Since the birth of the historical performance movement in the early 20th century, there has been an increasing rift between those who perform repertory from the Baroque through the early romantic period exclusively on modern piano, and historical performance keyboardists. Those who consider themselves modern pianists often refuse to adhere to period practices in favor of their own interpretation. Many modern pianists today choose to play Bach as if it were Rachmaninoff; adding vast swaths of pedal and massive dynamic contrasts. It is incorrect to assume that one’s own interpretation surpasses the practices of period. Conversely, some fortepianists believe that music should only be played on instruments from the period in which the music was composed. Obviously Bach did not have access to a modern piano and could not even begin to fathom some of those stylistic choices.
Something must be done to unite these two seemingly disparate groups into one coherent whole. We are standing at a crossroads; on one path, harpsichordists and fortepianists in period performance of beloved repertoire in our concert halls and on the other, which I envision, we will find historically informed performances on modern piano.
The historical performance camp should not exclude modern instruments. Living in the 21st century we have access to the pinnacle of piano development. From Bach’s time to the early 20th century the piano was in a constant state of flux; new mechanisms and key ranges were regularly being added. Today pianos have become standardized, giving people across the world essentially the same instrument. This feat of musical globalization must be acknowledged and used to our benefit. Not everyone will have access to a Walter or a Walter replica if they wish to play Mozart. We can however use historically informed performance practice to create an accurate representation of Mozart on a modern instrument.
The late Edmund Battersby, was a pioneer in this field, performing music of Schubert, Schumann and Chopin on a Graf fortepiano as well as on modern piano. His dual recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on modern and period instruments stands as a testament to his belief that both instruments are pianos and should be played by modern pianists as well as fortepianists.
Unfortunately, musicologists who continue as active performers are rare. This is a great loss. One cannot talk about music without performing it and conversely one should not perform without being able to have an informed conversation about the music being played. Musicians are ultimately historians and have a great responsibility to their audiences. In this age of readily available information online, concertgoers are better educated than ever before. This raises the bar and challenges great players to be more, not less, knowledgeable than their audience about the pieces they play.
How did Winter Harbor Music Festival find the remarkable piano which we share with the community at Oceanside Meadows Inn in Prospect Harbor, Maine?
An unusual constellation of circumstance and coincidence brought the late Edmund Battersby, Professor of Piano at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana and summer resident of Corea, Maine, together with a 1924 Steinway D concert grand that belonged to Bernice Silk, summer resident of Hulls Cove and co-founder of the New Jersey Chamber Music Society. It was her hope that the Steinway could be put to good use in Downeast Maine, and when her tuner, Neil Davis, told her that Harbor Music Festival, the Artur Balsam Ensemble Classes for Piano and Strings, needed a piano, and that Edmund Battersby would be playing it, that was all she needed to know. She told tuner that she wanted the instrument to be used in his work though unfortunately did not include this in her will and when she died the piano sat silently in her practice studio until one rainy day during the summer of 2011.
Edmund Battersby had deep roots in Downeast Maine, spending boyhood summers at Kneisel Hall, in Blue Hill, with his teachers Barbara Holmquest and Artur Balsam. Through the beneficence of Balsam’s widow the Artur Balsam Ensemble Classes were held to honor his teaching during July in Indiana under Professor Battersby’s direction for over a decade. In the summer of 2011 he brought the workshop to Oceanside Meadows Inn, with the support of the owners Sonja Sundarum and Ben Walter, renaming it Harbor Music with Deirdre McArdle as Executive director. “Summer festivals have always been about making music in beautiful places,” he would say and for him there was no place more beautiful than Maine. Funded by the IU Foundation since 1999, the Artur Balsam Ensemble Classes for Piano and Strings brings together talented student musicians from the Jacobs School of Music to coach with an internationally renowned artist faculty. Evening coaching sessions and a final concert were shared with the public. The enthusiasm generated by the high level of performance encouraged Professor Battersby to seek permanent relocation of the class from Indiana to Maine. Harbor Music leased a piano for the first season but with approval of the move by the university it was clear that an instrument had to be found. Neil Davis, from Sedgwick, who along with Frank Fisher, from Belfast, had facilitated the rental, spent the winter in search of a piano without much success. Pianos are a dime a dozen but a true gem of an instrument is extremely rare. Neil had not been in touch with the Silk family for several years and one day he decided to call her sons and see what had become of their mother’s piano. To his delight, it was still in Hulls Cove. Arrangements were made for Edmund Battersby to fly to Maine and try the piano. He was not aware of any of the history of the instrument. He did not know who the owner had been or that she had hoped that the piano would become part of her legacy as a pianist through him. All he knew was that it was a dreary, chilly day by Frenchman Bay and that he had travelled a long way from Bloomington, Indiana to try an old piano in an unheated studio.
