article 27:   On Kenneth Gilbert (for the British Harpsichord Society)

I barely knew the late Kenneth Gilbert, but almost all our interactions were of the pleasant sort. We first met at the reception after the prize presentation at the 1980 Bruges competition, where I had done rather well. He was kind enough to say he “was sure we will be hearing a lot about you in the future”. I gushed my thanks at all the Heugel editions he had been giving us; “Oh, that’s just a hobby,” he replied. A few years later I was surprised to receive a copy in the mail of Vol. 1 of his complete Scarlatti. There was a card stuck on the inside cover inscribed “de la part de l’auteur”. In my ignorance of the language I took that as a secretarial error implying that Domenico had sent me the book himself. I was sorry to learn later that “l’auteur” can mean “the editor”.

A few years later I was sitting on the jury of the same competition. After the pre-competition juror session, Gustav Leonhardt corralled the two of us and said, “Now let’s go have a drink and talk about Froberger” – the last word with ironic emphasis. There followed a longish session at a café over glasses of wine, where I mostly sat silent, in awe of these two giants’ erudition and their insider gossip about the frustrations of publication in general, and that of Froberger in particular. (The latter continue unabated to this day, with a newly-discovered autograph still in the clutches of a wealthy private collector.) When I asked what they thought happened to the lost Libro Primo and Libro Terzo, they shrugged. There was disagreement about whether the surviving Vienna autographs were, in fact, in Froberger’s hand. Kenneth offered the possibility that, manu propria being in the ablative case, it could meanreceived from Froberger’s own hand. Having grown up in a small town in Illinois with no Latin and less Greek, this was the first time I had ever heard of the ablative. Leonhardt scoffed at Kenneth‘s idea and turned to me for support, which was not forthcoming.

At the jury table later I got a taste of another side of Kenneth’s character. A Mozart fantasy for fortepiano was on the program. Kenneth suddenly pounced on the Urtext score in front of us and pointed to what he declared to be a wrong note. I couldn’t agree. He whispered, “Don’t you see? It’s a compositional thing.” Again I demurred. That got me a look that would make the birds drop from the clothesline, as my grandmother used to say. Another time in the same place, I rejoiced to him on the long-awaited appearance of the first part of Howard Schott’s edition of the non-autograph Froberger. “Oh, those are just the polyphonic pieces,” was his somewhat shocking reply. I think his great interest in the suites and his devotion to Bach’s fugues may have blinded him somewhat to the value of Froberger’s finely-wrought, sober counterpoint; or he may have just been a bit jealous that he had missed out on the plum assignment at his Hausverlag. (My lessons with Leonhardt were interrupted several times by long telephone calls from Mr. Schott, which the long-suffering man always took. But he would walk back into the room shaking his head.)

The first time I visited Siena, Kenneth was giving his annual masterclass. We had a convivial lunch together, where we talked about everything except the harpsichord. He offered me counsel on the best way of brewing coffee (he preferred café filtre) and what to do about occasional insomnia (“You may already have this information, but…”); but what really got him going was the Penguin of a Henry James novel I had with me. (“Now as the great Jamesian I’m sure you are, you probably know this, but in “The Aspern Papers…”).

The only other time he heard me perform live was at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. Luckily I didn’t know he was in the audience, as I was nervous enough in those august surroundings (there was a Maurice Quentin de la Tour pastel in the dressing room). I was therefore surprised to see him appear after the concert, and stunned and humbled when he said, “Well, the old Wilson magic continues, absolutely superb from beginning to end.” He slipped away quickly before I could even beg him to go out with me for a drink.

After that we corresponded some about my theory that the pieces ascribed to Louis Couperin really are by his brother Charles, the father of François “le Grand”. When the finished article appeared on my website, several years before its presentation in print in the Early Keyboard Journal, he advised me to add a date. Otherwise, he thought, others might claim priority.

The last time I saw him was at a café near his Paris apartment. I was elated to hear that he completely agreed about Charles Couperin, and when I asked him if I could see his vast collection of instruments at Chartres the next day, he used my wife’s cell phone to organize the visit sur le champ. He gave me a copy of his new edition of Bach’s Fantasy in G, the “Pièce d’Orgue” BWV 572, which may or may not have been the last thing Oiseau-Lyre published. He sadly told me how the old house was winding down, and with a shy, almost childish pride, showed me his Monaco resident's card. We parted with warmth on all sides, and he insisted on picking up the tab. ”This is my territory.” It seemed to me then that all was not well with Kenneth, and indeed heard soon after that he had returned to Canada in ill health.

These are my meagre reminiscences of someone I wished I could have known better. We shared an admiration for the artistry of Wanda Landowska (he told me he was on the way to interview the magnificent Pole when he learned of her death), and although our playing styles were ultimately very different, my respect for him as an editor and as a human being was boundless. His position in the revival of the harpsichord is unassailable.

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