Keyboard Psychohaptics: A Nexus of Multidisciplinary Research
Three London Harpsichord Makers: Slade, Mahoon, and Hitchcock
F. W. Marpurg and the Character Piece in Berlin
Three Centuries of Keyboard Clusters
Jazz Piano Pedaling and the Production of Timbral Difference
Reconstructing History: A Conversation with Chris Maene and Tom Beghin
Profile: Hardy Rittner and Nineteenth-Century Pianos
Review: Period Pianos in the Recording Studio
My debut as the guest editor for Keyboard Perspectives has been an unexpectedly difficult one. In April, as the final versions of the articles for this volume were streaming in, I had to put everything aside and drive to Bremen, where my father was in the hospital after a complication-fraught heart surgery. Martin Skowroneck, flautist, maker of harpsichords, recorders, and Baroque flutes, and one of the pioneers of instrument building in historical styles, died on May 14, 2014 at the age of 87, after nearly five difficult weeks in intensive care.
This is not the place for an obituary, which will appear in due time elsewhere. But I will dedicate this sixth issue of Keyboard Perspectives to Martin Skowroneck’s memory. It is indeed no coincidence that almost all the topics addressed in this volume were, in one way or another, central to his interests, for his dedication to such topics and his conversation about these interests shaped an important part of my own professional outlook as a performer and music scholar.
For example, my father used to say that “the keyboard is the first part of the instrument that presents itself to the player, so it needs to be made with care.” This straightforward stance carries information not only about the instrument maker’s task list, but also about the interaction between instrument and player. The instrument’s keyboard invites the player in, but as soon as it is played, it also “does” things to the player, prompting her or him to react to its touch and the sounds it produces.
To view this “feedback loop” between instrument and player as a positive force has been attractive since the performance practice movement began to state its goals on record sleeves and in concert programs. “Why are old instruments better? Because they inspire the player—if they are made the right way, they almost automatically lead to a more authentic way of playing.” The road from the happy, affirmative faces of the pioneers to actual systematic research has, however, been a long and rocky one. Not all keyboards in historically inspired instruments—organs, fortepianos, harpsichords, or clavichords—are necessarily that inspiring. Some replicate the quirks of their original counterparts and are difficult to handle for players today. Their unfamiliar sounds may eventually lead players into a new expressive world, but their keyboard geometry might at first be more likely to cause stumbles than a naturally evolving articulation. All sorts of combinations of touch and sound—easy and difficult, rich and poor—can be encountered in keyboard instruments made according to historical standards. Therefore, if one wants to invest time and energy in the touch and sound of these instruments, one needs a sturdier argumentative apparatus than the one offered by the phrase “it is better because it’s authentic.”
And so, Randall Harlow’s opening article “Keyboard Psychohaptics: A Nexus of Multidisciplinary Research into Kinesthetics, Gesture, and Expression,” was written at my request. The new and expanding research area of psychohaptics, I felt, needed a space to present itself. The resulting article exceeded my hopes. It is a detailed review of a set of touch experiments on various organs, but also a luxuriously annotated reading list, walking the reader through the early research projects and conferences dedicated to the emerging field, and providing a glimpse of what may come next. It considers the physicality of the keyboard as well as gesture, dynamics, timing, and fingering; it also expands the field from keyboard psychohaptics into performance psychohaptics in general. For anyone planning a performance research project that takes the agency of the instrument into account, here is a gold mine, ready to be exploited!
Harlow concludes with a call for rigorous and focused multidisciplinary studies, embracing a vision of “big data” generated by a “smart” practice room stuffed with every imaginable kind of high-tech equipment to record the actions of the performer in her or his “natural habitat,” instead of a research lab. The findings, Harlow believes, could lead to “a new understanding” of keyboard performance, which is, as he says, “an act infinitely richer and more meaningful than merely hitting the right keys at the right time.”
Lance Whitehead illuminates more down-to-earth concerns as he considers how London harpsichord makers organized their work and family life and insured themselves against risks such as a fire. Brilliantly drawing on documents as varied as the proceedings of the Old Bailey, genealogical websites, and especially insurance policies, and using Benjamin Slade (1669–1734), Joseph Mahoon (1696–1773), and John Hitchcock (1734–1774) as primary examples, Whitehead depicts harpsichord manufacture in London during the Georgian period, calling for a “contextualization of historical keyboard instruments by providing details of a maker’s heritage, family life, training, and status.” Whitehead’s account is full of details and everyday concerns—my personal favorite is the story of the drunk organ builder on the Blackfriars Bridge, balancing (unsuccessfully) a heavy trunk. More important are some new critical angles: the role of women, for instance “appears to have been more significant than hitherto generally recognized,” Whitehead explains, using examples of the widows of several harpsichord makers who continued the businesses of their later husbands. Whitehead’s article exemplifies how creative documentary research can provide an unexpected vastness of detail: this is a study of methods, just as much as historical harpsichord makers.
