Studying With Macario Kastner A Half-Century Ago

by Joan Benson

De Clavicordio VIII, Musica Antica a Magnana, 2007

Traveling to Professor Kastner in Lisbon proved an adventure. In May 1960 I set out from Freiburg im Breisgau, where I had studied with Professor Fritz Neumeyer. The usual mode of transportation at that time was the train.  As a scholarship student, I sat in second class, with my Tom Goff clavichord in its case beside me. We crossed through France and stopped at the frontier of Spain. And here the trouble began.

A customs officer entered the compartment and pointed at my clavichord box. “No es posible!” He tossed his head. Out went the instrument onto the platform, with me following after it. I pleaded with the Spanish conductor in his open cabin, but he paid no attention.  Then in true 19th century style, I pretended to faint.   Flopped on the ground, I opened one eye to see if the conductor felt any pity. Instead, he puffed out his chest like a matador. The train made a raucous toot, and off it went.

I lay, whimpering. There was no way to cross into Dictator Franco’s Spain. I could only cling to my clavichord, close my eyes and wait.

About twenty minutes later a voice whispered: “May I please assist you?” I gazed up at a lanky Englishman in tweeds. “I’m a Cook’s Tour agent on vacation,” he said politely, “and have a little time to spare.”  Magically, he arranged for the clavichord and me to head toward Lisbon on an express sleeper. Professor Kastner was informed.

When I finally landed in the Lisbon station, my new teacher was there to greet me. I responded to his welcoming smile and his large imposing, but friendly, appearance. In fact, my appreciation of Kastner’s empathy and generosity would only grow as I gradually got to know him.

In 1960 few private cars whirled around Lisbon, and Kastner never drove. Instead, he escorted me by taxi to an old apartment building, where my clavichord was carried up three flights of stairs. He had arranged I stay with an amiable lady who boarded several Portuguese students with whom I could speak French. My room faced a hollow courtyard, and had just enough space for a narrow bed, clavichord, small table and wooden chair.

In several days, I began going to Professor Kastner’s home for lessons. He was eager to share his knowledge and taught me freely, with an intense focus. Now in his dark-haired fifties, Kastner had been born in the London of Arnold Dolmetsch. As a young man, he studied clavichord and musicology in Barcelona, a place of early Spanish music revival since the 1890s. He settled in Lisbon, but his beginning career was muffled by World War II. By the time I arrived, however, he had become a leading authority on Iberian keyboard music and had taught clavichord at Lisbon Conservatory for thirteen years.

That summer of 1960 a small cluster of Spanish and Portuguese students surrounded Professor Kastner. Since I was the only new one from far away, he gave me abundantly of his expertise. For each question I brought him, he overwhelmed me with fresh insights and information. He loaned me his books, treatises and music, which lay all around me as I sat up, studying in bed.

Professor Kastner shared with me works he had written or edited up to 1960—only a fraction of what he later would produce. His fresh facsimile of Juan Bermudo’s Declaracion de instrumentos musicales intrigued me.  I particularly became attached to his edition of Cabezon’s clavier music, as well as his collection of Iberian keyboard music from the 15th through the 18th centuries.

I mulled over Santa Maria’s suggested hand position, trying to imagine what a “cat’s paw” might imply. But I had no short-keyed clavichord resembling one of 16th century Spain, and only a few pictures to incite my imagination. In them, I could see that elbows and wrists were held low and fingertips high, to make early Iberian fingering, glosas and articulations effective. (Note the example shown on page 74 of Bernard Brauchli’s The Clavichord.)

Kastner himself used a heavy, modern instrument of well over five octaves. On this he could extend glosas. Also he could transpose single voices up or down an octave, as suggested by the early organist Correa de Araujo.  Mainly, the instrument was loud enough for concerts and complemented his very large, pianist-trained hands.

As a bachelor, Kastner liked to invite his pupils out for drinks and dessert or delicious dinners so we could relax together as one happy family. He also encouraged me to roam around Lisbon on my own. I would stay all day in historic places like the sixteenth century Jeronimos Monastery, where I hummed Ortiz glosas in the cloister.

