A Conversation with Joan Benson

A Conversation with Joan Benson
by Penelope Mathiesen
Continuo, The Magazine of Old Music; Ontario Arts Council; April, 1988

How does a performer develop a career? And where does a career lead a performer? For Joan Benson, one of today’s finest performers on the clavichord and fortepiano, it has been a lifelong combination of strong musical instincts and the will to pursue whatever developed from them. She was already launched on a successful piano career when she discovered the clavichord.

The pursuit of its soft, expressive qualities meant losing the backing of her piano mentors. However, it opened up a new world of musical discoveries and cultural exchanges which in turn led to performing, recording, and teaching opportunities in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I caught up with Joan at the KQED studios in San Francisco, where she was doing a radio interview on the West Coast Weekend show following her appearances at the San Anselmo Organ Festival. Our two days together were an enjoyable recapitulation of many previous conversations, as well as a microcosm of Joan’s ongoing dialogue with music and the world we live in.

PM: Tell me about the San Anselmo Organ Festival.

JB: the festival was about a week long – a combination of performances and scholarly lectures. It’s a lovely setting, in the Stewart Chapel at the San Anselmo Seminary. I was invited to play both the clavichord and the fortepiano. On opening night, I did C.P.E. Bach’s Double Concerto for Fortepiano and Harpsichord in E-flat major with Sandra Soderlund, the head of the festival. Later, during the festival, I played some small pieces by Wilhel Friedermann Bach, a Biblical Sonata by Kuhnau, a Haydn sonata, and a C.P.E. Bach fantasy, and gave a lecture on the clavichord from the time of Bach to Mendelssohn.

PM: What will you be doing during the coming year?

JB: I’m doing a series at the University of Oregon, including – Fanny Mendelssohn pieces and songs (I’m also working this up as a touring program), Mozart chamber music, and a C.P.E. Bach celebration. I’ll be working on some fortepiano pieces for my first compact disc release and my new recording will be coming out, first as a cassette on the Focus label, then eventually as an LP record.

PM: What will be on it?

JB: On one side I’m playing Johann Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonata No. 2, the one about Saul’s madness being cured by music. There is a section where Saul becomes quite mad, and then the music changes and you hear David’s harp soothing him. On the other side are three pieces by C.P.E. Bach – Rondo in B-Flat Major (1785), the Abschied, and Fantasy in C Minor. Actually, we had to do the recording twice. The first time, everything was set up in a cabin in the woods: a beautiful, quiet place with a lake. It was in the springtime, but a wild snowstorm came up and we couldn’t keep the place warm. My hands were so cold my fingers wouldn’t move, and the engineer had frost coming out of his mouth. You could hear the wind in the recording going “shoosh, shoosh.” We couldn’t use it; we had to let it go. Later, we did it over.

PM: What instrument did you use on the recording?

JB: My traveling clavichord, not the antique 1780 Lindholm that I used here for the San Anselmo Festival and the West Coast Weekend show. It always stays here.

PM: What differences do you notice between recording on original instruments and on reproductions?

JB: I would say that the sensitivity of the antiques – the combination of articulating and shading on them better – makes it easier to record with originals. You can get more kinds of color. The reproductions, however, are getting better and better, and you don’t have to worry about transporting them in the same way. I think that, for the average person, you’re better off getting a replica. It’s just that I personally have this funny feeling about instruments.

PM: Haven’t you always responded to particular instruments?

JB: That’s right, yes. And I’d rather respond to an instrument than impose. I like to find out what it likes to do: any instrument, whether it’s antique or not. Also, if I haven’t had a chance to work on an instrument, I can never be sure of my program because there will be things that suit it more than others, and I like to have the opportunity to change my program. I’m not just being whimsical, really, I’m doing the best I can to build the program properly.
That’s my personal feeling; I don’t think everyone has to feel that way or react that strongly.

PM: I wonder if this has any bearing on our modern preoccupation with exactly what instruments the early composers were writing for?

JB: It was very natural for them to compose things that suited the instruments they had available, but the point is, I don’t think it was just one instrument. I think it’s very dangerous to say – this is a Mozart piano or this is a Beethoven piano – because you have to take into account that, in our own lives: do we work with just one instrument? They would hear possibilities – they would probably not compose with that specific instrument in mind, but they would still instinctively be doing things that suited the instrument they happened to be using.
I must say that if I get an antique instrument from a given place and time, it will tell me something about the composer who might have used that instrument. I guess the best example I know is the Schanz fortepiano that belongs to Paul Badura-Skoda. I was playing Haydn in Vienna on the Schanz, and I didn’t have to do anything: I didn’t have to manipulate it in any way. It just seemed extremely natural; the sounds were helping me understand the music more. Another thing with all this is, if you have a room that isn’t like the room that would have been originally used, you cannot avoid performing the music without taking that room into consideration, and if the room is completely different, you’re liable to play quite differently.

