Autobiographical Musings

Read the new autobiographical article that appeared in
Early Music America, Winter, 2015:

Playing for Time: A harpsichordist traces a
50-year career of performance, education and scholarship.


And here are some more reminiscences, describing my studies with Ralph Kirkpatrick at the Yale School of Music from 1969-1971. I wrote it as the Afterword for Ralph Kirkpatrick: Letters of the American Harpsichordist and Scholar, edited by his niece Meredith Kirkpatrick (University of Rochester Press, 2014).

I’ve added a few more observations for this site:


I first heard Ralph Kirkpatrick play in 1961. It was also the first time I had heard the harpsichord live and up close. Both were life-changing experiences. Up to that point, I was a fire-breathing, gung-ho, New York City pianist who wanted nothing more than to play Liszt and Rachmaninoff like Horowitz or Byron Janis. But after hearing Kirkpatrick play Bach on the harpsichord, I decided to make a 180-degree turn and devote myself to the instrument and its music.

I needed a harpsichord teacher to get me started, of course, and I was lucky to find an excellent one in New York: Louis Bagger, who taught me so much about articulation, color and the expressive potential of the instrument. It was only later that I learned he had worked with Kirkpatrick. Now that I had a good teacher, I needed a good harpsichord to practice on, and here too I was lucky to make the right choice: the not-yet-famous harpsichord builder William Hyman, who made a Flemish model for me in 1964 that would still pass today’s standards for historical instruments.

After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1968, and five years of private lessons with Bagger, I knew it was time for more training on the harpsichord, not to mention wider musical horizons. I also knew there was only one person who could provide these—Kirkpatrick—so I applied to the Yale School of Music to study with him. I arrived in New Haven on a grey day in November 1968, taking the Trailways bus from New York City to the small Grove Street terminal (no longer there) and walked the few blocks to 15 Hillhouse Avenue, then and now the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, where Kirkpatrick taught at that time. I peeked through the window of the harpsichord studio, took one look at the most famous and influential harpsichordist in the world, and seriously considered hopping on the next Trailways bus back to New York. Luckily I stayed.

I fully expected my audition to follow the standard format: a few words of welcome and introduction would be exchanged, some questions would be asked about my background and future plans, and then I would play my well-prepared audition pieces, after which I would be told that I would hear from the school whether I had been accepted as a student, or not. Typical duration: 15 minutes to an hour, maximum. There was, however, nothing standard or typical about this audition, nor, I would happily learn, would any of my interactions with Kirkpatrick during the next twenty years.

The audition began with a discussion about art and art history. I don’t know how or why, but when Kirkpatrick learned that I loved engravings, we spent the first hour comparing the works of Dürer and other engravers—mostly in German, although I don’t know what was worse: my insufficient knowledge of the art of engravings, or my ability to speak German, which was quite limited at that time.

My head spinning with images of “Nemesis” and “St. George on Horseback,” Kirkpatrick then invited me to sit at the harpsichord (ah, now I can show my stuff, I thought), but instead of playing my audition repertoire, he spent the second hour throwing various solo and chamber works on the harpsichord music desk and asking me to sight read them, or to sing individual lines from multi-voiced compositions while playing the rest (unlike my German, which has gotten more fluent over the years, I am told that my singing voice, which was awful then, has not improved one iota).

The third hour was spent reading figured basses in various styles (also while singing the solo flute or violin line), and then, finally, I was asked to play the pieces I had brought with me. At this point I don’t think I could have played a C-major scale without making a mistake, so I can’t imagine my performances on the keyboard were any better than how I sang, but I somehow got to the final bar of the final piece. As I staggered out of Kirkpatrick’s studio, ready to catch the next bus home and fully convinced that I would not be coming back to 15 Hillhouse Avenue, there was no more surprised, or pleased person in New Haven to hear Kirkpatrick say to me: “I look forward to seeing you here next year.” I had been accepted as his student!

Lessons with Kirkpatrick were very much like that audition, only more intense, if such a thing were possible. You rarely if ever worked on keyboard technique. It was assumed you knew how to play the instrument before you stepped into Kirkpatrick’s studio. If, as it happened from time to time, a student proved not up to that task, he would find himself being invited to leave as brusquely as he had been invited to enter. That said, Kirkpatrick was certainly able to help you solve the occasional technical issue when necessary, like a thorny fingering problem, a difficult passage, or a large leap you kept missing in a Scarlatti sonata.

Kirkpatrick’s teaching, however, was about much more than playing an instrument. On the most basic level it was about the musical essentials: melody and rhythm. His approach was equally basic: if you wanted to understand the melodic contour of a phrase, you sang it; to understand the rhythm, you danced it. And sing and dance we did. I have many memories of striding across the studio floor, awkwardly holding the score of an allemande or prelude and fugue in my hands and croaking out the tunes as I discovered the essential rhythmic element of every piece I studied. I didn’t like it much then, nor did any of his students, but it always worked! And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it still does, since I always ask my own students to do the same.

But that was just for starters. Lessons with Kirkpatrick were really about the human voice, which he righty considered the model for all musical expression, and it was our job as a students was to come as close as possible to that ideal, creating not just vowels but also consonants on the harpsichord, and learning how to sustain a long, legato line on an instrument that was not supposed to be able to do such a thing.

