The Plectra Pluckers
The harpsichord boom is concentrated in college towns and big cities. Los Angeles had two 20 years ago (one of them was Sigmund Romberg’s), now there are more than 30. Jose Ferrer and Edie Adams each have one as the newest thing in Hollywood chic. Pamona’s retired English Professor Harlan Smedley, 53, who plays a harpsichord as “a countermeasure to all the tensions and noisiness of the day,” thinks that “you can’t be a pest on a harpsichord.” Most harpsichord buffs are piano players who discovered baroque music on LP’s; once accustomed to the sweet, incisive, brilliant tone of the harpsichord . . . they find its sound mystically satisfying. West Coast Psychologist Bob Johnson, 39, heard his first harpsichord on a recording by Yella Pessl, found, while living in Portland, that he felt “sad and in limbo because there was no harpsichord in 1,000 miles.” He bought two, now holds frequent meetings for fellow harpsichordists at evening sessions in his home.
Professional people are especially harpsichord-prone. Doctors, psychiatrists, teachers and ministers are among the most active amateurs in the New York area. In New Orleans, Attorney Thomas B. Lemann finds himself hard put to explain his own harpsichordia (“Why do you prefer bourbon to Scotch?”), but admits that “there is a simplicity about it” that appeals strongly to his children, who are being raised without any knowledge of the upstart piano. Most harpsichord buffs have a strong proprietary sense. When a New Orleans amateur, Charles Hazlett, lent his harpsichord to touring virtuoso Fernando Valenti, the visitor was amazed. Said Valenti: “It’s almost like lending somebody your wife.”1
The widening scope of harpsichord mania was suggested in this 1960 Time article, and newer stars on the harpsichord horizon were publicized by the magazine as well: “Prince Igor” Kipnis (born 1930) was hailed as the most successful player of his generation at the time of a New York Philharmonic debut in 1975.2 And Anthony Newman (born 1941) was dubbed “Hip Harpsichordist” as he played a Bach program to a sold-out Philharmonic Hall in New York. The audience was “mostly young [and] blue-jeaned,” and Newman had them, “after nearly three hours, cheering for more!”3
Perhaps what the cheering crowd needed was a repeat performance of the longest harpsichord-celebratory event of the century. HPSCHD, pronounced harpsichord, John Cage’s and Lejaren Hiller’s multi-media event created for Antoinette Vischer, was first experienced on 16 May 1969 at the Assembly Hall, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, from 7:30 P.M. until midnight. The music consisted of twentyminute solos for one to seven harpsichords and tapes for one to fifty-two amplified monaural machines, these materials to be used in whole or in part in any combination, with or without interruptions. The players and their instruments made a varied group: David Tudor played an electronic instrument, the Baldwin solid body harpsichord; Antoinette Vischer and Philip Corner played Neupert double-manual instruments; William Brooks, a Challis single; Ronald Peters, a Brueggeman double; Yuji Takahashi, a Dowd double; and Neely Bruce, a double by Hubbard. “In addition to playing his own solo, each harpsichordist is free to play any of the others,” read a note in the program. Some idea of the effect was captured in Time:
Of Dice and Din
John Cage was in his element—chaos. The audience of 7,000 wandered to and fro. . . . Wandering happily right along with them, Cage drank in the beeps, doinks and sputterings coming from loudspeakers spaced along the walls. He gazed serenely at the color-crazy patterns sprayed by rotating slide projectors on the walls and the temporary translucent ceiling. He stared at the NASA space film and the clips from the silent era that flickered on the movie screens.
A student stepped up, handed Cage a book and asked him to autograph it: “In view of what’s going on here tonight, I thought it would be an appropriate place for your signature.” It was a Donald Duck comic book.
. . . Cage patterned six of the harpsichord solos after a 200-year-old romp known as Dice Music. Attributed to Mozart . . . [it] consists of a waltz theme and a set of variations that are determined in a Cage-like manner, by rolling dice.
. . . Meanwhile, some 52 loudspeakers spouted sounds from as many different tape tracks, each confined to a different slice of the octave, each containing from five to fifty-six microtones, each following a pattern programmed by Cage’s collaborator, Composer Lejaren Hiller—and then fed to a computer. “The theme is diversity, abundance and Mozart, as opposed to unity, fixity and Bach,” Cage explained obscurely. “The idea is to fill the hall with sound.”4
For the slightly more traditional ambience of the opera house two prominent composers of the century included harpsichord in major works: Benjamin Britten, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960),5 and Igor Stravinsky, in the masterpiece of his neo-classic period, The Rake’s Progress (1951). In the latter, the harpsichord functions both in its wonted role as recitative accompanist and as sinister accomplice to the chilling card scene in which Nick Shadow loses his competition for Tom Rakewell’s soul.6
Many other composers specified harpsichord in dramatic works, and once in a while the instrument invaded the score of one who did not. In one such reversal, “a harpsichord replaced the piano during the armchair episode [of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges] to underscore the chair’s vintage” in a recording of the work conducted by Andre Previn.7 Other appearances of the harpsichord occurred in motion pictures after its film debut in Wuthering Heights, where it suddenly appeared even though an earlier scene had featured a piano. The harpsichord showed up in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (filmed in 1941 but not released until 1944). In the 1960s series of Agatha Christie-Miss Marple mystery romps starring Margaret Rutherford—Murder She Said, Murder at the Galop, Murder Most Foul, and Murder Ahoy—the harpsichord provides the jaunty signature tune. Tony Richardson’s highly honored Tom Jones (1963) also helped in the subliminal acceptance of plucked-keyboard sounds. Commercials, too, did their part; radio and television spots with a harpsichord background have been heard and seen frequently. In a mass-media exposure a 1985 Dewar’s Profile showed a formal tail-coated image of thirty-nine-year-old harpsichord builder Thomas B. Stevens with instrument, on the back covers of magazines such as The New Yorker.