PM: Are you talking about the size of the hall?

JB: Yes. There’s a real danger in early music, of being forced, because it’s financially necessary to play in large halls. The clavichord was never meant to be a concert instrument; it was a home instrument. You could play a concert for other people, but it wasn’t a situation where you had a distance between yourself and the listener, as far as we know. Consequently, I don’t play the same way if people are close to me as I play if I have to project. There are details I cannot do if the hall is large. I have to play in a way which is much less like the way one would have played originally.

PM: So historical research helps us understand what should be going on, even if we can’t always incorporate it?

JB: I’m extremely grateful for any kind of research that’s being done that makes sense. You incorporate everything you can find out about what a piece can mean to you, and to others, but you cannot go the opposite way and reject how you make it come alive. It will not be alive if it doesn’t include today’s world in some way.

PM: How are you affected by your interchange with other musicians? I’m thinking of your associations with various universities and festivals like Aston Magna.

JB: All along, the nourishment of others has been extremely helpful. When I was at Stanford, for example, I could say: “Look, I want to do this – does it make any sense?” or “What do I do about this?” I definitely want that exchange and I value it, just as I value the teaching I had along the way.

PM: Who did you study clavichord with?

JB: I studied with Fritz Neumeyer and Santiago Kastner – those were the two main ones – and I checked with the widow of Alfred Kreutz. I would almost hear sounds in my head, and I wanted to find out how to make them, and so I went on my own. I consider my guru to be Edwin Fischer. He embodied the piano, but he didn’t disdain the clavichord. The unbelievable detail with which he looked at music, and his breadth of understanding – it was through him, without his ever wanting it to happen, that I decided to go with the clavichord, because he taught each person to follow his own direction and not be afraid of that. He fully expected me to be a concert artist on the piano, so he was quite sad when I found out that this was my way, but he could do nothing about it, because that’s what happened. He was sad because he thought the clavichord was too soft, that that it wasn’t a beautiful instrument.

PM: That it was too soft?

JB: That it wouldn’t be useful for big concerts, and I was playing larger works at the time. But he definitely encouraged me to be a performer, in the deepest sense of the word. This was your whole being that you were trying to express, your whole way of life, your way of looking at nature. It wasn’t just by analysis that you would get the fullness of performance; it really came from the emotional and intellectual understanding of the music. He was an absolutely exquisite musician, so that when he played himself, he was unbelievably sensitive at the same time: very intuitive. He understood that side of me.

PM: Haven’t you always responded to nature and to new experiences wherever you’ve been?

JB: Right. Those things nourish me, and they nourished Fischer. He had a place on Lake Lucerne where he raised his own flowers, so nature was very import to him. I think I heard him say that when he traveled, he’d get up to play a concert and worry at the last minute that he’d been looking at too many churches or something instead of practicing. It’s true that wherever I’m playing, I like to know what’s going on around me. Again, this is the same thing of not wanting to impose something. I really think of music or anything I do as an exchange between my environment, the people in it and myself, so whoever’s listening is an import part. Indian musicians realize this. When I was in India, in a small, traditional setting where the musicians sat a little bit higher and the people sat below crosslegged, the listeners would make sounds – “ahh, ahh” – and that would get the musicians to do something further, so there was this interaction that was accepted as part of what was going on. I find this very important for me, to bring music to life. I’ve had the joy of being included in the artistic lives of people in many parts of the world, and of hearing an unbelievable breadth of music live, not just on recordings. I heard musicians who didn’t know how to read music playing beautifully. It was all done traditionally, by ear. Natural ornamentations were a part of everyday music. I heard so many things that may reflect on our earlier music, in a natural way. I like to go back to nature because I like to think of rhythm and form in natural terms. One of the dangers today is that a lot of young people don’t have this link anymore with our natural world, which breaks their link with the music – Romantic music, and the music before that – because it did have a very strong link with the natural world.

PM: Are there any clavichord workshops for people interested in learning the instrument?

JB: No, but I am working on an idea to have about four different locations around the U.S. where I could give workshops. Clavichords would be provided so that people wouldn’t necessarily have to buy them. I feel it would be invaluable to keyboardists
to have the chance to become familiar with the clavichord.

