Keyboard Perspectives X (2017)

Editor-In-Chief: Annette Richards
Associate Editor: Evan Cortens
Editorial Assistant: Mathieu Langlois
Volume Editors: Roger Moseley and Annette Richards

Cover of Keyboard Perspectives X

Editor’s Preface

Deirdre Loughridge
Piano Death and Life

Matthew J. Hall
François Couperin on Touch, Movement, and the Soul

Saraswathi Shukla
Operatic Virtuosity at the Keyboard: Claude Balbastre and Rameau’s Legacy

Robert Bates
On the Jeux: Unraveling the Mysteries of Sixteenth-Century French Organ Terminology

Kimberly Marshall
Variable Plena in the “Bach” Organs of Thuringia and Saxony

David Yearsley and Kimberly Marshall
Interlude: Recollecting the Westfield Center Bach Organ Tour of 1989

Kenneth Hamilton
Franz Liszt Defended Against His Devotees

Edmond Johnson
Arnold Dolmetsch’s “Green Harpsichord” and the Musical Arts and Crafts

Aya Saiki
“Playing the Voice”: The Synthesis of Vocality at the Interface of the Keyboard

Daniel K. S. Walden
Composing at the Keyboard: Schoenberg’s Notenschreibmaschine, Kittler’s Typewriter

Roger Moseley
Review Essay: Beethoven’s Resounding Deafness


A few in-house wags have been calling this, our latest release, KP X. These same observers have noted that the unveiling of the attractive volume you now hold in your hand corresponds roughly with the launch mere weeks ago of the iPhone X. Such commemorative coincidence encourages a certain perspective that is not always possible when one is knee-deep in the editorial trenches, hectoring would-be contributors, tracking down phantom references to long-lost clavicitheria, and in general, getting the bugs out, while keeping as many new ones from diving into the succulent jam jar that is Keyboard Perspectives. All this is to say that 2017 is the tenth anniversary of both Keyboard Perspectives and the iPhone.

There are many similarities between these products and their capabilities. Both are concerned with the miraculous powers of touch. Both our instruments and those of Silicon Valley can conjure a world from a single keyboard. Both can reproduce music with varying levels of human input. Aside from a thumb piano (aka Kalimba, not yet investigated in these pages) our objects are not hand-held, but we have portable technology, too (“Would whoever left an inlaid Reiseklavier on Flight 1756 from Vienna please return to gate 14?”). We could go on.

There are differences, too. Our readership stands at some hundreds. Over six million exemplars of the iPhone X were sold on Black Friday alone. Our Journal is not in the cloud, although it is about to be launched on-line. Yet however niche our market, KP—even if skimmed with dust on the shelves of studies, music rooms, and libraries”—will never be obsolete: indeed, we celebrate the out-dated and find in it unanticipated insights and vigorous new/old ways of making music and experiencing the world and life of sound. While celebrating the past we, like the makers of the iPhone X, encourage our readers to embrace the future.

We mark ten years of Keyboard Perspectives with a bumper volume that offers a panoramic view of the musical landscape. Ranging over diverse historical and geographical terrain, from the eighteenth-century French harpsichord and the “Bach” organs of Thuringia and Saxony to the latest Yamaha keyboard instrument, by way of Arnolds Dolmetsch and Schoenberg, the essays collected here feature a wide variety of instruments, composers, performers, techniques, and inventions, and reflect the tremendous richness of historical keyboard studies in 2017.

Today pianos are being dumped, abandoned, and destroyed at an alarming rate. In our opening essay, “Piano Death and Life,” Deirdre Loughridge explores the reasons for this while asking why the “death” of a piano can elicit such a powerful emotional response. The relationships we form with pianos as builders, players, technicians, and listeners can lead us to invest a great deal of affection in them; that sense of attachment can, in turn, be exposed to the shock tactics of avant-garde artists and pranksters, who critique what they perceive as the instrument’s embodiment of social and institutional hierarchies.

If the piano can seem to be a living and breathing thing, so too, under the artful fingers of François Couperin, could the harpsichord appear to be possessed of a soul. In his essay on “Touch, Movement and the Soul,” Matthew J. Hall takes us back to Couperin’s L’art de toucher le clavecin, and specifically to its philosophical underpinnings. While Couperin’s method might seem decidedly pragmatic, Hall shows how it draws on Neoplatonist and Cartesian modes of thought that frame the relationship between player and instrument in terms of the animation of a body by a soul capable of setting its matter in harmonic motion. This also holds implications for listeners, whose souls will only resonate in turn if their taste is accordingly attuned and stimulated.

Later in the century, the question of taste became overtly politicized, as Saraswathi Shukla investigates by way of the operatic transcriptions of Claude Balbastre and a single, gorgeous harpsichord, lavishly decorated to Balbastre’s specifications. Upon his arrival in Paris in 1750, Balbastre hitched his wagon to Rameau’s star by performing virtuosic transcriptions of Rameau’s operas. While Balbastre’s fortunes waxed and waned during the querelle des bouffons and over the course of the ensuing political upheaval, Shukla demonstrates that the style, idiom, and means by which operatic transcriptions were disseminated can tell us much about both the shifting roles of the harpsichord and the social standing and relationships of its players during this turbulent period.

