GEMINIANI – Pièces de clavecin

Hark, his hands the lyre explore!
Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o’er
Scatters from her pictured urn
Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.
But ah! ’tis heard no more

Thomas Gray, The Progress of Poesy: A PINDARIC ODE
(Odes by Mr. Gray, 1757)

Charles Burney, in The Present State of Music in Germany, The Netherlands and the United Provinces (1773), describes his search for ‘a machine for writing down extempore pieces of music’. Contacts in Rome suggested that such a machine could be found in Berlin, where, on October 5th, 1772, the eminent music critic and theorist, Friedrich Marpurg, described to Burney just such a device. It was ‘so perfect, that I was assured… that there was nothing in music which it could not express.’  Burney was also told that this device ‘had been completed to the satisfaction of the principal musicians of Berlin, but that it was soon neglected and thrown aside; and not long since, a fire happening in a house […] where it was deposited, this ingenious piece of mechanism was burnt, and has never since been renewed’.

Burney, like others before and since, dreamt of such a machine for its ability to preserve unique, improvised performances for later enjoyment and study. But practical sound recording and reproduction devices would not appear for over a century; the only way to preserve a particular performance was to transcribe it from memory, generally a very difficult task. There are, however, numerous surviving written-out examples of elaborately embellished versions of published music that attempt to demonstrate how a given performer might have played a piece. Among them is a well-known set of ‘graces’ for the slow movements of the Opus 5 violins sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli, purportedly by the composer himself. The present recording offers yet another glimpse of the kinds of improvised embellishments and variations an eighteenth-century musician might have brought to bear on his own compositions: it features Francesco Geminiani’s own arrangements for harpsichord of several of his Opus 4 violin sonatas. These arrangements are remarkable for their incessant variation: almost every repetition of a phrase is presented in a slightly different guise.

One of the most celebrated violin virtuosi of the eighteenth century, Geminiani was born in the Tuscan town of Lucca in 1687. He studied violin with his father before continuing with Carlo Ambrogio Lonati in Milan and Corelli in Rome, where he then studied counterpoint with Alessandro Scarlatti. After a few years playing in Naples, Rome and Lucca, he left Italy permanently. As Burney recounts, ‘the year 1714 was rendered an important period to the progress of the violin in this country, by the arrival of Geminiani and Veracini’.

Geminiani made a considerable impression in London. One of his earliest performances was before King George I, where he was accompanied by Handel. His first set of solo violin sonatas was published there in 1716. They clearly demonstrate Corelli’s influence; on the title page, Geminiani introduces himself as a pupil of the celebrated ‘Maestro di Fusigno’. Over the course of the following years, Geminiani organised several successful subscription concert series in London where he performed, along with other works, his settings of Corelli’s Opus 5 sonatas in orchestral arrangements and the Concerti Grossi that were to be published as his Opus 2 and Opus 3 in 1732. Given Corelli’s near-cult status in England, the impact of Geminiani’s performances and compositions, and the high level of technical ability required by his sonatas, it is little wonder that John Hawkin’s was to write, Geminiani enjoyed ‘the highest degree of estimation as a composer of instruments; … he was in this branch of music without a rival’.

Yet for all his public success, there seems to have been a twist in his personality that kept him from the kind of career enjoyed by his teacher Corelli, leader of instrumental ensembles in Rome, or by his countryman, Francesco Veracini, celebrated as a virtuoso violinist across Europe. He avoided any permanent professional engagements with an ensemble that he did not organise himself, and was never associated with any of the opera orchestras active in London. He also never accepted a permanent institutional position (for example, he refused the post of Master of State Music in Ireland), and never spent long in the company of any particular patron. And he was heard comparatively rarely in public. The bulk of his income seems to have come from teaching, gifts from noble acquaintances, published editions of his work, and to some extent, from his dealings in paintings. He also seems to have had a reluctance to settle too long in any one place. From 1732 to the end of his life, he divided his time between Paris and the Hague, where he went to supervise the publication of his later works, and London and Dublin, where he organised concerts and taught. He died in Dublin in 1763.

Nevertheless, Geminiani had many ardent supporters. His student, Charles Avison, in the Essay on Musical Expression (London, 1752), calls him ‘the greatest in instrumental Music’. Even Burney, not always Geminiani’s greatest admirer, admitted that the English were ‘greatly indebted to this master for the improved state of the violin… in this country, and indeed for the advancement of instrumental Music in general’, and, in private correspondence, confessed that ‘Handel, Geminiani and Corelli had been the only gods’ of his youth. His detractors criticised his relatively small output and the constant reworkings of his compositions, his lack of talent for ‘associating music with poetry’ (Hawkins), or his penchant for dealing in paintings, which distracted him from developing his gifts as a musician. Veracini took a particularly vicious dig at his rival, calling him one of those ‘refryers’ (rifriggitori) who, ‘whenever they are faced with the necessity of writing something new, refry the same old pieces which have already been refried more than once.’ There is some truth to the charge: many of his publications recast earlier compositions in other forms, but in most cases, he provides additional information for the player in the form of ornaments or variations and diminutions, as in the harpsichord collections.

The first set of harpsichord arrangements, the subject of this recording, were published at his expense in London in 1743 and in Paris at roughly the same time, and were reprinted as late as 1778, a testament to their popularity. At first glance, one would not suspect these to be transcriptions and so they pose an interesting question: where did Geminiani learn to write so idiomatically for the harpsichord? The answer is likely Paris: He was there as early as 1732, drawn partly by the superiority of French music engravers, and spent time in the musical salon of the gifted harpsichordists Mme. Duhalley and her daughter. Among the French harpsichordists to be heard there were Rameau, Daquin and Duphly. He must have been an avid listener: there are passages in his settings that sound remarkably like Rameau, with their density of ornaments and chordal keyboard figuration.

A considerable portion of Geminiani’s efforts in the later part of his life was devoted to instructing the public: he produced treatises devoted to Good Taste, violin technique and harpsichord accompaniment as well as a guide to composition. The harpsichord transcriptions demonstrate his precepts in practice. They are full of elaborate keyboard arpeggiation of the kind shown in the accompaniment treatise, especially in slow movements, and abound in ornaments taken from the other treatises in nearly every measure. Repeated passages are almost always written out with additional ornamentation, elaborate figuration, or variations in the melodic line. The principle is one of endless invention. In the absence of a machine to ‘fix such fleeting sounds as are generated in the wild moments of enthusiasm’, as Burney has it, these arrangements allow us to listen, however distantly, to an echo of performance by an acknowledged master from the past.

About the instrument :

The instrument heard on this recording is now housed at the Chapelle historique du Bon Pasteur in Montreal. It is signed “Jacobus et Abraham Kirckmann Londini Fecerunt 1772”, the earliest known instrument signed by the two builders. It is unique in having keyboards with ivory naturals and ebony sharps for the normal compass (FF-g3) but ebony naturals and ivory sharps for an extended compass to c4; the arrangement is original. No repertoire calls for these notes, and no one knows why it was done. It features a distinctive English innovation, a pedal-operated ‘machine stop’: pressing on it allows for an instantaneous change of registration and subsequent contrast in timbre. When the pedal is in the raised position, all registers sound; when the pedal is depressed, only one register remains. The instrument appears as Plates 71-74 in Raymond Russell’s book, Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord 1440-1840. It was purchased by lawyer and arts patron Gordon Jeffery of London, Ontario, in 1984 and donated to the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur de Montréal after his death by the Gordon Jeffery Music Trust. With the support of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, the instrument was repaired and furnished with new jacks by harpsichord maker Yves Beaupré.

Hank Knox, Montreal, July, 2010