The Keyboard in London

My photo
We (Mike Lurie, Greg Dunbar, Lauren Buono, Shawn Riley & Bryn Coveney) are a group of students studying abroad in London for the semester from Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. This blog is to document our class experiences in "The Keyboard and it's Role in London Society" course, which is being taught by Diane Birr at the Ithaca College London Center, in South Kensington. Our studies focus on keyboard instruments (the Virginal, Harpsichord, Pianoforte, Piano, Organ, Electronic keyboard) and explore how these instruments are historically interwoven with the personal and social fabric of London society.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The Decoration of Harpsichords, Clavichords, and Virginals

Instruments have long been used as forms of artwork.  In Europe, keyboards were very similar to ornate pieces of furniture, with lavish paintings and embellishments both outside and inside their cases.  Styles of decoration varied from country to country due to changes in taste and fashion.

Italian keyboard instruments tended to be very plain; the instrument itself would typically be of unpainted cypress wood.  The cases for the keyboards (as these instruments were often small enough and portable and thus needed a case to be held in) were little more decorated; sometimes they would be covered in plain leather, or more rarely, cloth; occasionally they were painted a solid colour.

Low Countries
Keyboards from the Netherlands were far more ornate than their Italian counterparts.  They tended to be painted both inside and out.  Ruckers instruments were decorated in a very specific way; they would be lined with white paper, which was then embossed with black ink.  (Today, the paper appears yellow and the ink green from age.)  The soundboards typically featured images of flowers, tulips, birds, and prawns.

English keyboards are in a class of their own.  It is rare to find a painted harpsichord or clavichord; rather, the decoration of instruments in this country is in the selection of woods and the use of marquetry (wood inlay). Typical woods chosen for these instruments are oak, maple, sandlewood, and walnut.

Instruments from France were very lavishly decorated in the 1700s.  They featured paintings both underneath the lid of the instrument, as well as in panels along the sides. They were also be painted in either a solid colour or a marbled pattern.  Their soundboards featured flowers, birds, and fruit.

German instruments began very crudely; in the 1600s, it was rare to find any keyboard instruments with any sort of decoration, but the few that did would have a single painting on the inside, typically of a mythological or biblical scene.  In the 1700s, instruments began to be painted (solid, marbled, or tortoiseshell patterns), and featured paintings of better quality with the same subjects as previously, though Chinese scenes were popular as well.

One feature that is common among all of these instruments is the Rose.  It is typically found on the soundboard of the instrument, and is a way for the manufacturer of the instrument to both sign his name and sometimes date the instrument as well.  Roses were constructed out of either cypress and paper, leather, or metal.
Links of interest:

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

20th Century English Composers

20th Century Music
Twentieth-century music broke away from conventional theory in almost every aspect. Melodies were no longer tonal.  Instead, they were many times quite elusive and could not easily be sung.  Rhythms were irregular and unpredictable.  Polyrhythms were included and can be likened to cross rhythms that previous composers, such as Brahms, used.  Chord structures are never fundamental as in previous music.  Polychords, tonal clusters, and chords based on fourths are frequently used.  Dissonance became a key factor in 20th-century music and was used to create unexpected endings, and on the whole, made the music sound more mystifying or fantasy-like.  Most importantly was the change and experimentation with tone color.  New colors were added by breaking away from traditional instrumentation, exploring new instrumental techniques, and at times, incorporating multiple percussion sounds.  All of these factors created mood and variety, yet contributed to continuity in the music.  During the 20th century, many English composers incorporated these techniques in their works.  A selection of some of England's most important 20th-century composers follow.

Ralph Vaughn-Williams (1872-1958)

• Composer, arranger, conductor
• Born in Gloucestershire, died in London 
      & is buried in Westminster Abbey
• Considered the greatest English composer since Purcell
• Studied at Trinity College, Cambridge
• Later he studied at RCM & eventually became 
     a professor there
• He possessed a deep love for folk-songs and carols
• His music has a great deal of power, nobility, and
     expressiveness, considered very "English" sounding

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

• Composer, arranger
• Came from a musical family in Brighton
• Studied at RCM as violinist & pianist
• Recieved a 4 year composition scholarship at RCM
• Teacher (of Britten), orchestral player (in London's top
     symphonies), & chamber musician
• His music is late-romantic idiom, string quartets are
     distinctive and harmonically advanced

Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

• Composer, arranger & poet
• Born in London to a rich family from Hampstead
• Studied at RCM with Corder and Matthay (piano)
• Corder introduced him to Liszt & Wagner's music, 
    which influenced Bax's compositional style
• Music blended Romanticism, Impressionism and strong
     Celtic, as well as some Russian influences

William Walton (1902-1983)

