Christopher Stembridge

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The American-Irish musician Seàn McKiernan interviewed Christopher Stembridge at the end of a visit to the US some years ago.

SMK You have just spent some weeks over here: was this your first visit?
CS In fact not. I was in Seattle and California about 9 years ago. But this IS the first time I've been in the East or the MidWest.
SMK You gave the keynote address to the MIDWEST HKS Convention demonstrating an unusual harpsichord.
CS Yes. It was an exciting occasion because Willard Martin decided at the last minute to build a 'chromatic harpsichord' - an instrument with 19 notes to the octave. I think his is the only such beast in America . It is based on historical fact, even if, unfortunately, no such instrument survives intact from the early baroque period. The Italians made quite a lot of them from 1550 until about 1640. They have all the black (i.e. chromatic) keys duplicated to give sharps and flats as separate notes. This way the major thirds can be tuned pure, even though I'm afraid we have to put up with narrow mean-tone fifths. But it means that we can play in f# major or d flat major with as good tuning as any key on the board.
SMK Did they actually write in those keys then?
CS No. But the problem was that no-one could agree on a common pitch like our A=440. So if you were sitting in Ferrara and a cornet-player came to visit you from Florence you had a job trying to play together as he might be playing a semitone lower than you and therefore in keys simply not available on your harpsichord or organ. So you had to retune to have good major thirds. For this reason quite a lot of instruments had extra keys for d#/eb and g#/ab. Organs too - as early as 1460. Then in 1550 Vicentino designed a harpsichord with 31 keys for each octave - or rather 36 - but with effectively 31 more or less equal divisions. Its difficult to cope with more than 19 though .
SMK Was Willard's machine the first 19-note keyboard you have played?
CS No. I have one at home made 9 years ago by Denzil Wraight. But it was an amazing experience. Can you imagine you have some instrument and no-one else has anything like it - it only exists in your own home. Then one day you find another one just like it, only different. Can you imagine how exciting that is?
SMK I think I can - but what music do you play on it?
CS Believe it or not these chromatic instruments were so common that composers in Naples actually published Toccatas for them. Trabaci even writes about the 'Common Chromatic Harpsichord' in 1615 - meaning one with a mere 19 notes per octave!! Admittedly it was a short-lived experiment but quite an important one because it demonstrates how much they loved pure intervals. And at the Beloit Convention it was very clear from the audience's reaction just what fun it is to have our ears opened to these sounds. It makes you listen differently.
SMK What about those narrow fifths you mentioned. Can't you tune them better if you have so many keys available?
CS The extra keys are all chromatic ones - black ones. To have better fifths you have to have at least one diatonic note, probably d, doubled. Salinas seems to have had such an instrument - though unfortunately he doesn't describe it for us.
SMK With pure fifths and pure thirds? Wow! Are we really meant to hear music with nothing but pure consonances?
CS In later music probably not - it's precisely that contrast between consonance and dissonance and, more subtly, from a sound that is more-or-less consonant to one that is better, more satisfying to the ear, that defines the musical progression, that shapes the argument. But that is the instrumentalist's viewpoint. In the 16th century vocal music reigned supreme. And singers don't have to temper their intervals. They are always listening and can make fine adjustments. We are lucky today in that we can hear, for instance, so much Tudor music sung by various first-rate ensembles on CDs. The glorious sound of this music is something we can't really emulate on instruments. But if a Byrd motet is sung with pure intervals, maybe it is valid to want to play a Byrd Fancy on a keyboard that permits just intonation.
SMK You are an Englishman - and your own musical life began in the choir of an English Cathedral. Why d'you choose to live in Italy? It's a rather different scene there.
CS Well I am nostalgic when I hear good English singing. But I am an organist and in Italy over the last 20 years a lot of Renaissance and Baroque organs have been restored - many of them very well. These include at least a dozen 16th century instruments of varying sizes. We don't have anything like that in Britain.
There is something quite special about an early organ that has been well restored. If there is enough evidence to enable the original tuning and wind-pressure to be established - and sometimes we can get very close - then we have not only something approaching the original sound, usually in the original acoustic!, but also the original touch. That is amazing. You can sit at the 1519 Piffero 4' organ in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and think, as the sound goes around licking the frescoes that have been on the walls since long before the organ was built: 'This is exactly what it felt like to play this in here 479 years ago!' Incredible! Such a jewel is a real Time Machine. Obviously it can't give us all the answers as to how we should play the music, but it can help us understand a lot. It has been my privilege to teach courses on that organ for the last 3 years and on the first day after hearing everyone play I have felt I should just go away and leave them to it. The instrument is a far better teacher than I could ever be.
SMK I can understand why you chose Italy - but you have lived in Germany too.
CS I studied in Munich many years ago. Musically it was a bit old-school - but a great place for going to the theatre and seeing some terrific art-exhibitions. I had graduated in German at Cambridge so felt reasonably at home. I had attended several summer schools at the Salzburg 'Mozarteum' with Anton Nowakowski a great musician and a great man. He had been a pupil of Zemlinsky and Straube - so I learned how to play the works of Max Reger as it were from the horse's mouth. Unfortunately Nowakowski had retired when I moved to Germany.
SMK Is that why you left?
CS No. I stayed for 5 or 6 years. When they started tearing the guts out of Munich to build the U-Bahn for the 1972 Olympics I fled to the peace and sanity of S.Ireland!
