Mysteries, Mysteries

Another splendid harpsichordist: Kathleen Scheide

The San Diego Harpsichord Society (www.harpsichord-SD.com) presented a house concert at the Del Cerro home of the group's president, Jim Sherman. The artist was Kathleen Scheide, a founding member of the Harpsichord Society, formerly a teacher of several of its members, and now a music professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas.

 

Scheide performed on Sherman's unusual instrument, a modern construction by David Sutherland of Ann Arbor, based on Italian Baroque models. This fine harpsichord is unusual because it has two keyboards (a relative rarity in the Italian tradition) and because of its size, close to nine feet. It might not have been thought the most appropriate instrument for the French Baroque repertoire that made up the core of the concert (substantial works by Forqueray and François Couperin le Grand). But as it turned out, the soft brass wiring provided rich timbres and complex overtones, and the instrument's great length made possible a blooming, resonant bass. Together, these features created a sound which, although lacking the fully ripe French resonances, threw a particularly lucid and sweet light on the structural characteristics of the music. The effect was underlined by Scheide's wonderfully idiomatic command of French Baroque style.

The French core of the program was surrounded by earlier and later music from different traditions. Scheide began with two late Renaissance (or early Baroque) works by Sweelinck, an eminent Amsterdam composer who lived from 1562 to 1621. The first of these was his remarkably extended version of John Dowland's Lachrimae pavane, "Flow My Tears," in which the style of keyboard writing at every instant vividly recalls the lute original--something Scheide's performance made clear. Sweelinck's lively variations on the popular tune "Balletto del granduca" are more of an exciting crowd-pleaser, as Scheide's zestful playing demonstrated. (This work can be equally delightful on the organ.)

The program ended with a C Minor Sonata by Jiri Benda (1722-1795), a somber little work in the quirky, searching, nervous, post-Baroque style of C.P.E. Bach. Like virtually any such piece on a program of fully achieved Baroque music, this might have come as a disappointing anti-climax, except for Scheide's deep empathy with the new manner, and the intense strangeness she brought out in Benda's disconcerting harmonic progressions and abrupt pauses.

Even in the best possible performance (which this may well have been), the Benda Sonata would invariably be outclassed by the magnificent keyboard works of Couperin and Forqueray that preceded it on the program. Interestingly, instead of playing one of Couperin's 27 keyboard suites, with their incredible variety of inventive character pieces, Scheide chose the more modest collection of eight preludes that Couperin published in 1717 to accompany his treatise on harpsichord playing, L'Art de toucher le clavecin (she omitted the additional D Minor Allemande). The treatise itself offers some useful comments about deportment that ought to be taken to heart by many keyboard artists living long after Couperin's time (1668-1733): the player, we are told, should move the body as little as possible, not beat time with head or feet, and not make faces (a mirror on the music rack is recommended as a way to combat that tendency). There are also detailed technical instructions about how to perform the various ornaments (so essential to the French style), and about fingerings--often counter-intuitive--as ways of implementing the composer's ideas of phrasing.

At a deeper level, and of signal importance for performers of this music, Couperin incisively defines his style and its intended effects. Although the harpsichord's sounds cannot be varied in volume (Couperin tell us), a high degree of expressiveness is possible through fingering and ornamentation. It is this expressiveness--more specifically, the touching of the listener's feelings--that the music principally aims at. Furthermore, his music must be played with rhythmic freedom and nuance, while respecting the underlying meter. What is required is a lilt that cannot be minutely specified in the score, but that depends on the performer's good taste.

All these fundamental elements--expressiveness, lilt, and good taste--were present in Scheide's reading of the preludes, which constitute not only a series of brief, sophisticated excercises for keyboard technique, but also a sampling of the composer's musical language. In this, they resemble Chopin's Ètudes, and in their own context they are of comparable brilliance.

Couperin's preludes are divided into pieces to be played with relatively strict meter and those requiring a freer, less metrical, and more improvisatory treatment of rhythm, as had been the tradition of lute or keyboard preludes in the early Baroque. As Couperin remarks, music has its verse but it also has its prose (by which he is referring not to any supposedly prosaic quality--his music is never dull--but to the absence of regular metrical units). In both cases, Scheide emphasized the extraordinary subtlety of Couperin's rhythmic effects, as well as his ravishing fusion of powerful harmonic movement, superb melodies, and complex textures that themselves are magically expressive.

Couperin's music is at once utterly full and utterly poised, with emotion and form held in a mutually enhancing balance that might accurately be called "classical." Forqueray's music, in contrast, is more romantic, more daring in its harmonic language, more extreme in its emotionalism. Any piece of Couperin leaves you feeling stengthened and assured, in a stable world. A typical piece of Forqueray leaves you in a state of dynamic excitement, with a sense of having broken through boundaries. But although this difference in manner and personality is palpable (no one hearing Scheide's Couperin and her Forqueray could doubt it), it is not at all clear whom we are talking about when we say "Forqueray." Here we have a mystery.

Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) was a famous viola da gamba player under the regimes of Louis XIV and Louis XV. This irascible man (his wife left him five times) had a son, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray (1699-1782), also a famous gambist, with whom his relationship was stormy. The father had his 16-year-old son imprisoned for gambling, theft, womanizing, and general bad behavior. Ten years later, he succeeded in getting the young man exiled (the exile was brief, since Jean-Baptiste's pupils among the aristocracy quickly succeeded in having him recalled to France). After repeatedly cutting his son out of his will, Antoine later partially relented: at least, he left Jean-Baptiste his collection of viols (although the bulk of his estate went elsewhere).

Antoine was a composer. A very small number of his rather modest compositions exist in manuscript; but he never published a single work. Two years after his father's death, Jean-Baptiste printed five suites for viola da gamba under the name of Antoine Forqueray, adding to one of the suites (the third, which was the one Kathleen Scheide played) three pieces he explicitly declared to be by himself. The attributions have aroused considerable controversy among musicologists. One school takes Jean-Baptiste at his word. At the other extreme, it has been suggested that Jean-Baptiste was the author of all five suites, perhaps building on material from his father's performances.

One hardly knows what to make of these opposed hypotheses, with their various Oedipal implications. Did Jean-Baptiste publish Antoine's work as a belated but loving tribute to the father who had treated him so roughly? Or did he cynically use Antoine's name and reputation as a means of arousing interest in his own compositions? But why would that have been necessary, since Jean-Baptiste was himself a well-known musician with high-placed friends? (The 1747 publication was dedicated to Henriette of France, daughter of Louis XV, and Jean-Baptiste's gamba pupil; the piece in the Third Suite, "La Régente," was named for another pupil, the wife of Philippe d'Orléans, regent during the minority of Louis XV.) Moreover, if Jean-Baptiste composed all the pieces but wanted the cachet of his father's name, why should he have named himself as the composer of three of them? And if he was such an accomplished and prolific composer, why did he never publish a single additional piece during the 35 years of life left to him?

Some scholars perceive a difference in talent between the pieces attributed to Antoine and the three Jean-Baptiste claimed as his own, with Jean-Baptiste's music often considered to be inferior. Frankly, I cannot detect any stylistic differences. The characteristic Forqueray dissonance, propulsive rhythm, and obsessiveness can be heard equally in "La Ferrand" (attributed to Antoine) and in "La Angrave" (attributed to Jean-Baptiste). (Gamba players would be able to say whether the music feels different under the fingers, which would be significant evidence.) As for quality, Antoine's "La Morangis ou la Plissay," which closes the Third Suite, is one of the great Baroque chaconnes, massive, inventive, virtuosic, and--when played the way Scheide played it--stupendously exciting.

There is a further mystery. In the publication of his father's (or his own) five gamba suites, Jean-Baptiste included versions of all of them for harpsichord. (That, of course, is how we came to hear harpsichordist Scheide play music originally written for viola da gamba.) These transcriptions are basically faithful to the material in the gamba versions, but they go far beyond them. The keyboard writing is fabulous: completely idiomatic for the harpsichord, wonderfully rich and inventive, demanding the ultimate in virtuosic technique, and full of accompaniment figures, counterthemes, and delicious textural intricacies that have no place in the gamba version. This is some of the best harpsichord music of the Baroque, as Scheide's dazzling performance amply demonstrated.

The question is, who wrote it? Jean-Baptiste may have been an exemplary gambist, but there is no evidence that he was the kind of supremely gifted harpsichordist that would have been necessary to compose these scores. A likely candidate is Jean-Baptiste's second wife, Marie-Rose Du Bois, one of the most brilliant harpsichordists of her age. Yet if she could write that well, why didn't she ever compose (or "transcribe") anything else? And why didn't Jean-Baptiste give her credit--especially since he seemed so anxious to give credit to his father?

Mysteries, mysteries. There were no mysteries about Kathleen Scheide's talents, however, and none about the superlative quality of this concert.

 

Kathleen Scheide, harpsichord
San Diego Harpsichord Society
Sweelinck, Paduana Lachrymae colorirt and Balletto del granduca;
François Couperin le Grand, L'Art de toucher le clavecin;
Forqueray, Troisième Suite en ré majeur; Benda, Sonata in C Minor.

 

This review by Jonathan Saville first appeared in the January 16th, 2003 edition of the San Diego Reader.