Harpsichordists Out of Tune
The harpsichord went out when the piano came in. Nobody at the time seemed very sorry: the piano was easier to play, its notes carried further, and it had greater range of tone. But the harpsichord has made a startling comeback—thanks largely to one woman. There has probably been more harpsichord-playing in New York in the past year than any time since the days of George Washington. Last week Manhattan harpsichord fans, a serious-minded lot, could hear either the master herself, stately, 67-year-old Wanda Landowska, or her most successful expupil, Ralph Kirkpatrick.
To the unschooled ear, the harpsichord jangles like a regiment of mice scurrying through a pile of coins. But its connoisseurs find in the harpsichord rarefied and rustling harmonies, comparable to a choir of flutes and mandolins. When Landowska began, nobody was writing harpsichord music; it was a dead art. Composers like Francis Poulenc (her student for a year) and the late Manuel De Falla wrote harpsichord music for her. Said she: “It was a battle, you have no idea what a battle it was, to impose the harpsichord upon the musical world. When I started before 1900, the tradition was not.”
Most of the topflight harpsichordists are Landowska-trained: Switzerland’s Isabel Nef, Italy’s Ruggiero Gerlin, London’s Lucille Wallace, Los Angeles’ Alice Ehlers, Manhattan’s Sylvia Marlowe (who sometimes swings it) and Ralph Kirkpatrick.
Collectors & Cranks. Kirkpatrick, who is now 35, was a sophomore at Harvard when he saw his first harpsichord—a museum piece. When he was graduated (he majored in art history) he went to France, studied at Landowska’s academy at Saint-Leu-le-Foret, gave his first public recital in Berlin in 1933. Today he plays about 70 recitals a season, and is glad to see his audiences spreading beyond the earnest, humorless cultists he once played to. Says he: “Audiences used to be largely record collectors and cranks who also liked folk dancing because it was pure and sexless.”
Kirkpatrick, a bachelor, lives in a tiny Manhattan apartment crowded with two harpsichords, an 18th-century piano, a clavichord and a thousand books. To keep his instruments in tune he seldom turns on the radiator (“My friends stay away in the winter to keep from catching cold”). He plays Bach and Mozart with a hard, dry purity—and sometimes, say critics, with a little too much banging. He long ago broke with Teacher Landowska, whose playing is more showy and dramatic. Says Kirkpatrick starchily: “Landowska is a great artist. But other artists take different ways. It generally means a break.” Wanda Landowska also long ago stopped speaking of Kirkpatrick as her pupil. Says she: “Shall we say, my pupils must be my friends.”1
Ralph Leonard Kirkpatrick (1911–1984) was his generation’s leading exponent of a less-idiosyncratic and flamboyant style of harpsichord playing. He began his progress toward the music page of Time with a decision, during his senior year at Harvard, to devote his life “to the performance of harpsichord and clavichord music in a manner as close as possible to what could be ascertained of the intentions of the composers.”2 He had heard a harpsichord for the first time in 1927 during one of Arthur Whiting’s “Expositions of Chamber Music.” The gift to Harvard in 1929 of a Dolmetsch-Chickering harpsichord provided an instrument on which Kirkpatrick could begin his proposed study. His first public harpsichord recital was presented at Harvard in 1930. A Bach course, requiring musical illustrations, led him to his first complete performance of the Goldberg Variations in 1931. This performance, and one of the Bach D-minor Harpsichord Concerto, had a “fortunate outcome in the award of a travelling fellowship for study in Europe.”3
In chapter 4 we have seen some of Kirkpatrick’s early assessments of Landowska in his “European Journal.” This document, edited shortly before his death for publication as the book Early Years, makes fascinating reading.
