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Archive for March, 2013

Bartolomeo Cristofori (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Bartolomeo Cristofori (Wikimedia Commons)

From the Middle Ages, Italy’s Medici family was a magnet for artists and artisans, who created extraordinary works under the family’s generous patronage. In 1688, Florence’s Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici hired Bartolomeo Cristofori, then 33 years old, to look after his collection of harpsichords. This was an important position: Cristofori was paid as much as any court musician.

The harpsichord of Cristofori’s time was a well developed instrument, responsive and flexible. But it lacked one feature: variable dynamics. The harpsichord’s mechanism plucked the strings of the instrument. There was no practical way (then) to make it pluck them more gently. The only way to vary volume was to change stops or combine manuals. The possibilities for dynamic variety were fairly limited.

Cristofori's piano action
Cristofori’s piano action

Some time in the 1690s, Cristofori had a brainstorm. He realized that if he replaced the harpsichord’s plucking mechanism with one which struck the string instead, the force of the strike — and thus the volume of the sound — could be under complete control of the player.

The idea of a keyboard instrument that struck the strings rather than plucking them wasn’t really new. The clavichord had existed since at least the 15th century. A clavichord had tangents fastened to the keys. Instead of controlling jacks and quills which plucked the strings, the tangents themselves struck the strings inside the instrument’s case.

The problem with the clavichord was that while it was capable of extraordinarily sensitive dynamic expression, its volume range was from almost inaudible to barely audible. Let’s face it, the force that a keyboard player can transmit through his or her fingers is limited. The clavichord’s tangents couldn’t strike its strings hard enough to make a sound that could be heard, say, in a church sanctuary. This meant that the clavichord wasn’t suitable for anything other than the most intimate music-making. (It made a magnificent instrument for late-night keyboard practice, however.)

Cristofori solved this problem by adding a mechanical action. It multiplied the player’s string-striking force by four (eight, in his later instruments) and used that force to drive a hammer against the string. He also added an escapement mechanism. The escapement allowed the hammer to fall back after striking the string, so the string would keep vibrating.

Cristofori piano, 1720 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Cristofori piano, 1720
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

(Think of the way a fine crystal goblet rings when you tap it with a spoon — as long as you don’t keep the spoon touching the glass after you tap it.)

Cristofori called his invention arpicimbalo che fa il piano e il forte — harpsichord with soft and loud. Today, we shorten that name a bit. We call it the piano.

Maybe you’re expecting me to say here that Cristofori’s piano "took Europe by storm" (or some similar cliche’!) and almost immediately eclipsed the harpsichord.

That didn’t happen. Truth to tell, keyboard players didn’t like the touch. The Florentine piano was harder to play, and the keys just didn’t feel right when pressed. They didn’t like the tone, either; it was too soft, too muffled. Besides, who really needed that much variety in volume anyway?

It would remain for later piano makers to solve these problems. But Cristofori had begun the process of breaking the harpsichord’s lock on public keyboard performance. It’s not hard to imagine that without the financial and moral support of the Medici family, Cristofori probably couldn’t have pushed keyboard technology ahead — but that’s another story for another day.

Domenico Scarlatti (Wikimedia Commons)
Domenico Scarlatti
(Wikimedia Commons)

Now back to 1700, and over to Naples. That’s when and where Domenico Scarlatti, one more musical member of a hugely talented musical family, was named organist and composer of the Royal Chapel. He was even granted a special additional salary for his work as chamber harpsichordist.

Domenico Scarlatti was only 15 years old.

Two years later, Scarlatti and his father Alessandro made the first of two visits to Florence. Their host was none other than Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, Cristofori’s patron. Did Domenico play one or more of Cristofori’s Florentine pianos on these visits? Perhaps. History doesn’t tell us. So far no documentation has surfaced — no letters home raving about (or excoriating!) the new-fangled instrument, no eyewitness reports, no newspaper articles.

By 1708, Domenico had joined his father in Rome. There he attended the weekly concerts originated by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. In 1709, Prince Ferdinando sent the Cardinal a lavish gift from Florence: one of Cristofori’s pianos. Did Scarlatti play or hear that instrument? Again, history doesn’t tell us.

Infanta Maria Barbara  (geneall.net)
Infanta Maria Barbara (geneall.net)

In 1719, Scarlatti left Rome, ostensibly for England. In actuality, he was on his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he had a job offer — he was to be master of the Royal Chapel there. In Lisbon he encountered an exceptionally talented royal youngster — the infanta Maria Barbara, who, as a contemporary report said, “Surprise[ed] the amazed intelligence of the most excellent Professors with her Mastery of Singing, Playing and Composition.”

