Editor-In-Chief: Annette Richards
Associate Editor: Evan Cortens
Emily I. Dolan
Historically Informed Organs in the 21st Century: An Exchange
Several previous installments of Keyboard Perspectives have been devoted if not to single themes then to interlocking ones: Improvisation; Bach and the Organ; Keyboard Culture in Eighteenth-Century Berlin. As editor I have mined many of the excellent papers given at Westfield Center sponsored conferences as a rich resource for our journal. Alongside such thematic groupings we have published topics at first glance seemingly unrelated to the main theme of the volume. Nonetheless, these, as it were, à la carte essays inevitably, and often unexpectedly, converse and contend productively with the other contributions housed within the confines of a single binding. (I won’t mention all those essays that were anticipated as the intellectual glue of a given volume but were never written: buried in the distant corners of the editorial in-box are the outlines of many brilliant ideas that, though promised to the patient editor, never materialized. Who am I—herself a notoriously over-committed scholar who isn’t always up to the editorial deadlines of others—to blame such never-produced essays for the lack of alignment between the year printed on the cover of the current volume and the calendar date of its actual appearance?)
In view of the sometimes unanticipated, and therefore all-the-more welcome, conjunction of ideas in various past issues of Keyboard Perspectives, I am especially delighted, not to say pleasantly dumbfounded, that Volume 5 has proven a haven where Emily Dolan’s imagined “de-keyboardification” can be discussed in close proximity to Davitt Moroney’s illuminating and moving account of the towering contributions to keyboard culture made by Gustav Leonhardt, a man who, during his abundant life, would sooner have skipped naked through the streets of his beloved Amsterdam than play a pièce croisée on a bananaphone (see Dolan). Such are the fertile juxtapositions to be discovered among the present volume’s holdings: Dolan’s provocative reflections on the keyboard as interface and the insurgent attempts at undoing its long-held hegemony meet a figure—and indeed a readership—dedicated to nurturing that reign in both traditional and novel guises.
As one reads through the individual essays and the volume as a whole, themes emerge. The death of Leonhardt echoes in David Yearsley’s treatment of one of the most profound Tombeaux in the keyboard repertoire, this one by the much-travelled, multi-faceted Nicolaus Adam Strungk; intellectually ambitious and emotionally profound, Strungk’s Ricercar written on the death of his mother is a work both retrospective and visionary. Perhaps it is fitting that the piece was composed in 1685, that watershed year in which the three great figures of the next generation of keyboard greats were born. Full of path-breaking research and vibrant scholarly connections, Tilman Skowroneck’s article on Beethoven’s Broadwood not only buttresses Dolan’s arguments regarding the centrality of the keyboard paradigm in Western music-making, but also documents the seemingly irrepressible impulses towards innovation furthered by the best thinkers and craftsmen of the piano in the early nineteenth century; fascinating are the modifications and evolutions of the piano, that symbol of the “universal keyboard” in a cosmopolitan, industrializing age.
For keyboardists, both historical and modern, C. P. E. Bach’s seminal Versuch can be seen to relate to everything we do: connections here are inevitable. Richard Kramer’s thoughtful and detailed review essay on Tobias Plebuch’s important new edition of the celebrated Essay is attuned to the subtleties of Bach’s eighteenth-century German, demonstrating how simultaneously close and distant this vital text is to our own keyboard culture. As in musical performance—one of the most important and revealing of Bach’s topics in the Versuch—the devil is in the details; with refined scholarly eye and ear Kramer guides us through the rewards and potential pitfalls of this latest contribution to the Versuch’s long publication and reception history, reinforcing the still undiminished practical value of that book.
Moroney’s encomium is a monument to Leonhardt the indefatigable performer, teacher, and scholar—and a testament to how the historical imagination can enrich our own culture. Many kindred ideas can be heard in the resonant essays of composers Zachary Wadsworth and Martin Herchenröder, both writing here about composing new music for historical (or historically informed) organs: once again, knowledge of the past invigorates the present; the inspiration provided by “old” organs and later instruments inspired by them yield not a fusty antiquarianism but a vibrant culture of new composition. Such enlightened enthusiasms for historically-informed instruments and the musical products of these gifted composers’ pens (or perhaps computer keyboards?) are followed directly—and tempered—by the thought-provoking essay of Jonathan Ambrosino, who grapples with issues of innovation in organ building that themselves relate to Emily Dolan’s considerations at the outset of the present issue. With great sensitivity and unmatched knowledge of twentieth-century organ building, Ambrosino praises those makers, especially the Skinner Organ Company, committed to pursuing costly new ideas even in difficult economic times, while asking us to consider whether the sometimes blind embrace of old traditions is best for the long-term health of organ culture. Similarly nuanced and ever-changing attitudes towards historical cultural artifacts are traced in Evan Cortens’s spirited review of Matthew Dirst’s recent book, Engaging Bach, itself a vividly engaging work of scholarship that traces the ever-shifting image of its subject’s music in the changing European intellectual and cultural landscape on either side of 1800.
Complementing the writing to be found here, the CD tucked into the back of the book offers performances of new music for the ‘historic’ organ and for other period instruments by Zachary Wadsworth and Martin Herchenröder, with performers Jonathan Ryan, Hans Davidsson, Angela Early, and Heather Miller Lardin, as well as David Yearsley’s recording of the Strungk Ricercar and other works by N. A. Strungk and his father, Delphin, on the historic Arp Schnitger organ at Norden in Germany. In addition, we have included live recordings of performances by two young Westfield-sponsored artists—Mike Lee, who won the second and audience prizes at the Westfield fortepiano competition in 2011, and who performs here with violinist Wayne Lee, and Ignacio Prego, who won first prize at the Westfield harpsichord competition in 2012. The wide chronological span, the range of instruments represented, and the diverse backgrounds of the performers wonderfully encapsulate the breadth and depth of the Westfield Center’s activities.
It would be rash, not to say downright foolish, to suggest that the colloquies and collisions between the various contributions to the present volume are the product of assiduous commissioning on the editor’s part. The truth is rather that rigorous and creative scholarship will inevitably find itself in dialogue with the work around it, just as the Westfield Center provides forums for unexpected and fruitful exchanges at its conferences and other events and in the lively sharing of ideas between its members. We on the editorial staff of this journal feel ourselves privileged to provide a home for the best research, thought, and writing about keyboards in all their multiplicity and unity—organs, pianos, harpsichords, clavichords, and even the occasional bananaphone.
— Annette Richards