Moving from London to the Berlin of the 1750s, and from the instrument workshop into the composer’s and music writer’s study, Mat Langlois contributes a much-needed revision of Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg’s image as Berlin’s stubbornly Francophile music theorist and “correct,” “uninteresting,” and “mostly routine” composer. Marpurg’s advocacy of the French character piece for the harpsichord in Berlin was no mere attempt to establish the French style in his homeland. Johann Friedrich Agricola, no friend of the French style, publicly attacked Marpurg in scathing terms for his pieces. In his defense, Langlois explains, Marpurg addressed “pressing aesthetical questions” that had less to do with the preservation of Frenchness in Berlin than with the musical taste of the German Liebhaber. One of the main issues was that of adding meaning to instrumental music to diminish the shortcomings it had in comparison to vocal music. For this purpose, the character piece had to be clear and intelligible, according to Marpurg, and not extravagant and excessively fraught with ornaments, as in France. Another music writer, Christian Gottfried Krause, also defended the character piece; C. P. E. Bach finally, while not actively taking part in the public debate, had a period in which he composed music in this genre—so all of a sudden, we are looking at an entire local cultural climate that discusses, re-casts and re-formulates the French influence to meet its own needs.
In his ongoing inquiry into “extended piano techniques,” Luk Vaes also begins with the French character piece of the eighteenth century: more specifically, the imitations of the sound of the cannon (Dandrieu), or chaos (Rebel). His article is about playing clusters at the keyboard. Growing up, as I did, as a keyboard player in a harpsichord makers’ workshop meant that the playing of clusters was absolutely out of the question at all times—regardless of whether the flat hand, the fist, or the entire arm was used to create this effect. It is with a certain glee that I see the article in this volume, and I am sure my father would have appreciated learning about the “allowed” forms of clusters on the harpsichord, fortepiano, and organ.
Viewing the cluster primarily as a performance technique—as opposed to a “vertical construct of notes”—Vaes walks us through the entire history of clusters on the keyboard. He stays in the eighteenth century for longer than a connoisseur of galant French keyboard music might have expected. Perhaps less surprising is the extent to which the cannonade of composed clusters intensified in the wake of the French revolution, making use of the possibilities of the new fortepiano. The imitation of thunder eventually became the domain of the organ. Vaes addresses his topic with a healthy dose of verbal inventiveness. Not only the sounds produced by all those organists and pianists, but also their representation in this article are a joy to the observant reader: I especially like the term “interrupted pastorale.” The twentieth century, finally, offered a new wealth of opportunity for the cluster, largely abandoning its imitative or descriptive merits and instead entering the realm of the abstract. Nevertheless, Vaes concludes that the cluster is and remains largely a “practical technique rather than a conceptual construct.”
Dana Gooley keeps both feet squarely in the twentieth century as he explores the piano’s timbral possibilities in jazz playing, linking them to the use of the pedal and especially two pedaling techniques: the “damper catch” and the “damper bump.” His survey begins with some examples from the pre-history of recorded pedaling in jazz, advances to stride playing of the 1930s, and Art Tatum, and arrives finally at the carefully worked-out pedalings by Chick Corea and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Central to this article, however, is Oscar Peterson and his influence on later generations. Gooley touches upon sound aesthetics; cultural differences and the player’s identity; technological matters pertaining to recordings and the piano itself; and, of course, the music itself. This article is “music explained” of the best kind, by an author with a very keen ear and a vivid analytical mind. The accompanying CD is indispensable to a full appreciation of Gooley’s work.
Robert Giglio’s conversation with fortepiano maker Chris Maene and fortepianist Tom Beghin addresses the contact points between the instrument maker, the instrument, and the performer in practical terms. The object around which the three find themselves assembled is a copy of a piano: Maene’s copy of the Broadwood model that was sent to Beethoven in 1817 as a present. Maene and Beghin explain the fascinating chain of decisions that lead to the manufacture of such an instrument. Beghin then goes on to explain how the meaning of an English piano in a famous composer’s living room in Vienna can be explored, using musical tools. How can we investigate Beethoven’s reception of such an instrument? The key in this case is the famous Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106, which Beethoven was writing when the piano arrived. It is possible to show in detail how the new instrument influenced his compositional process, not least by forcing him to make adjustments to the smaller keyboard compass of the Broadwood in the final fugue of the sonata.
