Editor’s Note: The article which follows, from a Harvard Musical Association Bulletin of April, 1946 should be of interest to votaries of the Boston Early Music Festival. If readers know the whereabouts of the cited instruments and collections please respond by blogging.
It appears, from research by the writer, that there was only one harpsichord in Boston in 1885 in playable condition. It was the property of Mr. Morris Steinert, founder of the house of M. Steinert and Sons. Mr. B. J. Lang, who did much for enlarging the horizon of music in Boston, organized a festival for the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bach, born March 21, 1685. In Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” there is the need of a harpsichord, and Mr. Steinert’s instrument was played by Mr. Lang. This was probably the first time for a period of sixty years that a harpsichord had been used in a public concert in Boston.It is interesting to know how little the compilers of the Comprehensive Dictionary, published in 1871, knew relative to the harpsichord. They give the meaning of the word harpsichord: “A keyed instrument, or harp, strung with wire.” That of the virginal is worse: “A musical instrument.” These definitions show the lack of knowledge relative to the instruments because of their rarity. In 1884 there was probably only one harpsichord in the United States in playable condition, and only one player who knew how to use it properly relative to tone colors and the proper touch for the keys and that was Mr. Morris Steinert. At this time of writing (1946), there are fourteen professional harpsichordists in the United States. There is also a maker of harpsichords whose instruments are as splendid in qualities of tone as the best instruments made by the famous makers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their volume is considerably larger, a virtue needed in these years of large halls.
To Mr. Morris Steinert must be given the honor of being the first to make the harpsichord, clavichord and virginal known at a period when those instruments were in dark obscurity, not only in America but in Europe and in England.* His love for the tones coming from a clavichord which entranced him in boyhood years led him to return to his native town, Scheinfeld, Bavaria, and on page 190 of his Reminiscences he poetically describes his resolve to find his old clavichord, “that quaint little instrument with its silent tones, its mysterious whisperings, its intimate and soulful response always evoked from it by the fingers of the tone—poet.” To this praise Beethoven’s should be added and he called it “the most musical of all instruments.” This type of instrument was the beloved of Bach and it is such to every one who has a place for it where there is freedom from noises. It is then that its tones breathe a fine texture of sound and excite the inventive and creative musician to new conceptions of that, which in music, is poetry.
*The virginal is a single keyboard instrument. The writer’s is five feet eight inches in length by nineteen inches in width. The strings are plucked by leather plectra as in the harpsichord, which grew out of the virginal with added strings and another keyboard. Virginals were in use in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “Queen Elizabeth’s skill on the instrument is well known, as also the clever way in which she managed to show off her talent before her courtiers and ambassadors of foreign sovereigns.” (Francis W. Galpin in his Old Instruments of Music).
The clavichord is of about the same dimensions, also oblong, but its tone is produced in an entirely different manner from that of the harpsichord and the virginal. Pieces of brass (tangents) attached to the ends of the keys which run under the strings, strike upward and set the strings in motion and allow them to vibrate only while the tangents are pressed against the strings. When the keys are released the strings stop vibrating, as they are damped by a strip of cloth at one end. A very beautiful effect can be made by changing the pressure against the tangent. This produces a delicate vibrato.
The cittern is a pear-shaped instrument with flat-top and flat back. It has ten strings of wire, three double of same pitch and four single of low pitch. It is fretted and can be played by plectrum or fingers. Its tone is very limpid yet carrying, and considerable music was written for it. The cittern became popular as an accompanying instrument for the voice and succeeded the lute, probably because less fragile, smaller, and more easily tuned, as it has, instead of wooden pegs for tuning, small screws with hooks to which the strings are attached. The heads of the screws are made square so that the ever-present watchkey of those days tuned the strings. Sir Frederick Bridge in his Samuel Pepys, Lover of Musique states that Pepys possibly played the cittern, and that “after the landing of Charles II at Dover in 1660, by the request of the Admiral, Lord Sandwich, and with the help of the lieutenant’s cittern and two candlesticks with money in them for cymbals, ‘we made barbers music, with which my Lord was well pleased.'”
