Frick Collection, NYC 2012

William Byrd belongs to that benighted generation of visionaries who began to liberate keyboard composition from purely vocal models and exploited new techniques in harpsichord playing. We can say with some confidence that it is in this period that the instrumental virtuoso – the counterpart to the many prized singers and poets in Europe’s countless royal courts – came into existence. And so, Philip II of Spain had his personal organist, the blind Cabezon, while Frescobaldi’s recitals in St. Peter’s in Rome reportedly drew thousands. Like them, the versatile and hugely talented Byrd, though a devout Catholic, was greatly favoured by the Virgin Queen herself as a personal ornament to her artistically conscious sense of being. There is no doubt that the ‘rise of the virtuoso’ is a direct result of the rise of the centralising, attention-accumulating monarchs who defined this and later ages.

It is indeed a tradition of patronage that we see in pieces from ‘My Ladye Nevell’s Booke,’ a collection of keyboard works compiled and supervised by Byrd in 1591 and dedicated to the wife of a member of the minor peerage now made immortal by these truly peerless pieces. A ground named for the somewhat shadowy composer Hugh Ashton (is the original theme by him, perhaps?) shows Byrd paying tribute to one of his predecessors. Perhaps this is a sort of Elizabethan counterpart to the tombeaux of later French clavecinistes, as there is a graceful sadness to it that surely manifests some form of tribute. Interestingly, the same piece is contained in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (compiled about a decade and a half later), and bears a title paying homage to the Catholic prisoner who compiled that collection. Returning to the pieces in the Nevell MS, the pairing of a pavan and galliard, two common dances of the period, bears resemblance to the later Baroque pairing of a prelude with a fugue. While the more dancelike nature of the original forms are rather pronounced in Byrd’s works, the pavans and galliards from the My Ladye Nevell’s Booke are very much abstract in their utterances, occupying a delicate space between the poetic and the prosaic that is unmatched by few of Byrd’s contemporaries.

And, finally, to conclude but a few works showing Byrd’s genius, there is a fantasy on the hexachord – ‘Ut re mi fa sol la’ – essentially based on endless statements of the eponymous notes ascending and descending in various tonalities. This piece shows the sort of brain games that English composers were most famous for and, I think, the sort of musical language that they gave to the composers of North Germany. Though I cannot (yet) prove it, I am convinced that Buxtehude and the Bach family must have known some of this repertoire, as it contains a sort of heavenly earthiness that is obvious in the music of both parts of Europe.

In contrast to the clear web of patrons and supporters surrounding the music of Byrd and his contemporaries, much of the purposes of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music seem perhaps a bit obscure. One may go even so far as to say that a great deal of Bach’s keyboard music is written with no particular audience in mind except the performer and a small circle around him. What are the so-called ‘English’ Suites? According to C.P.E. Bach himself (a source which I see no reason to dispute, in spite of the many pseudo-musicological efforts to do so which are now very much in vogue), Bach compiled these suites for an ‘Englishman of rank’ who had sought a commission from the great composer. Indeed, these six suites (written during Bach’s time in Weimar, 1708-1717) were known in the Bach household as the ‘English’ suites, perhaps in light of that fact and also because of some rather striking similarities between the first suite in particular and a suite published in London in 1705 by the French expatriate Charles Dieupart. If this is the case, then it is enticing to imagine the prospect of someday discovering a manuscript of these works in England – so far, none has come to light.

‘English’ though they are called, these suites display the most beautiful commixture of the French and Italian styles of the day with a touch of thoroughness and energy that is truly German – nay, Bachian! The third suite in g-minor (BWV 808) opens with a perfect Italian concerto, in which the entrance of the different members of the orchestra is obvious in the first few bars as Bach thickens the texture with successive entrances of the obsessive three-note theme. The interplay between the ripieno and concertino of the imaginary ensemble (or more simply, the group versus the ensemble) is displayed in the episodic or non-thematic sections in which a solo voice interrupts statements of the theme from the ensemble – this can be demonstrated to great effect through alternations between the two manuals of the harpsichord. Following a slow-paced, cerebral Allemande, a Courante in the grand style makes its appearance with a swagger recalling the height of the dance’s existence at the court of Louis XIV. A solemn Sarabande – the most difficult of the dances of the Baroque – follows, coupled with ‘Agremens’ or varied repeats on the original strains. A gavotte and a ‘musette’ (imitating peasant bagpipes) are paired together, providing, in a dramatic sense, a sort of pastoral relief to the noble heaviness that defines the rest of the set. A gigue – essentially a fugue in 6/8 metre – ‘sums up’ the wide range of tonalities and moods that define the suite as a whole. As with many other concluding gigues in his other suites, Bach engages in his usual devilish antics by turning the original subject upside down for the second half of the dance!

If Byrd is the creator of the keyboard universe, and Bach its greatest king, then Scarlatti is its iconoclast. He is the Salvador Dali, the Jackson Pollock, the James Joyce. From whence stems the language of this genius? His musical sources are the world – his fellow men of all stations, the strange Spanish court of the mid-eighteenth century, the endless perigrinations of his youth. Through clumps of dirt and cakes of mud, he shows us visions of heaven. Five of his 550-odd sonatas for harpsichord provide but a glimpse of the incredible variety that defines this composer’s way with the keyboard.

How to define these sonatas but to resort to imagined narratives? In the beautiful sonata in a-minor (K. 109) a vagabond waits outside his lover’s window, singing a song of unrequited passion, mixing his tears with a bottle of strong peasant wine and wailing in the strains of his native Andalusia. The sweet ‘Minuetto’ in B-flat (K. 440) shows a lonely child princess at the Spanish court, singing made-up tunes to her dolls and stuffed toys. Even in this sweetness, there is a certain melancholy as we imagine that this child is really a prisoner of her own privilege and social rank. In the beastly d-minor sonata (K. 141), a mandolin player nimbly accompanies a pair of Moorish dancers who entertain a village crowd while a young boy finds purses to cut and pockets to rob. Such a way of looking at music, especially amongst the precious and unimaginative brethren of so-called ‘historical performance,’ is very much out fashion. So much the worse for them!

I see very little point in confining the repertoire of the harpsichord to the period of its greatest dissemination. The harpsichord is a medium like any other, and it is not simply another kind of piano, so why not let it speak in modern languages and be as fresh as it was to the listener in, say, 1700? There are, in my personal experience, two types of modern harpsichord works. There is the nostalgic ‘throwback,’ if you like, which has little value other than to evoke a momentarily delight in recognising an archaic form which is badly re-composed. The second type is that in which the harpsichord’s properties are exploited as a composer would use any other instrument’s, without a nod towards the superficial aspects of the harpsichord’s past. The final work on this evening’s programme belongs, I think, to that second type of composition. Powell, a jazz pianist and arranger who worked with Benny Goodman, the Glenn Miller Band, and Django Reinhardt, all but gave up jazz for what he called ‘serious music’ (the designation was his, not mine) after going to study with Paul Hindemith at Yale in the 1940s. His ‘Recitative and Toccata Percossa,’ written for the American virtuoso Fernando Valenti and premiered by him at the Juilliard Festival of New American Music in 1952, belies to some extent the mixture of Neo-Classical and Expressionistic that we find in the works of his great teacher, but the abstractness of its language is very effective on the harpsichord which gives it, perhaps unexpectedly, both an air of objectivity and a pointed sense of rhythmic impact that underlines the many metrical changes throughout the work.

© Mahan Esfahani

London, March 2012.