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
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
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
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
SMK Is that why
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
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
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
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
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