For us, the existence of such an exciting new English fortepiano provides new and fresh information about the differences between Viennese and English pianos of Beethoven’s time: for the builder, the player, and not least, the listener. Thus we return to the starting point of this issue ofKeyboard Perspectives, namely the feedback loop between instrument, music and performer in a given venue, and to the question of why all this is meaningful: “History came alive that night in Bruges,” writes Giglio, “as a replica, forged by experience, and a performance, told through the voice of a master storyteller, painted not only the face of an icon but also the landscape of an era.” That is one aspect: that history can be made alive by good music, and that the telling of (musical) stories about it can reach our hearts. What Randall Harlow told us at the beginning is the other aspect: that keyboard playing in itself, if the right questions are asked, can be understood to be rich and meaningful—richer and more meaningful than the skill of hitting the right keys at the right time. Some samples from the Broadwood inauguration concerts are included in our CD to illustrate the points made in this interview.
The second of our two Profiles, by Sezi Seskir, and the concluding CD review by Stefania Neonato work in tandem, even overlapping slightly. Both address the German pianist Hardy Rittner and his recordings of Chopin, Brahms, and Schoenberg on period pianos. Also the inspiration for this double focus on Rittner came from my parents in Bremen, and specifically from Rittner’s CD of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto. After listening to the recording, I became interested in Rittner and searched for more material. My first decision as guest editor for Keyboard Perspectives was to provide a space for Rittner in this issue.
To play Brahms on period instruments is not quite as new an idea as one might think. I remember attending chamber music concerts in the Netherlands in the 1980s at which late Romantic pianos with Viennese actions were played. Seskir mentions a recording of Brahms’s Cello Sonatas with Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis from 1995 using the so-called “Paderewski” Steinway (1892) from the Smithsonian. On another CD from 1998, Geoffrey Govier joins Andrew Clark (natural horn) and Catherine Martin (violin) in a recording of Brahms’s Horn Trio using a 1781/2 Bösendorfer. The difference in Rittner’s case is that he has the stamina—and the platform—for larger recording projects of solo works by various Romantic composers on period pianos. The other difference is that he includes Schoenberg in his exploration, coming close to the time from which we actually have recorded sound.
Rittner receives much attention in Neonato’s CD review as well. Neonato addresses Rittner’s Schoenberg recordings, the First Piano Concerto by Brahms, and his disk with Chopin’s Etudes, and discusses in great detail the instruments chosen for these recordings. Our accompanying CD also contains samples from Hardy Rittner’s Brahms recordings; between these examples and Seskir’s and Neonato’s treatments, readers will be able to form a good opinion about this pianist.
Neonato also reviews the Russian pianist Yury Martynov, who is in the middle of recording Liszt’s arrangements of Beethoven’s Symphonies on a mid-nineteenth-century Erard piano. For this repertoire, an out-of-the-ordinary approach has been part of the canon ever since Glenn Gould’s quirky assembly of self-composed negative reviews appeared on the sleeve of his LP with the Fifth Symphony (1968). In the 1980s Cyprien Katsaris was the first to record an entire cycle of the Symphonies; both the pianist and the recording engineers clearly saw the project as an invitation to experiment with the choice of instrument (a Mark Allen grand) and the placement of the microphones, which, in the first recording featuring the Sixth Symphony, capture an eerie, church-like reverberation. All of these approaches seem to indicate that even the modern Steinway and the resources of a modern concert pianist are not entirely sufficient to do justice to these arrangements. They either need to be commented upon, with tongue in cheek, like Gould does, or fiddled with to enhance the orchestral effect. Interestingly, then, Neonato finds that Martynov’s return to Liszt’s favorite instrument, the Erard, and to a historically-minded stylistic approach leads to “moments when one really does not miss the orchestra at all.” An invitation to read on!
As always, this issue is the result of teamwork: I have to thank the authors for sending such exciting articles, and for promptly answering all sorts of queries. Of course, Annette Richards deserves my thanks for inviting me as a guest editor and for her active interest in the various stages of completion of this volume. Thanks also to the editorial assistants: Matthew Hall, Ji Young Kim, Amanda Lalonde, Erica Levenson, and Carlos Ramirez. Many thanks, finally, to Evan Cortens, not only for the enormous amount of work he spent on this volume, but also for his ever cheerful readiness to respond to whatever reaches his desk, at almost any hour of the day.
— Tilman Skowroneck