Meet Barbara Harbach
By Lynn Rene Bayley
Pennsylvania native Barbara Harbach, who studied organ and harpsichord at Penn State, received a master’s degree at Yale, and then a doctoral degree in organ and composition from the Eastman School of Music, has been one of the busiest performers in America. Her Wikipedia page tells us that following graduation she also studied organ at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule with the legendary Helmut Walcha. Interestingly, he told her that “he did not believe that women belonged on the organ bench.” That statement has been more than refuted by her being ranked in 1992 by Keyboard magazine as second to Keith Jarrett as “Top Keyboard Artist” in classical music, as well as her numerous organ and harpsichord recitals in North America, Asia, Europe, and Siberia. As also indicated on Wikipedia, she presented a weekly television series, Palouse Performance, broadcast in the northwest U.S.
Her many compositions in various genres and forms, from solo works to orchestral and choral pieces, have received awards. The Music of Barbara Harbach, Vol. 1 was named “record of the year 2008” by MusicWeb International and received a Critics’ Choice award from American Record Guide. Her works have also been praised in the pages of this journal by David DeBoor Canfield, and I was very impressed with her previous recording of works by Arnold Rosner and Daniel Pinkham. She is a staunch champion of women composers: in 1993 she co-founded the Women of Note Quarterly and is now editor of WomenArts Quarterly Journal, despite her busy duties as Curators’ Professor of Music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she teaches performance, composition, and related classes.
I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with Harbach via e-mail for this interview.
Q: Barbara, I hardly know where to begin with this interview! You wear so many hats and have accomplished so much. Perhaps I should start by asking you which of your accomplishments you are personally most proud of: performing, composing, teaching, or proselytizing for other women composers?
A: I love them all! Whatever I am doing at the moment is the one that captures my imagination and energy. I do have to admit that teaching, composing, and editing is a bit easier than sitting at the organ or harpsichord for seven straight hours, but I do love to do it anyway! I have found my career changing over the years. At first, I thought I wanted to be a performing and recording artist, and played many recitals and performances beginning in the 1970s. In the 1980s I went to the British Library and ordered and received reels of historical women and men keyboard composers, and thus was born Vivace Press. (This was before the era of pdfs and e-mail.) My vision was to recover, record, and publish the music of these talented women composers. What really charged my ambition to do this was an incident at an eastern university. I was asked to give an organ recital, and at the reception after the performance, I mentioned to a musicologist that I was interested in recovering the music of historical women composers. He said to me, “If there were any women composers, they wouldn’t be very good.” That was the gauntlet! In addition, the review headline of that night’s recital read, “Tight Slacks, Organist in Good Form.”
Q: I can’t imagine that a double major in harpsichord and organ is as common as that of harpsichord and piano. What drew you to the organ as your other instrument, rather than the more similar piano?
A: I played for my first church service when I was nine years old. I was sufficiently tall to be able to reach the pedals. The first hymn I played was Bringing in the Sheaves, and to this day I can play it in any key. The church service was held in my grandparent’s “saloon,” where there was an old harmonium that you had to pump with your feet, and I certainly developed great calf muscles! The “saloon” was in the hotel that my grandparents owned in central Pennsylvania, and since the county became dry, it was a saloon in name only. I graduated to a Hammond organ a few years later when we went to another church, and then in high school came one of the loves of my life, the pipe organ. The sound of the pipe organ still gives me a thrill, whether soft strings or drowning out the orchestra as in Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
I should mention that I took piano lessons beginning when I was four. My mother was my first teacher, and it was a wonderful way to bond with her. She was a terrific supporter of my musical career. I knew I wanted to be in music since I began lessons, and I enjoy the various facets that my career has led me.
I think I was drawn to the harpsichord because of the similarity of touch between the harpsichord and the tracker organ. When you press a key on the harpsichord, the pluck of the string gives a slight resistance similar to the feel of depressing a key on a tracker organ. Also, harpsichordists and organists use much less wrist and body motion than pianists, and we do not need the upper body muscles required by pianists.
Q: I suppose the next question should be who were the organists and/or harpsichordists who influenced you—the ones who inspired you to take up these instruments?
A: For 20th century harpsichordists, I particularly admire and respect Wanda Landowska, as well as Gustav Leonhardt, Raymond Leppard, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Igor Kipnis, Ton Koopman, Sylvia Marlowe, Daniel Pinkham, Colin Tilney, Rosalyn Tureck, Fernando Valenti, Elisabeth Chojnacka, and many others.
For organists, I came of age with Helmut Walcha, Virgil Fox, E. Power Biggs, Marie-Claire Alain, and Gillian Weir; and now there is a whole crop of extremely talented contemporary organists. I still marvel that pipe organs, both large and small, are being built and installed in many churches in this rather cynical and perhaps non-church age.
