Come-On-A Stan’s House, He Give You Harpsichord
New York—”Better get down to the studio a little early,” said Mitch Miller to Stan Freeman. “We’re going to use a harpsichord.”
So Stan Freeman went to the Columbia studios and cut Come On-A My House with Rosemary Clooney, barely aware that this was the greatest musical event since Little Satchmo, playing in the streets of New Orleans, fired the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. . . .
“Fernando Valenti, a fine harpsichordist who’d loaned his instrument for the session, helped me figure out the seven pedals and two keyboards. You know how he got the harpsichord? He once wrote a tune that Freddy Martin recorded, and had it built to order with the $5,000 royalties he earned from the record.
. . . “I still don’t think I take full advantage of all its uses,” [Freeman] added. He hasn’t taken full advantage of all the publicity, either. To make a guest radio or TV appearance he would have to lay out a $200 harpsichord rental fee.
Local 802 [American Federation of Musicians] lists exactly seven harpsichordists, one of whom lives in Beverly Hills. Of the other six, only Valenti, to Stan’s knowledge, owns his own instrument and is willing to rent it out—“and even he guards it with his life while you’re using it.”
. . . Stan is just about the only competent classical pianist who can run the whole gamut of music. . . . So you see, he has no intention of staying in, or monopolizing, the harpsichord field. And therefore, if you feel an urge to emulate him, all you need to have is $5,000 and talent. Maybe you’ll make some of those guest shots before Stan gets around to them.1
The obvious association of Baroque continuo playing, with its improvised keyboard realizations above a figured bass line, and the improvised licks of the jazz musician using a lead sheet has been pointed out by many writers on the twentieth-century Baroque music revival. Perhaps the first to draw solid correlations was Roger Pryor Dodge. Writing in 1934, he argued that jazz performance was related to the customs of old, especially regarding spontaneity of invention, but he did not go so far as to suggest the introduction of the harpsichord into the contemporary jazz instrumental ensemble.2
In 1940 Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five cut several jazz records for Victor. At the harpsichord was the swing pianist Johnny Guarnieri (born 1917). Titles included “Special Delivery Stomp,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Cross Your Heart,” and “Summit Ridge Drive.”3 Soon after this innovative foray into the jazz world, Mitchell Miller, an oboist familiar with the harpsichord through joint classical recitals with Yella Pessl, was asked by Alec Wilder to think of a new instrumental combination for recordings. The resulting group was the Wilder Octet, with Miller as oboist and Walter Gross at the harpsichord, joined by flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, double bass, and drums. This group made about thirty record sides for Columbia.
The greatest popular surge for the harpsichord came in 1951, however, when Miller, now head of the popular records division at Columbia, engaged Stan Freeman (born 1920) to play the harpsichord in Rosemary Clooney’s blockbuster hit “Come On-A My House” (a song in Armenian dialect by William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian). Inspired by the phenomenal sales of this recording, Freeman made a voiceless version of the same hit, “Come On-A Stan’s House,” scored for harpsichord, guitar, bass, and drums. Other Freeman sides with harpsichord include the Scarlatti-like “My Blue Heaven,” “St. Louis Blues,” and four pieces by Wilder in boogie-woogie style for Mitch Miller, horns, and harpsichord: “Horn Belt Boogie,” “Singing Horns,” “Serenade for Horns,” and “Horns O’Plenty.”4 Freeman was also at the harpsichord when Clooney and Marlene Dietrich recorded “Dot’s Nice—Donna Fight! ” “Good For Nothin’,” “It’s the Same,” and the hilarous “Too Old to Cut the Mustard” for Columbia in 1952.
