Archive for the ‘performing arts’ Category

anton walter and the una corda shift

April 24, 2014

© Tilman Skowroneck 2014

The following text represents a snippet of authentic research, too small to warrant a printed article, but too important not to share. It is fully referenced, and may be used in a scholarly context. Please make sure to identify this blog as the source.

This short article is about a passage at the beginning of a letter dated Vien d: 5. junii 1802, from the Swedish diplomat Fredrik Samuel Silverstolpe to his superior, Jacob de la Gardie (1768-1842). De la Gardie was the Swedish envoy in Vienna between 1799 and 1801. At the time of writing, Silverstolpe was still in Vienna; among other things, he bought two fortepianos for de la Gardie. Silverstolpe’s letter is of interest because it provides some detailed information about the nature and construction of the second one of these instruments.

The passage in question helps us to date the earliest known experiments in Vienna with the so-called una corda stop, or rather the keyboard shift (in this case, as we will see, it allows for striking two or three unison strings), made by Anton Walter. Because of a well known letter by Beethoven from November of the same year 1802, we have, in fact, always wondered whether Walter made pianos with the una corda in 1802. In his letter, Beethoven instructs his friend Nikolaus Zmeskall to ask Walter for an instrument with that same feature, which he, we believe, knew from an Erard grand piano that Joseph Haydn owned 1). However, the earliest surviving Walter piano with an una corda is believed to date from c. 1810, that is, full eight years later than Beethoven’s letter. Beethoven may have been mistaken about Walter’s construction, and his letter has not always been taken seriously. 2)

Silverstolpe’s letter, written in Swedish, shows that Walter in fact was building instruments with the una corda in 1802. It was previously only known in an excerpt, translated into German and published in the appendix of a dissertation by C.-G. Stellan Mörner from 1952. 3) The passage in question has remained unknown to organologists for a long time. When it finally was acknowledged in an organological context in 2000, Stellan Mörner’s German translation was used and not in the the original Swedish source. 4) In my own discussion of Beethoven’s above-mentioned letter, 5) I referred to that same German version. After a few fruitless attempts over the years to locate the original letter, I  finally found out that the entire collection of Silverstolpe’s letters to de la Gardie is preserved in the De la Gardieska arkivet in Lund. A single e-mail request finally provided me with a beautiful scan of the original. 6)

The short passage about Walter’s fortepiano stands at the very beginning of the letter (which otherwise contains a lot of other information, but little about pianos. We can, for example, read some of the gossip of the day: someone experimented with gunpowder in his house and blew himself up, returning to the earth in “thousand pieces”). As it turns out, Stellan-Mörner’s German translation is very good, and the date of the letter is correct.

Below I will first reproduce my own transcription of the passage about Walter’s piano from the Swedish original, followed by an English translation and a short discussion. (more…)

teachers and students: transmission versus copying

March 30, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

Gustav Leonhardt’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Ciaccona

Musical transmission is a well-explored topic in the history of Western music. In a rare filmed appearance, pianist Edwin Fischer recited, more than explained, how it works: “Beethoven instructed Czerny how to play the Well-tempered Clavier; Czerny taught it to Liszt; Liszt taught it to Eugène d’Albert.” The clip is part of the documentary “The Art of Piano” (found at 1:07:31 of this YouTube video). To complete the lineage for the benefit of readers of our time: d’Albert taught Fischer, who was endorsing his then-new recording of Bach’s WTC.

In addition to being a great-great-grandpupil of Beethoven, Fischer was also a celebrated teacher. His statement about the musical lineage that authenticated his way of playing Bach can be seen as a statement about pedagogy rather than a display of vanity. It tells us that by the mid-20th century, the idea of a student imitating the example of his teacher was considered more than just valuable in a general sense.

To Fischer, the transmission of skills, knowledge and values from teacher to student in an unbroken tradition was profoundly meaningful: the essence of why one became a pupil, or later a teacher. This idea is not new. In France in the 1670s, J.L. Le Gallois suggested the same pedagogy of learning by imitation in his famous praise of Chambonnière’s way of playing: “in order to learn the pieces of each master, it is necessary to study them with the same masters who have composed them, or with their best pupils.”

For a student of harpsichord in Amsterdam in the 1980s, however, learning by imitation was not normally considered an option. On the contrary. (more…)

new dissertation about j.a.stein

April 26, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

On May 4, 2012, Robin Blanton will defend her doctoral dissertation in musicology. The title is Johann Andreas Stein’s 1781 Claviorganum and the Construction of Art in Eighteenth-Century Augsburg.

The dissertation is available for download at the following link: http://hdl.handle.net/2077/28876. Printed copies are available for sale from the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

The defense will take place at 1 p.m. in Vasaparken, the main building of the University of Gothenburg, on Vasagatan, Sal 10. The opponent will be Assistant Professor of Music Emily Dolan of the University of Pennsylvania.

Gustav Leonhardt 1928-2012

January 18, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

It is a sad occasion that makes me resume the writing of blog posts: yesterday morning the news reached me that Gustav Leonhardt has passed away on 16 January in his Amsterdam home.

