Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Death of the Harpsichord and the Beheading of a Queen

Jan Ladislav Dussek: early rock star
We have a solo recital at the end of the month that should be both fun and a great history lesson. The end of the 18th century was a great time of change: the Prussians had started the path to coalesce hundreds of parochial kingdoms into what would become Germany, America had declared independence, and France was in turmoil and heading for a violent revolution, a well-recognized symbol of which was the beheading of Marie Antoinette.

Music, too, was in flux. At the time of his death (1750) J.S. Bach was considered a throwback to an old-fashioned style of music. A lighter, less complex and more tuneful style was sweeping across Europe: the “Galant Style.” This is usually described as being“pre-classical.” There are many nuances of this new popular style, including the “sensitive style” (Empfindsamer Stil) of C.P.E. Bach, which would lead to the Sturm und Drang of Haydn and Mozart, then on to Beethoven. Just as Europe was political turmoil, so was music, ultimately building up to the Romantic Period.

What greater example of this flux was there than the piano? Well-known to, and even promoted by, J.S. Bach: before the century was finished, it had muscled out the harpsichord. By the 19th century it was the vehicle of romantic music.

Much of Mozart and Haydn can be legitimately performed on the harpsichord. In fact, most of the music in the final quarter of the 18th century would be played on either harpsichord or the fortepiano. However, the mechanical and acoustic evolution of the fortepiano was rapidly making the competition irrelevant. The new volume and expressiveness was giving rise to a new generation of keyboard virtuoso.

One such virtuoso/composer is often overlooked today: Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812). Mozart was only four years older. Dussek was well-regarded by Haydn and went on to become quite successful in London, where he was closely associated with John Broadwood, the piano builder. Dussek received one of Broadwood’s first 6-foot grand fortepianos and is believed to have had an important influence on the evolving design. This ultimately became “the Beethoven piano.”
Those who attend the April 27th recital by Marcia Hadjimarkos will have a chance to see and hear an 1813 Broadwood fortepiano. I’m not talking about a replica, but the real thing. Click here for details and tickets.
Dussek was, in fact, much beloved by the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. In 1793 he composed The Sufferings of the Queen of France, a dramatic piece with interspersed narration that paints her sorrow on being separated from her children and her final moments on the scaffold before the guillotine. This piece has suddenly become of intense interest to me because I agreed to be the narrator at the April 27th recital.

Dussek’s life was full of sex, melodrama, and intrigue: a perfect vehicle for some novelization or even big-budget Hollywood treatment — perhaps we could get Kirsten Dunst back in a cameo of Marie Antoinette! He became one of the first European superstars, preceding Franz Liszt. Indeed, he is attributed with the practice of positioning the piano parallel to the audience so that the audience could better admire his handsome features.
Don’t miss an opportunity to hear the instrument that killed the harpsichord, a dramatic rendition about the death of the Queen, and who knows, you may see me die of embarrassment onstage in my own world premier performance as a narrator.

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