Q: If I may, I would like to ask a couple of questions regarding Helmut Walcha, since he is such an icon to so many of our critics and readers. I know that you had difficulties with him, but was there anything positive that you were able to get from the experience?
A: Oh, absolutely! He was a gifted organist, improviser, and composer! He would play Evensong every week at his church for free, the Dreikönigskirche in Frankfurt, where the audience would consist of only six or so of us students. When he would give a public recital that had a hefty ticket price, the church was packed. Go figure! At Yale, I studied with Charles Krigbaum, who had studied with Walcha, and I admired the articulations and interpretations of Krigbaum, which fueled my desire to study with Walcha. I was fortunate to be awarded a Deutscher Akademischner Austausdienst to study with Walcha. Interestingly, Russell Saunders, with whom I studied at Eastman, was Walcha’s first American student, and I was his last. While at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule, I was fortunate to receive the Konzert Diplom under Walcha. For my qualifying concert, Walcha would not coach Widor or any American compositions. In his defense, his forte was Germanic composers, and his forte was really a fortissimo!
Q: And now, a different question, same topic: did Walcha really have no respect even for those women organists who had become famous? I doubt that he would have heard of such organists as Mary Cherubim Schafer, but as a European-based organist he might have heard of Anne Maddocks, who worked at the famed Chichester Cathedral from 1942 to 1949, and he had to have known of Marie-Claire Alain (who, incidentally, was one of my personal heroes when growing up).
A: These are all wonderful women organists! And Marie-Claire Alain is one of my icons, also. Perhaps Walcha responded to the culture of his time, by not believing that women could be outstanding organists, so why teach them? Women would only get married and not use their training, so why waste a spot in the academy for them? The culture of suppressing women composers and performers goes centuries back in Germany and other countries. Just think of Fanny Mendelssohn and the struggles she and many other women had to endure to get their music recognized. How many women’s compositions were left to languish in attics, only to be thrown out by future generations! So much has been lost over the centuries.
Q: On a different topic, I was very happy to learn of your support for women composers. Nancy Van de Vate once told me that the unwritten rule in most American symphony orchestras is that perhaps one major composition per year by a woman composer is programmed; otherwise, it’s back to the men. A friend of mine who considers himself enlightened once told me that he thinks this is only fair because “men write so much more music”!!! I would guess that you disagree with this as much as I do?
A: Absolutely; just check out the International Alliance for Women in Music, New York Women Composers, Society of Composers Inc., Donne in Musica, and American Composers Forum, just to name a few, and there are many, many women composers. According to the League of American Orchestras, only 1–2% of pieces played by orchestras in the United States are composed by women—what a shame! We write exciting, visceral, and beautiful music but cannot get it programmed. In the introduction to my book, Women in the Arts: Eccentric Essays II (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015), I tried to address the issue of why there is a need for books about women in the arts, exhibitions of women painters, readings of women’s poetry, concerts of music by women composers, and conferences highlighting women in the arts. It is an ongoing struggle for equity.
Q: I guess I really should ask where you come down on the recent revelation that Anna Magdalena Bach may have composed some of her husband’s music—an article in The Telegraph by Ivan Hewitt suggests the Cello Suites. I can’t imagine that living with and even playing her husband’s music on a daily basis wouldn’t have rubbed off on her, as it did on his sons?
A: I think this is a fascinating thesis! Anna studied with the best, and I believe that Bach’s creativity ignited hers! Or consider some other 18th century women composers such as Elizabeth Billington, Anna Bon, and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, who wrote music as teenagers and then went on to have other careers or dropped out of composition or got married and tended to a large estate. Elizabeth Billington, (1765/1768–1818) wrote her Opus 1 at the tender age of eight years old, and her mature Opus 2 at age eleven. Her sonatas compare favorably to Mozart’s at the same age. Elizabeth went on to become one of England’s most outstanding operatic sopranos. The CD I recorded, half Billington and half Mozart, is still available as Classical Prodigies: Elizabeth Weichsell Billington/Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hester Park, CD 7703, Vivace Press (www.vivacepress.com) I enjoyed working with Elizabeth’s music, and her second marriage was tumultuous. She and her husband would separate and then reconcile, until in the last reconciliation he took her to Italy and then murdered her. I talked with one of her descendants in England and asked if the story were true, and she told me that it was true. Elizabeth’s story and career, from child prodigy composer to famous soprano, a jealous husband, and a murder, is a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen!
Q: If I may ask about Palouse Performance, which I’ve never seen: what kind of show is it?
Performances by you, or a music discussion show with musical guests like the once-famous radio show St. Paul Sunday?