In September 1931, my departure for Europe once again continued my reversal of the westward-bound search of my ancestors for the future Promised Land. My Promised Land lay eastward, and in large measure in a past that I was eager to rediscover. My immediate goal was Paris. My principal aims were the recovery of harpsichord and clavichord techniques and of a command of the musical literature and source material relating to the performance of solo and chamber music. My practical goal was harpsichord study with Wanda Landowska, research in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and the filling of many gaps in my basic musicianship through study with Nadia Boulanger.4
Through Boulanger Kirkpatrick met Paul Brunold, the musicologist and incumbent organist of Couperin’s Church of St. Gervais, who gave him an invaluable window on French harpsichord music and original sources. He was especially impressed with Brunold’s eighteenth-century harpsichord, beautifully restored, and possessing a “richness of tone, one of the very best I have ever heard.”5
Kirkpatrick viewed some aspects of his study with Landowska enthusiastically:
This afternoon I went out to St. Leu for one of Landowska’s classes. She gave me some more exercises, perfectly terrific ones. I think she is probably wasting a good deal of my time, but the residuum of gain, particularly in precision and strength, will be worthwhile. I rather dread working on interpretation, because in a good many ways I shall never wish to imitate her, and there is no question of discussion with her. One simply swallows everything without question and regurgitates privately. She wants to keep almost complete control over her pupils in almost every field of activity, in a most useless way. This afternoon I asked her if I could read her copy of the rare “L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin” of Couperin and she said, “Yes, we will go over it paragraph by paragraph.” I shall read it at the Bibliotheque Nationale.6
The Parisian study year continued. Kirkpatrick’s “review” of a harpsichord recital expressed his current manner of thinking about the harpsichord:
In the evening I went to the harpsichord concert of Pauline Aubert. . . . It was in an excellent small hall, and the instrument was a Dolmetsch-Gaveau, possibly the best I have ever heard. In the first number, probably because of nervousness, Mme. Aubert gave what I expected, but after that her playing was positively ravishing. She played Couperin with the most subtle restraint and delicacy, and some Rameau, some French sonatas with flute, one of the Kuhnau Bible Sonatas. Her registration was simple but beautifully chosen and most effective. Her phrasing was sensitive and supple, with ornaments played with a superb grace. Her technic occasionally included some false notes and occasionally one felt a slight lack of vigor in her playing, but her interpretations all possessed a restraint and objectivity that made the fullest effect in a piece after it was finished, a very rare quality in any musician, and admirable for most harpsichord music. . . . When I think of the delicious effects and absolute blending that she obtained from that instrument in playing with the flute, my esteem of the Pleyel sinks even lower. All in all, it was a most inspiring concert.7
In the spring of 1932 Kirkpatrick met Arnold Dolmetsch at the home of Dorothy Swainson, a Dolmetsch pupil then living in Paris. Kirkpatrick noted, “He played the clavichord with an extraordinary variety and beauty of tone color, although marred by lapse of memory and the assertion that there is only one way to play a piece and he can prove why! I think that there will be opportunity for me to learn a great deal at Haslemere this summer, in spite of the crazy people with whom I shall be working!”8
Just before leaving Paris in July, Kirkpatrick had his break with Landowska:
She called me up in her room and went off on a long and embarrassing tirade on the subject of my letter to Mr. Surette [in which Kirkpatrick had expressed his opinions of Landowska and her teaching]. I am sorry I haven’t a record of all the extraordinary things she said, but among them was something like this: “How can you expect to comprehend the mystery and complication of that phenomenon which is Wanda Landowska?” At this point the dog came in and committed an indiscretion!9
Kirkpatrick spent the rest of the summer with the “crazy people” in Haslemere and pursuing his research at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Making his European debut in Germany, he performed the Bach Goldberg Variations again, this time in a concert series under the direction of fellow Landowska-student-colleague Eta Harich-Schneider. The year, 1933; the place, Berlin. During preparations for this event Kirkpatrick played many of the variations on “Bach’s own harpsichord” in the Berlin instrument collection;10 had a lesson with the organist of St. Thomas in Leipzig, Günther Ramin;11 and heard Erwin Bodky play parts of the same work, “making me feel better about my own performances of them!”12 As for the concert,
I was not at all satisfied with my playing, but apparently the evening was a great success. The harpsichord turned out to be a perfect mousetrap of an instrument, and no joy to play. . . . The variations, as I played some of them, sounded like a fantastic, nightmarish, Satanic caricature. . . .
