Who are Cornell’s organ students? (Part 1 of 2)

Part I: Graduate student Matthew Hall: Home-made Clavichords, Grandma’s cookies, and the Cornell Baroque Organ

This Friday evening, February 5th, two of Cornell’s advanced organ students, Matthew Hall and Jonathan Schakel, will give a clavichord recital in the salon-style environment of the A. D. White house. They’ll be playing music by Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on a clavichord that Matthew himself has recently built. The evening promises to offer an intimate glimpse into 18th-century private music-making, on the instrument praised especially by members of the Bach family (and their followers) as the ultimate vehicle for musical expression. I asked Matthew recently about organs and clavichords, about combining performance with scholarship, and about why he chose Cornell as the place to work for a Ph. D. in musicology.

AR: Matthew, you are a professional organist and harpsichordist, with an undergraduate degree in music from Harvard, and two master’s degrees one from Leeds University in England, where you were a Fulbright scholar and where you were the Organ Scholar at Leeds Cathedral, and the other in organ and early keyboard performance from Boston University where you studied with Peter Sykes. You had offers from several of the best Ph. D. programs in the United States: why did you choose Cornell?

MH: I came to Cornell quite simply because of the Baroque organ in Anabel Taylor chapel. Once I had played that instrument, even just for a few minutes, I couldn’t think of going anywhere else. Of course I wanted to study with members of the distinguished musicology faculty here, but I had similar opportunities elsewhere. Nowhere else, though, would I find an organ of such beauty and finesse as the then just-finished Schnitger-style instrument at Cornell.

AR: What is it exactly about that organ that you find so important?

MH: Two things: the action, and the wind. Of course the instrument is beautifully constructed, and wonderfully voiced: it is supremely eloquent, with a speaking quality that is strikingly moving. But it has an extraordinarily sensitive action, so that you really have the sense that your fingers can, and must, shape the sound. And at the same time, a living, breathing quality to the wind that is unusually musical. This is a rare and wonderful combination.

AR: You are a performer, yet you are in the Ph. D. program here. You have several colleagues here at Cornell, both among the students and the faculty, who have careers both as scholars and performers. How do you find yourself managing those two, both equally time-consuming, aspects of your professional life?

MH: It is often extremely difficult to balance the demands of performance and the demands of scholarship — there are only so many hours in a day! But striving to do both well keeps me focused in each domain. In my research I try not to stray too far from the search for an understanding of musical materials the nitty-gritty of “the notes,” whether on the page, in the air, or in the mind’s ear. This keeps my work as a scholar closely allied to the realities and practicalities of musical interpretation, the performer’s lifeblood.

AR: Part of what you do here as a graduate student is to practise teaching. How does this third strand fit with your scholarship and performance?

MH: I am also very interested in teaching, and in the history of musical pedagogy. Learning how, say, Johann Sebastian Bach taught his son Wilhelm Friedemann the notes of the scale (something as basic as that!), and, moreover trying to understand why he might have formulated the concept of the scale in the particular way that he did, can not only provide insight into the mentalities of past musicians and therefore into their music, but it can also hold up a mirror to our own musical conceptions and ways of being, thereby helping us to make conceptual leaps to new ways of musical thinking and being in the here and now.

AR: Can you say a little more about what the Cornell Baroque organ means to you?

MH: The Cornell Baroque Organ is an exquisite example of the presentness of history: undoubtedly it is a 21st-century machine, built by our 21st-century hands guided by our 21st-century minds. Yet our minds have access in a particular way to knowledge about the past: therefore if we direct our hands to build and thereafter play an organ in sympathy with what we know about the past, then we are able, at least in part, to translate abstract knowledge into concrete, material experiences.

For example, I can follow Grandma’s Italian cookie recipes long after she’s no longer around to produce them with her own hands and quite reliably I can arrive at something that I recognize as the same kind of cookies that I remember from my childhood. Of course, in some very important ways they are not, cannot, be the same cookies, especially if I make a deliberate variation on the traditional version or if I hold a sentimental attachment to the work of her hands. But in other ways they are effectively indistinguishable from the cookies of my childhood not least because they can never be directly compared!

Whereas family recipes are tools with which to engage with family history, the Cornell Baroque Organ is a tool with which to engage viscerally with musical history. Of course history is not the same thing as the past itself, but it can help us to remember, and even to taste again by proxy, that which is otherwise irrecoverably gone. Such tools allow us to live in a present suffused with memories of the past, which is as much to say to live meaningfully.

Please join Matthew Hall and Jonathan Schakel for a clavichord recital on Friday, February 5th at 8pm in the A. D. White House.?