If instruments themselves can possess an aura that communicates between present and past, documents associated with their construction offer crucial sources of information even once those instruments no longer exist. In his essay on the Jeux of sixteenth-century French organs, Robert Bates mines a multitude of sources to shed light on the enigma of a term that has multiple meanings and has been qualified by as many adjectives (grand, petit, plein, gros, etc.). Bates’s careful research and reasoned speculation is invaluable to those interested in organ construction and registration practice during this era, as well as to those who are curious about the complex history of this ubiquitous and deceptively simple term.

Along analogous lines, Kimberly Marshall shows how surviving historical organs in Thuringia and Saxony offer tantalizing evidence for a richly varied notion of organo pleno in eighteenth-century central Germany, of crucial importance to the music of J. S. Bach. At the mid-point of this volume, in a journalistic Interlude, Marshall is joined by David Yearsley for a recounting of the unforgettable Westfield-sponsored tour of historic East German ‘Bach’ organs undertaken in 1989, in what transpired to be the twilight of the GDR. That expedition, anchored in Leipzig, Dresden, and Weimar, inspired a generation of performers, organ builders, and scholars and has now acquired historical significance—or at least a form of Ostalgie—of its own.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘Bach’ city of Weimar was home to the great keyboard virtuoso of the new age, Franz Liszt. Even today, the music of Liszt continues to inspire heated debate: is it noble or meretricious, virtuosic or bombastic, profound or banal? Kenneth Hamilton reveals that these questions have deep roots, as Liszt himself was all too aware. Liszt’s pointed self-critique often led him to postpone, revise, or abandon compositions, but it also reflected charges leveled at him by friends and foes alike. Ultimately, Hamilton argues, Liszt’s ambitions and achievements were shaped by the criticism of his detractors as much as they were nurtured by the adoration of his fans.

The Enthusiastic Amateur and the Professional Critic reappear at the center of Edmond Johnson’s account of Dolmetsch’s so-called “Green Harpsichord,” an instrument built at the urging of William Morris, and a crucial hinge between the Early Music revival and the Arts and Crafts movement. In Dolmetsch’s work, the “historical” was the way of the future: as George Bernard Shaw wrote of the clavichord built for the Royal College of Music in 1894, this instrument would start “a revolution.” Johnson shows how the Green Harpsichord, adorned by Helen Coombe’s elaborate paintings, stands as both an iconic instrument and a means of uncovering relationships between music, ethics, and aesthetics at the turn of the twentieth century.

Despite the radical expressive capabilities of the Green Harpsichord, with its crescendo and decrescendo effects, and notwithstanding the multiple registers of monstrous Pleyel harpsichords, nor the extravagant performances of harpsichordists such as Wanda Landowska, the harpsichord proved no match for the piano in the twentieth-century concert hall. One factor implicated in the rise of the piano to its pre-eminent position was its capacity to simulate the singing voice by sustaining cantabile lines. In “Playing the Voice,” Aya Saiki provides context for this phenomenon by presenting a media-archaeological account of vocal synthesis, which has often been programmed and performed by way of a keyboard interface. From the têtes parlantes of the Abbé Mical to the Voder developed at the Bell Telephone Laboratories three centuries later, Saiki shows that the keyboard formed a membrane that connected the human and the mechanical while also keeping them distinct. In the process, she reveals that the roles played by men and women in presenting these machines to a curious public were allotted and esteemed in ways that reflected the contemporaneous gendering of musical composition and performance.

For his part, Schoenberg hoped that the laborious task of writing music might be streamlined by drawing on the digital skills developed by both pianists and typists. While the Notenschreibmaschine that he conceived was never put into production, Daniel K. S. Walden contends that it nonetheless sheds light on the combinatorial procedures that informed both Schoenberg’s theoretical writings and his compositional thought in the early years of the twentieth century. At the same time, his musical typewriter tapped into a genealogy of devices designed to provide composers with mechanical assistance that parallels the historical scope, mathematical underpinnings, and technical principles of the keyboard-controlled vocal synthesizers described by Saiki.

Rounding out this issue is Roger Moseley’s review of Tom Beghin’s groundbreaking recording of Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas, which departs from the premise of reconstructing the “hearing machine” (Gehörmaschine) that was attached to the composer’s Broadwood piano to help him hear it more clearly. In this project, music and the body, technology and aesthetics, experimental instrument building and imaginative historical reconstruction—or even, reenactment—come together in a tour de force that embodies some of the liveliest and most imaginative aspects of keyboard studies today.

The investigations gathered in this volume add to the gigabytes of goodies amassed and collected during ten years of Keyboard Perspectives. We encourage our readers to keep those ever-relevant volumes to hand, even as we hope that KP X inaugurates a vibrant new decade of innovative, thoughtful, and creative historical keyboard studies.

It remains for us to thank our endlessly inventive and brilliant in-house editor and contributing writer, David Yearsley, whose wit rings through this very Introduction, and our outstanding production team, the intrepid Evan Cortens and Mathieu Langlois, both Cornell graduates and brilliant musicologists. Their patience, persistence, skill, and expertise are essential to this enterprise. But to the sanity of the editors, it is above all their good humor for which we are grateful.

— Roger Moseley and Annette Richards
November, 2017