Musician of the Month: Medea Bindewald
I was born into a musical family. Neither my parents nor grandparents were professional musicians, but there was always a lot of music around. In fact, the sound of a harpsichord forms part of my earliest memories. My grandmother owned a double manual harpsichord by Martin Skowroneck, who sadly passed away this year. He was one of the pioneers in making harpsichords based on historical principles and his instruments are characterised by their ability to create wonderfully singing notes. I was indeed spoilt for quality at an early age! When I was eight years old, my parents found a fantastic harpsichord teacher for me. I am still in touch with her, and her critique and encouragement mean a lot to me. At the age of 16 I passed the entrance exam at the Musikhochschule Mannheim and studied as a young student (Jung-Studentin) whilst still finishing my high school education. I was invited to master classes with Gustav Leonhardt when I was 18 and 19 years old. Of course, I am very grateful for all these experiences.
I see my early start on the harpsichord as a privilege. If you compare learning a musical instrument to acquiring language skills, I have learned playing the harpsichord like my mother tongue. This is no particular merit on my part, I merely had to go through less trouble than most of my colleagues.
You are one of the few musicians who began studying the harpsichord without previously studying the piano. What drew you to the harpsichord over the piano?
What makes us drawn to one thing and not to another? Can we explain love? There’s always a kind of magic about it… I suppose, in my case it has to do with the sound as well as with the repertoire associated with the instrument. As a child already I was fascinated by the enchanting sound, but also by the appearance of harpsichords. You have to admit that a piano just doesn’t look as appealing as harpsichords do with all their different sorts of decorations and lovely details. I wasn’t aware then that the ‘boring’ looks of grand pianos were a result of industrialisation, nor that the decoration of a harpsichord was a means of demonstrating wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – they were status symbols! Anyway, I still appreciate the beauty of an individually designed harpsichord a lot today. I think it is only appropriate that the nobility of sound and music is reflected in the decor. As for the repertoire: Listening to Bradford Tracey’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg variations on a harpsichord and to Gesualdo, sung by the Hilliard Ensemble, as a teenager I found myself becoming addicted to Early Music. But dedicating myself to early keyboard instruments only and feeling ‘at home’ with baroque music doesn’t mean my musical horizon is restricted to that repertoire as a listener.
Your CD Jacques Duphly, pièces de clavecin includes the composer’s only chamber music: six movements with accompaniment by a violin. What is so fascinating about this particular genre?
In the beginning of the 18th century in France, harpsichord solo music was occasionally performed with the accompaniment of a single violin that very softly duplicated the top voice of the harpsichord. This is how the genre of harpsichord music avec accompagnement de violon evolved. Significantly, Duphly doesn’t mention a violin in the title of his third volume of harpsichord music – the violin pieces just appear out of the blue between mere harpsichord works, which indicates even more how much these pieces were regarded to be solo harpsichord repertoire. As for the Duphly pieces, the violin does not always duplicate the right hand of the harpsichord. There is an extra violin part and the player has to switch frequently between accompanying and more soloistic passages which demand a different attitude of playing. What I find fascinating about the genre is how well two so diverse instruments can blend: The violin complements the harpsichord by adding colour and dynamic, it is like another register of the harpsichord! I find this extremely intriguing.
I would like to point out that keyboard music with accompaniment for a violin (or flute) was not a French phenomenon only. My violin partner Nicolette Moonen (artistic director of the Bach Players) and I currently explore late eighteenth century English repertoire of this genre.
Why do you think the Italian style became more popular than the French style during the 18th century – even in France?
The question assumes that the Italian style became more popular in France than the French style. I am not so sure about this. However, it is true that the Italian style became increasingly fashionable in France during the eighteenth century. To me the eighteenth century is one of the most exciting periods in musical history. Musical taste changed radically within the second half of the century. This affected even France, where the refined French style had reigned more or less unchanged for more than 150 years. The French style is known to be harmonically rich, rhythmically complex and subtle in expression, whereas the Italian style has a much more straightforward way of expressing things. The latter also involves a more ostentatious kind of virtuosity. It is difficult to say what exactly prepared the ground for the success of the Italian style in France. I think you have to see it in context with other aspects of social and cultural life. I imagine that the change of musical taste and fashion came along with a new attitude towards life. After all, we are talking of the time leading up to the French Revolution. But, if you think of the ‘ Quarrel of the Comic Artists’ (Querelle des Buffons) in the 1750s, a controversial war of words about the merits and demerits of French or Italian opera, the encounter of both national styles in Paris wasn’t always free of conflicts.
It is very interesting to observe the role of French baroque music today. Outside of France, concert organisers very often seem to be reluctant about the French repertoire, assuming that it is “not to everybody’s taste”. In my experience, their worries are not justified. I am afraid we tend to under-estimate our audiences. Thus, it is great to see the number of concerts featuring French music at Handel House Museum, and I was very pleased when I discovered that Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts, which belong to my favourite repertoire, were performed at this year’s PROMS.
Does playing in Handel’s Rehearsal and Performance Room evoke any particular inspiration?
I gave my first recital at Handel House Museum in 2013 and I have been back for rehearsals regularly since. It is certainly very special to rehearse and perform eighteenth-century music in Handel’s very own music room. The portraits of his celebrated singers hanging on the walls remind us on what was going on in this room at the time when Handel lived here. There might be a danger of this being intimidating. Fortunately, this is not the way I experience making music at Handel House. To me what matters is that this house was breathing music at Handel’s time – and is doing so again today with a great number of rehearsals and concerts taking place! Compared to the bustle of the streets around, Handel House is a quiet place where you are able to concentrate. I really enjoy rehearsing there with visitors coming from all over the world. You can hear all kinds of languages. Some people have never before seen a harpsichord, others seem to know every note Handel has written (though frankly, I don’t think this is ever possible regarding the quantity of his output). Walking out of Handel House after a rehearsal I am always in a good mood, feeling refreshed and full of energy. Maybe you can call that the inspiration I gain from rehearsing in Handel’s own music room.