Marcin Świątkiewicz describes the life of a harpsichordist in search of a new (old) repertoire and ways to perform it.
Filip Lech: The harpsichord is a rare instrument which requires special care. What challenges do harpsichordists face?
Marcin Świątkiewicz: Harpsichords are string instruments, usually built by individual master craftsmen, although there are somewhat larger manufacturers in Europe. Therefore, every harpsichord is different. Its wooden frame requires special care and must be kept in a suitable environment, at the correct humidity and temperature.
Moreover, since harpsichords are rare, you often have to travel with your own instrument, so you must learn how to pack and transport it correctly.
FL: Please tell me something about your instrument.
MŚ: Today (n.b. 12/4/17 in Gdańsk – FL), I will be playing a copy of a two-manual harpsichord from the workshop of Johannes Ruckers of Antwerp. The Ruckers were a celebrated family of harpsichord builders from the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. Their instruments were renowned throughout Europe and still serve as models for modern instrument makers. Mine was built by Christian Fuchs, a manufacturer from Frankfurt.
FL: How does one tune a harpsichord?
MŚ: I do it myself at home, but I like to get someone else to tune it when I’m playing concerts. It’s very strenuous, both for the hand that turns the tuning key and for my concentration, which is essential during a performance…
FL: I get the impression that people who perform ancient, classical and contemporary music are anxious to select unusual repertoires, seeking out obscure or forgotten composers and compositions.
MŚ: We live in a world where the recording industry has been around for a hundred years. Every known piece has been recorded many times and is widely available. To put it simply, listeners and musicians alike are fed up with the usual repertoire. The 19th century bequeathed us a certain canon of works which are regarded as the best, written by the greatest composing geniuses. Therefore, a whole range of other composers who were unfashionable at the time simply disappeared from the history of music.
For a couple of decades already, we have been in the process of unearthing 19th-century composers who were left out of the canon, but have proved to be very good, or sometimes even better. We are discovering new contexts in musical history, and occasionally entire styles that just vanished without entering the canon.
My favourite example is the galant style from the late Baroque/early Classical periods. We’ve been taught that there was the Baroque, with Bach and Händel, and then Classicism in the style of Mozart and Haydn. It was a handy way to present the contrast between the Romantic and Classical periods on a school-textbook timeline. However, the latter half of the 18th century turns out to have been much more interesting. For example, Johann Sebastian’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach – a galant style composer – was in fact a Romanticist, and could even be labelled as Sturm und Drang. It transpires that musical history is never black-and-white, and that music designed primarily to stir emotions has always existed.
FL: How do you search for your new repertoire?
MŚ: It’s very simple nowadays. Many libraries are digitising their collections and making them available online. Not everything has been digitised yet, but the huge amount of material to be found on the Internet exceeds the creative processing power of several generations. We should also bear in mind that digital collections are constantly expanding.
FL: What do you tend to search for in Internet libraries?
MŚ: It usually depends on festival requests and concert series: searching for context on specific events and venues. It’s like a garden full of branching paths that lead to completely different places. Online searches are very easy sometimes, to find works written in a particular place at a particular time, for example, but they can also lead to some very interesting results.
One can also research contexts, read biographies of composers, performers and patrons, and discover connections between students and their masters.
FL: There are often no recordings of non-canonical works, so one has to create something from scratch, with no established canon to rely on.
MŚ: Yes, that’s true. Unfortunately, I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time for listening. That’s bad, as being involved in musical culture requires being aware of other performers’ work.
FL: For the Actus Humanus festival, you selected Johann Sebastian Bach’s world-famous Preludes, as well as some rarely performed Polonaises by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg.
MŚ: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Preludes were first recorded in the notebook of his son, Wilhelm Friedemann, and were mostly intended to be educational. In fact, to some extent, most of Bach’s works (apart from the strictly religious ones, perhaps) were designed to be didactic. They were later included among 24 preludes and fugues in the first volume of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, a canonical work that has been recorded hundreds of times.