Two of America’s finest black musicians used harpsichord in significant works: Erroll Garner (1921–1977), following his 1957 European tour, played harpsichord in a recording Paris Impressions for Columbia. It was Mitch Miller who urged him to add the antique instrument to his tonal palette. On 27 March 1958 and again a month later Garner recorded “Don’t Look for Me” and “Cote d’Azur,” accompanied by his regular collaborators Edward Calhoun, bass, and Kelly Martin, percussion.5 In 1965, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899–1974), “for decades a leading figure in big-band jazz [who] remains the most significant composer of the genre,”6 was added to an extrardinary group of composers commissioned to write for the harpsichord by the Swiss patron Antoinette Vischer (1909–1973). His contribution, A Single Petal of a Rose, is actually from his 1957 composition Queen’s Suite, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
The connection between the Swiss harpsichordist and the American musician was effected by Newport Jazz Festival promoter Charles McWorther:
Madame Vischer is an outstanding harpsichord artist and is greatly interested in reviving the harpsichord as a modern musical instrument. She has commissioned special compositions by a great many of the best modern composers such as Stockhausen, Martinů, Berio, Messiaen7 and Lieberman. These pieces, usually of two or three minutes in length, have been performed and recorded by Madame Vischer. Madame Vischer also happens to be interested in jazz and is an admirer of Duke Ellington. She would like him to write a piece in his own style for the harpsichord. Ellington would be free to write anything he wishes. He would merely dedicate the composition to Madame Vischer and give her the right to the first performance and recording. He would retain all ownership rights in the composition. . . .8
In the notes to her Wergo recording of A Single Petal of a Rose9 Vischer described her reaction upon receiving the score: “At Christmas 1965 I received the usual volume of New Year’s greetings, among which was a large envelope from New York. . . . [There followed] a shriek of excitement—it was a piece from Duke Ellington. . . .”10 There is some question as to the actual dedication to Vischer; the three-page manuscript bears the autograph “To Antoinette Vischer—Thanx for a good performance. Good Wishes, Duke Ellington.” Extremely pianistic in its arpeggiations and sustaining-pedal effects, the work must be “realized” for any sort of adequate performance.11
All this attention to a “grand old lady” of an instrument from the spunky youth-oriented jazz musicians did not seem strange to some classical players. Sylvia Marlowe, herself adept at swing, expressed her approval at the instrument’s use in all styles of music, including boogie-woogie. Marlowe claimed that
one of her chosen instrument’s most attractive features is the opportunity it offers the player to improvise within the scope of the written music. So many combinations of stops and registers are available to the harpsichordist that two musicians will play the same work note for note and make it sound like two different compositions. Jazz enthusiasts who have always criticized the restrictive nature of classical music will be interested in this flexibility, which offers the musician an opportunity to add his personal touch to the touch of the composer.
Miss Marlowe feels that the harpsichord’s plucking action makes it perfectly suited to the needs of modern composers. . . . The prospect of a harpsichord on the stage of New York’s Paramount Theatre taking a few hot licks with a dance band does not seem at all ludicrous to her.12
Not only harpsichords with pedals were heard in the popular repertoire. A William Dowd instrument of classic design was the choice for Donald Angle’s wide-ranging records Don Angle, Harpsichord; New Angle on Harpsichord; and Another Angle on Harpsichord, on which such favorites as Limehouse Blues, Gershwin’s Summertime and the Beatles’ hit A Hard Day’s Night were heard.13
Pedals of another variety were the feature of several albums by America’s leading recording artist of the classical organ, E. Power Biggs (1906–1977). Enamored of his John Challis pedal harpsichord, Biggs recorded some of his favorite Bach pieces on this instrument. His second offering was a hilarious romp through the most unlikely of literatures:
The harpsichord is a classic instrument, but the music I have recorded here is largely Romantic and partly modern. Yet, all seems to go together, and some “improbable” pieces by Beethoven, Brahms, Falla, et al, appear perfectly suited to the joyful nature of the harpsichord. . . .
Turn about is fair play, and, for an organist turned slightly harpsichordist, to conduct a raid into such music is mere justice, considering that for a century, from Liszt and Busoni on, pianists—as well as orchestral conductors—have raided the organ literature for some of its ripest plums. . . .
So—here’s Holiday for Harpsichord, or Harpsichord Heresy, call it what you will! I hope you’ll enjoy it every bit as much as I enjoyed recording it.14
Biggs retreated (re-treaded?) to Bach, recording the Six Trio Sonatas at the pedal harpsichord in 1967, but it was back to the lighter side for two albums of ragtime by Scott Joplin, issued in 1973 and 1975:
Ragtime—baroque sounds. Music of the saloon, on the instrument of the salon. Music from the high era of classic American ragtime, performed on the oldest and most courtly of keyboard instruments. Somehow—it all goes together, in a suitably elegant and somewhat irreverent manner!