The dulcimer is oblong, stands on four legs, and its strings of wire lie horizontally over the soundboard. Its range is large; its tone resonant, blending better with string tone than does the piano because the strings are not so thick and heavy. For some years after the Commodore Hotel, New York City, was opened, its orchestra had a dulcimer instead of a piano. This ancient type of instrument has lately been resurrected by Bela Bartock in his concerto for orchestra and was used in a performance of that composition by the Philadelphia Orchestra in February, 1946. As a solo and also ensemble instrument its capabilities were apparent in its ability to enrich the tone colors of an orchestra.
The viol d’amour is of the same shape as the double bass, with sloping shoulders instead of broad shoulders as in the orchestra viola, and with a flat back instead of arched. There are usually seven strings over the fingerboard and seven of wire that run under the fingerboard. These vibrate sympathetically with notes played by the bow on the upper set of strings. The tones are beautiful, as there are so many harmonics..
The viol de gamba preceded the violoncello. It, too, has sloping shoulders, and has sometimes six, sometimes seven strings. Its tone is not as robust as that of the violoncello, but it blends beautifully with that of the viols and the harpsichord.
The viols are also of the sloping shoulder type. The treble, alto and tenor viols were not played from the shoulder. They rested on the knee. The bow was curved as the bow which shoots an arrow is curved. This allows three notes to be played at once. Bach wrote for this type of bow in his sonatas for violin alone, and in them are passages of three sustained notes.
Of the viols played in compositions of five and six parts, Mr. Robert Donington of England states that there is no music that surpasses them and goes on to say: ” . . . they are among the most spiritual music ever written: and that in feeling and even in style they remind me most of the last quartets of Beethoven.”
When Mr. Steinert reached his birthplace he became active in searching for old instruments, and much to the curiosity of the inhabitants hired a farm wagon, driver and horses and went into houses, barns, stables, searching for what he desired. He found many instruments, all out of condition and some almost wrecks of what they had been, but he purchased them and had them shipped to his store in New Haven. There, placed in the hands of expert piano repairers, they became playable, and the decorations on some shone with their former beauty after being cleaned. The result of this labor formed the famous Steinert Collection.
With instruments at hand by which he could show their merits he secured the services of Mr. H. E. Krehbiel, an eminent writer on music, for lecturing upon the instruments and the music Mr. Steinert would play. These lecture recitals Mr. Steinert gave without charge at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Smith, Vassar, Andover, and in Music Hall, Boston. This pioneer work brought him recognition from Princess Pauline von Metternich of Vienna. She requested him to play at the “Great Exhibition of Music and Drama,” 1892, and he was the only player there on the clavichord and the harpsichord. So appreciative was the interest he aroused that he was invited to play and lecture at the Vienna Conservatory. From Vienna he went to England and by invitation of Sir George Grove, then Director of the Royal College of Music, he gave recitals in that institution. At this time preparations were being made for the Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1893, and Mr. McCormack, the “Commissioner from America for the World’s Fair,” asked him to lend some of his instruments for that occasion. This he did and also lectured in a building devoted to music.
During his visit to Vienna Mr. Steinert found his greatest treasure: a harpsichord made by J. A. Hass of Hamburg, 1715. This is the largest harpsichord in existence. It has six sets of strings as follows: one sixteen foot, two eight foot, one four foot, and two of two foot. There are two keyboards and two stops, lute and harp. The price named for it at the sale of the Steinert Collection after the death of Mr. Steinert was $5,000. It is now in the splendid collection of these instruments at Holyoke, Massachusetts. On p. 217 of his Reminiscences he tells the romantic story of the finding of this instrument, splendid in tone, in volume, and in painted decoration, in the attic of a large old house, whose owner did not know it was there. After a search of the large garret it was found lying on its side, covered with dust and dirt but otherwise in good condition.
Mr. Steinert’s labors came, unfortunately, at a time when the general music public was indifferent to traditions in the art of music and looked upon what he set before it as an exhibition of the curious rather than of great art. The romantic and the impressionistic movements in music were in full sway in Europe and were meeting favor in America, and the public delighted in the portrayal of nature, and story–telling in music, namely program music. Therefore the compositions of the old masters, not being of the program type but of absolute music, met with practically no enthusiasm, no matter how beautiful they were in all their parts. The then existing difficulty in advancing the music by composers who wrote for the harpsichord was the lack of the proper instruments for their performance. Mr. Steinert’s at that time were part of his collection, therefore there were no instruments to be had in any number.
