Writings Albert Fuller

Thoughts on Helicon’s 20th Anniversary

After I made my New York recital debut in November of 1957 I got swept up into the local music scene as I had hoped. I had known for a long while there were virtually no local harpsichord players, with the exception of the international giant artist, Wanda Landowska. Thus, I came to be involved in a great deal of important musical works I had never previously had a chance to become acquainted with. Among them was Handel’s Julius Caesar in Carnegie with no costumes or scenery, but it was Montserrat Caballé’s debut alongside the already well-established Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was in this performance that I had my first experience with personal competition among performers of such glorious music.

Because, as harpsichordist, I was required to accompany all the recitatives in the Handel work, my position in the orchestra was at the very front. This allowed me to observe before my very eyes the audience’s wild reception of Caballé’s first New York performance and the unusually large number of curtain calls she was demanded to make. Before each of these Schwarzkopf stood aside, stamping her foot, and shouting at the conductor, Ich bin die nexte, i.e., “I’m the next one (to take the bow).” This ever-smiling fury between the two sopranos continued for 20 minutes at the least. This was my introduction to the fact that glorious singing didn’t require glorious personalities to bring a musical work to life.

Through the many performances of such splendid compositions I met and befriended many musicians at a rapid rate. At that time (1950s-1960s) most harpsichordists, or pianists who were pretending to be harpsichordists, performed from scores written out by 19th-century editors, while the original practice was that the harpsichordists improvised all of what they played. They were said to “realize the figured bass” i.e., create what they played by reading the bass lines of the scores. These were only sometimes accompanied by numerals or other signs to indicate what the composer expected the harmonies were to be. Having had no experience in playing thus, this became a challenge that I took on with great delight. It wasn’t long before it was clear that I was very gifted in this enterprise and had no competition among the “free-lance” musicians in the New York area.

Soon I was playing more chamber music requiring a facile harpsichordist than I could have hoped. Much of this was music that I came to love, even adore; this set me up in our music world as having taste and special understanding of the styles of performance, often of music many people had never heard a note of. And many happy concerts were the result of all of this. 

But that does not mean that all was happy; my harpsichords were made in the authentic 18th-century French style. Over the years I have owned twenty-two harpsichords. “Why on earth?” some would ask. The answer was that builders (most of my instruments were made by William Dowd of Boston) were coming more and more to understand that the fine 18th-century instruments were a result of several hundred years of continuous experimentation until the superb results that were expected were almost always achieved. Naturally there were differences in the instruments of different countries but I stuck almost entirely with the French models.

The unhappiness came from the fact that all my colleagues played modern versions of all their instruments; these had all grown much louder in order to sound well in the ever-enlarging 19th-century halls. Musicians complained that I was too soft and I complained that they were too loud, creating an artistic confrontation something like a Picasso not being entirely appropriate in the Galérie des Glaces at Versailles. What to do? One of my colleagues, Stanley Ritchie, was not at all reluctant to try gut strings on one of his violins. (Gut strings had been used on all string instruments —violins, violas, cellos and double basses—from their very beginning.)

But halls had been getting larger and larger, so that by the time of WWI players and makers alike began to be drawn to steel strings because they were louder and stayed more easily in tune. Hence the sharp discrepancy between my sounds and that of my colleagues. Note also, that the bows of all Western string instruments have always been made of horsehair. When horsehair meets gut it recognizes a material that it knew from birth; but with steel it encounters something like a piece of avant-garde modernistic architecture. Thus, rubbing horsehair on slippery steel required all string players to make vast changes in the manner of using their bow arms.

When my ‘cello friend, Freddie Arico, had no objections to trying out gut strings, Stanley and I could play 17th- and 18-century sonatas on instruments close in sound and techniques to that expected by the composers of the music that we all had come more and more to love.

But then an idea straight out of the blue hit me: if we could find another violinist not only could we more than double our repertory but we could have the basics to begin to form an orchestra. I mentioned this to one of my students, Helen Katz, and she said she had met a Dutch guy at Aspen who was dying to play on gut strings; his name was Jaap Schröder. When I wrote to him in Amsterdam to invite him to join us he responded with instantaneous enthusiasm.

But, having only dreams and no money and no place to situate such a new organization, my old Yale friend, C. Ray Smith introduced me to one Lee Elman. Over lunch at the Great Shanghai restaurant of my dear friend Sheila Chang, Lee told me he had purchased the former residence of Albert Spalding, of tennis ball fame, and he wanted to have a concert in Spalding’s former studio in order to introduce himself to the music lovers of Western Massachusetts’s Berkshire region where he wanted to be accepted by the often powerful locals, Mme. Koussevitzky, etc.

I organized a concert, Lee invited the “swells” he had wanted to impress and it was all a big success, especially the viol da gamba piece of Marin Marais describing the operation for removing a gallstone (c.1690). Lee’s home was called “Aston Magna,” after an ancient Roman town in England where the original builder of the house had lived. In 1972 Lee and I decided that we would start a foundation in honor of his dead sister and simply call it The Aston Magna Foundation for Music. We would raise money to invite students who wished to learn how modern music performance differed from that of the 17th- and 18-centuries, and hence meant something different to the hearts of the performers and listeners that we 20th-c. music lovers had never known or completely forgotten about. The results were regularly new and often stunning to all concerned.

This Aston Magna venture grew very successful not only as a school, but also as a performing group in Great Barrington, Mass. By 1977 we had enough players to do the famous Brandenburg Concerti, with the exception of someone who could play the trumpet of Bach’s time. After much inquiry I found a guy named Friedemann Immer in Germany who said he could do it and we hired him immediately. Bach’s beloved works became the centerpiece of Aston Magna’s festival of 1977, and places in Great Barrington’s St. James’ church, which had become our concert hall, were all sold out weeks before the performances. These were the first complete public performances on Bach’s instruments in the world, ever, and naturally they brought a certain unique prominence to the name, Aston Magna. The National Endowment for the Humanities supported us to the extent that we were able to invite scholars in all fields relating to 17th- and 18th-century musical performance intentions. Thus the invisible art of music drew many, often surprising relationships into sharp alignments where most of us had never known them to exist.

Later we were invited to open the Tanglewood Festivals for two years in a row and the future looked more exciting than we could ever have imagined. But—the board of directors and I had some serious disagreements: they thought I was spending too much money. I thought that was a really stupid concept because it was I and my closest colleague, Raymond Erickson (who had been at my side from the very beginning, first as a student and then crowned “Dean of Students”) who had raised all the money while the board had supplied almost none. Finally, at a board meeting in November of 1983 at a meeting I kissed the hands of the ladies, shook those of the men, and told them all good-by, and to “shove it”—and forever.

Oh, oh! I had just left the precious garden that I had planted and didn’t know what to do next. I asked Alice Tully’s lawyer, Jim McGarry, if I should start another foundation; he responded, “If you want to raise money you’ll have to.” And thus, with the help of dear Alice, and blessed Gregory Smith, and McGarry’s legal associate, William (Bill) Simon, the Helicon Foundation became an honest-to-God 501 (c) 3 organization in the state of New York in the spring of 1985. And, although a few of our cherished companions have gone to what Alice called “My next act,” we’re still here and that alone in my life is the single, happiest and unexpected gratification.