The Clavichord in 20th Century America

The Clavichord in 20th Century America
By Joan Benson
Originally published in “Livro De Homenagem a Macario Santiago Kastner”, Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, Servico de Musica; Lisboa, 1992

During the American colonial period, the clavichord was a natural part of imported European culture. In the time of J. S. Bach, clavichords were made in Philadelphia by Gottfried Klenn, a former apprentice to the famous Gottfried Silbermann. Later, in 1771, letters by Thomas Jefferson indicate that he ordered from London a fretted Hamburg clavichord for his fiancee “for holding in the lap or laying on a table… veneered over with the finest mahogany”.

Subsequently he changed his mind in favor of the new pianoforte, which was to supersede the clavichord by 1880. Before the end of the nineteenth century, however, the clavichord was revived in England as a symbol of the past. This set the stage for its 20th century revival in North America.

The pioneer and champion of this early revival was Arnold Dolmetsch. Actually, in his family the thin line of clavichord continuity had never been broken: his Swiss grandfather taught his children to play Bach Preludes and Fugues on the clavichord. Dolmetsch, born in Savoie in 1858 and educated at the Brussels Conservatoire, moved to London where he began his lifelong work of rediscovering European music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and performing it on original instruments.

By 1889, Dolmetsch had acquired a large 18th century clavichord, which he restored for playing purposes. Soon his intimate candlelit concerts were encouraged by the foremost progressives including George Bernard Shaw, who wrote of Dolmetsch’s influence on students of the Royal College of Music. He noted that their “ears and minds were opened by Mr. Dolmetsch’s demonstration of the clavichord” and that they had asked him to make a clavichord, which was bought for the Royal College by Sir George Grove.

“He has turned out a little masterpiece”, Shaw said, “which seems likely to begin… a revolution in domestic instruments… I therefore estimate that the birth of this little clavichord is 40,000 times as important as the Handel Festival” with its “thousands of singers and hundreds of instrumentalists…” and “gargantuan audience”.

Shaw pointed out, “A first-rate clavichord from the hands of an artist-craftsman… can be… sold for… the price of a fourth-rate piano. You can play Bach’s two famous sets of fugues and preludes, not to mention the rest of the great mass of beautiful old music on your clavichord, which you cannot do without a great alteration of character and loss of charm on the piano”.

However, not all critics were so enthusiastic. One mentioned that by 1898 the Royal College of Music clavichord “stands in a kind of museum… unplayed, untuned, unremembered”.

Dolmetsch’s unusual reputation soon reached America, and he played in New York and Boston in 1902 and toured across the continent (including St. Paul, Chicago, and San Francisco) in 1904. New York critic Richard Aldrich (who bought a Dolmetsch clavichord that was later bequeathed to his nephew, the early music specialist, Putnam Aldrich of Stanford University) described one of his concerts as follows:

“Mr. Dolmetsch emerged in velvet kneebreeches and the ladies in robes and furred gowns of picturesque descriptions… so much of what is offered is… charming… This music does more than any other to bring out the historical background and to show how far the art of music has traveled in three centuries.”

Dolmetsch was so successful that the Boston piano firm of Chickering asked him to become head of a department for making early instruments, including the clavichord. He organized a fine staff and by 1906 the Music Trade Review wrote, “The Dolmetsch department is thriving”.

Dolmetsch was given time by Chickering to continue his concert tours. A Madison, Wisconsin, review not only praised the pathos and beauty of his playing, but suggested that “clavichords will find welcome in many homes”.

One of the homes in which the clavichord was welcomed was the White house, where Dolmetsch performed for President Theodore Roosevelt. When he played at Vassar College, the students were so entralled thhat after the concert they bought the instrument outright. Since he was now using his own clavichord for performances, Dolmetsch sold his antique Hoffman clavichord in 1908 to Belle Skinner (whose instrument collection would eventually go to Yale University). His one request was that he continue to have access to it as the model for his new clavichords.