SMK I suppose Cork was peaceful enough. I was a student in the B:Mus class - I'm flattered to hear you think we were sane! It must have seemed provincial after Munich.
CS Yes but I think it was what I needed at that point. I like working with young people and you were a lively bunch - naive maybe but full of enthusiasm one doesn't always find these days. You remember the excitement of first performances in Cork of things like the Monteverdi Vespers or the St. John Passion. At the same time I was making new discoveries for myself. I would go off to summer courses where I made my first acquaintance with early Italian organ music with Tagliavini in Innsbruck and then first started playing the harpsichord seriously under the guidance of Kenneth Gilbert.
SMK What about your musicological activities? I mean, you have edited quite a bit of keyboard music and published articles.
CS The Cork appointment was part-time, which allowed me to go off to Oxford for part of the year. I picked up the tools of the musicological trade from Denis Arnold and John Caldwell.
At the same time Oxford opened up new possibilities and I started performing seriously. Around that time I made my first trips to Italy to play at the Frescobaldi week in Ferrara.
SMK And that led you to leave Ireland.
CS Not immediately. And when I moved to Italy I still returned to Cork for 3 months of the year. But it made less sense and I was finding more to do elsewhere - not only in Italy. Thanks to Mr. Gorbachev I was able to visit Russia where I helped some enthusiasts in Kazan build a harpsichord - on which I gave a course and some concerts. It was tremendous fun to avail of a freedom I never expected to exist in my lifetime. I have since been to Tallinn, Brno and Prague several times. I love the enthusiasm of the students, reminiscent of the sense of discovery the early music movement in the West had a few decades ago but which we seem to have lost now. For a while I went to Dresden regularly to play continuo with the Cappella Saggitariana - that was exciting too. In Saxony I felt I had finally found the Germany I always knew existed. There seems to be some affinity between Saxons and Anglo-Saxons - a similar sense of humour, which is quite important if you're going to make music together.
SMK I seem to remember hearing you use the expression "Autobahn-Mentality" when criticising the way certain people play early music. Sounded a bit rude to the Germans!
CS Oh, not really. I think it is an appropriate description of certain types of performance on whatever soil - and not necessarily in early music. But it IS a danger today. I mean you just forge ahead, playing all the right notes in a way that is even theoretically stylistically 'correct'. But you don't have time to admire the landscape or even think about where it is you're going. Of course, it has a lot to do with our life-style - or lack of one. We think we have all the answers and so many performances just want to be some kind of authentic document. For me, that's not what making music is about at all!
SMK Are you by any chance criticising what one might call the US lifestyle?
CS NO! Well - perhaps I thought I was a bit, until I came here. In so many ways Germany and Italy are more, well, what I would have called American until now, than the US. There is certainly more of the "Autobahn Mentalität" there than here. I had the good fortune on this trip of travelling from Wisconsin to Philadelphia by road. To my enormous surprise I loved it. (I had spent ages before coming trying to work out how to do all that by train!) The point is - and I'm addressing you as an American not an Irishman now - that you don't rush around in your cars; you relax and enjoy the sense of space. You have time for people.
SMK So that's good for our music-making.? I'm delighted. What else is good here?
CS You've convinced me of the usefulness of computers; you communicate well with e-mail. (Though if I may say so, less well with the less fortunate!) And you use it creatively. Willard had done a load of research into topics relevant to the Cembalo Cromatico, making contact with art-historians like Richard Spear and Tom Kaufmann whom I have consequently met in these weeks. There are links between music and art which we need to examine.
And I've seen a great deal of fine works of art here in Cleveland, Oberlin, Boston. Not only renaissance masterpieces but contemporary things too. I was even able to stop to see "Falling Water". And you know how to conserve things too: the Moravian Museum in Bethlehem is superb. I have seen fine instruments - like in the MFA, but also fine copies - notably David Sutherland's splendid Cristofori fortepiano. My passion for split keys has of course led me to see the excellent organs in Oberlin (Brombaugh) and Wellesley (Fisk).
SMK Let's return to Europe. You've said more about Germany than Italy which is where you live after all.
CS Well, it is and it isn't. I live up in the Alps in the South Tyrol, just over the Brenner Pass when you come from Innsbruck.
SMK Sounds more like Austria.
CS Of course it was Austria until 1919 when it was given to Italy. I love it there for various reasons, including the cultural mixture.
SMK Were there musical reasons for moving there?
CS Not really. It was good for my health which had suffered a bit from your damp Irish climate. But it is very accessible; one of the main railway lines goes over the Brenner so I can get to Dresden or Rome easily.
The Brenner Pass has seen some important historic figures over the centuries. When I go shopping in my local town it's nice to think of all the people who must have passed down te very same narrow street - between the church and my cheese-shop: Schütz, Froberger, Gabrieli, Handel, Mozart...
SMK Sounds romantic. Is it practical? I thought you had moved to Arezzo where that splendid organ is.
CS You know Arezzo?
SMK Only from your Gabrieli CD; that 1534 instrument is amazing!
CS I teach an intermittent sort of course there. It's wonderful - but modern Arezzo is not terribly culture-conscious. I had thought of moving there. But dithered. At the end of the day I had to recognise that I'm a North European and retreat from the intensity (and NOISE!) of Italian life. But I do spend quite a lot of time playing and teaching at different places in Italy. Brescia, Valvasone, Arezzo and Pistoia. Though increasingly elsewhere too…

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© Christopher Stembridge 2006