However, I am considerably encouraged by the certainty that I am capable of playing much better than I did, and that in the future I can face the “anstrengend” [exhausting] task of playing forty-five uninterrupted minutes from memory, with more sureness.13
After several months in Berlin, where Harich-Schneider continued to aid Kirkpatrick’s technical progress and to provide a Neupert harpsichord on which to practice, Ralph traveled through northern Germany, eventually visiting the Glaser harpsichord firm in Jena. Here he learned about a vacant professorship in harpsichord at the summer course in the Salzburg Mozarteum. After an extended trip south through Germany and a revelatory time in Italy (where he played his first paid concert, in the library of Bernard Berenson’s villa I Tatti), Kirkpatrick’s “formal” teaching career began in Salzburg in the summer of 1933.
Back home in America the following year, Kirkpatrick played for the first time in New York City. Musical America reported about the April concerts at the New Music School, “Mr. Kirkpatrick displayed not only a keen understanding of the music itself but also a perfect command of the technique of the instrument. A large crowd was present.”14
A more subjective description of these debut concerts was written by Paul Rosenfeld, who, noting that the young player resembled “somebody grinding for a Ph.D. in English in the Yale Graduate school,” commented on Kirkpatrick’s sense of style and his “reverence for [the] music’s quality.”15 In two evening recitals of music by J. S. Bach, Kirkpatrick played both clavichord and harpsichord. The programs included six preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, French Suites in E major and G major, the B-flat major Partita, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and a complete performance of the Goldberg Variations.
For his first professional American concerts Kirkpatrick was dependent on the availability of a harpsichord, as his only personal instrument was the clavichord he had purchased from Arnold Dolmetsch in September 1932. In the autumn of 1934 a group of friends in Boston made it possible for him to buy Busoni’s Dolmetsch-built Chickering harpsichord, then in the possession of Lotta Van Buren. “During these years no one could be found on the entire east coast who was genuinely capable of regulating a harpsichord, and I who had never been a gadgeteer was obliged to become my own harpsichord repair man, often under the most onerous and trying circumstances. Here perhaps may be seen the origin of my profound dislike of the harpsichord.”16
Further travails of travel contributed to Kirkpatrick’s often-underlined dislike of his chosen instrument:
In the days of the Railway Express it was possible to ship an instrument anywhere in the United States where there was a railway station. I found that an itinerary could be worked out in conjunction with the central office. But nevertheless one was constantly telephoning to find out at which transfer point the instrument had been held up. One was never able to practise. It was during these years that I learned that I must be able to go on stage absolutely cold because the harpsichord would have been in a baggage car or in a hall inaccessible to me except for purposes of tuning, and that any real practising had to be done before leaving home. I acquired such a habit of not warming up before a performance that to this day I never do it.17
Kirkpatrick’s recording career began in 1936. Bach’s Italian Concerto was the first release of the newly formed Musicraft Records. Additional albums by Kirkpatrick followed, including a six-record recital of music by Bach and his predecessors. Within a short time Kirkpatrick made his first appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, most important, was given a continuous performing opportunity—a series of approximately fifty concerts in the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, spanning the years 1938-1946. This was enough early American music for Kirkpatrick, who noted that “since 1946 I can hardly have been guilty of playing James Hewitt’s Battle of Trenton more than once or twice.”18
Typical programs from Williamsburg, a set sans America, are these from the last season of Kirkpatrick’s involvement:
In the candlelit ballroom of the colonial Governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, the first of six chamber-music concerts, comprising the ninth annual festival of eighteenth-century music, took place. Ralph Kirkpatrick, noted harpsichordist who has directed these festivals since their inception in 1938, was again the organizing spirit. Two identical series, each of three concerts, were heard this week under the sponsorship of the corporation administering the restored city as part of a program to recreate the colonial capital of two centuries ago. Assisting Mr. Kirkpatrick in the performances were Alexander Schneider, violinist, Daniel Saiden-berg, ’cellist, Mitchell Miller, oboist [later to figure prominently in the popular-music return of the harpsichord], Viola Morris, soprano, and Victoria Anderson, contralto.
