Life and Times of Ralph Kirkpatrick


January 1963

This is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary artist, whose life and times conform so little to the usual musical career as to constitute a unique and, in its quiet way, exciting tale.

The artist’s name is Ralph Kirkpatrick. He is considered by many the greatest living master of the harpsichord. When I first heard his name, back in 1934, he was a legend around Paine Hall, Harvard University’s music building. Someone had given the music department a Chickering harpsichord, Kirkpatrick had taught himself to tune and play on it, and in no time he had blossomed into what was then a rare bird: a harpsichordist. In 1929, he received permission to practice on the instrument; after only a few months, he gave his first recital, in Paine Hall, of works by Bach and Gibbons. The following year, he played Bach’s D minor Concerto with the Harvard Pierian Sodality in Boston. The eminent critic “H.T.P.” (Horatio Parker) was there and gave Kirkpatrick a most favorable review in the late lamented Boston Transcript—the first of a long series of such reviews that now encompass the world.

H.T.P.’s review was instrumental in getting Kirkpatrick a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship from Harvard. At this point, Kirkpatrick, who had concentrated at Harvard College not in music but in fine arts, decided to make the harpsichord his career, quite a decision at the time—the more so since he had no clear idea of how to implement it. “I must have read Emerson’s article on self-reliance much too early,” Kirkpatrick says. “It (or something) has made me an incorrigible do-it-yourselfer.”

Without ever having had a lesson, Kirkpatrick played a huge program of harpsichord music at the Surette Summer School in 1931, then took off for Europe on his fellowship. His first stop was Paris, where he spent the greater part of a year studying harpsichord with Wanda Landowska and theory with Nadia Boulanger. “My relations with Landowska were very mixed,” Kirkpatrick says; they were terminated permanently in July, 1932, at which time he went to England to acquire the foundations of a clavichord technique. This year of study was the only formal training Kirkpatrick has ever had. All the rest he learned for himself.

While he was studying the keyboard, he was even more avidly working for himself on the then nearly untouched quantities of source material in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale and the London British Museum. He continued his researches in the State Library of Berlin, where he spent part of 1932 and 1933. There he met and worked briefly with Gunther Ramin and Hans Tiessen. A week before Hitler came to power, Kirkpatrick played Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations in a Collegium Musicum and received his first European rave notice—from no less a critic than Alfred Einstein, who compared Kirkpatrick with Wilhelm Kempff.

“In the spring of 1933 I set out on my first Italian journey,” Kirkpatrick reminisced. “Roger Sessions, with whom I had become friends in Berlin, put an Italian grammar in my hand and saw me to the station. Italy was a wonderful experience.” Kirkpatrick played the harpsichord and clavichord in various Italian salons and was engaged for the first time for real money—by the great art historian Bernard Berenson at the Villa I Tati. That summer, Ramin was unable to teach his classes at the Salzburg Mozarteum, and Kirkpatrick took them over. This was his first lecturing and teaching experience—and in German.

Back in America in 1933, Kirkpatrick went on practicing, researching, and playing occasional concerts. Friends chipped in and bought him his first harpsichord, a Chickering that had belonged to Busoni and that was shipped back to America from Berlin. Kirkpatrick’s first New York appearance was in 1934, with the Dessoff Choirs. He says: “It was an uphill struggle in those days, but somehow I managed to pick up odd dates and make ends meet.”

One of those odd dates was in the fall in 1934, when he played a program for the Harvard Musical Association in Boston. This was the first time I had seen the legendary Ralph Kirkpatrick. I was enthralled by his playing. It seemed to me that nobody could ever play better than he did then. He assures me that I was quite mistaken.

“About this time, I decided to become familiar with the whole field and literature of harpsichord music, performance practice, treatises, etc.,” Kirkpatrick continued. With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937-38, he was able to do this. Within the space of a few years, he consulted every known source on obbligato keyboard style and performing practice before 1800. Small wonder that his knowledge of this field is encyclopedic.

