Chasing the Violin Part of Kirkman’s Sonatas

Medea Bindewald, the musician behind the Kirkman Project. © Stuart Hollis

Having supported the release of a CD with Jacob Kirkman’s music (see yesterday’s post), I talked to Medea Bindewald, the German harpsichord player behind the project. She volunteered for an interview conducted by email at the end of February.

Oxford Music Online features a piece on the Kirkman family as a family of keyboard builders; Jacob the younger is mentioned in a single line. Julie Sadie’s „Companion to Baroque Music“ only mentions Jacob the elder. Why has this composer been forgotten for such a long time?

Kirkman may not have been entirely forgotten, but it is true that little effort has been made to revive his music. One possible explanation for this lies in the fact that his keyboard works (apart from the organ pieces) were designed for domestic music-making. The whole genre of domestic music, which was so important during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fell quite out of fashion later on. Within recent years only, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of the domestic repertoire, resulting in research projects such as Sound Heritage initiated by the University of Southampton (UK).

Also, I do not find it all that surprising that much more attention has been paid to the keyboard-making company. Jacob Kirkman the elder was one of the leading harpsichord makers in eighteenth-century England, and the firm had an amazing output. Many of its instruments have survived and are still being played. Of course these distinctive instruments had to attract musicians and researchers! A musical score, on the other hand, can easily get forgotten tucked away on a shelf amongst a thousand other books.

How did you and Mrs. Moonen come across Kirkman and his music and what made you decide to produce a recording?

I was invited to give a lecture-recital on the wonderful 1772 Kirckman harpsichord at the Horniman Museum in London in 2014. It was in the course of my preparations for this performance that I came across the name of the composer. His close connection to the harpsichord-making company caught my interest, and I decided to track down his music. There were no modern editions or download opportunities available, but I was delighted to find that some of the printed scores are held by the British Library!

The violinist Nicolette Moonen and I had started to explore the genre of keyboard repertoire with violin accompaniment some time ago. When I discovered that Kirkman had also contributed to this particular genre, this coincidence kindled my curiosity even more. The question was whether we would like Kirkman’s music. We did! A little known composer, a neglected genre, the availability of original keyboard instruments: there seemed to be all the necessary ingredients for a very special recording project…

Unearthing forgotten music must look a little like an archaeologist’s work. What were the different steps from the idea of a Kirkman recording to the recording sessions in Finchcocks Musical Museum?

My journey with the Kirkman project involved a certain amount of initial research. After the discovery of the scores, the main tasks were trying to get more information about Jacob Kirkman’s life and finding suitable instruments and a venue for a possible recording. This brought me in touch with interesting people, amongst them Stephen Kirkman, the fifth Great Nephew of the composer! My idea of using both a harpsichord and a fortepiano eventually led me to Finchcocks Musical Museum. Finchcocks not only offered the perfect choice of instruments, but also represented a beautiful, very atmospheric (and quiet!) setting out in the countryside. Also, timing seemed to be just about right as a few months after the recording, the museum closed its doors. During the recording sessions already, we knew the CD would become a kind of homage to a place that would not continue to exist as a museum.

Speaking of “specific challenges”, we were initially confronted by a bit of an obstacle regarding the three sonatas with violin. Both Nicolette and I visited the Rare Books & Music Reading Room at the British Library on different dates and were presented with the keyboard part only. Had the violin part been lost? Was the violin supposed to double the top voice of the keyboard part all the time? We had no clue.

When I returned to the library a couple of weeks later, I ordered the three Kirkman sonatas with violin again to have yet another look at the music. And there it was on my pile of books: a separate volume containing the violin parts to all three sonatas. This little miracle really made my day!

You call Kirkman’s sonatas “fun to play and pleasant to listen to”. Would they be suitable as teaching material today? How much demand is there for newly trained harpsichord players and historic teaching material?

Kirkman’s pieces would certainly be suitable for teaching purposes. I would recommend the set of Six Lessons op. 3 in particular. I have already had inquiries from players wanting to access the Kirkman scores. As Kirkman’s pieces cover the so-called transition period between the baroque and the early classical style, they may be of interest for both harpsichordists and pianists.

