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Koster Completes European Lecture Tour

John Koster, NMM Conservator and Professor of Music, recently completed an extended research trip to Europe, where he participated in several scholarly conferences, met with numerous professional colleagues, and examined instruments in various collections. Funded in part by a stipend from the Office of the Dean of USD’s College of Fine Arts, Koster’s itinerary began in Spain, where he was a co-chair of the Tenth International Symposium on Spanish Keyboard Music “Diego Fernández,” this year focusing on the subject “Keyboard Music and Instruments in the Spanish Empire (16th-17th centuries).” This biennial symposium, held in Mojácar (Almería Province), was part of the Festival Internacional de Música de Tecla Española (FIMTE), organized by harpsichordist Luisa Morales, who herself has performed at conferences held at the NMM and has recorded a remarkable CD of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Soler on the NMM’s harpsichord by Joseph Kirckman, London, 1798 (NMM 3328). In addition to chairing sessions, Koster delivered two papers, “Another Look at Semitone Problems in the Age of Cabezón: the Instrumental Perspective” and “A Newly Discovered Harpsichord in the Ibero-Florentine Style.” The first paper considered the use of accidentals (sharps and flats) in the works of the great Spanish royal court organist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) and his contemporaries, particularly in relation to the presence or absence of particular sharps and flats on the instruments of the period, such as the vihuela, harp, and keyboards.

John Koster

Harpsichord attributed to Diego Fernandez, Spain, at the Smithsonian Institution

In his second paper, a last-minute addition to the program, Koster made the first public presentation of a recent discovery made during a research trip to Washington, D.C., in May 2010. There, in a storage facility of the Smithsonian Institution, he identified a harpsichord that had been cataloged as a nineteenth-century fake as actually the sole known exemplar of an important type of mid-eighteenth-century Spanish instrument closely related to the NMM’s Portuguese harpsichord by José Calisto, 1780 (NMM 6204). In an article to be published in the 2011 issue of the Galpin Society Journal, Koster has suggested that the Smithsonian harpsichord can be attributed to Diego Fernández, harpsichord maker to the Spanish royal family from 1722 to 1775, who was closely associated with his fellow employee at the royal court, the great composer Domenico Scarlatti. No other surviving instrument by Fernández is known. In this harpsichord, important characteristics of Italian instruments were, as suggested, no doubt, by Scarlatti himself, integrated into the Spanish style. Koster’s announcement, made in Mojácar at a symposium named in honor of Fernández, who was born only a few miles away in the town of Vera, attracted considerable attention from the local press.

In the days following the conference, Koster visited the town of Castaño del Robledo (Huelva Province), where there is an organ of extraordinary beauty and historical importance in the parish church. Although the organ was built in 1750 by Francisco Ortíguez, its pipes are much older, likely from an organ made for the Seville Cathedral by a Flemish master in the sixteenth century. Of surviving early Spanish organs, this one, lacking the familiar Spanish horizontal projecting reeds stops developed towards the end of the seventeenth century, is perhaps the most appropriate in existence for interpreting Cabezón’s works.

Organ by Francisco Ortiguez, Castana del Robledo, 1750

John Koster in Edinburgh

From Spain, Koster proceeded to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he presented an expanded version of his “Semitone Problems” paper at a Postgraduate Research Seminar at the University of Edinburgh. (The full version will be published as an article in a forthcoming volume of the FIMTE symposium proceedings.)

Left: Koster pauses for a photo in Edinburgh. The landmark, “Arthur's Seat,” can be seen in the background.

In addition to examining keyboard instruments in the University of Edinburgh collections, Koster made a preliminary examination of two late-medieval harps in the National Museum of Scotland, extremely rare examples of the early “Irish” or “Gaelic” type. The identification of hornbeam as the wood from which these two instruments (known as the “Queen Mary” and “Lamont” harps) were fashioned has been called into question. From a close visual examination, Koster, who has extensive experience in identifying the woods in historical musical instruments, also doubted the hornbeam identification and discussed with the museum’s curators and conservators where minute samples could be taken for microscopic examination without compromising the integrity of the instruments’ original surfaces. This laid the groundwork for further examination during a future trip to Edinburgh.

Queen Mary harp from the collection at the National Museum of Scotland

While Koster was still in Edinburgh, his pre-recorded lecture, “In Search of Scarlatti’s Hardware,” was presented back at USD in Vermillion as part of the President’s Research Day events. Thanks to a video/audio hookup via Skype, however, he was able to be virtually present at the Muenster University Center Ballroom to respond to questions afterwards. (Click here to read about two research awards presented to Koster by USD during the fall 2010 semester.)

Citole in the collections of the British Museum

Moving on to London, Koster participated in a symposium, The British Museum Citole:  New Perspectives, held at the British Museum to consider from interdisciplinary viewpoints one of its most precious objects. This, an exquisitely carved early-fourteenth-century stringed instrument formerly known as the “Warwick Castle gittern,” is an ancestor of the NMM’s unique sixteenth-century English cittern (NMM 13500). In his paper, “Strings and Theories of Stringing in the Times of the Citole and Early Cittern,” Koster considered traditional stringing practices as presented in medieval music-theoretical sources and as practiced into modern times in diverse traditions of instrument making throughout Europe and Asia. He also discussed how new stringing practices arose from the development of the music-wire industry beginning in the late fourteenth century. After the symposium at the British Museum was a Study Day, Technology and Craft of Early Stringed Instruments, ca. 500-1550, held at the University of London’s Institute of Musical Research. In a presentation there, Koster explored further issues concerning the stringing of early instruments.

The final stop in Koster’s European tour was Herne, Germany, for a symposium, Regional Traditions of Harpsichord Making, held as part of Herne’s annual early music festival. There he presented a paper, “The Harpsichord in Seventeenth-Century France,” summarizing the history and development of this little-understood but crucially important school of harpsichord making. In addition to the NMM’s harpsichord by Nicolas Dufour, Paris, 1683 (NMM 5943), the presentation featured instruments that Koster has examined over the years scattered in collections from Sarasota (Florida) and Boston to Paris and Issoudun (France). An article based on this presentation will be published next year in the proceedings of the Herne symposium.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (December 2010)

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Most recent update: January 3, 2011

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