Here Kirkpatrick broke off the chronological account of his life and times to engage in an important aside. “I am no longer so interested in theoretical problems, Aufführungspraxis, and the like as I was formerly. The important thing is to train musicians. Courses on old music are useful, I admit, but I no longer want to give them. The danger is that players· who haven’t learned to phrase are concerned with the niceties of ornamentation. Scholarship is a prerequisite, to be sure, but it can become a thing in itself, pretending to answer certain questions that can’t be answered. There is no substitute for direct penetration into the work of art itself.”

From the spring of 1938 until 1946, Kirkpatrick was actively involved with the performance of 18th-century music at Williamsburg, Va. As musical adviser and principal performer, he was responsible for well over 50 solo and chamber-music concerts of works associated with the early days of Virginia: From 1942 until 1950, he made extensive tours with violinist Alexander Schneider, playing mainly the sonatas of Mozart and Bach.

In 1940, he began teaching part-time at Yale University and has “taught every Friday since.” From this time on, the themes of Kirkpatrick’s life and times are so numerous that the contrapuntal texture becomes very complicated—but never opaque. They are all, it might be added, derived from the main subject.

One of the themes—and an important one—is summer concertizing in Europe. In 1947, Kirkpatrick went abroad for the first time after the war, playing in England, France and Holland.

The following year, he toured Western Germany under the auspices of the United States Military Government. As Theater and Music Officer, I had the pleasurable duty of helping to arrange his schedule and performances at a time when Germany was still flat on its back, and every “normal” procedure presented a problem. It was then that I watched the Germans’ jaws drop as this American played “their” Bach as they had never heard it. The German press was wildly enthusiastic, and since that time Kirkpatrick’s playing has become the accepted standard by which other harpsichordists are judged. Sinoe 1955, he has been a regular participant in the biennial Bach Festival in Ansbach and will be there again in 1963. In 1956, he made his first recordings with Deutsche Gramrnophon Gesellschaft, taping Bach’s English Suites. Two years later, he agreed to record all of Bach’s keyboard works for DGG, adding in that year the partitas and variations. Since then, he has made two versions—one for harpsichord, the other for clavichord—of Book I of the “Well-tempered Clavier”; both versions will be released in the near future.

Since 1956, Kirkpatrick has played each year in the leading cities of Europe—always to sold-out houses and with phenomenal press. His reputation abroad is perhaps even greater than in America. During the winters, he has continued his concertizing in the United States and his teaching at Yale. Recently he added another activity: bricklaying. In 1961, he took eight months off from his strenuous routine; during four of them he did not touch an instrument. “It was then that I began my career as a bricklayer,” he remarked wryly. “I’ve been do-it-my-selfing at my country place, Old Quarry, in Connecticut. Last summer, I laid over 3,000 bricks. I spend more time there, and less in Manhattan, than formerly. It is beautiful country.”

Another of Kirkpatrick’s “themes,” begun in 1940, came to fruition in 1953: his definitive book on Domenico Scarlatti. In the same year, his authoritative edition of Scarlatti sonatas appeared, and he played the first of his now famous Scarlatti cycles, embracing some 60 sonatas of this master, for whose revival Kirkpatrick is largely responsible.

“This marked the end of my ‘scholarly period,’ “he remarked with apparent pleasure. “I now find it extremely pleasant just to play music.”

Another of Kirkpatrick’s secondary themes dropped out of the counterpoint in 1956: “That year marked the end of my flirtation with the Mozart piano. I had learned from it what I wanted to know, and could apply this knowledge to the modern piano. It is abhorrent to produce an antiquarian Mozart; of all composers, Mozart defies the pedants and throws them into complete confusion. The same is not true, alas, of, Bach.” Quite a statement from one of the leading scholars of our time. Or should we say scholar-musician when speaking of Kirkpatrick? For we suspect that his scholarly background has a great deal to do with his pre-eminence as a performer.

From this running account of Ralph Kirkpatrick’s life and times it will readily be seen that all his varied activities have a direct connection with the central theme of his existence: the harpsichord. And they all converge when he appears on the concert platform, as he does this month in Carnegie Recital Hall in what he calls a “small” festival of Bach’s harpsichord and clavichord music—typical understatement of the kind that makes Ralph Kirkpatrick one of the most amiable of human beings, as well as a great artist.


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