Piano to Clavichord (1925-1962)

Piano to Clavichord (1925-1962)
by Joan Benson
Clavichord International – Volume 10, Number 2, November 2006
When I was born in 1925, there was a piano in nearly every parlor. Live music was still the fashion, the phonograph and radio were just beginning, and the rage for electronically generated music lay in the future. At age five, I stood before my grandmother’s upright, amazed at the lush sounds my flat little fingers made. Then Aunt Myrtle placed me on the piano stool and showed me how to cup my hand as though holding an orange. Thus lessons began.

New Orleans, where I lived, still exuded the soft, leisurely perfume of the romantic, pre-Civil War era. Metairie Park Country Day School, which I attended, resembled a pillared, plantation mansion, with meadows and woods in which to wander and dream. It was the first progressive school in the South, headed by a fine, New England master. We were encouraged to think for ourselves and offered cultural advantages, particularly in the arts. We might study, for example, the music a great pianist would play before attending the performance itself.

I remember one evening when our city’s elegant concert hall was filled with the wild excitement saved for popular music bands today. Yet the stage loomed empty except for one king-sized piano and one profiled player, almost motionless, fingers flickering over keys. The sounds, unamplified, were never overly loud, but the dynamic range seemed enormous, the variety of expressive inflections astounding.

Idolized classical pianists on tour were pampered in this pre-airplane age. Paderewski, for example, traveled in a private train coach with his piano, tuner, and wife, as well as his masseur, physician, butler and chef. Brooding Rachmaninoff demanded a grand piano that had heavily weighted key levers to accommodate his massive, powerful fingers. In contrast, Josef Hofmann required a special, light-actioned piano with narrowed keys for his famed subtle dynamics and small hands.

Not only could pianos be altered to suit the player. Audiences delighted in extreme variations in interpretations that would horrify listeners of the twenty-first century. Each artist — following the romantic tradition of Liszt and Mendolssohn — was expected to display his own genius, to cast his personal spell.

I yearned to become such a pianist, and my local teacher encouraged my emotional zeal. She had studied with Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, the ‘Sarah Bernahrdt of the Piano’. So at age fifteen I ventured north to Interlochen to take lessons with the eccentric, experimental comperser-pianist, Percy Grainger. (His habit of hiking between concert towns once jailed him as a vagrant.) Grainger’s enthusiasm was contagious. He invited me to practice in his studio. While he abandoned himself to one grand, I had to play different pieces on the other. In this way, I learned to focus, ignoring the confusion of conflicting sounds. On returning to the South, however, I banged with stiff fingers, hoping to bloody them, Grainger-style. My teacher looked on, aghast.

The next composer to influence me was Anis Fuleihan of Cyprus. To study with him, I entered Indiana University as a teaching assistant in 1950. Fuleihan showed me the current ‘right way’ to play Bach and Mozart, by overlapping each note for a singing legato flow. More important, he led me to trust my intuition and to interpret music in terms of composition. Lacking technical strength, however, I leaned on adrenalin to hold a piece together. Or I karate-chopped Bach-Busoni organi-like bass lines with the edge of my left hand. By now I could sway audiences in recitals, but I know there definitely was more to understand. If only I could find a master pianist such as I had heard in New Orleans as a child!

By chance, a German music student arrived at Indiana University in 1952. One day he spoke of a pianist unknown to me. I shall never forget the sensitive hush in his voice as he said the name – Edwin Fischer. Immediately, I knew this was the great artist I longed for, to have as my musical guru.

After winning the Kate Neil Kinley Fellowship in Performance, I decided to seek out Fischer in Europe. I booked passage on a cheap cargo boat leaving Boston for Liverpool – an outlandish thing for a young female student to do. Mother panicked and rushed from the South to beg me not to go. I should marry and have babies like other girls, or find a proper job. What chances I was taking! Did I really expect to live in Europe on a skimpy fifty dollars a month? The night before leaving I clung to her, crying like a child.

All the same, in February 1953 I set off for a stormy Atlantic crossing of twelve days, in which a sailor was almost swept overboard. When we finally reached Liverpool, my first sight was of a ragamuffin in a war-rubbled lot, tipping back his head to drink from a bottle of Scotch. It finally dawned on me: what did a pretty, unwealthy American virgin think she was doing, roaming in foreign countries unprotected? Later I discovered that after World War II, most Europeans felt obliged to treat us well. Tourists were few, the US dollar was precious, and opportunities were immeasurable. One only needed the courage to endure certain hardships and the eagerness to explore.

