Early Keyboard Instruments in European Museums. By Edward L. Kottick and George Lucktenberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. [xxviii, 276 pp. ISBN 0-253-33239-7. $35.00.]
Reviewed by Lisa Crawford*
1.1 As the authors explain in the introduction, Early Keyboard Instruments in European Museums is not the encyclopedic overview of historical keyboard instruments in museums throughout Europe that the title might suggest. The scope of the book is limited by several factors beyond the authors control. For one thing, some museums responded to the authors request for information more thoroughly and responsibly than others. In addition, the holdings of a museum may change temporarily or permanently as they loan, borrow, sell or buy instruments. Further limitations were self-imposed by the authors, who were faced with the impossibility of describing every instrument in every museum in detail without ending up with a vast and unwieldy catalog. Only selected instruments in selected museums are described in the book, and the descriptions are weighted towards the visual appearance of the instrument (decoration, range, disposition, unusual mechanisms), rather than technical/builderly details. The result is a guide that falls somewhere between an informal, chatty introduction to those instruments that the authors decided were the most significant in each collection (a little like the taped tour guides one can rent in art museums) and a brief, well-documented summary of recent organological wisdom about early keyboard instruments. For many years Lucktenberg and Kottick led annual guided tours to the instrument collections of Europe. This book is a natural outgrowth of their joint experience in the field.
1.2 In setting out to write a book of this nature it must have been difficult to decide what level of background knowledge to assume on the part of the reader, and what objective the reader might have in consulting it. If I were planning a trip to Europe to look at early keyboard instruments, this would be an excellent starting point, since the information is organized by location. It would also prove helpful if I were already in Europe, visiting museums that do not provide much information for the public about their instruments (although some museums publish their own guide-books, with pictures and technical information that would be more helpful still). But although I understand the authors dilemma, I found the books limitations to be frustrating. If my goal were to learn about specific instruments in depth, or about certain styles of harpsichord building, historically and technically, I would need to go to a different set of sources, such as Donald H. Boalchs Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord, 1440–1840, 3d ed., edited by Charles Mould (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Martha Novak Clinkscales Makers of the Piano, Vol. 1: 1700–1820 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993; reprinted with corrections, 1995); Grant OBriens Ruckers, a Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); The Historical Harpsichord series, edited by Howard Schott (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1992); and others in which more complete or more systematic information is offered. Indeed, the authors advise the reader to consult these sources, and when describing instruments they often give specific references to the relevant literature.
1.3 In general, those who visit museums with the express purpose of looking at early keyboard instruments fall into one of three categories: first, players and enthusiasts with some familiarity with the instruments, but no specialized builderly know-how or specialized historical interest; second, builders, professional or amateur, who want to see the originals; and finally, those who want to design a self-guided, traveling curriculum in early keyboard organology, or in a specialized area such as French harpsichords, Italian harpsichords, Viennese pianos, etc. For those in the first category, this book would be a good beginning, supplemented by other material. For the other groups, Boalch, OBrien, etc., might provide a better foundation. Particularly for the last group, it is unfortunate, though understandable, that private collections, which house some of the most important existing instruments, could not be included.
1.4 The authors have coped with their built-in
difficulties by framing the material extremely well. Each section of the
book dealing with a specific museum begins with contextual material about
the collection itself: who the original private collector was, how the
collection evolved, even a description of the city in which the museum
is located. Each section ends with a list of catalogs, checklists or other
published material about the collection. The detailed glossary at the
end of the book will certainly be helpful to those who have limited knowledge
of keyboard terminology. It also solves the problem of defining terms
every time they come up in the text (e.g., clavecin brisé), since
this is the type of book that is more likely to be dipped into than read
from beginning to end. Sometimes, however, it is likely that a reader
without sufficient background will be puzzled by unexplained references.
For instance, in the discussion of the Hass clavichord in Brussels, a third set of strings (the 4' in the bass) is mentioned. Nowhere in the
volume did I find an explanation of the usual disposition of a clavichord,
fretted or unfretted; it is assumed that the reader is familiar with the
2.1 Kottick and Lucktenberg are knowledgeable and articulate. Their prose is enjoyable to read and their enthusiasm for their subject comes through. Usually their decisions about which instruments to describe demonstrate good judgment about their significance historically, technically, or visually. Of course, the amount and types of detail are not consistent from instrument to instrument. This disparity can be tantalizing. On the one hand, sometimes the portrait of an instrument is drawn in a cogent and concentrated paragraph that leaves an indelible impression on the reader. It might be a question of an offbeat instrument which one would never find described in other literature, like the anonymous seventeenth-century spinet in Salzburg with the complex and unusual (though not unique) short-octave arrangement in the bass, the de Quoco Italian harpsichord with the Cornettzug in Copenhagen, or the three mystery instruments in Barcelona. Or it might be an excellent distillation of organological research, for instance, the description on pp. 52–53 of the Ruckers ravalements in Paris, or of the 1560 Trasuntino in Berlin, the 1574 Baffo in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and there are many others. On the other hand, sometimes only a few sentences are allotted to describe an instrument that seems to demand more, like the marvelous Couchet harpsichord in Brussels.
2.2 Throughout the book the tone alternates
constantly between an informal tour-guide style and detailed, scholarly
prose. The handful of descriptions of sound belong in the informal category;
they seem subjective or sometimes just vague. About the large 1695 Nobili
harpsichord in Rome: its bold, grandiose tone commands attention and
respect. The Brussels Couchet is one of the finest-sounding antique
harpsichords we have heard. The Gerstenberg pedal clavichord in Leipzig
was created for an organist as a practice instrument; but it makes a
powerful statement in its own right (or perhaps this is meant to refer
to the instruments complex construction). Again, it is understandable
that there are so few descriptions of sound—many museum instruments are
either not permitted to be played or not restored to playing condition.
And descriptions of sound are always impressionistic in nature unless
the sound is analyzed scientifically, which would have been impossible
under the circumstances. Still, these descriptions do not convey any verifiable
information to the reader, who probably will not be able to hear the instruments.
3.1 Since one of the primary functions of this volume is to serve as an indication of the current holdings of the various museums (a snapshot, as the authors put it in the introduction), it might be a good candidate for publishing on the Web, where it could be easily updated, as might the third edition of Boalch, which is in the same category.
3.2 In short, as long as one understands its somewhat informal nature and its limitations, this book is a fascinating addition to the growing literature on early keyboard instruments, especially for those who plan to take their own self-guided instrument tour of Europe.
* Lisa Crawford is Professor of Harpsichord
at Oberlin Conservatory. Among her activities over the last few years
were arrangement and recording of the complete harpsichord works of Gaspard
Le Roux for two harpsichords with Mitzi Meyerson and leading two instrument
tours to France for harpsichord and organ students.
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