Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, by John Gillespie

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Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, by John Gillespie. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1965. 463 pp. [$10.50]. ISBN: 978-0486228556

I find it difficult to comment on John Gillespie's Five Centuries of Keyboard Music without inclining toward superlatives. Here is a book that has been needed for decades. It should be in the library of every serious piano student, and it is an ideal textbook for courses in the literature of the keyboard.

Unaccountably there has never appeared in English a thoroughgoing discussion of keyboard literature from its beginnings. There has been no single volume that included an intelligent treatment of each succeeding period, together with some valid, though perhaps personal, judgments on artistic merit, and at the same time providing some concept of the gradual evolution of the keyboard art that would transcend the facile compartmentalizing usually found in discussions of the subject.

Yet no such study has appeared before. The Friskin-Freundlich Music For The Piano is a fairly complete catalogue of piano music, but little more. Comment is minimal and not particularly helpful. One must add that as a catalogue it is irreplaceable, for not even Gillespie offers a comparably complete listing of piano music, both good and bad. Ernest Hutcheson's The Literature of the Piano, on the other hand, is a series of delightfully personal essays on individual items of the literature, chosen and treated in frankly arbitrary fashion according to the author's honest but sometimes amusing preferences. Even Rudolph Ganz's attempt at completing Hutcheson, helpful though it is, does not greatly alter the book's original character.

Here is something different. The coverage of the literature is most extensive including, as it does, reference to almost every keyboard composer who was significant and some who were not. Individual works are cited as representative and by and large practically the entire significant repertoire receives comment. The commentary itself is notable for excellent characterization and evaluation.

The compromise between completeness and perspective, surely the most difficult problem in a book of this type, has been solved with astonishing success. Mr. Gillespie's discussions of a composer's works make for pleasant reading, yet they are well documented and detailed. For specific publications mentioned, publisher's names are conveniently at hand in the footnotes. Each chapter has an extensive bibliography, and a glossary of musical terms makes the book more serviceable for the nonprofessional reader.

Mr. Gillespie wisely begins with a discussion of various keyboard instruments, including the mysterious Echiquier of the early fourteenth century. For the first time in a book of this scope, the significance of the mechanical characteristics of both harpsichord and clavichord and their influence on performance practice is properly related to the music of the Baroque. How much pseudo-authentic writing during the past thirty years might have been avoided had pianists and harpsichordists been more aware of the possibilities offered and the limitations imposed by the tangent and the jack!

After he has laid this groundwork, Mr. Gillespie begins his survey with the Robertsbridge Codex in 1320. In something over four hundred pages and with only momentary pauses while summarizing, he manages to navigate skillfully the myriad complexities of his subject as far as Stockhausen and Elliot Carter. His estimates of importance and value, necessarily subjective, seem to me both sound and musicianly. His praise is temperate and his criticism tolerant even when adverse. In fact one misses the enthusiasm for specific composers so characteristic of musicians. I should have found it difficult not to become more eloquent over the Schumann Fantasy, Schubert's B flat Sonata, or Beethoven's Op. 109. No doubt Mr. Gillespie has deliberately suppressed personal bias in favor of impartiality and yet, as a result, one seldom senses the warmth of a personal affection. One of the few exceptions occurs with respect to Albeniz and here the author displays an affection that I share.

In the main my principal criticisms reflect only difference of opinion. I cannot agree that Schumann's Gesange der Frühe, Op. 133, shows signs of his advancing insanity. On the contrary, I feel that here Schumann at least momentarily recaptured the spirit of his youth. And I suppose that, since the book makes no attempt to be a complete cataloguing of the literature, one should not list omissions. But surely Bartok's Out of Doors, to me one of his most significant piano works, at least deserves mention.

One could continue with trifles of this sort but to little purpose. The book is an outstanding achievement, combining musicianship and scholarship in a rare blend. Surely it is one of the most valuable contributions of recent years in an area where books have been scarce and often inferior.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 14/11/2018

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