In January of 1729, Maria Barbara married Ferdinando, the Spanish infante. It was a rather uncomfortable union whose purpose was entirely political. Maria Barbara soon found herself in the hostile company of the jealous Queen Isabella of Spain. Isabella even refused to allow Maria Barbara to bring along her personal servants — all but one, that is: her music teacher, Domenico Scarlatti. During the remaining 28 years of his life, Scarlatti composed and catalogued over 550 keyboard exercises for Maria Barbara — from 1746, queen of Spain.

Scarlatti and the Florentine piano are linked (if only circumstantially) at several other times and places, but what’s undeniable is that Maria Barbara herself was a point of intersection.

Maria Barbara owned pianos. We know this because she died just over a year after Scarlatti did, and at her death, her instruments were inventoried. Of her dozen (!) keyboard instruments, three were pianos, and two more were harpsichords which had been converted from pianos (perhaps because their actions failed, or because they were judged unsatisfactory as pianos). It thus becomes rather difficult to deny that Scarlatti was acquainted with the piano.

But did he play them? Did he intend for Maria Barbara to play his sonatas on them?

Ralph Kirkpatrick (bach_cantatas.com)
Ralph Kirkpatrick
(bach_cantatas.com)

Ralph Kirkpatrick didn’t think so. Kirkpatrick was an American harpsichordist (1911 – 1984). He had a distinguised career as a performer, but his magnum opus was his biography of Domenico Scarlatti. It occupied him for 16 years, from 1937 to 1953. When it came to Scarlatti’s sonatas, Kirkpatrick’s views in that 1953 publication were enormously influential, guiding the performance practice of a generation of historically-oriented keyboard musicians.

Kirkpatrick pointed out that 73 of Scarlatti’s 550-some sonatas required more keys than the queen’s pianos had. This is pretty hard to argue with! It seems very unlikely that either Maria Barbara or Scarlatti played those 73 sonatas on any of the pianos to which they had known access. That’s a carefully qualified statement, but it’s about as definitive as we can really get in this discussion.

Kirkpatrick thought that was sufficient evidence to declare that Scarlatti probably had the harpsichord in mind for playing all of his sonatas. There is more to his argument, but it’s mostly conjectural, related to what he saw as the musical suitability of the piano of the time to the sonatas. What else can one do without definitive surviving documentation?

But from 1970, other historically-oriented musicologists and performers began to question Kirkpatrick’s assessment. Their re-evaluation of the evidence, sketchy as it was and is, led to harpsichord maker David Sutherland’s 1995 article in Early Music magazine, “Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano.”

Sutherland argued that, in making his recommendation, Kirkpatrick should have given more weight to the circumstantial evidence connecting Scarlatti and the early Florentine piano. Sutherland also questioned Kirkpatrick’s judgement of the Florentine piano as unsuited to Scarlatti’s sonatas, but in all honesty it’s difficult to see Sutherland’s view of this matter as any less subjective than Kirkpatrick’s. Finally, he took issue with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the piano was mostly used at court for accompanying singers. Sutherland’s evidence here seems about as persuasive as Kirkpatrick’s. Stalemate.

Who’s right? I don’t know.

Keyboard isn’t my instrument, so maybe I’m able to view this whole discussion with a bit of detachment. We’ve invested over 70 years in poring over what little documentation exists (reckoning from when Kirkpatrick began his research for Domenico Scarlatti). We have more informed opinions than ever (and thank goodness for that), but informed as they are, they’re still opinions. We don’t have a definitive answer as to whether Scarlatti intended his sonatas for the harpsichord or the piano. Perhaps he intended some of them for one and some for the other, but we have no way of knowing that. If he did, the 73 I mentioned before are the only ones which we currently have much hope of assigning. Actually, we don’t know whether Scarlatti even cared which instrument they were played on. We may never know. There just isn’t enough evidence to say.

Meanwhile, players of the modern piano, from Dame Myra Hess to Vladimir Horowitz — and countless others since — have never stopped playing Scarlatti. Why should they? For them, I suspect that the question of what instrument Scarlatti had played was pretty much academic. His music worked for them on their chosen instrument. They gave Scarlatti a voice, and also found their own expressive nuances in the sonatas. Audiences loved it. I imagine that was enough for them.

What I do know is that I’ve heard successful and musically enlightening performances of Scarlatti sonatas on harpsichords, Florentine pianos, and modern pianos. But don’t take my word for it; compare for yourself. Here are three short clips from Scarlatti’s Sonata in f minor, K519 — played on modern piano, a reproduction of Cristofori’s Florentine piano, and harpsichord.

Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on modern piano (Beatrice Long)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on Florentine piano (David Schrader)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on harpsichord (Colin Tilney)

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I’ve also heard some pretty good Scarlatti on other instruments, including harp and guitar. His music seems to suit many different instruments, and I for one am glad that one more avenue of timbre and style has opened up for interpreting Scarlatti sonatas.

Further reading:

Domenico Scarlatti. Ralph Kirkpatrick, 1953 (1983 revision).

Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano. David Sutherland, Early Music, 1995 (Note: JSTOR access is required to read this article. A public-access computer associated with a university or library will usually connect immediately, but most home or business computers will not.)

A Florentine Piano c.1730 for Early Piano Music. Denzil Wraight.

Domenico Scarlatti, a brief biography. Chris Whent, Here of a Sunday Morning, WBAI, New York.

Cristofori, Inventor of the Piano. Roy E. Howard, Cantos Para Todos.

This article was originally published in WKSU Classical on 17 July 2008.

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No Music Degree Required

As with every kind of music, the more you know about classical music, the more you enjoy listening. As your understanding deepens, it touches you at more levels. But let’s get one thing straight: you don’t need a music degree to love it.

I’m all for formal education. That image to the left doesn’t really mean "Don’t get your degree." A better understanding of music can certainly arrive on that train, but there are other ways too.

Start with concert program notes and CD liner notes. (Think twice about buying music downloads unless they’re offered with PDF files of the notes.) Pre-concert lectures are a fine source, too. Don’t forget that you get a little dose of musical information with every WKSU classical program.

Should you ever want to get a little more serious about building your music appreciation, your local librarian is a fine guide. You can also dig into that infamous library with its books scattered across the floor, the Internet, but there you’ll have to be your own librarian.

Wikipedia is one obvious source, but your favorite search engine will turn up many, many others, from online PDFs of orchestras’ programs to hobbyist sites run by folks who just love a composer, style, or period. Classical Archives offers brief but usually enlightening notes on an immense range of classical works. One of my longtime favorites for early music is the website Chris Whent runs in connection with his WBAI program, Here of a Sunday Morning. That’s just scratching the surface.

Looking for something more general? Leonard Bernstein can help. An entire generation learned to love music through Bernstein’s brilliant, accessible guidance.

There’s plenty for adults in Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, originally produced for television from 1958 to 1972. What’s a melody? What does music mean? What makes music symphonic? What’s a mode? What’s sonata form? Bernstein gave the answers in language anyone can understand. About half of his presentations are available on DVDs (see Further Exploration, below).

Bernstein dug deeper in his 1972 Norton Lectures. He named the series The Unanswered Question, after a work by the American composer Charles Ives. The 6 lectures were released on LPs around 4 decades ago. You can buy them on DVD now, or see them for free on Youtube. (Check the Further Exploration section.)

If you’d prefer a more modern medium, maybe you’d like a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). It’s much like attending class, but on your schedule, not the prof’s. Class discussion is via blogs, forums, and/or social media.

From 1 April this year (2013), Carnegie Hall is offering an MOOC on orchestral music. In four online classes, you’ll learn how music directors decide what should go into a program, what makes a good orchestra good, what makes great music great, and what to listen for when you go to a concert. It’s free, but registration is required.

If you’re really serious and want a far more comprehensive (and still more formal) way to develop your music chops, consider Yale’s MUSI 112 Open Course.

MUSI 112 is a total of 23 (!) online lectures. It starts you off with the fundamentals of music – rhythm, melody, harmony, and form – then it crosses the classical lines into jazz, blues, rock, and Gregorian chant. You’ll learn how Pachelbel and Elton John used ostinato, get a taste of Mozart opera and piano music, see how symphonies grew from Beethoven’s time to Shostakovich’s and Mahler’s, and dig into Impressionism.

The Yale course is free, with no registration required, but they suggest that you buy the prof’s textbook.


Further Exploration:

Classical Archives

Here of a Sunday Morning from WBAI New York

Listening to Orchestras from Carnegie Hall

MUSI 112: Listening to Music with Prof Craig Wright from Yale University

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts on DVDs

The Unanswered Question: Leonard Bernstein’s 1972 Norton Lectures

DVD

Book

Via Youtube:

Musical Phonology

Musical Syntax

Musical Semantics

The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity

The 20th Century Crisis

The Poetry of Earth


Disclaimer: WKSU receives no financial advantage from your use of any for-profit vendor(s) cited in this message. Recordings are available from a variety of sources, both local and online. Links are provided for your information and convenience. They don’t signify an endorsement.