Alone, I went to Paris. Since I had learned French long ago in New Orleans, I attended classes by Olivier Messiaen and Alfred Cortot. Then a letter arrived from Edwin Fischer’s assistant, saying that in several days he would be performing in Rome. I rushed to find a slow, over-night train for Italy. (In 1953, there were no quick commuter planes!) All second-class seats were taken, so I sat precariously on my suitcase in the narrow corridor, squashed between smelly, seedy travelers. Knowing no Italian, I communicated by signs and smiles. That night, I leaned against a misty window, trying, unsuccessfully, to snooze.

Next morning, disheveled and exhausted, I arrived in Rome to be met by Radu Fortunescu, my cousin’s Rumanian fiancé. This suave diplomat treated me like a poor lost puppy. After a hot bath – with rose petals by the water – I was fed, and then given a cloud-soft bed. The following evening Radu escorted me to Fischer’s concert. Even now I can hear those gloriously warm, bell-like sounds. Fischer will always be for me the purest, most spontaneously empathetic pianist I have ever known.

By coincidence, Radu had the contacts to take me backstage after the concert and introduce me to Fischer’s devoted, protective housekeeper, Lina. She, in turn, led me to Fischer. At first I felt too awed to utter a word. Finally I whispered timidly, “Will you please take me as your student?” Fischer stared into my eyes with the entire intensity of his being. Then he nodded his leonine head and said, “Yes.”

There was no kinder, more intuitive pedagogue than Edwin Fischer. In his Swiss masterclasses, he conveyed musical contours and meanings with one glint of an eye, one raise of bushy eyebrows, one conductor’s wave of a hand. After class, relaxing, he looked like a beardless Santa Claus who made his few students feel like a happy, non-competitive family. Yet he considered each of us as individuals and responded directly to our needs.

In my case, he encouraged my career as an artist, making sure I found further scholarships. Noting a lack in finger technique, he sent me to Vienna’s Viola Them, who had taught Badura-Skoda in his youth. Her father and uncle, famous 19th century duo-pianists, had been friends and students of Franz Liszt. Thus she was Liszt’s “musical granddaughter” and I, too, became his descendant.

Professor Them procured for my student room an old piano with a una-corda lever to the right of the keyboard, which I used to keep sounds soft. Then she started me on unwritten exercises for beginners, seemingly inherited from Liszt. First, I placed five fingers lightly on the surface of five sequential keys. Then very, very slowly I raised the index finger, and, equally slowly, lowered it again. But the moving finger trembled and jerked, and I could not keep my other digits still. To isolate the problem, I concocted an exercise away from the keyboard. I relaxed my arm on a table and placed my hand in playing position. Then I could concentrate on lifting and lowering the index fingers alone.

It took many hours and much patience to begin to control this finger, like a baby learning to walk. Next, I had to do Them’s exercise on each of the other digits. (The outer two proved hardest of all!) Finally, I had to press each finger downward and hold it at its resting point, first soundlessly and then listening to the sound. What a miracle it was to become so keenly aware of ten fingers rather than concentrating on two hands!

In time I applied this way of playing to music. Sometimes I practiced on Paul Badura-Skoda’s fine pianos while he was on tour. Also I went to the Bosendorfer studios, and paid to use their grands for certain hours every week. Another student deeply affected by Fischer, Alfred Brendel, came before me. Through the door I could listen to his astounding virtuosity and, as he left, admire his enormous, supple hands. In comparison my own hands were narrow and thin-skinned, my fingertips extremely sensitive to the keys. This allowed me, however, to revel in a wide palate of soft, intricate sounds. When I finally played in Lucerne’s International Summer Festival in 1955, it was the magical pianissimos critics praised.

With fingertips so sensitized to soft sounds, I began to envision a keyboard instrument capable of finer, more delicate shading. I recalled touching a clavichord in 1944, after a Bach keyboard concert at the Longy School of Music. Listeners swarmed around the tinkling harpsichord, so I had the gentle clavichord to myself. Now, over a decade later, I felt a deep desire to make it my musical medium. Little did I know that in 1855, when my Swedish grandfather was a boy, the clavichord was still popular in Scandinavia.

But Edwin Fischer, as well as Percy Grainger, believed the admirable clavichord belonged in the home. Certainly it was inadequate for a concert career. Thus it saddened Fischer to see me forsake the piano, to pursue this pale, old-fashioned instrument. Nor was I sure where to turn to learn about it, for clavichord professionals were rare.