. . . In this . . . music, romantic or ragtime, with its ranging bass and constant zigzag motion of the left hand, one gives the bass to the pedals, playing in detached or sustained manner as the music requires, while the left hand does its usual duty with the off-beat chords. Used in this non-contrapuntal way, the pedals become the equivalent of the sustaining pedal of the piano, and the absence of a sustaining pedal on the harpsichord—on all harpsichords—is overcome.15
Biggs was not the first to record Scott Joplin’s music on harpsichord. Two discs had already been cut in California by the Los Angeles artist William Neil Roberts, a student of Alice Ehlers. Roberts managed this music using only the manuals of the harpsichord.16 Others had preceded Biggs with recordings at the pedal harpsichord. Bruce Prince-Joseph (born 1925) made a splendid record of Bach, Vivaldi-Bach, and Mozart on a huge Neupert pedal harpsichord in the 1950s.17 And he was the first to play harpsichord at a national convention of the American Guild of Organists, in San Francisco, on 3 July 1952. On his program (which also included organ works) he performed Sonata in D major of Haydn, Fantasia in C minor of Bach, and compositions by Byrd, Handel, Lully, and Mozart.
The harpsichord continued to be heard at AGO conventions: Egbert Ennulat played ensemble and solo works in Atlanta in 1966; Isolde Ahlgrimm gave highly successful recitals at the Denver Convention of 1968; Larry Palmer played Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue and chamber works by Trimble and Rieti in Dallas in 197218 and gave a program with orchestra in Minneapolis for the 1980 gathering;19 and Gustav Leonhardt was a featured artist at the Cleveland Convention in 1974.
DO IT YOURSELF: THE UBIQUITOUS KIT
For an instrument we used to think had been killed off in the eighteenth century by the modern piano, the harpsichord is showing startling signs of life. It is not only back with a resounding tinkle, it is all over the place. . . .
. . . Some 3,000 harpsichords were imported from Europe last year , and our few domestic craftsmen are swamped. Saturday Review regularly carries harpsichords-for-sale advertisements. And, believe it or not, Build-It-Yourself Harpsichord Kits sell briskly for $150 and up. 20
The shape of things to come had been presaged by the publication in 1954 of a forty-two-page book, How to Build a Baroque Concert Harpsichord.21 Following some words of thanks to builders Hubbard and Dowd, twenty drawings showed a general layout for an instrument, a keyboard side elevation, the layout of the keyboard, and other design features.
The prime mover of the “do-it-yourself’ phenomenon in harpsichord-building was not one of the established front-runners of the craft, but an ex-piano technician from Berlin, Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann (born 1922), better known as “Wally.” Zuckermann built his first instrument in 1954 after looking at an antique Italian harpsichord and a modern instrument by Dolmetsch. For simplicity’s sake Zuckermann eliminated the curve in the bentside of his instrument, resulting in a “straight bentside,” an oddity that remained the most obvious design feature of Zuckermann harpsichords for some years.
A second harpsichord, a two-line classified advertisement in the New York Times, five orders, and a visit from Sylvia Marlowe occurred in rapid succession. After a disastrous fire destroyed his shop in 1958, Zuckermann went into a new workshop, which reached full production in 1960. Having made about seventy instruments by this time, he calculated the number of service calls that might be necessary in the next few years and tried to devise ways of avoiding this potential service commitment. He “realized that most people approach a harpsichord with caution, the way they do a vicious dog, [and] decided that the only way they might lose their fear of harpsichord maintenance was to go through the process of building the instrument for themselves.”22
A collection of pre-cut parts and directions for assembling cost $150, rather than $800 for a finished instrument from the Zuckermann shop. The price was maintained for quite some time as mass production and design simplification offset the escalating cost of materials.
The kit harpsichord is the very same instrument which we have been making here in the shop for the last seven years. We have built instruments for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Columbia University, New York University, the New York City Center, Columbia Records, numerous churches and performing groups, and countless individuals, both professionals and amateurs. They have been used in innumerable concerts, recitals and recordings in the New York area. Individuals who have made their own harpsichords using this kit include college professors, doctors, students, ministers, artists, advertising men, and professional musicians. Some of them have already used their own harpsichords in concerts and recordings.
