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Interview, Jean Rondeau on Gradus ad Parnassum

An eighteenth-century treatise on counterpoint might not sound like the most scintillating source of inspiration for an album, but there's nothing dry or dusty about Jean Rondeau's Gradus ad Parnassum (released last week on Erato) - taking its title from a 1725 text which had a profound influence on composers including JS Bach, Haydn, Clementi and Beethoven, the French harpsichordist's programme also features works by Palestrina and Debussy as well as Fux himself, all played with an imagination and élan which wears its learning lightly.

I spoke to Jean earlier this month about why Fux's text came to play such an important role in the education of Baroque and early Classical composers, how his own training as a pianist informed his repertoire choices on the album, and why he prefers to conceive his recording-projects as an end in themselves rather than duplicating programmes which work well in live concerts...

Why was Fux’s treatise Gradus ad Parnassum such an influential text in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

For me it’s not so easy to understand exactly why this text assumed such importance, because personally I find it very basic in terms of its content: it’s just a fairly straightforward handbook of theory for counterpoint which somehow became a sort of sacred text for so many composers, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But what first attracted me is that it’s billed as a dialogue between master and apprentice (which is why I composed the booklet-note as a conversation between a teacher and student). For Fux his master was Palestrina, who of course had a lot of influence on many composers who came after him.

Fux himself is not otherwise a very influential composer, in the sense that his music itself didn’t endure in the same way as Bach’s, Haydn’s or Mozart’s - so often when we dig deep into the past, we realise that there’s no clear answer as to how the music of a composer who was so famous in his own time could disappear almost entirely after the death.

But I think something about this kind of musical language did endure in a way, even if it was eventually superseded by the new galant style. Pretty much every Classical composer wrote a fugue at some point, so that connection back to to Fux via people like JS Bach, Buxtehude and Froberger runs deep: I liked the idea of them as musical angels hovering over later generations, giving them the confidence to explore a new musical language.

And you’ve widened the conversation in both directions here, taking in Fux’s master Palestrina as well as Beethoven, Clementi and even Debussy…

Yes - I’ve done quite a few albums where I focus on just one composer or one musical language, but for this one I travel from the sixteenth century to the twentieth and back again! Having said that, I tried to view this project as a kind of cartography rather than a linear chronology. I think our tendency to label musical languages as ‘Baroque’/‘Classical’/’Romantic’ etc means that we can miss connections between composers who actually have a lot in common. For instance, you’re often taught in school that Baroque music goes from Monteverdi to Bach - but there’s actually less of a connection between Monteverdi and Bach than there is between Bach and Brahms, even though most people would classify Brahms as ‘Romantic’.

With all of that in mind, I worked very hard on building this programme, and took a great deal of pleasure in the process - but until I got into the studio and put everything together I wasn’t sure whether it would work!

Did you try out the programme in live concerts before the recording-sessions, or was it always conceived as a project for the studio rather than the stage?

I‘ve performed it once, but with most of my projects I do one programme for the album and another for the concerts - except for the Goldberg Variations, because of course there wasn’t any programming involved there! We don’t have the same relationship to the music when we’re listening to an album as we do in a live concert: you can create your own listening environment and even programme-order when you’re at home with an album, whereas in concert it’s a communal experience.

Maybe this isn’t a perfect analogy, but for me it’s a little like the distinction between theatre and cinema: one is a living art, and the other’s about constructing something that creates a relationship with an audience which isn’t physically present with you in the moment. This is why I’m so passionate about recordings, and I totally understand why an artist like Glenn Gould would get to a point where they decide to do nothing else. For me, a recording isn’t a marketing-tool or a souvenir of a live concert: it’s an end in itself and it demands a lot of creative energy, because you immerse yourself in a very different way of sharing the music.