First, I looked to London, where Arnold Dolmetsch had encouraged a clavichord revival as early as 1900. Eventually this expanded to other makers and players, and continued to thrive among England’s elite. In 1956, I attended a concert by Valda Aveling on a sweet, melancholy clavichord by Thomas Goff. Later I visited a lady who owned one of his precious instruments. She gently lifted its wine wool cover, peeked under the inlaid lid and breathed “How is my darling today?”

I bought a clavichord Goff built for an English nobleman in 1936, and began a few lessons with Aveling. She dwelt on the Clavichord’s ability to vibrate pitch, using the Bebung on every possible note. This slowed the pace of Bach Inventions to a lugubrious Lento, like playing underwater.

While in London, I was taken to visit the famous collector, Raymond Russell, and I listened to his 1775 Kirkman harpsichord. Circling the instrument as though it were a breathing animal, I cried “It’s alive! It’s really alive!” Everyone laughed as I discovered how an original antique could sound.

After some months I left for Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany, where concert-recording harpsichordist Fritz Neumeyer took me in hand. I took lessons on his 18th-century clavichord. No more Bebung except in ornamentation! No more dallying with tempi. Out came the metronome, to keep me in strict time. Most important, I began to learn the art of releasing notes with subtle variations of articulation.

Uncle Fritz had his own quaint sense of humor. His toilet closet contained a cowbell and a painting of a maiden sniffing flowers. To keep him enthusiastic, I brought him liquor from Frankfurt’s US Military Airport, where I headed the nursery since my scholarship money was gone. Bottles of whiskey could to lessons as shapeless as my playing, or to long walks loping along with Uncle Fritz’s dog. Irked at the slowness of my progress, I smashed my umbrella on the iron railing of his back stoop. But two years with him were worth all the fun and frustration, for I learned much from his acute teaching. Today his excellent collection of historical keyboard instruments is still housed in Bad Krotzingen Castle.

Perhaps the finest, most-forgotten clavichordist of the early twentieth century was Alfred Kreutz, whose sensitive playing brought listeners to tears. I visited his widow in Germany, and asked about the dynamic tapering of clavichord sounds I had heard only in my head. Did he play that way? Her positive answer inspired me.

Last of all, I sought out Santiago Kastner in Lisbon. This erudite man gave freely of his time and knowledge and flooded me with books about Iberian music. I remember his generous camaraderie as he treated his Portuguese students and me to restaurant delicacies we could not afford. Above all, he opened my eyes to an expanse of clavichord repertoire I never knew existed. Likewise, he insisted I buy a large, semi-articulate Dutch clavichord for concerts. Of all the ‘revival’ instruments available, it was among the most capable of a wide range of expressive sounds.

By summer of 1960 I had lived in Europe for over seven years. It was time to go home again. By chance I found a Pacific and Orient Liner that went from Lisbon to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. The agent booked an empty dormitory room (travel to America was light) so I could place my two boxed clavichords on extra berths. But I was terrified to leave for the United States. What would my rock-and-roll countrymen think of these strange, pale sounds?

As luck would have it, I landed near Stanford University where, unknown to me, Putnam Aldrich had started one of the first early music programs in the United States. He had studied in France with Wanda Landowska, the idol of many Americans. She insisted on a rather curious keyboard technique, suited to her specially built Pleyel harpsichord. The trick was to draw a finger aloft, pulling the fingertip inward toward the palm, then thrusting it stiffly forward and down at an angle onto a key. This proved awkward on the clavichord, which requires a supple, stroking touch. Consequently Landowska found the clavichord primitive, although she owned an original antique. Hence when I arrived on the West Coast, my way of clavichord playing seemed surprisingly refreshing. Professor Aldrich biked over to my garden cottage to listen. He said he could hardly believe his ears.

Now the path opened. I could learn more about early music from Stanford and yet continue my own musical ideas. I could combine the emotional integrity of Fischer with the most current knowledge of old treatises on keyboard playing. The timing was perfect. Soon my first clavichord disk was selected by ‘Saturday Review’ as one of the best classical recordings of 1962.

Thus began a long international solo career that would cover cities including New York, Berlin, Stockholm, London and Paris plus exotic places like Lebanon, Java, and Nepal. Above all, it gave me the joy of playing concerts on the finest museum clavichords in the world.

— copyright Joan Benson, US-Eugene, OR 2006

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