• Composer, arranger, conductor
• Born in Lancashire to a musical family,
• Died in Ischia, Italy
• Was a chorister at Oxford
• Left Oxford without a degree & went to London to live
     with a family of poets
• Viola concerto premiered by Hindemith, Cello Suites 1-3
     premiered by Rostropovich
• Crown Imperial for Kind George VI
• Growing popularity in England until Britten

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

• Composer, conductor, pianist
• Born in Lowestoft in Suffolk & died in Aldeburgh
• Composed since 5, studied with Bridge at 11, where he was
     introduced to Bartok and Schoenberg), then went for
      further studies at RCM
• Wrote many operas, the most popular is Peter Grimes
• Received many awards including the Companion of
     Honour in 1952, and became a member of the Order of
     Merit in 1965
• Performed with and composed several works for his
     friend and partner, tenor Peter Pears
• He, along with Pears and Eric Crozier, founded the
     Aldeburgh Festival

Information provided by Lauren

The Clavioline

The Clavioline was the first electronic keyboard available for mass production.  Developed in 1947 by Constant Martin in Versailles, France, this versatile keyboard had success in the early 1950’s in the UK under the Selmer Company.  Originally designed to be bolted under a piano and imitate a variety of instruments found in an orchestra, the Clavioline soon became popular as its own unique instrument.  It has been used on a variety of hit songs, from the Tornados’ “Telstar” released in 1962 (the first UK song to hit #1 on US charts) to “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” by the Beatles, included on their “Yellow Submarine” album.

Features of the Clavioline:
• 36 “higher-priority” keys (meaning it is monophonic) and if two keys are pressed at once, you’ll only hear the higher one.
• Volume/expression control lever under the keyboard that players squeeze sideways with their leg to increase the volume.
• 18 switches called “stops” (tribute to the older days of keyboards) on the front of the instrument.  There are 14 tone modifiers, numbered 1-9 and lettered O, B, V, P and F. To the left of them are three vibrato switches (I, II, III) ranging in speed with an amplitude switch to affect the depth of each one.
• Octave slider connected to jutting metal rods can be pushed left or right to expand the range an octave lower or higher, giving the keyboard five total.

Selmer offered a table explaining the various instrumental sounds that can be produced when certain switches are pushed.  The 'Range' category refers to what mode the octave switch should be on (Low, Medium or High).  You can view the table and find more information on the Clavioline here.  The standard Clavioline, known as the Auditorium Model under Selmer, hit the UK market in 1951 and sold over 15,000 units. 

Today, Clavioline enthusiasts will find more pleasure in collecting the instruments rather than playing them regularly, for many have found trouble with keys breaking, dead notes and swollen or burnt out capacitors and resistors.  Despite the issues, their history as setting the standard for a wealth of synthetic sound make them worth any keyboardists’ time to restore and keep forever.

Information provided by Mike

Handel in London

George Frederic Handel was born in Halle Germany on February 23, 1685 and died in London on April 14, 1759.  Even though he was of German birth, he had a huge influence in music in England and is actually considered an “English composer.”  He has many great works that are timeless, but probably the best known is the “Messiah.”  One of the most famous of Handel's works is, of course, "Water Music."  It's an orchestral suite first performed on July 17, 1717 to accompany a trip on the River Thames made by King George I and his entourage, and shows Handel's great loyalty to the king.  This river trip, which was avoided by the Prince and Princess Caroline, was a political event, and the first of a series arranged to allow the king to be more visible to his subjects.

Information provided by Shawn

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Fenton House


Fenton House
Hampstead Grove
Hampstead, London

The Fenton House is one of the largest and earliest houses in Hampstead.  The house was built in about 1686 by William Eades, son of a master brick layer.  The house's previous owners included Thomas Sympson, Joshua Gee, and Phillip Fenton, from whom the house gets it name. Fenton House is surrounded by rose, kitchen, and vegetable gardens.  There is even an apple orchard.  More importantly, within the house there are collections of early keyboards, porcelain, engravings, paintings, Georgian furniture, and 17th-century needlework pictures.

The collection of early keyboards was started by Major Benton Fletcher (1866-1944) and was sold to the National Trust in 1934.  Fletcher began the collection due to his desire to preserve these works of art, as well as stressing the importance of maintaining the instruments.  The 19 instruments on display are all in playing order and any musician, no matter what age, may play them, though it does require an audition.  The collection contains harpsichords, spinets, virginals, pianos, and clavichords by makers including Shudi, Broadwood, Ruckers, Kirckman, Dolmetsch, Backers and Longman & Broderip.