Many who listened to Mr. Steinert’s playing in large auditoriums considered the tones of the harpsichord just tinkles, and the clavichord, as an instrument, not worthy of use. Mr. Steinert’s efforts bore very little fruit at that time, but because of his love for the music of Bach and for his instruments he must have had much joy, and possibly dreamed of the time when a more intelligent and appreciative public would recognize the beauty in the works of the masters he loved.
In 1899 Mr. Arnold Dolmetsch came to America and gave concerts on a broader scale than Mr. Steinert had given. He played the harpsichord, clavichord, lute, cittern, viola d’amore, and violin, and lectured. Mrs. Dolmetsch played the harpsichord and the viola da gamba. Much interest was awakened in the music performed, and the colorful personality of Mr. Dolmetsch added much to the concerts. The more intelligent of the music lovers who attended realized that there was sublime music they never thought had existed in those past centuries, so shrouded was it with neglect. There remained, however, the same difficulty which Mr. Steinert’s efforts met, namely, the lack of instruments.
The writer of this article became fascinated by the tones of the viola d’amore after hearing Mr. Dolmetsch play upon it, and after much searching found a splendid Italian instrument but not in playing condition. Violin makers in Boston at that time were not acquainted with the structure of such an instrument, but one was found who lived in the Savin Hill district of Boston and had worked at Hill’s in London, into whose famous workshop all types of instruments had come, and he put the instrument in playing condition. That was the beginning of the writer’s collection of instruments. Later, when Mr. Dolmetsch made harpsichords and virginals at the factory of Chickering and Sons, he became the possessor of a virginal and a spinetto, both instruments of beautiful quality. Like the labors of Mr. Steinert, those of Mr. Dolmetsch in 1899 aroused curiosity among the general run of the public rather than appreciation of the instruments and the music that had been written for them. In about 1904 the Chickering Company, which had exercised a philanthropic desire to help the financial structure of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, promoted Sunday afternoon concerts in Chickering Hall. The programs were made up of orchestral, choral, and instrumental music, violin, cello, piano. With a fine sense of the needs of the time, that firm decided to promote the making of all necessary types of instruments previous to the piano, and for that purpose procured the services of Mr. Dolmetsch. Given the assistance of expert workmen, he began the making of harpsichords, spinets, virginals and viols, the last named an absolute necessity if the splendid music written for a “chest of viols” was to be heard at its best. Those who have not heard recordings made of a quartet or a sextet of viols have a delightful experience awaiting them.
To have made viols and not have them used would have left the remarkable music written for them just where it had been for over two centuries. To the writer Mr. Dolmetsch stated that in 1905 there was not a viol in Boston and no one had ever played one. After he had produced six viols he sought for good amateur violin players who could better give the time for learning to play upon the instruments than professional violinists.
The writer has often wondered if there was any other than Arnold Dolmetsch who could have kept interest alive in such an educational work and in a field strange to many. The writer, possibly his most intimate friend during his last four years in Boston, realizes that it was his spontaneous enthusiasm for the music and the instruments he loved; his patience with his pupils learning instruments entirely new to them, and, crowning all, a personality that was remarkable, and a genius equally so.
His concerts in Chickering Hall during the period of 1906 to 1910 were remarkably educational for those who desired to broaden their horizons of music. The writer has a longing to hear again the extraordinarily beautiful “Lullaby” (to the Virgin) for soprano accompanied by six viols given at a concert December 27, 1907. The background of tone of the viols was a shimmering tapestry of sound as though from an organ, but with tone qualities no organ could give. This “Lullaby”, of which the writer held the only copy after Mr. Dolmetsch returned to Europe in 1911, has been sung during the past eight years from copies made from his. Mr. Dolmetsch found this jewel in the “Processional Ritual” of the nuns of the Convent of Saint Mary, Chester, England. It was written about 1400.