As for the question of how much demand there is for newly trained harpsichord players, this is a delicate matter! I would like to stick to the optimistic belief that we can also create demand to an extent. Good performers are likely to find their audiences. Also, there is certainly a demand for good accompanists and continuo players.

Speaking about demand, what message can Baroque music give us today? Does it still have a message at a time when the social environment has radically changed?

Circumstances have indeed changed thoroughly, and we often come to a better understanding of a work when we consider its historical background. Yet every true work of art bears an element of timelessness. I think we can appreciate a work of the past, because there is continuity in what is genuinely human.

As for music, the “message” it conveys is rarely concrete. Its meaning is of a different kind compared to the meaning of words. Music talks directly to our hearts. It has the power to move us, make us think, lift our spirits, make us cry, excite us or soothe us. Baroque music can do this just as well as music of any other epoch.

Has your interest in Kirkman sparked any other initiatives relating to his music?

It is maybe a little early to say anything about the impact of my interest in Kirkman. I do not see the necessity of publishing modern editions of his music, but I would welcome it, if scans of the scores were to be made available online soon. IMSLP Petrucci Music Library has made a start with Kirkman’s op. 5! This was not in their catalogue when I started to look for the music. I cannot tell you whether there is a causal connection between my project and the upload… We could now start a discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of new editions versus the use of facsimiles.

I find the Kirkman scores easy to read, though they contain the odd mistake. For instance, they are not very consistent regarding the use of accidentals. I don’t mind this, on the contrary: tiny details may even provide us with information about the composer and his time. There are some chords in the violin part that are simply impossible to play on the instrument. Without any further research Nicolette and I were able to conclude that Kirkman was definitely not a violin player! A modern edition might seek to eliminate such mistakes to the effect that such information becomes less obvious.

I observe that more and more contemporary musicians from the classical world try to find niches in the music market, forgotten composers and forgotten works, often from the Baroque era. Is this a) a financial necessity for a young musician b) a reaction to an oversaturated market with multiple recordings of the great classics (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc.) or c) both?

I think we can definitely rule out a). There is not much money to be made in those niches! Whether we like it or not: It is a fact that only a small percentage of all musicians make serious money out of recordings. It is the “great names” that sell. Also, concert organisers tend to be rather reluctant to include unknown repertoire, many small CD labels struggle to survive and may not be able to offer young musicians conditions that are as favourable for them as one would wish etc. No, I do not think financial necessity can be seen as the motive here.

As for b), I am not sure whether the market really is oversaturated. The “great classics” are just so popular and classical music lovers enjoy comparing interpretations of their favourite pieces.

If it is neither a) nor b) nor a combination of both, what else may be responsible for the trend? I think we musicians like to be on a mission. Instead of simply reproducing what has been said, we want to say something new. This can be difficult in the classical music scene! It was different at the start of the Early Music movement, when the sound of a violin with gut strings was a revolution. Now that Historically Informed Performance has established itself, there is not much left that we can add. Expanding the repertoire may be seen as one solution to this problem.

I also observe that many such projects take shape with the help of private fund-raising just like 200 years ago, often through social networks. Is this the only way to secure the necessary funding for such a project?

When I started planning the Kirkman CD project, I considered applying for a grant from the British Arts Council. However, I did not think a private person would stand much of a chance, so I decided to use one of the online crowdfunding platforms instead which, as you state, have become very popular today. This has worked out very well for me. I suppose major record labels will only be interested in financing such a project if the expected sales justify the investment.

Are there any other forgotten composers you have come across and where you would see a value in producing a recording after Duphly and Kirkman?

I have come across a great number of neglected composers, the works of many of whom I consider worthwhile exploring, but plans for a future recording of mine are currently rather vague. I think, it might be nice to produce a recording that features the genre of accompanied harpsichord music as such, giving an overview of its history from Élisabeth Jaquet de la Guerre over Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville up to the repertoire of the late eighteenth century. Another option is to portray the genre in the context of pre-revolutionary Paris featuring compositions by Johann Schobert, Jean-Frédéric Edelmann, Nicolas-Joseph Hüllmandel and young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This recording project would correspond nicely with an excellent solo CD by my colleague Giulia Nuti (Les Sauvages, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi). But my next production might as well be a solo harpsichord album.

© Charles Thibo

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