The first pair of concerts, on October 14 and 17 , presented sonatas for violin and harpsichord by Corelli and Mozart, the Partita in E Major for violin by Bach, a triple concerto by Couperin, and an early Trio by Joseph Haydn. On October 15 and 18, Viola Morris and Victoria Anderson, known on the concert stage as the “English Duo,” performed duets by Pergolesi, Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, and Couperin, while Ralph Kirkpatrick provided variety with an assortment of harpsichord pieces by Rameau, Domenico Scarlatti, and Couperin. The final pair of concerts, on October 16 and 19, brought music by Veracini, Handel, Mozart, and Rameau for various combinations of instruments.19
Scholarly activities, balanced alongside his concert career, were a constant in Kirkpatrick’s life. His edition of his signature work, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was published by G. Schirmer in 1938. A twenty-eight-page preface presented a polemic for a scholarly interpretation of the work on its intended keyboard instrument. Considerable information about ornamentation was included, and suggested executions of these sometimes-mystifying signs were placed in smaller notes above the original notation. When the voice-leading might be misconstrued, the editor wrote the right-hand part on two staves and placed them above the original also. Kirkpatrick was adamant in his belief that the harpsichord is the appropriate instrument for the performance of the work:
Any thorough examination of the character of the harpsichord is enough, it would seem, to show that Bach, with however much approval he might have regarded the modern piano, would have composed for it altogether differently. By this time it should be universally realized that the keyboard music of Bach is not piano music, and that on the piano it must be regarded as transcription.20
It is touching and illuminating to read the final paragraph of this erudite introduction, especially in view of the importance of the Goldberg Variations in Kirkpatrick’s career:
But for all their lyricism and tragic passion and exuberance, the Aria and the Variations seem of a divine substance entirely refined and purified of anything personal or ignoble, so that in playing them one seems only the unworthy mouthpiece of a higher voice. And even beyond the scope of the emotions that have been aroused, the effect of the whole is one of boundless peace, in which one returns cleansed, renewed, matured to the starting point, which seen a second time seems so transfigured in the light of this traversed spiritual journey. . . .21
Kirkpatrick taught at Bennington College for a brief time, then was appointed to the music faculty of Yale University in 1940. A fellow freshman on the faculty was composer Paul Hindemith. That Kirkpatrick’s teaching was something special even to non-harpsichordists was elegantly attested to by Willie Ruff, eminent French horn player and jazz musician, writing about his first days at Yale:
We found ourselves . . . among an international crowd of music students, drawn to the campus to be near another Yale musician, composer Paul Hindemith. It didn’t take long to learn, however, that the king of the mountain among the school’s performers was Mr. Kirkpatrick. Most notable of all, for me, was that he spent his time being king away from Yale, mostly in Europe. A few of his students—“the harpsichord mafia”—spread rumors that the great man regularly shipped his harpsichord and cutaway off to the continent, then flew over to cover several countries by bicycle while his beloved instrument caught up to him by rail in time for carefully arranged recitals in target cities—cities that had great art on exhibit or, better yet, art for sale. He’d been a much sought-after concertizer, a bike man, and incurable art collector for years already, often trading the proceeds from his recitals for works by Diirer, Delacroix, Daumier, Degas, Cézanne—the best of what appealed to his educated but eclectic eye.
I pressed one of the female members of the clavier mob one day. “Tell me,” I pleaded, “what is all this fuss about this harpsichord man? Why are tickets to his concert being snatched up and reserved even before they are printed? What is he, Art Tatum or somebody?” “My Deaaah!” she said, smiling. “His will be the concert of the season. He’s playing Bach and several of those mah-velous Scarlatti sonatas he recently uncovered in Europe.”