On the advice of the festival’s director, Filip Berkowicz, I also selected 24 Polonaises by Goldberg – a composer mostly known thanks to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Legend has it that he may have performed them originally. Goldberg was born in Gdańsk in 1727, and lived a short life of just 29 years. As a child prodigy, he quickly learned to play exceptionally well, and was noticed by Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, who took him to Dresden. There, he met Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and perhaps Johann Sebastian, too, in Leipzig.
He was famous as a virtuoso, but only left a handful of compositions, which resemble the works of Bach, Senior, in certain ways. However, some of his pieces, such as the Polonaises, were written in a progressive galant style with simplified textures. These compositions were not published during Goldberg’s lifetime, but a couple of decades posthumously, under the name of Johann Gottfried Ziegler. So there is doubt as to whether Goldberg actually composed them… I think he did. The Polonaises were written in a draft form, requiring a lot of improvisation and texture-building as per our understanding of the performing traditions of those times.
FL: Speaking of performing traditions, could you explain to our readers what gestures and rhetorical figures mean in Baroque music?
MŚ: Up until at least the 19th century, musical notation was generally quite unpolished. Works were written by composers who were simultaneously performers, hence there was no need to note down much information that seemed to be an obvious part of the tradition.
Rhetoric – an extremely important element in music – is an art designed to stir the listener. Modern artists also aspire to it, but their methods are not so strictly codified and researched as they were during the Baroque period. Then, musicians were (or believed they were) using various means to evoke certain emotions. Since their audiences functioned within the same system, those gestures were understandable.
If we hear the Star Wars theme today, it is a kind of rhetorical figure, used in adverts, musical compositions, etc. It definitely conjures up similar associations for nearly all modern consumers of culture and pop culture. Its gestures construct certain semantics. If we place them into the context of another work of art, we ascribe meaning, often on a passionate or emotional level.
In Baroque music, the same was true of famous hymn tunes or folk songs, as well as harmonies or counterpoint that required certain training and knowledge of the language contained in those gestures.
FL: Do you think it’s understandable to people who are not performers or musicologists?
MŚ: One need not delve into the arcana of architecture to appreciate a gothic cathedral, although being aware of its proportions and encoded symbols allows for a rather more intellectual experience. Many methods are intuitive. Even if our ears are now filled with music from subsequent centuries, methods from the past can still affect us. The tricks are often very simple: for example, the minor key evokes sorrow. Musical theorists have frequently described key signatures as vehicles for emotion.
There is some confusion due to the fact that, in the past, keyboard instruments were tuned according to another system that made all the keys sound different. Key signatures which are far from C major (e.g. F-sharp major, C-sharp major, B-flat minor) sound bad on keyboard instruments tuned to an unequal temperament. These keys were often used in pieces with text that expressed negative emotions, a context which also applies to instrumental music.
FL: A few months ago, you released the album 'Cromatica: The Art of Moving Souls'. How did you become interested in chromatic works?
MŚ: When playing my old repertoire, I noticed (and this is nothing new) that composing chromatic harmonies is a difficult task. As a rule, the chromatic works which have survived until now are very good. Apart from that, the chromatic scale is a rhetorical device in itself, an alternative to ‘grammatical’ diatonic solutions. It carries different emotional significance. Chromatic compositions are often highly elaborate ‘poems’ intended to move the depths of the listener’s soul.
I thought this would be an interesting repertoire. I chose pieces written in different periods and different places in order to demonstrate numerous aspects of the phenomenon.
FL: What are you planning to release in the future?
MŚ: Amongst other projects, I’m working on the polyphonic texture of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos. His concertos are regularly performed with an orchestra, but it seems that Bach played them with five people – a harpsichordist and a string quartet. Modern musicians add a double bass to that lineup, although the instrument was uncommon in those days.
This texture has numerous advantages, as it turns out that the compositions were written as concerti a cinque, so each part is equally valid on its own. The harpsichord parts contain slightly more sounds, due to the nature of the instrument. The polyphonic texture enriches the counterpoint, both for the listener, and in terms of potential ways to perform it.
Interview conducted in Polish, April 2017, translated by MB, Jan 2018