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Marie-Claire Alain
Marie-Claire Alain
(Elizabeth Pardon)

When I was a hormone-addled adolescent, sheer volume was my intoxicant of choice. But while my mates were piping The Doors and Mott the Hoople into their glassy-eyed heads, I had my headphones wired to Beethoven and Bach.

Not just any Bach would do, though. My eyes glowed from within at the decibel deluge dispensed by Virgil Fox. Fox was the consummate showman of the organ, playing to brilliant light shows, gleefully inviting rowdy twenty-something rock fans into his "House of Music."

Years went by, the hormones settled down, and I came to appreciate other elements in music beyond the mind-numbing wash of sound. I learned to experience Bach from a more thoughtful perspective. I didn’t abandon VF altogether, but I discovered that other performers had different things – important things – to say about Bach.

From at least my early twenties, the Bach organist I kept returning to was Marie-Claire Alain. I write this today with an overwhelming sadness: I’ve just learned that she’s died at the age of 86. The church where she was organist for 40 years, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, announced last week that she had died in a retirement home near Paris. She had been in declining health since the death of her son Benoît in 2009, and had stopped playing in 2010.

Marie-Claire Alain came from a thoroughly musical family. She said in 1994, "We played Bach virtually every evening, playing on the organ, singing cantatas. Bach was almost a family illness!"

Her father Albert was an organist, composer, and amateur organ builder; her sister Odile, a singer, who tragically died young. Her older brother, Jehan Alain, was a gifted organist and the composer of such extraordinary works as Litanies. Jehan lost his life in the Second World War. Her younger brother, Olivier, became an organist and director of the conservatory in their home town; he died in 1994.

Marie-Claire Alain was born on 10 August 1926 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. Initially, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be an organist: "As everybody at home played the organ, I initially found it boring to become an organist. I wanted to do something else." But when the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, she entered the conservatory there and began studying with Marcel Dupre and Maurice Durufle. She won the Premier Prix four times.

Alain came to love the organ. Although she also played the harpsichord, I’ve only encountered one recording she made with that instrument. In the late 1980s she told an interviewer, "For no other instrument [than organ] do I have an affinity."

Her repertoire ranged from the Baroque to the 20th century. It included Couperin, Vivaldi, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Handel, CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Franck, Liszt and Widor. She also performed Messiaen, Vierne, Poulenc, and the complete works of her brother Jehan Alain.

I expect, though, that it’s for Bach that she’ll be most remembered. Marie-Claire Alain had a sparkle in her life and in her playing that meshed ideally with his music. She was a particular fan of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G, the Great Prelude in E major, and the trio sonatas.

Alain launched her performance career in 1950, just about when organ builders were starting to develop instruments – notably trackers – better suited to the clear textures of Baroque music. Later, it was direct access to organs Bach had played that led her to record and re-record his works: "It’s an extraordinary feeling," she said, "to put your hands on the keyboard, knowing that he was there 250 years before you!"

Marie-Claire Alain never stopped studying Bach, searching history for clues to the informed performance of his music. Thus it is that she was one of only two organists to record the complete works of Bach three times. She told The Organ Magazine, "I learned a quite a bit when I was doing that [first] cycle [in the 1960s], and in the meantime an enormous amount of study into early music was being undertaken, so I recorded the second cycle in 1975-78. I never imagined I’d do a third complete Bach. What happened was that I was allowed access to the organ in Groningen [The Netherlands], which had been newly restored, and I made a recital disc, for pleasure. Then I made two other discs, and I thought I should continue."

Alain was the first musician that France’s Erato Records recorded when they opened for business in 1954. Their later recording of the Bach trio sonatas was her first major sales success. She became the world’s most widely recorded organist, with about 300 recordings to her credit.

Petite and polite, with grace and a gentle humor, Marie-Claire Alain could play not just with intellect and style, but – when necessary – with a ferocity that belied her modest physical stature. She also had unshakeable views about the importance of passing musical literacy on to later generations. She taught at the conservatory of Rueil-Malmaison and later at the Paris Conservatory, and had a long relationship with the St Albans International Organ Festival and the Haarlem Summer Academy in The Netherlands. Alain gave master classes worldwide, including North America. Until the last few years, she was a regular at McGill University’s Summer Organ Academy.

Marie-Claire Alain is survived by her daughter, Aurélie Gommier-Decourt, and six grandchildren. Her husband, Jacques Gommier, died in 1992.

Further Reading:

Marie-Claire Alain Obituary in Gramophone

Marie-Claire Alain on her third Bach cycle in The Organ magazine

Marie-Claire Alain plays Bach’s "Great" g-minor fugue, S542, Schwenkedel organ, Collégiale de Saint Donat, France, 1970, via Youtube

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