“The Guardian” published an article yesterday regarding an upcoming auction of items from the estate of Paul Newman and his wife/colleague of 50 happy years, Joanne Woodward. It recalled to me how I found myself across from them on my first visit to New York’s most famous record store, Sam Goody‘s, in September of 1969. From the other side of the LP boxes I heard a woman say, “Just a minute, I‘m looking for Beethoven on the harpsichord.” That caught my attention. I looked up and saw two very familiar faces. Mr. Newman and I glanced at each other. He lowered his sunglasses just to make sure I recognized him, bored into me with those blue eyes, smiled, and spoke to me in a tone of mild disbelief. “Beethoven on the harpsichord?”
I was struck dumb…whereas I could have answered, “Well, speaking as a freshman harpsichord major at Juilliard, I can tell you that the first editions of the sonatas up to and including the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ were published ‘for harpsichord or piano-forte’, in that order, and shall we go have a drink somewhere?”
Except that at 17 years of age I didn’t have that information quite yet. In 1802, Giovanni (“Johann”) Cappi published the two Sonatas “Quasi una Fantasia” Op.27 per il clavicembalo o piano-forte in Vienna – separately, so that the composer could dedicate them to two different aristocratic ladies. This was, of course, a mere marketing ploy. At that point there were still plenty of harpsichords in Vienna. I believe the recording stunt had been tried back in the days of the LP, and possibly again in the (now moribund) CD era, but I don’t really want to know.
When I think back all those years, the thing that evokes more than just nostalgia is the fact that two such young, non-musician celebrities actually knew what a harpsichord was, and that Beethoven wasn’t the right instrument for his keyboard music. I wonder...could the same be said of the present crop of movie stars, or even of musicians – say, Taylor Swift, or Beyoncé?
Ms. Woodward is, at age 93, still among the living, but no longer touch with reality. After such a wonderful life in better times, perhaps she is well out of it.
June 1, 2023