November 1973, when he presented twenty sonatas each evening for five nights at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Utilizing a Zuckermann harpsichord built by David Way, Valenti did not indicate in his program nor did he announce from the stage which works would be included. He just played.
One hundred sonatas in five nights may have been a bit much, even for Valenti. The next year he limited the marathon to three evenings. At this round he announced that he would play some of the Essercizi, a set of thirty pieces published during Scarlatti’s lifetime, for as he noted ruefully, “I’ve got to record them soon and I’d just as soon leave the wrong notes here. There seems to be an abundance of them this evening.” Allen Hughes of the Times noted that there weren’t really that many errors:
Mr. Valenti’s playing has a kind of humanity that begins by attracting listeners’ attention and ends by winning their affection. The interpretations grow out of scholarship but they are not smothered by it. When a passage comes up that he finds particularly appealing, he just leans on it a little to be sure you get the point. One thing he does not do is tell you in advance, or ever, what Scarlatti sonatas he is playing.11
The man who “has probably played more Scarlatti than anyone since Queen Maria Barbara’s teacher”12 had many amusing experiences throughout his active concert career. One of his favorite stories concerns an American woman who telephoned Valenti shortly before a concert to ask if he would play her favorite sonata. She was unable to quote its number, and her efforts to hum it were not very helpful, so Valenti queried, “What key?” “Oh,” she responded, “since you’ve been so helpful and kind, play it in any key you like.”
Of course other harpsichordists of Valenti’s generation were playing concerts and making recordings, among them several other students of Ralph Kirkpatrick: Albert Fuller (born 1926) succeeded Valenti as harpsichord professor at the Julliard School in 1964 and subsequently added harpsichord teaching at Yale (1976–79) to his load. Eiji Hashimoto (born 1931), from Tokyo, is especially noted for his continuation of the Kirkpatrick tradition of providing reliable playing editions of Scarlatti sonatas. He became professor of harpsichord at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1968. Robert Conant (born 1928), professor of harpsichord at Roosevelt University in Chicago, has double interests—in authentic early instruments (he was curator of the Yale Collection, 1961-66) and in contemporary works for the harpsichord (he was harpsichordist for the first recording of Lester Trimble’s evocative chamber work Four Fragments from the Canterbury Tales for Columbia Records)—that represented the path many harpsichordists would pursue in their careers.
Another familiar name to record buyers was that of Joseph Payne (born 1938), who had studied, as a very young fellow, with Landowska and later with Valenti. Payne made many converts to harpsichord music with his blockbuster sets of recordings for Vox and Turnabout Records in the 1960s.
Daniel Pinkham (born 1923), a gifted composer, also concertized as harpsichordist, especially in a violin-harpsichord duo with Robert Brink. His early work with Claude Jean Chiasson and study with Putnam Aldrich and Wanda Landowska13 prepared him well for such a career. For the concerts with Brink several works were commissioned, among them another of Henry Cowell’s “Sets,” Set of Two [movements] for Violin and Harpsichord (1955); and the haiku-like Duet for Violin and Harpsichord, opus 122, by Alan Hovhaness—three short movements lasting three minutes. This work was commissioned on 16 May 1954, composed on 17 May, and premiered two weeks later in Frankfurt, Germany. Pinkham’s own works for harpsichord show a decided neo-classical bent that suits the instrument well. Epitaph “in memoriam Janet Fairbank” (1948) is a retrograde canon (according to the composer, “Immediately apparent to Walter Piston!”). Partita, composed as background music for a documentary film, consists of typical Baroque forms, each movement dedicated to a notable figure in the harpsichord world: “Toccata, Andante, and Fugue” for Melville Smith, “Three Inventions” for Sylvia Kind, “Interlude and Rondo” for Albert Fuller, “Fantasia” for Sylvia Marlow, “Scherzo and Trio” for David Fuller, and “Envoi” for Chiasson. The useful Lessons for Harpsichord, Pinkham’s emulation of Couperin’s L’art de toucher preludes, concentrate on particular technical aspects of harpsichord playing.14
Of all these players, however, Valenti and Sylvia Marlowe remained at the forefront. In 1980, on the occasion of his thirtieth anniversary as a concert harpsichordist, Valenti reminisced: “You know, when I remember ‘way back then, we sort of established people in the field had very much as one of our ambitions to bring the harpsichord back into the mainstream of musical activity. And now I think ‘We did it.’”15