An expanded interest in the harpsichord resulted in some cases from the post-war European study for young professionals made possible by the American Fulbright Exchange Program. Subsequently academic instruction in harpsichord playing was introduced to many American schools. Oberlin Conservatory’s Fenner Douglass, returned from organ and harpsichord study in Frankfurt, added harpsichord to his teaching. Christopher Bannister, later a professional harpsichord maker, was the school’s first graduate in harpsichord (in 1959). The popularity of harpsichordist Isolde Ahlgrimm’s teaching of Oberlin’s junior class of music students, all of whom, beginning in 1958, were sent abroad for a year at the Salzburg Mozarteum, led to Ahlgrimm’s appointment as guest professor of harpsichord at the Ohio school for the spring semester of 1961. Oberlin’s first fulltime professor of harpsichord was Lisa Goode Crawford, a student of the Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. She was appointed to the position in 1973.
Southern Methodist University in Dallas appointed Leonhardt student James Tallis to begin its graduate program in harpsichord in 1968. After Tallis’s death in 1969 Larry Palmer, a student of both Ahlgrimm and Leonhardt, was hired to continue the program. Between 1970, when the first master’s degree was conferred, and 1986 nearly thirty graduate degrees in harpsichord were granted by the University’s Meadows School of the Arts. SMU confirmed its perception of the impact of the harpsichord revival when it conferred an honorary doctorate on Leonhardt in 1983. The Eastman School of Music entered the field later than many other schools, but the distinguished player Arthur Haas was appointed to its faculty in 1983. Among others who have taught harpsichordists in significant numbers are North-western’s Dorothy Lane, Stanford’s Margaret Fabrizio, the University of Washington’s Carole Terry, Arizona’s John Metz, and Michigan’s Edward Parmentier.
Books about the harpsichord and its music seem to be largely an American contribution. The important pioneering studies, Donald Boalch’s Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840 (1956) and Raymond Russell’s The Harpsichord and Clavichord (1959) were, to be sure, by British authors; but the second edition (1973) of Russell’s study was revised by the American Howard Schott, who also wrote Playing the Harpsichord (1971), one of the most successful instruction books for the instrument. Ruth Nurmi’s A Plain and Easy Introduction to the Harpsichord was published in 1974, the same year that saw Frances Bedford and Robert Conant’s extensive listing of this century’s production of harpsichord music, Twentieth-Century Harpsichord Music: A Classified Catalog. The importance of Frank Hubbard’s 1965 study, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, has already been noted. The only survey of harpsichord making in the twentieth century has been Wolfgang Zuckermann’s The Modern Harpsichord (1969).
The Diapason, an organists’ journal, has included harpsichord news and features in its monthly publication since 1967, when a harpsichord column was initiated under the direction of Phillip Treggor. Since 1969, when Larry Palmer became harpsichord editor, the offerings have been varied, culminating in the July 1979 issue, devoted entirely to the harpsichord in celebration of the centenary of Wanda Landowska’s birth. The American Organist (formerly Music), the offical monthly journal of the American Guild of Organists, has pursued a vigorous publishing schedule of harpsichord features under the direction of Miami’s Frank Cooper, a noted player and collector of instruments.
Harpsichordists have formed regional societies, (e.g., Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society, Midwestern Historical Keyboard Society) that sponsor conferences, conventions, and competitions for young players and composers for the instrument. A biennial Magnum Opus playing competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, celebrates both the large instrument constructed by Keith Hill and the exuberant playing of emerging keyboard artists.
The harpsichord in America presents a thriving panorama because of the people who build it and who play it: people such as Gertrud Roberts in Honolulu, who performed her own compositions on brightly decorated John Challis or Rutkowski and Robinette harpsichords for schoolchildren throughout the islands; Fred Hyde in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who owns Dowd Harpsichord number one; Betty Louise Lumby, whose growing collection of superlative instruments graces Montevallo, Alabama; Willard Martin, the supremely gifted harpsichord maker who builds his exciting instruments in a former Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; George Lucktenberg in Spartanburg, South Carolina, traveling with his “Harpsicart” to play concerts in many locations; or David J. Way, who, after publishing Zuckermann’s book and building his own kit harpsichord, decided to buy the firm, turn it toward the production of instruments of a more historic design, and continue the business of providing ever-improved do-it-yourself instruments for eager consumers. The list goes on. History does not consist only of neat compartmentalized information.
In 1970 John Challis responded to the publication of Zuckermann’s book with these wise words:
If you had told me forty years ago when beginning my career that there would be so many harpsichord builders in this country and in the world, or that there would be such an interest in seventeeth-and eighteenth-century music, I would never have believed it. It was then like lighting a candle in the darkness. How things have changed in forty years!
. . . Little did I know forty years ago what kind of harpsichord I would now be building! Nor do any of these later builders—if they survive—know what they will be building forty years from now! Changing circumstances and new materials have their effect. Each artist must produce in accordance with his talents and ideals—just as each person must live according to his talents and ideals.
There has never been a time in the four centuries of harpsichord making when instruments of such wide variety and consummate skill have been made. There has never been a time when so many harpsichord makers have given their art such complete devotion to their individual ideal. I can understand and admire all of them without ever losing my own ideals, which have not yet and probably never will be completely fulfilled.
Fortunately we live in a country where individualism is allowed and still encouraged. Let us never lose it!8