As Europeans, the Dolmetsch family found a place in American society they had never known in England. In one incident at the Boston Arts Club, Dolmetsch waited on the stage for the audience to quiet down and silence their tea-cups. Finally, he rapped on the clavichord with his knuckles and said, “Ladies, if you do not stop talking, I cannot play. The voice of this instrument, like that of the mosquito, cannot be heard above a noise”. So great was his authority that they remained unusually quiet for the entire concert. His wife, Mabel Dolmetsch, called this time in America “a peak in Arnold’s career when he, in his prime, was able to give free rein to his musical and constructive genius…At the same time, he could earn enough from his art to live in comfort and security”.

By 1910, an economic depression so seriously affected the Chickering firm that Dolmetsch’s department was discontinued. He returned to Europe for the next 20 years, moving first to France to work for Gaveau, and later to England to live in Halemere.

He was not, however, forgotten in America. The Australian composer and pianist, Percy Grainger, of White Plains, New York, befriended Dolmetsch in the 1930s and “could think of no one living who is doing so much for so many sides of music”. In the Musical Quarterly of 1933, he called Dolmetsch a “musical Confucius” with “a breadth and universality of vision… a blend of aesthetic intuition with scientific fact-hunger and unbending truthfulness that is truly breathtaking”.

In 1933 Columbia Graphophone Company recorded Dolmetsch playing som of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and the Chromatic Fantasie. Since Dolmetsch was old and ill, he was allowed to play when and what he wished. The London Times wrote, “Dolmetsch has recaptured the spirit of the composer in all its poignancy and emotional appeal”.

The recording aroused considerable interest in the United States, with the Musical Record critic noting:

“After two or three hearings we are converted to Dolmetsch… [who] adds ornaments… flourishes, arpeggios where Bach indicated none and… changes note value wilfully… His reading of appoggiaturas is revlutionary and what seems at first… capricious… turns out… quite in keeping with the spirit of the work. Again and again it brings into a moribund passage an astonishing flow of vigour and sap. The curious and skeptical may find abundant justification for it in Dolmetsch’s book.”

Dolmetsch had first published his book, The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries, in the 1910s, but it was to be reprinted in Washington as late as 1969.

Dolmetsch was still playing the clavichord as the “highlight” of the Haslemere Festival of 1939, shortly before his death in his eighties.

By that time, however, America was deeply influenced by Wanda Landowska, who had toured there since 1923 and, as of 1942, was to reside in Connecticut.

As early as 1903-09, she had publicly denounced the clavichord for Bach’s music, making no secret of her strong prejudice in favor of the harpsichord. In 1908, she bought her antique clavichord to a convention and challenged anyone to try playing Bach’s Italian Concerto on it.

For her, the clavichord was appropriate only for German gallant music. She spoke of its admirable legato for single melodic lines and its subtle nuances of various shades of gray, but insisted that Bach’s music needs “a harpsichord with a variety of registers capable of producing sharp outlines or muted whispers, silvery tones as well as shifting sonorities and majestic fullness… inconceivable on the weak clavichord”.

“The vogue of the clavichord, like its sonority, had a sweet and discreet luster. Why attribute it to soaring and haughty ambitions? Why not let its Bebung fade away under the moonlight of adolescent romanticism?”

Landowska’s chosen instrument was the modern Pleyel harpsichord. Its many pedals suited her need for frequent color changes within a single piece and its heaviness suited her high-finger-thrust technique. This technique (she is pictured at her clavichord with 4th and 5th fingers curled high) influenced a generation of American students in a way that almost precluded their playing the clavichord.

In mid-century America, one person who did not agree with Landowska was Erwin Bodky of Boston. He believed that very frequent stop changes – possible only with modern pedals – were ‘devastating’ for Bach’s music. The only pieces appropriate for the harpsichord were those where hand registration changes (made during rests or pauses) would outline the architecture of the piece through terrace dynamics. Otherwise, a single registration was necessary which sounded “dry and monotonous” to him on the dull, inarticulate harpsichords of his day. Consequently, he designated such works for the clavichord.

Bodky believed Bach wrote the Inventions, Sinfonias, and more than half of the Preludes and Fugues for the clavichord. It was the player’s rather than the instrument’s fault if it made only “miserable sounds” – and the “neglect of taking the clavichord seriously” gave an incomplete picture of Bach’s keyboard music. Consequently, he included the clavichord in his concerts.