His lessons were also really about our civilization: its art, its literature, the theater, its culture—those things that are now labeled “cultural history.” For example, it was rare to work on a piece by Couperin without discussing the paintings of Watteau or Fragonard, or aspects of life at Versailles; or to play a piece from the Fitzwillliam Virginal Book without discussing Elizabethan poetry or the folk songs upon which the music was based; or to study a sonata by Scarlatti or Seixas without placing these in the context of the religion, music and dance of Spain or Portugal.

Lessons with Kirkpatrick were about scholarship, of course, and about sources and the need to create and/or play from the most accurate and reliable musical text, and we spent considerable time examining original manuscripts and printed editions, many of which he personally owned. They were also about instruments and what they could teach us. Our lessons were given in the same building that housed the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments (the studio was on the first floor and the historical harpsichords were displayed on the second), and there were times when I would be working with Kirkpatrick on a piece in a certain national style (e.g., French, German or Italian) and he would say “let’s try this out on one of the harpsichords upstairs.” He was talking about the Ruckers, Blanchet or Hass, all magnificent specimens from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Lessons were also living history. Since Kirkpatrick had been playing the harpsichord for forty years when I studied with him, he had many stories about the great players, builders and composers he had known and with whom he had worked; he shared quite a few with me. One of my favorites was his recollection of discussing Scarlatti with Igor Stravinsky during the premier performances of “The Rake’s Progress,” in which Kirkpatrick played the harpsichord part. When Kirkpatrick described Scarlatti’s harmonic practice of placing two different chords on top of each other to create a single sonority, Stravinsky replied: “but my good man, I do that all the time.”

Other stories involved the early years of his career, when conditions were sometimes primitive at best. Good harpsichords, for example, were the exception rather than the norm, and he said more than once that “I am sure I could play an entire concert on a table top.” His early encounters with the fortepiano were also less than ideal (he called them “rattletraps,” which they were in the 1950s), and he had little patience with the “earlier-than-thou” types that were taking over the early-music world during the late 1960s and early 1970s. His descriptions about doing the research for his landmark study of Domenico Scarlatti were also fascinating, and sometimes hair-raising. He once recalled the first time he visited the Venice library to examine its important collection of Scarlatti manuscripts. After placing his request and waiting for what seemed like hours, he was horrified to see a librarian returning with these irreplaceable manuscripts stuffed in a large cardboard box like yesterday’s newspapers.

A lesson with Kirkpatrick, like that audition, would also have no fixed length. It could last one hour, or five. This made it imperative to try to have the first lesson of the day, which typically began on Friday morning at 10 AM. Otherwise, if you were unlucky enough to be assigned the 11 AM slot, you might often find yourself sitting outside the studio, patiently waiting your turn until 3 in the afternoon.

This is not to imply that studying with Kirkpatrick was always a positive experience. There was also a mean and destructive streak to the man, as almost every student will tell you. We all have our painful stories to tell, our scars to compare. I have my fair share. For example, on one occasion, a few weeks before the first of my two recitals for the Masters degree, I played through the entire Partita in D-major of J. S. Bach for my teacher. That’s 35 minutes of uninterrupted playing. After I finished, Kirkpatrick sat there without comment for a while, and then looked up and said in that soft but powerful voice: “well, at least you showed me that you were not entirely unmusical.”

I should mention here that it seems Kirkpatrick was on the receiving end of this treatment, at least once, as he described in his book Early Years (Peter Lang: New York/Frankfurt, 1985): “In September of 1929 Wesley Weyman (his teacher at Harvard)…announced the termination of my lessons with him and gave me such a dressing-down as I have never had before or since… he stripped me of every vestige of self-esteem…Once or twice in desperation but with a cool head I have tried this kind of shock treatment on pupils of mine, but without success.”

But I never let Kirkpatrick’s darker side deter me, or at least not too much, even though it could be quite painful, since I kept telling myself that each lesson was an invaluable opportunity to learn so much about our music and our culture. I am told by my fellow students from those years, including my future wife Carol Lieberman, who was the leading violin student at Yale at the time, that “Kirkpatrick loved me,” that he would often look into the studio to see me practice, and smile. It is not for me to say if this was true, but I do know with certainty that I would never have become the musician and artist I am today without his teaching. You simply had to accept what he dished out, ignore it, and take advantage of all that he was giving—which was a great deal.

Many of his other students, at least those who appreciated what they were being given and who had sufficiently thick skins and enough self-confidence, feel or felt the same way. One was the great harpsichordist Fernando Valenti. I met Fernando for the first and only time at a dinner arranged for us in Los Angeles in 1973. I knew that he had had a falling out with Kirkpatrick and that the two men hadn’t spoken for years, so I was not sure what direction our conversation would take when we began discussing our former teacher. I think that he would have agreed with most if not all of what I have described in these reminiscences. I am sure, however, that we shared our deep respect and admiration for this great harpsichordist. This was obvious before we even had sat down at the table and unfolded our napkins. The first thing Valenti asked me was: “how’s Kirkpatrick!?”