The smile stayed on her face but the amusement vanished. “Take my advice, Dahling, use your student’s privilege and pick up your complimentary ticket today!” I took the lady’s advice and I thank her still, for that evening was the beginning of a series of lessons I was to learn from Kirkpatrick on the function of time in music.22
The war years and those immediately following saw notable continuo performances by Kirkpatrick. Among others were annual performances (1943–45) of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion with the New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter conducting; and many recitals with violinist Alexander Schneider, which led to the recording of most of the repertoire for violin and harpsichord.
Most descriptive of all the contemporary music critics was composer Virgil Thomson, whose comments about a 1940 Bach performance evoke the period in a unique and compelling way:
Bach Goes to Church
Cantata Singers, Arthur Mendel, conductor; complete performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The closer the performing conditions for Sebastian Bach’s concerted music are approximated to those of early eighteenth-century provincial Germany the more that music sounds like twentieth-century American swing. The exactitude with which a minimum time unit is kept unaltered at all times, the persistence of this unit as one of exactly measured length rather than of pulsation, the omnipresence of the harpsichord’s ping, like a brush on a cymbal, the constant employment of wiggly counterpoint and staccato bass, all make it a matter of preference between anachronisms whether one puts it that Bach has gone to town or that some of the more scholarly jitterbugs of the town have wandered into a church.
Last night’s performance of the Christmas Oratorio was full of swing and gusto. . . . The inexorable rhythm of Mr. Ralph Kirkpatrick’s harpsichord continuo sustained the whole with a vigor and a brightness rarely encountered these days. . . . 23
In 1947, during his first post-war European tour, Kirkpatrick located Domenico Scarlatti’s descendants by consulting the Madrid telephone book. His monograph on Scarlatti (published in 1953) occupied him for more than a decade, and as this book neared publication Scarlatti’s music figured ever more prominently in his concerts.
Kirkpatrick’s Town Hall recitals received these typically favorable reviews:
January 23, 1949: Bach, Goldberg Variations and ten Scarlatti sonatas: Kirkpatrick played this set with complete fluency—including an admirable freedom in his left hand—and with perhaps greater variety in registration than he previously has essayed. It was a performance in the best of taste, completely masculine in concept, with none of the finicky approach that looks upon the music as a venerable set of rather dry exercises . . . one of the most satisfactory recitals of the current season.24
January 22, 1952: Bach, Partita in A minor, 12 Little Preludes; Mozart, Sonata in B-flat, K. 570 played on a Challis Mozart piano; six Scarlatti sonatas: This recital by Ralph Kirkpatrick was a superb one, representing a well-nigh perfect synthesis of scholarship, taste, interpretive imagination, and virtuosity. 25
Kirkpatick made a formidable advocate for Domenico Scarlatti; few authors of major musical biographies are also leading players of their subjects’ music. In the same year in which the book appeared, Kirkpatrick issued a selection of sixty Scarlatti sonatas26 in a clean, urtext edition. He proceeded to perform these same sonatas in concert, on the radio, and on records.
Ralph Kirkpatrick, Harpsichordist, Town Hall,
January 20 
As a natural sequel to the recent publication of his book on Domenico Scarlatti . . . Ralph Kirkpatrick is giving a cycle of three Town Hall concerts—of which this was the first—devoted to that master’s keyboard sonatas. In these he is peforming the sixty sonatas he has selected, edited, and renumbered for publication and which have just been made available in a two-volume edition.
The twenty sonatas presented in this opening recital were divided into three groups: Seven early sonatas, five early sonatas, and eight late sonatas. The [K.] numberings are Mr. Kirkpatrick’s.
It was a program that revealed beyond the shadow of a doubt Scarlatti’s amazing and fertile imagination, his creative inventiveness as harmonist and melodist, his uncanny skill in exploiting the harpsichord’s tonal resources to the full, and his full stature as one of the greatest composers of keyboard music who ever lived. His works are as indigenous to the harpsichord as Chopin’s are to the piano. The program served to justify, too, Mr. Kirkpatrick’s contention that a series of Scarlatti recitals can be as revelatory as the Bach, Mozart, and Chopin cycles we now take for granted.