"We took a tour of the keyboards by Mimi Waitzman, a short sweet woman, whose love and incredible knowledge of the instruments made for a wonderful experience. Some of my favorite instruments were the Siculus Spinet, one of only two surviving, the English virginal made to look like a chest, and the Shudi Harpichord with a flap mechanism [Venetian Swell] over the soundboard to create a crescendo and diminuendo effect."

"I loved the virginal in the closet for its shockingly loud and bright sound. I was expecting something like a clavichord's barely audible tones, but found nothing of the sort. The 17th Century English virginal also caught my ears, but mostly my eyes for the exquisite painting and design."

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall presents Imogen Cooper

Queen Elizabeth Hall
Southbank Center
Imogen Cooper, piano

This is the class' second appearance on London's Southbank Centre.  We attended a concert featuring the British pianist Imogen Cooper playing works by Schubert.  This recital was the first in a cycle of four Schubert programs Cooper is presenting this year and next at Southbank. Queen Elizabeth Hall was built in 1951 and includes not only QE Hall, but also the Purcell Room, an intimate recital space, as well as The Front Room, which many times hosts free pre-concert lectures or performances by some of the concert artists.

"Imogen was swift, nearly flawless and professional. What I was drew me in the most was her facial expressions throughout the performance. She would lean back, smile, mouth words in silence and keep her eyes closed, all while dazzling the audience with her keystrokes."

"Cooper's animated hand motions included a captivating element that has been present in very few of the other performances."

For additional information on Imogen Cooper, click here

Saturday, 12 April 2008

The Evolution of the Organ at St. Paul's Cathedral

There has always been an organ in St. Paul's Cathedral. Since 1666, this organ has undergone many transformations and improvements by various organ makers, outlined below.
• 1694; first organ was constructed by Bernard Schmid. It was quite small, with only 27 stops and three manuals. He was paid £2,000 for his labour, roughly £2,000,000 by today's standards.
• J.C. Bishop increased the volume of the organ and moved it to the north side of the Quire in 1830.
• 1872; Henry Willis installed new pneumatic action in the keys, increased the number of manuals to four, and reconstructed most of the instrument, leaving roughly 200 of the original pipes.
• 1897; the organ was moved again to the northeast quarter dome. Two open diapsons were added, as well as a group of Solo Tubas.
• 1925; the organ was dismantled due to the potential of the dome collapsing. It was reinstated in 1930 with a larger chancel pedal section, a third 32-foot stop and a “Willis” Trompette Militaire. By this time, the organ is completely electrically run.
• 1940s; part of the organ is destroyed due to a bomb that fell through the ceiling of St. Paul's. It is rebuilt using pipes of other organs that were also destroyed in the bombings.

Currently, the organ is being cleaned and maintained by Mander Organs Ltd., and is unfortunately not being performed on again until August of this year.
List of Pipes
More information

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Cobbe Collection at the Hatchlands


Hatchlands Park
East Clandon, Guildord
Surrey, England

For more than 40 years, Alec Cobbe has been collecting keyboards. From grand and square pianofortes to virginals and harpsichords, his vast collection has a purpose: to assemble instruments by makers who were highly regarded or patronized by composers. Out of his collection numbering nearly 40, eighteen of these instruments were either owned or played by some of the biggest names in music’s history. With a lineup of names including Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Mozart, Henry Purcell and Johann Christian Bach, the collection happens to be “the largest group of composer-related instruments to be seen in one place anywhere in the world.”

1846 Grand Pianoforte by I. Pleyel, owned by Chopin

According to the collection’s official website, the instruments are “maintained in playing conditions and are used for concerts”.

Dr. Birr and husband, Charlie Speed

Lauren and Shawn

The ride

Walking up to the house

The house

Greg's great find!

Don't knock our bull

"We were extremely lucky to have Alec Cobbe himself show us his collection. He walked from one priceless keyboard to the next, talking of their history and playing beautiful music on them. I could not believe the vast amount of colors he extracted from each instrument.
My favorite moment had to be when he played the prelude to the second cello suite on the Clavichord
...the instrument, he [Cobbe] told us,
that Bach was likely to have composed the cello suites on."

"I especially loved how Alec Cobbe told us of how many people speak of how old instruments can hold a performer back, but how he believes that they are liberating for it is up to the performer to create a sound and music based on the capability and distinct beauty of each individual instrument."

"During the morning performance, Mrs. Comparone's opening piece contained a basic melody pattern repeated with the left hand while improvisation occurred with the right. I found the piece incredible, yet concluded that due to its loop-like approach it seemed to be quite similar to the popular music of today."

"I didn't understand Mrs. Comparone's introducing every piece before playing, even playing bits of the piece before actually performing it. It certainly was strange and a bit annoying, but I think she completely made up for it with her encore."