Mr. Dolrnetsch was continually seeking to produce the same quality of tone–color that was extant when the compositions of the old masters were performed in former centuries, as for instance the “Concerto Grosso” by Corelli, “made for the night of Christmas.” This requires “two violins, viola da gamba and harpsichord solo, two more violins, viola, violoncello, violone, and organ ripieni.” There was no organ in Chickering Hall and therefore he had to do the best he could with a reed organ, but its tone quality was not right for proper blending with the other instruments. What was needed was an organ with the same quality of diapasons, flute and reeds which were in the organs in the latter part of the seventeenth century.
Here the writer begs the privilege of writing in the first person, as such fits better certain experiences.
One day when Mr. Dolmetsch and I were lunching in an Italian restaurant where there was never any hurry about finishing a meal and where the food was distinctly Italian, he complained about having to use a reed organ in one of his concerts, and said in a decidedly critical tone: “This country is not old enough to have what I need, a portable organ with the same quality of tone as the organs at the time of Bach. They can be found in England, but there are none here. I have looked for them.”
In response, I said: “I can show you a portable organ in playable condition that I believe closely approximates what you want.”
“Who owns it?” he asked.
“I do at present,” and explained that I gave a check to the Estey Organ Company as a retaining fee to hold it for me until I heard from Mrs. Johnson, who was then in New Hampshire, whether she would care to add an organ chamber to the music room.
The result of our conversation was his desire to see and hear the organ. On the way to the Estey warerooms I told him that the instrument was built by William Gray of London, England., in 1805. The happy ending was that after he had played the organ he said it was just what he wanted in every way; and then enquired anxiously, after he found the price for which it could be purchased, how soon would I hear from Mrs. Johnson. I did hear from her the next morning, and her answer was a definite “No!” A piano, a virginal, a full size Hungarian dulcimer, a harp, two citterns, two violins, two violas, and other instruments were enough for her and the maid to take care of. So I telephoned to Mr. Dolmetsch that he could have the organ, and it was purchased by the Chickering Company.
After Mr. Dolmetsch returned to Europe in 1911, I lost track of the lovely instrument until 1937 when I saw in the Boston Transcript notices of organ recitals in the Fogg Art Museum on Saturday afternoons, the programs mostly of the music of the composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The organist was Mr. Claude Jean Chiasson. At the close of the first recital that I attended I went to the balcony on the second floor where the organ was and found that the instrument was the one I helped Mr. Dolmetsch to purchase. Mr. Chiasson did not know the history of the instrument, neither did the Directors of the Museum, as I later found out, and they were pleased when I wrote its history for them, namely, it was originally in Holden Chapel, Harvard College. When Appleton Chapel was built, the organ in Holden Chapel was sold to a little church in Vermont. Then, in 1909 it was replaced by a larger pipe organ by the Estey Company and brought to its rooms. The Museum, therefore, now has the first pipe organ used for religious services at Harvard.
In 1909 Mr. Dolmetsch gave concerts in his own home in Cambridge. The attendance was limited to thirty persons. These concerts brought together some of the most intelligent music lovers, and one was sure to come in contact with persons of rare learning and culture and knowledge of the best in the arts. At the intermission of each concert the dining–room doors were opened and a buffet supper was served; then more music in the music room.
Mr. and Mrs. Dolmetsch were particular about the manner in which their food was prepared. All roasts were cooked on the turning spit. When the weather was warm enough, luncheon and dinner were served on the veranda which faced the lovely garden. Sometimes in summer I arrived there in time to do weeding, also to collect the bleached romain, escarolle, endive. Then came a delightful dinner with equally delightful talk relative to music and the allied arts. Then to the music room. With all cares of the day done at the Chickering factory, Mr. Dolmetsch rested in a large easy chair for a short time, and then made his way to either the clavichord or to the harpsichord and did his practicing, not by playing scales but by playing the works of the masters. There was the true artist, and in a few minutes he evidently forgot I was present. From whichever instrument he chose to play there came forth great compositions masterfully performed. In that quiet end of the music room, shut in from the noises outside by the garden wall and at the hour of tender eventide, there was a quietness which allowed the floating tones of the clavichord to be heard in all their loveliness. At a certain period in his practicing, when the spirit moved him to play Bach, he lovingly made the gentle clavichord caress the thirds and the sixths in the Andante expressivo of the Preludio XII in F minor. He made much of using just the right speed of vibrato on those thirds and sixths and they gave out a haunting loveliness of sound.