Gustav Leonhardt walking the streets of Vienna. Photo by Ibo Ortgies, October 22, 2011

As I wrote elsewhere, I remember Gustav Leonhardt as a lifelong friend and mentor. Lifelong, because our first encounter happened at a time that I do not even remember. I am told that I was two years old; friend, because that’s what he was to me: always kind, inquiring, never brusque, and on many occasions more than ready to share not only musical, but also completely unmusical experiences such as a new movie, a book with high-end photos of Bugatti cars, a (slow, one may add) sightseeing drive through the summery back country of Siena, Tuscany, or the offerings of one or another new Amsterdam restaurant; mentor, finally, because since the first time I touched a keyboard (with higher aims than a plinking or plunking agenda, which was at the age of five and a half) Gustav Leonhardt’s musicianship has been a continuous source of inspiration for me. When I finally was in the position to take lessons at his house in Amsterdam, he spent considerable time and effort to critically assess my playing (quite in contrast to his generally complimentary style at masterclasses), from which I benefit every day even today, and for which I am eternally grateful.

The impact of this shift in the world of historical performance practice will be great. No matter whether in accordance or in opposition, there will be few harpsichordists today whose playing is not, in one way or another, influenced by Leonhardt’s approach. Now, all of a sudden, we’re on our own. The impact on the world of his closer friends and colleagues is immense. His unique wit, brilliancy and warmth will be missed at every moment to come.

My thoughts are with his wife Marie Leonhardt, his family, and his friends.

The New York Times Obituary is available under this link.

lecturing or entertainment?

June 13, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

Fellow wordpressers know this, of course: somewhere in the functions that only can be accessed by the blog owner there is a little window that lists all the search terms that people used for finding one’s blog. Last week, someone found my website by searching for the words nobody needs a harpsichord.

Of course, one cannot but wonder what circumstance prompted someone to type these words of wisdom into a search window. But words of wisdom they are, at least almost: we, the harpsichordists, have to make a dedicated effort of making our music accessible to listeners who often didn’t even know that they needed us. It is possible; the ubiquitous manifestations of (positive, to be clear) surprise after a recital (“I didn’t know a harpsichord could sound like that!”) are ample proof that a single person playing old music on a box with strings and plectra can, in fact, provide true listening pleasure to audiences.

The harpsichordist largely depends on getting the entire package of her or his recital across “as is.” Dancing, for example, funny costumes, grimaces, dramatic monologues, cigar juggling or walking on one’s hands don’t really do the trick to make a harpsichord recital more palatable to the audiences. The times that the use of an “exotic” instrument in itself worked like a hat trick are long gone. (more…)

harpsichords, art worlds and support personnel

June 11, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

“Art worlds decline when some groups that knew and used the conventions which inform their characteristic works lose that knowledge, or when new personnel cannot be recruited to maintain the world’s activities.” (Howard S. Becker Art Worlds, 349)

The importance of “support personnel” and “conventions” in art worlds is somewhat easier understood when we look at examples of everyday technology: until a few years ago, for example, it was not problematic in the least to get color films adequately developed, printed, or put on a high-resolution CD. For the past two years or so it has become very difficult to find labs that are still matching this standard: real film is nowadays processed so rarely that it (apparently) has become a major hassle for the labs to keep their chemicals fresh and uncontaminated. As a result, some of my most recent pictures resemble my first photographic efforts when they came back from our corner-store developing service back in the sixties, featuring indistinct colors, embedded particles of dust and debris, specks, and scratches.

But not only the standard of the technology and its maintenance declines. The people who are there for me to talk to about my pictures have no longer any clue about the processes involved in conventional photography. (more…)

beethoven the pianist, neefe, and a clarification

March 13, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

Early Music has, to my knowledge, been first with an encouraging and generous review of Beethoven the Pianist, for which I am very grateful. For subscribers of EM, the full text is available here.

Reviews inevitably reveal some points of lacking clarity. In this case, reviewer Siân Derry alerts me to a missed chance of an explanation during my presentation of one of my side plots, which addresses the extent of Christian Gottlob Neefe’s influence on the young Beethoven (I am arguing that that influence may not have been quite as great as the usual Beethoven biographies are claiming).

Here is the passage of the review that explains the problem:

[Skowroneck's] assertion that Neefe “does not mention giving Beethoven keyboard instruction at all” and that “by 1783, any keyboard tuition by Neefe (if it ever took place) belonged to the past” (pp.43-3) is compromised by his omission from consideration of Neefe’s letter of 19 January 1785. Yet on an earlier page (p.41) Skowroneck includes parts of this letter–which states that Neefe was forced to teach six hours each day and that “Beethoven will be most happy of all, but I doubt nevertheless that he will truly profit from this” — but fails to pursue its implications for his argument.

What Neefe actually addressed here is explained by his own position in early 1785. After the death of the old Elector Maximilian Friedrich on April 15, 1784, some influential people at the Bonn court acted to diminish Neefe’s influence there, partly because he had been frequently absent, replaced by Beethoven. The situation quickly turned ugly; (more…)


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