Also for the album I could spend time creating different temperaments for different pieces, which isn’t really doable in concert! For the Palestrina, I used a very natural sixteenth-century temperament, because for me if you play this music with equal temperament you lose a lot of expressiveness and it really doesn’t work - whereas for the Beethoven Prelude for piano or organ, which modulates through almost every major key, temperament needs to be almost entirely equal.

Did you record the entire programme on a single instrument?

Yes, and actually I hesitated about that at first because it involves such different languages and styles - but eventually I warmed to the idea of being immersed in the same atmosphere throughout the programme without being distracted by different sounds. I’m fortunate enough to have access to an instrument that’s very polyvalent in a way, and also fits really well under the microphones: it's a modern copy of a German model which was made in 2005, and I used it for the recording of the Goldberg Variations and also my Scarlatti album. It doesn’t actually belong to me, but the owner is generous enough to let me play it for these projects.

How readily did the later works on the album translate onto the harpsichord?

I didn’t really do any transcription-work: I just tried to enter into the spirit of the music itself without making any adjustments to notes or registers, and the real work lay in choosing the right pieces in the first place rather than arranging or transcribing. My idea was never to take some piano pieces and find a way to make them work on the harpsichord – there are many pianists who do that the other way around, and sometimes that can be a mistake! I’m a pianist as well, so I’m very appreciative of the differences: my idea was more to build something around musical languages which are common to both instruments, so I tried to find pieces that would genuinely fit that description.

For example, the piano and the harpsichord co-existed for much of Haydn and Mozart’s lifetimes, so there are some early pieces of theirs which work very well on either. A little later on the piano started to take centre-stage and you see a shift towards a way of writing and playing which just doesn’t work on the harpsichord, which is why I chose just two pieces by Beethoven. The first one is a Prelude which he wrote when he was really young, and we can see a very Bachian approach – there are some bars which you might actually think are by Bach! This music is not the Beethoven we know: it’s kind of an exercise from a young composer and we can feel that it’s not perfect, but I really like that! I love feeling that Bach connection across time, and the concept of pedagogy is very much central to this album – the Clementi is an exercise, the Debussy is an exercise - and that’s why I wrote the booklet-note as a dialogue between student and teacher.

The other Beethoven piece is the Prelude for Organ or Piano, and the fact that he gives both options is interesting in itself: on a certain level the expressivity of the organ is much closer to the harpsichord than to the piano, because you don’t control dynamics the same way, certainly in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century music. So given that this piece has to work on the organ, I could see no reason why it wouldn’t also translate easily onto the harpsichord, and when I tried it I had no problems at all.

I had a lot of choice when it came to Clementi, because there are so many Gradus ad Parnassum exercises: I just tried out a lot of them on the harpsichord and it was no hardship to simply avoid the ones that only worked on the piano! The two pieces I selected are so much fun: one of them could even be a Scarlatti sonata or something. And the Debussy is my little wink to the audience: it’s something a bit different - because of the title, the fact that it’s an exercise and the implicit reference to Clementi I thought I could get away with it!

Is there any other early twentieth-century piano repertoire that you think would work well on the harpsichord?

I don’t think anything else by Debussy or anything by Ravel would work, because they’re really exploring the piano’s full potential: I’m so familiar with Debussy’s piano music that I didn’t even bother trying other pieces out because I knew there was no point! But of course various pieces from that time were written specifically for the harpsichord - we have the Poulenc, Martinů and Falla concertos, for instance, and even works from much later in the twentieth century.

What’s your history as a pianist, and how much do you play today?

I started the harpsichord first, when I was six, and piano and organ came four years later. I also play a bit of clavichord and various other keyboards, but I have to focus my work and energy on specific repertoire and a specific instrument. I’m not the sort of pianist who’d sit down and play a recital of Romantic repertoire, but I do still play professionally – mainly for new music and a bit of jazz – and for my own pleasure at home. I love the piano and have a deep connection with it, so I still think of it as ‘my’ instrument, even though most of my work and concerts are on the harpsichord.

Jean Rondeau (harpsichord)

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