The sonatas presented were unfamiliar ones, no two of which were alike, yet they all bore the stamp of Scarlatti’s unmistakable genius. Nor were the differences between the more mature later sonatas and the earlier ones as apparent to the listening ear as they are to the scanning eye. Nothing like the disparity that exists between the early and later Chopin works was evident in the sonatas played in this recital. One of the seemingly most mature was the early D minor Sonata, K.52, a work of brooding and haunting loveliness and one of the most spellbinding. And if ever a man let the sun shine through his work it was Scarlatti in the bright and cheerful little Sonata in E, K.28, which Mr. Kirkpatrick registered with the brightest four-foot stop at his command, one that had the tinkle of silver bells in it. Whatever the mood, Mr. Kirkpatrick invested each sonata with appropriate colors, some with imitative guitar effects; others, like the solemn G minor Sonata, K.426, were richly suggestive of the organ in the combined use of sixteen-foot, eight-foot, and four-foot stops, and all of them were played with matchless artistry and understanding. Mr. Kirkpatrick is to Scarlatti what de Pachmann was to Chopin—the interpreter par excellence, at one with his instrument and the composer of his choice. 27
Kirkpatrick knew from his research that Scarlatti’s instruments were quite unlike the harpsichords on which he was performing the sonatas. He had discovered that the only instrument on which all of the works could have been performed in Scarlatti’s time was a single-manual Iberian instrument with two 8-foot stops. Thus it is with some poignancy that one reads his description of instruments on which he performed most frequently:
In America I played principally two instruments, the Dolmetsch-Chickering and a Challis. The old Chickering was done in leather with the exception of the upper manual, which was done in quill. . . . Otherwise, the instruments I used during this period were leathered and when John Challis went over my Chickering, leather was substituted in the upper manual [as well].
. . . To keep the 4’ from squealing when the keyboard part went into the upper register, I always kept my foot on the 8’ and 4’ [pedals] (on both the Chickering and the Challis) so as to be able to balance out the 4’, doing a kind of temporary voicing when the 4’ risked becoming too strong. I did a great deal more than is apparent on the recordings of tapering cadences with my foot. . . . The unconscionable and absurd use of 16’ and 4’ in my recordings of 60 Scarlatti sonatas for Columbia was forced on me by the absence on the Challis instrument of an 8’ with a tolerable sound.28
But instruments were coming that would change Kirkpatrick’s playing. The innovations of Hubbard and Dowd, which he espoused enthusiastically, were to alter the American harpsichord scene more radically than did any other event in the first half-century of the revival.
His international career, with Kirkpatrick as America’s harpsichord ambassador, expanded with his appearances throughout the 1950s in Italy, Ireland, Germany (where he began an extensive series of Bach recordings for Deutsche Grammophon), and the Vienna, Edinburgh, and Ansbach festivals. Ever colorful, Kirkpatrick continued to command attention from the press. No event of his well-chronicled career was more surprising than his actions during a tour of South Africa:
The deep desire to beat up a music critic has inflamed many artists, but few ever resort to violence. An exception occurred last week in Johannesburg . . . and to the unlikeliest of men. The eminent American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick is a tranquil artist, known for his scholarly research. But a review from Dora Sowden, 40-year-old music critic of The Rand Daily Mail, the only English-language morning daily in the area, was more than even his placid nature could stand. Kirkpatrick’s Bach and Scarlatti, she wrote, had a “sameness” of approach.
Kirkpatrick, at 46 a specialist in both those masters of the keyboard, reacted as he never had before. At the start of his concert the next night, he demanded that Mrs. Sowden leave the YMCA concert hall. “I can’t play with hostility in the hall,” he said. She refused—and he played. Later, at intermission, Mrs. Sowden’s husband Lewis, The Rand Mail’s drama critic, went backstage and demanded an explanation. Kirkpatrick tried to throw him out of the hall. After ushers had separated them, the harpsichordist finished the concert.
The upshot was that, as might have been expected, Mrs. Sowden had the last word. “Kirkpatrick’s show of temper did him good,” she wrote. “He was much better in the second half.”29