PM: In terms of getting started on the clavichord, what do you suggest?

JB: You have to start without music, just playing notes and listening to notes. This is what keyboardists sometimes have never done. Even if you’ve been a keyboardist for a long time, it brings you back to that aspect of: the first time – tonal production, different kinds of tones, what happens to a tone … Since you can do vibrato on the keys of the clavichord – do you want the pitch constant? do you want it to fluctuate? – you have all these choices. The easiest thing to do on a clavichord is to sit down, play a whole big piece, and not listen: but that’s not going to help at all. You have to really focus on the sounds you’re producing, but in a relaxed way, because if you get at all tense with the clavichord, you don’t get any sounds either. You’re really responding to the instrument. Maybe this is where I got into the habit of responding to any instrument: with the clavichord, you don’t have much choice.

PM: I know from watching you do a workshop at Brigham Young University that the instrument immediately captivates anyone who tries it.

JB: Right, and this is not with the intent of becoming a concert artist on this instrument, but the clavichord will help you play a lot better and enjoy music a lot more, whatever keyboard you play. This is what people did traditionally; they would go from one keyboard instrument to another, they didn’t just focus on one. It was a normal part of the keyboardist’s world, whether you were an organist or a harpsichordist. If you’re thinking in terms of playing early music, it links you the way many of the people of the period began their study of music. These people would have played the clavichord when they were alone, in a quiet place, their whole life long. So if you cut yourself off from that, you’re cutting yourself off from the whole way in which these people conceived of music.

PM: Maybe we should say something about the different sizes of clavichords.

JB: Right. There were little Bible clavichords, children’s clavichords, a couple of octaves. You could easily have from three octaves up to six octaves, maximum. Four octaves was common. The largest Swedish ones were really big, having up to six legs to hold them up.

PM: How portable are clavichords?

JB: The smaller ones are very portable. I’ve even heard of people taking them in knapsacks up into the woods. They don’t have to have legs; just set them on anything flat. Actually, when Sir Donald Tovey was a little boy, he was given a clavichord to learn to play on, and one time he was in bed, with the clavichord in his lap, and suddenly his nanny dashed out of the room and went to tell his mother, “Oh, he’s asleep under his clavichord.” She was really worried. Well, they are very portable, and it’s true, you could play them sitting up in bed.

PM: What about music?

JB: There’s plenty for four octaves, or even three for a lot of beginning material. A five-octave instrument is more virtuosic. There are things you can’t play on four octaves – Haydn sonatas – but there’s enough material: most of Bach, a lot of C.P.E. Bach, for beginning. You don’t need a big clavichord, unless you’re getting into the drama of C.P.E. Bach’s Empfindsamer Stil, (the “sensitive” style characterized by sudden harmonic changes, strong dynamic contrasts, disjointed melodic lines, irregular phrases, all firmly founded upon a strict formal structure, ed.), although when I play in concerts, it’s a different matter, because then I’m trying to project.

PM: How did the fortepiano fit into the picture?

JB: Well, in the 18th century, the clavichord was pretty much the beginning instrument, and the harpsichord sometimes, too.
This was in Scandinavia, the Germanic countries and the Spanish outposts; in England and some other places, the clavichord was not used as much. Also at this time, there was more and more interest in the extended crescendo. On the clavichord, you could only do this up to a point, using articulation and getting louder and softer in very subtle ways. The clavichords thus got bigger because people wanted more contrast and a darker, broader sound that sustained better, and the piano could do this. The little square pianos were very light in action and looked almost like clavichords. Not all of them – English pianos, in particular – were not light action, but the Viennese pianos had extremely light action, and the keys were smaller too: for a student to start out on some of these pianos was easy. It was also easy for women to play this instrument. It was very natural to extend from the clavichord to the fortepiano; these instruments really overlapped. Clavichords kept being built well into the 19th century, but they were less flexible and more like square pianos: the walls of the instrument were thicker, the tension was higher.

PM: So while the fortepiano had a light action like the earlier clavichords, the later clavichords imitated aspects of the fortepianos?

JB: The clavichords became heavier, but they could not get as loud as the fortepiano. The harpsichords could do shadings, but not extended in the same way. So the fortepiano just sort of took over – for solo playing, for ensemble playing, for everything. It became the main home instrument – the symbol of being educated was to have a piano at home – and this lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. You could sing with it, you could dance to it; and when you couldn’t go to a lot of concerts, you’d have Beethoven symphonies four-hands and all that kind of thing. The same technique was used, so it was easy to go from clavichord to fortepiano.