Portugal maintained remnants of old Catholic customs combined with the sensuous melancholia of the Fado. For example, I was introduced to a handsome student in a swirling black-cloak who invited me to visit him at the University of Coimbra. He found me a proper room of my own in his pensione.  On a holy day, we watched children in white, as pretty and innocent as flowers, singing and marching with candles and pictures of saints across a carless bridge. I remember our sauntering by moonlight along the deserted river’s edge, and the one wistful kiss that later saddened us with shame and longing. Today, the loss of this world emphasizes Kastner’s belief that, no matter how we try, we cannot capture the way music must have been in a bygone era.

Yet it was Kastner who first introduced me to the clavichord’s broad emotional scope. He found my Thomas Goff clavichord entirely too sweet. In Germany, it is true, I had often practiced on Fritz Neumeyer’s 18th century instrument, but the pieces I played were for developing a precise, articulated technique. At first I found Kastner’s large instrument cumbersome. It seemed meant for his immense hands. Actually, my second and third fingers combined had less girth than his single index finger. Thus he could easily produce the fullest of clavichord sounds.

One day, before I left Lisbon, Kastner passed me his pen to sign a paper of purchase for a large Dutch clavichord capable of wide dynamics. Its spaciousness seemed to me more appropriate for Cabanilles, and, above all, for Germanic music of the latter 18th century. All the drama I had once expressed on the modern piano I could suggest on the clavichord as well. I took his bold instrument and used it to suit the more subtle requirements of my own sensitivity. He never contradicted this individual approach.

At the summer’s end I booked passage on the Pacific and Orient, which had few ocean passengers from Lisbon to San Francisco. I was given a bed in an empty dormitory room, so I could place two clavichord boxes on adjacent bunks. But it was not easy to part from Kastner or to leave Europe after seven years.

Little did I know that Stanford University was close to San Francisco, where I would land; that it contained one of the first early-music programs in 20th century America. That soon I would be teaching there, and sharing Kastner’s belief that early clavichord music should have time to breathe and not be over-loaded with superfluous ornaments. Nor did I know that Kastner’s emphasis on original sources, alive at Stanford, would lead my student, Sandra Soderlund, to publish her recent book on historic keyboard technique up to the time of Leschetizky.   May I add that without Santiago Kastner, I would never have included Cabezon’s Duuiensela on my first vinyl recording in 1962; nor would I have rediscovered the dramatic beauty of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Fantasia in F sharp minor on the same recording that rocketed my career.

Nearly two decades went by before I saw Kastner again. He had arranged for me to play recitals in Lisbon and give a lecture in connection with the American Embassy and Gulbenkian Foundation.  As he translated my words from English to Portuguese, he could not refrain from adding a flow of his own impressive ideas. By then, however, other scholars had joined him in the mainstream of Iberian music.

Likewise, Kastner had lost his wealth by exchanging English currency for Portuguese just before the escudo took a topple. No longer could he afford a servant nor entertain so generously. Instead, he was forced to care for himself and his frail sister. I shall always remember the poignant moment when I bid him goodbye a final time. He stood there on the street, holding a woven shopping bag in one hand and waving graciously with the other. He had not lost his affectionate aliveness in the least, and he was as much a gentleman as ever. Above all, there would be years ahead when an elderly Macario Santiago Kastner would reap the honors and success that he deserved.


In 1960 I became a pupil of Santiago Kastner in Lisbon. Foreign students were rare, and Professor Kastner gave me generously of his time. He inspired me with abundant lessons involving the clavichord and early Iberian keyboard music. For each question I brought him, I was overwhelmed with fresh insights. My room was piled high with his treatises, books and scores.

Not only Professor Kastner’s keen mind, but also his warm empathy was extraordinary. He included me in dinners and trips he hosted for his students. And he encouraged me to explore old Portugal alone. I remember, for example, spending a meditative day in the cloisters of Jeronimos Monastery, softly humming Ortiz glosas.

Before I returned to the United States, Kastner convinced me to buy a Dutch clavichord of five and a half octaves. It proved capable of extensive dynamics, and offered a wider emotional scope than I had known. Because of Kastner, I could include Cabezon’s Duuiensela on my first vinyl recording in 1962; and with my new clavichord, I could revive the drama of C.P.E.Bach’s Fantasia in F-sharp minor that rocketed my career.

Years later, I returned to Lisbon to perform. By then, Kastner had lost his fortune. My last poignant memory of this kind man was of his holding a woven shopping bag in one hand and gently waving goodbye with the other. He had not lost his warm aliveness. Fortunately, in time, an elderly Macario Santiago Kastner would reap the honors and success that he deserved.

Comments are closed.