Actually, one of Landowska’s own students disagreed with her ideas about the clavichord. Ralph Kirkpatrick had been playing a five-octave Dolmetsch clavichord, owned by Harvard University, since he was 17 years old. His major guide was Dolmetsch’s book. When he arrived in Paris in 1931 to study with Landowska, he found her impatient with his interest in the clavichord since her own technique could produce what Kirkpatrick described as only a series of “out-of-tune rattles and buzzes” on this delicate instrument.

Through Dorothy Swainson, the gifted Dolmetsch student who became a professional clavichordist, he met Dolmetsch and studied with him in Haslemere. Dolmetsch showed him “the extent to which it was possible to introduce color and nuance on that instrument”. Mostly on his own, Kirkpatrick slowly developed a clavichord technique involving playing from the key surface with independent fingers and a quiet hand. “Only in the case of extreme fortissimo” did he attack from above the keys.

He was taught to play pieces such as the E Major Two Part Invention with constant vibrato (a technique commonly taught in England at that time) and only later did he use it less, reserving it for special effects (as was taught in Germany and Portugal).

Kirkpatrick had a small four-octave clavichord built for him by Dolmetsch in 1932, which suited his primary interest in the clavichord as a polyphonic instrument on which to play Bach’s music. In this decade, he performed in homes in Germany, Italy, and Washington, where a lady likened his music to “jewelled colour particles of the butterfly’s wing”. In 1934, the New York Times review said, “So complete was one’s transportation into another and more delicate realm that the most whispered utterance of a piano must henceforth sound gross”.

Although Kirkpatrick’s concert career was to center on the harpsichord, his interest in the clavichord never waned. He said, “Nothing has done more to sharpen my ear”, explaining that “the very limitations of its tone can help to sharpen the imagination… no infractions of proportion can be tolerated”. He advised that progression from the greatest level of volume into silence “must be smooth and susceptible of every nuance”. To achieve this one would need not only faultless technique but a clavichord that possessed the possibility of infinite nuance and smooth gradation. Without those qualities, it would “worthless as a musical instrument”.

He wrote, “The claivichord demands resources of concentration, intimacy and delicacy with which everything around us is constantly at war, for it seems that the majority of mankind has decided henceforth to ban the occurrence of silence even for a moment”. His pessimistic view of modern man was not without a ray of hope, for he stated further, “…as long as people continue to read poetry…there will always be somewhere a place for the clavichord”.

It took Kirkpatrick 30 years to master the entire Well Tempered Clavier on the clavichord. In 1967, he recorded Book I on his Dolmetsch instrument and Book II on a clavichord built by Dolmetsch’s American student, John Challis. According to him, this intense culmination of his clavichord work so exhausted him that he rarely played the clavichord again.

So far, 20th century interest in the clavichord seems to have focused on J. S. Bach’s music. Credit belongs to Professor Macario Santiago Kastner for opening the doors to a far greater range of clavichord repertoire in America. Born in London in 1908, Kastner studied music in a variety of cities: London, Amsterdam, Leipzig, and Barcelona – where Juan Gilbert Camins taught him clavichord as well as harpsichord. After making Lisbon his home, he became professor of clavichord, harpsichord and early music interpretation at the Lisbon Conservatory in 1947. Since 1958, he has been active with the Gulbenkian Foundation, and in 1965 he was named to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes for his outstanding work in Spanish music.

Kastner’s performances and lectures on the clavichord in the United States and most European countries have been profound. He has broadened the West’s understanding of Iberian music through his well-known editions and his numerous articles in various languages. His breadth of scope and warm generosity as a teacher have deeply influenced many musicians, including two who have become North America’s leading clavichord artists.

In 1960, Joan Benson went to Lisbon to study with Kastner. Her talent as a teenage pianist was first recognized by Percy Grainger in America. After receiving her master’s degree from the University of Illinois, she became a protégé of Edwin Fischer in Europe, where reviewers mentioned the magic of her pianissimos. This natural inclination led her to the clavichord. She listened to Bodky and Swainson play and studied with Fritz Neumeyer in Germany. It was with Kastner, however, that Benson realized the clavichord could be virile as well as sweet, and that it was capable of a far wider range of European music – both in time and place – than she had expected.