Battersby’s first impression was visual. He noticed immediately that the keys were not plastic, as they have been for decades. “Ah…ivory….” he thought. As he sat at the piano and started to play he knew that he had stumbled upon a treasure from the golden age of Steinway and Sons, “a dream for any pianist,” a 1924 concert grand. Battersby had yearned to play one all of his life and in his five decades as a concert pianist he had never had the pleasure as they are extremely rare. Due to the generosity of the Silk family, who were happy to know their mother’s piano would be used by the community and offered it at a reasonable price, Winter Harbor Music Festival was able to purchase the piano which now resides in the concert hall at Oceanside Meadows Inn, available for use by the musical community in Downeast Maine.
Photo by: Evan Duning
My first encounter with the work of the Irish-American painter Patrick McArdle was neither in a gallery
nor from a book. In fact, it was unpremeditated -- a moment of artistic pleasure with no heraldry from
publicity or personal recommendation of any kind. A pianist colleague and friend had brought me along
to an informal supper at the seaside home of a local physician, Arthur, and his wife Deirdre. Upon
entering the dining room I was captivated immediately by a canvas above the sideboard, which didn't in
any way seem ordinary. It was a beach scene so delightful and satisfying that I asked Deirdre who had
painted it and where she had found it. The answer was as modest as my introduction to the painting and
was simply this, "My father, was an oil painter." Now six years later I am quite familiar with this unusual
McArdle had all the credentials we expect of a fine painter and enough good critical response to engender
some important shows. He would have been one-hundred years old this past July. Perhaps not yet old
enough to be "discovered" or to finally escape the doubters and the vagaries of the Art world. As in all
the Arts, those with a new direction, with an experimental approach, suffer publicly from not replicating
what has been done before.
But something makes me go back and back again to the canvases to see what McArdle "saw" and has left
to us for our pleasure and nostalgia -- the light and fantastic of bathers, boaters, ball -frolicking children,
skaters and still life paintings which hardly remain still. Obviously influenced by Matisse and Avery and
with a generational colleague like Stephen Pace, McArdle is not just a copy of these artists, but goes forth
with something very much his own. Detractors might comment on what may be misunderstood as
“indefiniteness” on the canvas: he was a pioneer in leaving some of the background unpainted – but
purposely, adding to the spontaneity of his approach. Much like a great actor or musician, he was so
certain about expressing “uncertainty” or “chance – certain of an uncertain canvas, an important part of
the vocabulary of expressive devices, giving life and defying calculation or rigidity.
And there is more that constitutes Patrick McArdle’s style, freshness and originality. Every artist is only
as important as he is relevant to his time. Some prefer to express the chaos and tragedies of the last
century and some react by turning their back on this, celebrating that what pleases, or even the ridiculous.
There is never any darkness in a McArdle painting. We must acknowledge that lightness and joy is as
profound as that which makes us weep. McArdle lived through the effects of two World Wars and the
Great Depression. Let us not underestimate what it takes to smile and laugh. Certainly we have some
great examples of that amongst what we think of as profound. Add to that this artist emerging during the
greatest development of photographic art and the silent movie. Has McArdle not combined both? He
captures a moment but it is never static -there is always motion. For me this is unusual mastery. I hope
more and more people have the opportunity to partake, and realize that Patrick McArdle is to be treasured
and given a firm place in our memory.
Photo Credit: Evan Duning
About the author:
Deiran Manning is a graduate student at the Jacobs School of Music