Reflections of an American Harpsichordist

COMPOSERS: Various composers
LABELS: Rochester UP
ALBUM TITLE: Reflections of an American Harpsichordist
WORKS: Unpublished Memoirs, Essays, and Lectures of Ralph Kirkpatrick
PERFORMER: ed. Meredith Kirkpatrick
CATALOGUE NO: ISBN 978-1-58046-591-5


Following 2014’s publication of a collection of his eminently urbane correspondence, anyone impelled to know more about the trailblazing American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick will welcome its sequel – again edited with exemplary thoroughness by his niece Meredith Kirkpatrick. Divided into four sections spanning essays, reflections and lectures, it’s kick-started by an agreeably gossipy memoir opening in pre-war Salzburg where Poulenc, Eugene Ormandy and the poet Stephen Spender were among those dropping by his studio. There’s a vividly-observed vignette of Franco’s Spain as he pursues his groundbreaking Scarlatti studies (striking gold when the Madrid telephone directory unexpectedly yields a descendant); and his evident gift for friendship musters an eclectic assortment ranging from choreographer Martha Graham to the jazz singer Billie Holiday. There are less improbable collaborations too, notably on Elliott Carter’s hair-raisingly difficult Double Concerto for harpsichord and piano. It earns an essay to itself, anecdotally strong on the rollercoaster preparations for the premiere though short on insights into the work itself.

Humour and waspish observations gild memoir and polemic alike. Accused by a London critic of ‘schoolmasterly Bach’ he discretely attaches an ‘L’ plate to the harpsichord for his next concert; and, invited to kiss the Pope’s ring, misjudges the manoeuvre and sinks his upper teeth into the Papal hand. The ‘meat’ of the compendium however falls to the assorted writings on scholarship, style and performance. And many of the issues pondered with characteristic clarity are no less relevant 50 years on. He warns of ‘musical antiquarians’ swapping the prison for the straitjacket; neatly sums up one of the conundrums of historically informed performance asking ‘are we obliged to play as badly as Thomas Jefferson and his daughters?’; and insists it’s ‘far less wrong to perform Scarlatti well on the piano than to play it badly on the harpsichord’. Hear hear.


Paul Riley