PM: The same technique?

JB: Yes, the curling technique, sort of like you’re scratching or pulling the fingers in. SO it was easy to go from the clavichord to the fortepiano. The only trouble was, at first, they didn’t know quite how to play the fortepiano, because it was different from the clavichord and the harpsichord: pedaling effects – how did you deal with that? There was a lot of experimentation – you could play legato on the fortepiano in a special way. You could get a continuous line on the clavichord, but the sound died down so much more rapidly than the piano that you couldn’t get the same kind of extended line. The piano allowed you to paint in a much broader way.

PM: What about your childhood? Was music a part of it?

JB: I was born in New Orleans. The school I went to was run by the Stern family, and there were lots of artistic pursuits. I remember sitting under a tree and writing poetry for two hours at a time; there was unbelievable flexibility. As early as the second grade we would study opera, go through the whole thing, and then go and listen to it. So we had a wonderful cultural environment that made it very natural for me to go on and do artistic things. That’s why I believe a lot more children might have artistic inclinations but they aren’t being encouraged today. The educational system has not included a general cultural background and audiences are lost because of this.

PM: When did you begin formal music studies?

JB: One of my earliest teachers was in Atlanta, where we moved when I was about eleven. I studied with Percy Grainger at Interlochen when I was about 15. I used to practice on a piano next to him while he was practicing. I thought it was hard to concentrate, but he seemed to have no trouble, and it gave me access to a really nice piano. Anyway, he thought I could have a real career in music. But I didn’t know what I wanted to go into, so I was one of the editors of the poetry magazine at the University of Illinois, and I took courses over a wide range of things there and at Pomona: acting, painting, psychology, philosophy, religion. I didn’t narrow down to music right away. I studied piano with Anis Fuleihan; I can remember playing a piece for him and asking, “What’s wrong with it? What do I need to work on?” and he said, “It’s fine, you just have to go your own way.” I remember going out and pounding the grass because nobody was telling me what to do. But if somebody else played a piece, I couldn’t do it that way; more and more, I had to do it my own way.

PM: Did you play the earlier composers on the piano?

JB: I can remember doing Bach/Busoni, getting out the original Bach to find out how it was written, and doing a complete analysis so the piece made sense to me. But generally speaking, outside of Bach/Busoni, I had a hard time playing Bach on the piano because it just seemed too thick for me. I felt uncomfortable in it. I used to love to play Schumann and Debussy and Ravel and late Beethoven, and I went as far as Bartok, but I didn’t like to play the earlier music because it was just too thick.

PM: What prompted you to go study in Europe?

JB: I’d heard Edwin Fischer’s name mentioned and he was a person I knew I wanted to study with. I was already giving concerts by this time, but I didn’t have that much money to do this. My parents backed me up to a point, but I don’t think they ever would have gotten me to Europe – that was outlandish – because I was supposed to settle down and teach in the Boston area at that point. By working twelve hours a day – part of it in a library, part of it accompanying a dance class, part of it giving private lessons – I pocketed enough money in about four months to get over to Europe, nearly killing myself. I studied with Guido Agosti in Siena on a scholarship, and in Paris I studied with Messiaen and Stockhausen showed me around. At one point, it was either the clavichord or electronic music, but I decided the crescendo lever wasn’t for me. Fischer was very hard to get with, but I got an interview through my cousin’s future husband in Italy. Fisher looked at me hard, just for a second, and then – he was very, very kind to me. I wanted a softer instrument; I wanted to get softer sounds. I was already getting from the piano, unbelievably soft sounds – they would talk about my “magical soft sounds” – and I wanted to cut down below that. So I went to the clavichord, but I lost my sponsorship for everything, because I was no longer going to do piano. I had a scholarship for the piano, but who was going back somebody going off to the clavichord? Nobody. So I was on my own, my parents thinking I’d really lost my marbles over there. They looked up in a book to see what a clavichord was. For awhile I worked as head of a nursery for the children of military people coming into the Frankfurt Airport – I was in charge of twenty-two German nurses and whole bunch of babies and little children – but that allowed me to go down to Freiburg to study with Fritz Neumeyer on clavichord.

PM: Was the change in instruments a difficult transition?