Benson sailed from Lisbon to San Francisco, with her clavichords on the bunks next to her. She was quickly discovered by Putnam Aldrich, began giving concerts, and became Lecturer in Early Keyboard at Stanford University.

By 1962, her first recording of music from the 15th through the 18th centuries was selected by Saturday Review as “outstanding for the year”. Nathan Broder spoke highly of her “infinitesimal graduations of intensity” in High Fidelity. Her performance of the dramatic F# minor Fantasie of C.P.E. Bach, a first in America, was important in the revival of his music and established Benson as a leading clavichordist, particularly in 18th century Empfindsamkeit music.

She was one of the first Americans to emphasize research and performance on antique clavichords in the museums of Europe and America, including those of the Metropolitan, Smithsonian, Yale and Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Contemporary composers, including the clavichord-playing David Loeb, wrote music for her. Besides performing and lecturing all over North America and Europe, she brought the clavichord to the Orient. As the sole American to approach the fortepiano by way of the clavichord, she is known for her sensitive interpretation of music from Mozart to Fanny Mendelssohn.

In 1977, the gifted Swiss-born Bernard Brauchili began his extensive research under Kastner, working closely with him in a way that has greatly increased his influence in America. A former student and current teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music, Brauchli became known for his excellent playing of Iberian music and for his articles on the clavichord, its history and iconography. He has performed and lectured throughout America and Europe and conducts his own festival in Italy. He is President of the Cambridge Society for Early Music, which sponsors the Bodky competition for early keyboard performance. Although originally emphasizing Renaissance and Baroque music on small fretted clavichords, he has more recently extended his performances to include later music on larger instruments.

Both Brauchli’s and Benson’s clavichord recordings on the Titanic label have been highly praised. Both have encouraged American clavichord builders, whose work extends from 15th century Arnaut-style instruments to large 18th century Hass copies, as well as micro-tonal and electronic clavichords. In fact, post-Dolmetsch clavichord building in America is a subject worthy of study in itself.

In the 20th century, a number of Americans have publicly or quietly included the clavichord as a secondary or personal instrument. Pianists such as Claudio Arrau, Rosalyn Tureck and the jazz musicians Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarret are clavichord players. Certain organists and harpsichordists include the clavichord among their instruments. Tim Read, like Joan Benson, has explored its improvisational possibilities. Colin Tilney, the English harpsichordist now living in Toronto, is known for his performances and recording on the clavichord and is currently recording Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in England. The German organist Harald Vogel teaches his pupils in America that clavichord playing is essential for the organ. Encouraging a technical approach based on arm weight, he emphasizes subtleties of articulation rather than dynamics.

Within this century of its revival, the clavichord has grown from a quaint, esoteric instrument to an accepted soft keyboard in the early music scene of America. A new generation of local and regional performers are including it in concerts along with the harpsichord. On the national scene, currently California’s MusicSources presents Brauchli, Tilney and Benson in the first clavichord concert series in America.

Although MusicSources also has a gallery of replica keyboards that children are invited to try, the use of the clavichord as a traditional beginner’s instrument has yet to be revived. Two hundred years ago, in 1782, Thomas Jefferson procured a clavichord in Philadelphia for his 11-years-old daughter. American parents of today might do well to follow his example. With this instrument, children may develop sensitivity to subtleties of sound, touch and inner imagination so needed in our present world.

Bodky, Erwin. The Interpretation of Bach’s Keyboard Works. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Campbell, Margaret. Dolmetsch: The Man and His Work. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.
Cripe, Helen. Thomas Jefferson and Music. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974
Dolmetsch, Mabel. Personal Recollections of Arnold Dolmetsch. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1958
Kirkpatrick, Ralph. “On Playing the Clavichord”. Early Music, July 1981
Restout, Denise (ed.) Landowska on Music. New York: Stein & Day, 1965

“The Clavichord in 20th Century America” by Joan Benson
Originally published in “Livro De Homenagem a Macario Santiago Kastner”, Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian, Servico de Musica; Lisboa, 1992
Copyright 2005, Joan Benson; All Rights Reserved

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