When Mr. Dolmetsch returned to Europe, the making of the old instruments, also the playing of viols and most of the enthusiasm he had created, declined, so that from about 1912 to 1931 there was no professional interest from any source in Boston. But Mr. Arthur Whiting of New York City, eminent pianist, composer and teacher, did much to keep the torch which Mr. Dolmetsch had lighted from being extinguished.
About 1931, Mr. Putnam Aldrich and Mr. Ralph Kirkpatrick, both pupils of Madame Wanda Landowska, returned from Europe and began concertizing with harpsichords. They and Mr. Whiting showed what a beautiful melodic line could express as against the short and gasping themes of some of the composers of that period. What the writer means is illustrated by the performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Sunday, February 10, 1946, of a sonata for violin and harpsichord by Corelli, arranged for string orchestra. At the close the applause was so great that the last movement was repeated, and met with even greater applause. It was evident that another repeat would have been appreciated. Here was a composition which required no large orchestra, brilliant orchestral coloring or tremendous climaxes of sound to command applause. By its beauty of harmonic texture and melodic line it entranced the audience in Carnegie Hall.
In 1936 the writer felt that the concerts by professional harpsichordists were too few and paying audiences small, and that there should be concerts open to the public. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was the place in which they should be held. At that time the Metropolitan Museum of Art was giving Sunday afternoon concerts and they were largely attended. The Boston Museum possessed a splendid large Kirkman harpsichord with four sets of strings, and this could be used at concerts. This instrument was formerly owned by Canon Galpin, of England. It was made in 1798. The plectra are from the quills of feathers of the crow, and produce a tone beautiful, brilliant and of reedy quality. It has what few harpsichords possess, namely, a set of louvers over the strings like the louvers in swell–boxes of organs by which the volume of sound can be increased or decreased. It has two stops which give the effect of the tones of a lute and a harp. It had at some time, so Canon Galpin informed the writer, previous to his purchase of the instrument, an arrangement at the extreme left side for connecting the lowest octave with twelve pedals, so that organ compositions could be played. By 1937 the writer felt the time had come to put this splendid instrument to some use. He had lent his virginal and spinetto for concerts at the Harvard Club; for a performance of Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” at Leverett House; at Radcliffe for the “Beggar’s Opera,” and for a concert in the Fogg Art Museum, and the audiences showed enthusiastic appreciation when the instruments were used for solos. He believed that concerts in the Boston Art Museum would put that institution into a distinctive place, as no other Museum had employed a harpsichord in concerts.
“But what about putting the instrument in playable condition, who can do it?” was the first question asked by the one who had charge of the department in which the Kirkman harpsichord was kept. The writer gave the name of Mr. Chiasson, mentioned on a foregoing page, as one who had been trained as a harpsichordist, and stated that every harpsichordist had to know how to put strings on his instrument, plectra, dampers, and tune it. After several interviews the Museum authorities had the instrument put in condition and on January 27, 1938, Mr. Chiasson played it to a group of persons invited by the management. This took place in the beautiful McIntyre room, a place justly fitted for the style of the case of the instrument, also of the proper size for its volume and qualities. The program was from compositions of the following composers: Johann Bull (1562—1628), John Dowland (1563—1626), Samuel Wesley (1766—1837), Couperin le Grand (1668—1732), Domenico Scarlatti (1683—1757) John Sebastian Bach (1685—1750), three tunes from “The Beggar’s Opera” (1728), Dr. Thomas Arne (1710—1778), Wm. Boyce (1710—1779).
The appreciation of this concert was such that others were given in the lecture hail and then transferred to the “Tapestry Gallery.” There, during the course of over three years, until the United States entered war, the audiences increased until all seats were taken and many stood. The composers whose works were given at these concerts and were written for the harpsichord, viols, viola da gamba, viola d’amore, recorders, lute, number over sixty, by actual count.
