Presentation of the BCS Awards for Clavichord Composition

report by Peter Bavington

The Awards were presented on 29 August 2004 during the BCS clavichord weekend at St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, in a ‘Celebration of New Music for the Clavichord’. Garry Broughton introduced the programme, proudly claiming it as a unique event in world history: as far as we know, the first ever competition for clavichord compositions. He thanked our three sponsors, the PRS Foundation, the International Centre for Clavichord Studies, and an anonymous individual donor, for their generous assistance, and went on to extend a warm welcome to the composers and players who had come to Edinburgh for this event. He then thanked the three judges, Paula Woods who had been responsible for administering the scheme, Richard Ireland who looked after the winning composers and guests in Edinburgh, and Sheila Barnes, without whose determined enthusiasm the scheme would certainly have faltered at an early stage; and also, of course, all those composers, amateur and professional, who had sent in scores.

Paula Woods reported that entries had been received from well-established professional composers as well as amateurs, and a few – but not so many as hoped for and expected – from students. For most competitors this was their first piece for clavichord. Paula had enjoyed her role as the point of contact for all the composers, whose anonymity she had carefully preserved until after the judges had made their decisions.

The performances began with Geoffrey Allan Taylor’s Pages from Homer (fifth prize), played by Joel Speerstra on the Russell Collection’s 1763 Hass clavichord. Geoffrey described the piece as ‘variations in search of a theme’: the idea of wandering and eventual homecoming was inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, but the ‘pages’ are not descriptive of particular episodes in the story. The order of the movements is at the player’s discretion: indeed, it is not essential to play them all, except the first and last, which must open and close the piece. I noticed some exploration of sombre effects from the lower register, with marked contrasts of dynamics. The return home in the last page is signalled by a return to tonality, with a tune which, perhaps appropriately in view of the location, suggested to me a bagpipe melody.

Extracts from Julia Usher’s Clavicle (fourth prize) were performed by Micaela Schmitz, who, since the piece requires a fretted instrument, used the Russell Collection’s 1784 Hubert clavichord. This is perhaps the most strikingly contemporary of the winning pieces in idiom. Julia explained that a clavichordist friend (Ruby Reid Thompson) had asked her if she would like to compose for the clavichord, and offered to lend Julia her ‘desktop’ clavichord, which turned out to be a small diatonically fretted instrument. Julia explored all the possibilities of sound production on this instrument: in particular, she was fascinated by effects which could be obtained through the frets, for example by holding the lower note and playing the upper one briefly to create a kind of mordent. Clavicle is described as a ‘touch-piece’. The title was inspired by a love-ditty invented by a character in a novel by Ian McEwan: ‘I’ll play upon your clavicle.’ Julia said the phrase seemed to capture the intense and direct physical sensations which are such a key part of playing the clavichord. Sections of the piece consist of quasi-improvisatory exploration of the touch of the instrument, using all parts of the compass: other sections are in more coherent rhythm. There is an extended ‘Cadenza’.

Paul Simmonds was the performer of Graham Lynch’s Admiring Yoro Waterfall (third prize), once again using the Hass instrument. The composer was not present, but Paul explained that the piece had been inspired by a wood-block print of that title by the great nineteenth-century Japanese master Hokusai. It had originally been conceived for harpsichord, but had been extensively reworked for clavichord. The piece seemed to me to contrast phases of stillness and even silence with sudden bursts of energy, like water bursting from a crevice. There is a slightly pentatonic character to some passages. Paul said he planned to add the piece to his own repertoire, and was eager to try the effect of it on his antique pantalon clavichord.

The second-prize winner was Philippe Forget, a singer and conductor from France. His Little Suite for Clavichord has four movements with quizzical titles, whose secret was at last revealed: they refer to the dedicatee, clavichordist Marcia Hadjimarkos, and her children Orlando and Phoebe. Extracts were played by Derek Adlam, at one stage helped by the composer ‘conducting’ him through some tricky rhythms. The opening movement, Orlando’s Fury, is an extremely fast and furious dance mainly in 7/8 time with a cleverly varied ostinato bass; Phoebe’s Tango makes much use of hands wide apart, at the extremes of the compass; the last movement, Waltzing M... refers to Marcia herself, and is a witty and elegant waltz. But who is the Frog of Frog’s Intermezzo?

The first prize was awarded to Gary Carpenter’s Van Assendelft’s Vermeer, which was performed by Pamela Nash using the Hass clavichord. Pamela had worked closely with Gary on the creation of this piece. Gary explained that a 1711 inventory of property belonging to the widow of Nicholas Van Assendelft mentions ‘A damsel playing on the clavichord by Vermeer.’ Does this painting still exist? It could be one of the pair of Vermeers at the National Gallery, London – in which case ‘clavichord’ is merely a mistake for ‘virginals’ – or it could be a lost work. This experience of perceiving something, then losing sight of it, is the theme and inspiration of the work. Gary said he was fascinated by the small and evanescent sound of the clavichord, of music half heard, half sensed. Long-held notes continue into silence; staccato effects only just produce a definite pitch before it disappears. Of the piece’s four short movements, the third actually contains more silence than sound. The first and last movements almost frame the piece, like the two paintings in the National Gallery.

Following the performances, we heard from Paul Simmonds, chairman of the judging panel, who described his approach to selecting the winning scores. A number of the entries – but surprisingly few – had to be excluded as well-meant but musically incompetent. Some had not complied with the competition’s rules. Looking through the remainder, he was drawn to those which seemed to extend the language of the instrument, rather than those in ‘neo-historical’ or ‘folksy’ styles. Some he felt were basically piano pieces, without any understanding of the particular characteristics of the clavichord. Some seemed unnecessarily violent: some seemed determined to perplex the player with an unnecessarily complex notation. He was drawn to pieces which allowed the performer some freedom.

He was particularly grateful for the input of John Cranmer, who also scrutinized all 48 entries: inevitably, they did not agree in every case. In due course 28 compositions were sent to Anthony Payne. The final stage involved discussion and compromise between all three judges, but they were unanimous in their choice of Gary Carpenter’s piece for first prize. All felt that merit was by no means limited to the five pieces selected for prizes: several other entries would have received ‘honourable mentions’ if the scheme had provided for them. In all, Paul estimated that at least 25 worthwhile pieces had been added to the repertoire of the clavichord.

The event concluded with a general forum. Having heard new repertoire, the question arose whether the clavichord itself could or should develop and change during the course of the new century. Did composers find themselves frustrated by its limitations? In every case, the reply came that the limits of what was possible were an inspiration and a challenge, rather than a handicap to creativity.

Afterwards many of the scores (not only the winning entries) were available for inspection. We now need to consider what help can be given to the composers to publish their pieces and encourage further performances, so as to make them available to a wider audience.

Versions of this report appeared in British Clavichord Society Newsletter No. 30, and in ‘Tangents’, the Bulletin of the Boston Clavichord Society

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updated 18 February 2009