JB: When I was first studying the clavichord, I’d get very impatient, because here I’d already been giving a lot of concerts on the piano, and playing a different instrument wasn’t easy. After half a year, I was still just plodding along very gently. Finally I took an umbrella and cracked it over the metal banister of the stairs. I just couldn’t stand it any more. (This is probably not going to encourage people to study the clavichord.) Then I went to the widow of Alfred Kreutz and started asking her questions. I said, “Could he do this? Could he shade in this way? Could he get a crescendo?” I was hearing this in my head, but I couldn’t quite do it yet, it wasn’t easy. Well, she said, “Yes, he did do this.” So I felt perfectly justified in going my own direction. More and more, it was this miracle of finding the sounds that I heard in my own mind. I could spend weeks in this imaginary place, all alone with my instrument. I would sometimes practice for two days in a row, just taking time to eat a little bit. And then it was strange, it became part of my normal world, but that’s the way it would have been in earlier times.

PM: Did you get a lot of pressure to continue with the piano?

JB: I first went to Lebanon because Anis Fuleihan said, “Joan, what are you doing? This is nonsense, this business with the clavichord. You’ve got to be doing the piano.” He got me a job with an exchange program in Lebanon, and there I did my last concerts on the piano. I remember finally closing the lid and saying, “That’s it.” I loved being in Lebanon, and I enjoyed their music immensely – the way they would ornament, playing in a way that was really very simple but very beautiful – from which we could learn something. I would go out to Petra where you had these tombs in the middle a big barren space, not a tree on it. In the nighttime the nomads would play the rabab, and the sound would just float over the space into the mountains. I heard a lot of wonderful music and different religious rituals: like the Easter Service in a Greek Orthodox monastery.

PM: Where was that?

JB: Outside of Tripoli. I rode all over Lebanon. I heard a very famous commercial singer in the Bekaa Valley; people would come from all over the Middle East to hear her, but I was one of the few westerners. The way she could ornament was fabulous. It was a wonderful setting for concerts, the ruins of an ancient temple with just the pillars standing. I would also go to the villages and dance the dances. I would find myself part of a wedding festivity where everyone was to give something to the bride in artistic terms, whether it was a poem, or a dance, or a song. So they taught me a small step to do, and then I had to get up and dance the small step in honor of the bride. Or there would be a church festivity, and they’d be ringing the bells slowly in a small church, and then overlapping that would suddenly be the dance festivities starting outside in a completely different rhythm and taking over – everybody dancing – and we’d do circle dances by the hour. It was complex world. The people were very wonderful and very generous, and at the same time, underneath was this current of tension. I almost got married and also I almost became a nun there, because it was an emotional part of the world and I loved it so much.

PM: How did you end up back in the US?

JB: After I gave up the piano, I went to study clavichord with Santiago Kastner in Portugal – a very, very kind man – he gave me all this music to look at. I was going to fly back to New York and go out to Baxter Springs, Kansas, where my parents had moved, but a travel agent suggested it would be easier to take the clavichord by boat to San Francisco. So I caught the boat from Portugal and ended up in California, practicing the clavichord in a cottage. My parents were very worried about me. But Putnam Aldrich bicycled over to hear me, and gave me a chance to play at Stanford, one of the first places to have both performers and musicologists, and I was there until they invited me up to the University of Oregon. I’d been roaming around Europe and playing in museums, which hadn’t been done before – the old instruments had been ignored – but I hadn’t thought anyone would want to hear the clavichord in a concert setting. I never thought: “Is this going to become popular?”

PM: Your career seems to have evolved rather than following pre-planned guidelines.

JB: I never planned a career; on the contrary, I almost ruined a career by going against what Fischer said and doing what I instinctively wanted to do at a time when this made no sense whatsoever to anyone else. Even with my first record – I’d been asked to do it, but I hadn’t bothered until Erich Schwandt told me I should – I was not thinking about a career at that point at all. The record came out, and it got Saturday Review: Record of the Year. I didn’t even know Saturday Review listed records. I didn’t know anything. I had no way of going after this. Instead, I probably slowed it down. So if someone asks, “How do you start a career?” I have nothing to say, because I don’t know.

PM: In your own terms, then, how would you characterize what you do?

JB: I never thought of it in the sense of “career” as much as I thought of it as an exchange. It always felt very good to share music with people. When I traveled and performed, I wanted to find out what other people were doing, what they might have that was beautiful, and I felt like I was giving back to them in the same way. So there is an exchange always. As time goes by, music becomes more and more simply a way of interacting with others with love.
“A Conversation with Joan Benson”
by Penelope Mathiesen
Continuo; April, 1988

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