Today, when one hears so many compositions of the masters of the schools previous to the time of Haydn, he realizes that the old music has taken a firm place in the affections of music lovers, as is shown by their inclusion in vocal, violin, cello, piano, harp and orchestral concerts. It is therefore interesting to make a comparison of the names of composers writing before Haydn, as given in the programs of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during twenty years, 1900—1920. In that period very few of the works of the old masters were given, and what were are as follows: Bach, twelve compositions, with thirtyone performances; Handel, five, with eight; Gluck, two, with two; Vivaldi, one, with one; Rameau, one, with one; Philip Emanuel Bach, one, with one. That is all.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries music was performed in suitable rooms in palaces and in country houses. These rooms were not large, probably, for instance, about forty feet long and proportionately wide. In such places, enclosed in heavy stone walls and often set about with parks, the quietness from outside noises allowed the delicate tones of harpsichords, virginals, lutes, to sound clearly and beautifully in the blending of their different voices.
When Mr. Dolmetsch returned to England he developed his work to the extent that in 1928 the Dolmetsch Foundation was formed and was located in Haslemere, England. Among the signers for that institution were some of the most eminent men in England: Robert Bridges (Poet Laureate), Sir Walford Davies, Sir William Hadow, Sir Richard Terry and Dr. W. G. Whittaker. The activities of the Foundation included instruction in playing keyboard instruments as well as in the building of harpsichords, virginals, and other instruments particularly for the performance of the old music.
At the present time of writing, harpsichords and virginals are being made by the Dolmetsch Foundation, by Pleyel in France, and in America by John Challis of Ypsilanti, Michigan, a recognized “scholar” of the Foundation. His instruments are being used by the foremost players of the harpsichord in America and are, through improved methods of construction, more efficient in tone, action and volume than those made by the celebrated makers of the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
From the following by M. St. Clare Byrne, in his volume Elizabethan Life, one will realize the great debt music lovers owe to the age when music was enjoyed by entire families in homes, and evidently more than it is now.
“Until recently we have been apt, as a nation, to deprecate our taste and skill in music, and to assume that our musical history is a blank. As a result of the work done by modern scholars upon Tudor music we are just beginning to realize that in the sixteenth century we led the world; that in this art we were without peers, sent our teachers to Italy to impart their skill and methods, and were looked to by the whole of Europe as the most musical of all civilized nations. Our Elizabethan music both vocal and instrumental, printed and in manuscript, is an enormous body of work that should be one of our proudest possessions, but that we are only beginning to discover and appreciate. As Sir Henry Hadow has put it: ‘It is not too much to say that our music of the sixteenth century was of as great account as our literature: Palestrina is like Dante, Byrd is like Shakespeare, and he has round him a company of wit and genius not inferior to that which gathered at the Mermaid.’
“Ordinary Elizabethan men and women felt ashamed if they could not take their part in the singing of a madrigal or accompany their songs upon the lute. Musical instruments and books of music were left about the room to solace the waiting guest . . . An Elizabethan expected his visitor to pick up a music book and read an elaborate part–song for four or five voices and sing his part at sight; when the dinner was over he called for his music books, and he and his guests and his children and his servants sang them as probably no such haphazard gathering of country folks has ever been able to sing since.”
The foregoing speaks only of the music used in homes. There was, however, an immense number of compositions for the organ by eminent composers and in these the counterpoint is masterly written. Mr. E. Power Biggs, whose reputation as a master of organ playing is internationally known and who is a profound scholar of all types of music for the organ, has given out by radio and in recitals a very large number of noble compositions that twenty–five years ago were not known to exist. These have been played at the Germanic Museum, Harvard College, on the Baroque organ. At times he has had the assistance of string and wind instrument players, according to the scoring by the composers.
This music, combined with that of chamber music written previous to Haydn; the constant increase in the number of trained harpsichordists; the splendid instruments being manufactured; the rapid growth of appreciation of the music written for them; the many arrangements of that music being made for the orchestra the public has today, covers a period extending from the fifteenth century to the present; whereas twenty-five years ago, its knowledge went back only to Haydn, with now and then a few excursions into the compositions of Bach.
From the pioneer efforts of Morris Steinert in 1892 in America, a well as on the continent and in England, at a period when only one out of a hundred music-lovers knew what a harpsichord was, millions have now heard that instrument in concert halls and over the radio. The earnest students of composition have now an immensely larger number of models in form, style, harmony, melody, and counterpoint for the foundation of their studies than were ever previously accessible. This is the result of the renascence of the works of the old masters through the labors of seers and prophets.