The instrument itself is simple, though versatile, and the design is essentially classical. Modern materials such as plywood are used, but were adopted only after the most careful experimentation. The instrument has one keyboard ranging from A to F (4 ¾ octaves) and one set of strings. There are two stops, one enabling the player to go from loud to soft and vice versa, and one which produces a harp or lute effect. With the two stops four combinations of sound can be achieved.
The volume of this harpsichord is surprisingly good. It can be heard in large halls, and it cuts through even a large ensemble of other instruments. It is ideal as a practice instrument for the student, a “continuo” instrument for the accompaniment of baroque ensembles, and an all around delight for the musical amateur or professional.23
The time required to build this intrument was estimated at four to twelve weeks of spare time work, or 100-150 hours.
The popularity of this offering led to a production of 1,600 kits a year. By 1969, the year of publication for Zuckermann’s book The Modern Harpsichord, some 10,000 of his kits had been sold. Of course, not everything turned out right:
If anyone had been around when Claude Jean Chiasson recently sat down to play the harpsichord, they probably wouldn’t have laughed. They would have howled.
“I touched the keys,” Mr. Chiasson recalls, “and the tail fell right on the floor.”
For the great majority of Americans who know nothing whatsoever about harpsichord nomenclature, an explanation is in order. To wit: a harpsichord’s tail is the short wooden piece of the instrument’s rim that is at the opposite end from the keyboard. And, more importantly, if a harpsichord is at all well built, the tail doesn’t clatter to the floor when the keys are touched.
But all harpsichords aren’t well built these days. The reason is that there’s a sort of mild mania taking place in certain circles, musical and otherwise, involving do-it-yourself harpsichord kits. For example, and for those who like statistics to document trends, consider the fact that Zuckermann Harpsichords Inc. of New York City, acknowledged to be the largest harpsichord-kit maker in the world, last year  sold 2,500 kits in the U.S. and 1,500 abroad, compared with 2,000 kits in the U.S. and only a handful abroad in 1972.
One might also consider the fact that the aforementioned Claude Jean Chiasson, who builds harpsichords from scratch (rather than from kits)—and builds them well—says he has recently spent time rebuilding three do-it-yourself harpsichords brought to him by three disillusioned kit purchasers. One of the three had the unfortunate falling tail. “You need a certain cabinet making talent to satisfactorily complete a kit,” says Mr. Chiasson, who lives in Fairfield, N.J. and whose talents also include teaching and playing both the harpsichord and the piano.24
Frank Hubbard offered a more sophisticated kit, available in either single or double-manual versions. By 1974 his kit sales had reached about 200 a year, measured against 5,000 inquiries generated by advertisements in such popular journals as Saturday Review, The New Republic, Scientific American, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, the recently founded Early Music, and The Harpsichord. Hubbard’s prices ranged from $600 to about $2,700, depending on the amount of finishing already accomplished, but the average expenditure ran about $1,500. Hubbard’s directions amounted to 103 pages plus a fourteen-page preface, a seven-page glossary, and twenty-four diagrams—not a document to be taken lightly.25 A third source for harpsichord kits was the William Herbert Burton firm of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Was this phenomenon similar to the growth of the Arts and Crafts movement in England at the end of the nineteenth century? Did the do-it-yourself explosion foster a new generation of Dolmetsches? The number of new professional harpsichord makers whose early (and often, subsequent) instruments were built from kits has been legion. So, in that sense, the question must be answered in the affirmative.
The constant expansion of recorded harpsichord music, both in an increasingly esoteric survey of the repertoire from its own period and in newer popular combinations with a greater mass appeal, certainly consolidated the instrument’s place. But the sheer numbers of the kit instruments to be found throughout the land—in symphony halls, colleges and universities, churches, schools, and, most of all, in homes—made it official that the harpsichord was a heavyweight contender in the musical arena. “People felt they had been missing something in music,” Ralph Kirkpatrick observed. “We appreciate our thick tonal carpets, like Wagner, but we don’t want to walk on them all the time.”26 The leaner, tonally more-diet-conscious “queen of instruments” had entered the mass market in a way that none of the harpsichord pioneers could ever have envisioned.