A: As the host of the show, Palouse Performance was a wonderful opportunity for me in the Palouse in the 1990s when I was professor of music at Washington State University, which is a region located in eastern Washington surrounding Pullman. It is a large wheat-growing area, and each day the rolling fields of wheat seemed to change in color and depth. Palouse Performance showcased talent from Washington as well as performers passing through the region. We did everything from classical to blues, jazz, rock, and I also did performances on clavichord, harpsichord and organ. One of my favorite shows was a woman composer/performer who wrote her country-western song, I’m Gonna Fax My Baby Some Love (faxing was still new in the 1990s). The fertile Palouse region inspired my Frontier Fancies for Violin and Orchestra.
Q: To briefly discuss your CD of music by Rosner and Pinkham, I was really wowed by the fact that such interesting modern music was composed for the harpsichord. Do you also work for more pieces like this? A body of modern works for harpsichord in addition to the 18th-century repertoire?
A: Yes, I am totally supportive of contemporary harpsichord composers and music. I recorded four CDs of contemporary harpsichord music featuring the music of Van Appledorn, Borroff, Zwilich, Diemer, Starer, Stern, Read, Rose, Martinu, Thomson, Albright, Adler, Sowash, Templeton, Fine, Near, Jones and Locklair. I think Rosner’s Musiqe de Clavecin is an incredible piece and not for the faint-of-heart technically! His portraits of women are fascinating and intriguing.
I have also recorded contemporary organ composers such as Adler, Locklair, Bitgood, Marga Richter, Zwilich, Julia Smith, Ethel Smyth, Violet Archer, Gardner Read, Gwyneth Walker and Jeanne Demessieux.
Q: How would you characterize your style on the harpsichord, as compared to other well-known harpsichordists currently active?
A: It seems to me I incorporate a lot of articulations and performance practices, and I pay close attention to melodic contours and harmonic foundations, which probably stems from my organ technique. I like to hear the harpsichord played with a fluid technique, and let the music speak for itself, without imposing the performer’s personality on it.
Q: In your new set of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler, how did you go about sorting through the manuscripts and deciding the correct performance style?
A: It was a long process. For some reason, I bought the entire works of Soler some time before I even thought of recording the sonatas. I used the Samuel Rubio edition of his 120 sonatas for the recording. I am glad I got them when I did, since you can no longer get the Rubio editions. First, I analyzed all the movements for form and melodic repetitions. Then I listened to many recordings of Soler by various artists, and all had some fine interpretations, but when I sat down
to record, I knew how I was going to interpret them – somewhere between Baroque and early Classical. I enjoyed the journey of researching and recording them, and it took two decades to get them all done. At one point, I didn’t know if I would ever complete them, but various serendipitous events allowed me to continue. I am happy I persevered, and I thank Rob LaPorta and Richard Price of MSR Classics and Candlewood Digital, respectively, who did a superb job on the final mastering and packaging, and I thank Roy Christensen of Gasparo Records, who started and believed in the recording project.
Q: I’m particularly curious about the various repeated movements that you enumerated in your liner notes to the Soler set: Sonata 96 duplicating Sonata 41, and movements in Sonatas 42, 45, 54, and 60 being recycled in later sonatas. Do you suspect, as I did, that Soler himself might have actually done this? And if not, why include the duplications?
A: I wrestled and struggled with whether or not to include the duplicates, and decided that whether Soler put the duplicates together, and/or Rubio did, it seems to make the sonatas more complete when they contain the duplicates. On the lighter side, perhaps Soler or Rubio had so many sonatas and movements to contend with that they forgot they had included them earlier!
Q: I’m wondering how on earth you balance all your activities in the course of a year. I can’t imagine that it’s particularly easy to be teacher, researcher, performer, editor, and composer. Somewhere along the line, there has to be less time for one of these activities. How do you manage it?
A: A good question! Luckily, I am a morning person and start work, whether composing, rehearsing, preparing syllabi/tests, or proofing an article or manuscript, early in the morning before the flood of e-mails, phone calls and disturbances (usually by my four cats!). Summer is a good time for academics to recharge and do all the creative endeavors that had to be put off during the academic year. I like to do projects that I can become passionate about—women in the arts and mentoring students. Like all of us, if we enjoy what we are doing, it’s not work, and we might even get paid for it!
Q: Do you have any immediate plans, as performer or in the recording studio, that you would like to share with our readers?
A: I have some excellent 18th-century manuscripts tucked away of women and men composers that seem to be insisting I should introduce them to the listening public, so I will begin the editing, publishing and recording process with them.
Thank you for your stimulating questions and letting me recall the gentle past, which none of us does in these aggressive and motivating times.
SOLER Harpsichord Sonatas Nos. 1–120 • Barbara Harbach (hpd) • MSR 1300 (14 CDs: 1,041:09)
Fanfare Magazine: Lynn Bayley, September/October 2015