PH: Tilman, do you come from a musical family?
Tilman Skowroneck: Indeed yes. My father, Martin Skowroneck, started out as a flautist and then began building recorders and harpsichords. From making instruments for himself, he has become one of today’s most renowned harpsichord builders.
PH: What are your earliest musical memories?
TS: Growing up in the house of a harpsichord maker meant that initially I had a fairly biased musical diet of Baroque music and not very much else.
PH: And how did your own musical activity start?
TS: I was born in Bremen. With my father being a harpsichord builder, we had several instruments in the house and I started recorder lessons when I was five years old. But it was not my instrument…or I may just have been a little too young to start lessons. We had a little virginal at home and I began playing that when I was five and a half. My music teacher had a decent spinet at his home.
PH: How did your taste in music develop?
TS: When still too young to operate the record-player alone, I listened to records and began to be interested in hearing organ music. Then, in the late 1960s, there was the phase of the records of Gustav Leonhardt and his ensemble playing Bach harpsichord concertos - for one-, two-, three- and four harpsichords. Those really fascinated me. What also comes to mind was my liking for the Bach orchestral suites. I was not yet interested in the classical style – that happened when I was 16.
PH: Did you go to a music-oriented school?
TS: No. From age 5 to 14 I had private lessons on the harpsichord with Jan Goens, the church organist in the area of the city where we lived. There were not many harpsichordists around then and, although an organist, he was interested in the harpsichord. My teacher had a lot of patience with me…I was a headstrong child and did not always practice. I think that he only lost patience with me once or twice in all those years! On the other hand, there were a few things that he didn’t teach me and that needed to be learned later and with considerably more effort.
PH: Did you study the organ with him?
PH: Where did you take higher musical studies?
TS: I began at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, where I went to study with Bob van Asperen in 1979. I had just completed my alternate mandatory service, working in a sailors’ home in Bremen. Working there full time, I ended up quite exhausted by the end of the day and was not doing so much practice on the harpsichord. I thought my playing was progressing well, but had nothing with which to compare it. But Bob van Asperen did not think I was getting ahead quickly enough. In fact, I was given a period of probation with him, which I actually did not pass. In November, he said he felt my playing was not going anywhere, but I still thought otherwise and got in touch with Gustav Leonhardt – a customer of my father and a friend of the family - to ask his advice. He said he would first need to hear me play. I had heard some of his master classes but had never actually played for him. A little nervous at first, I played for him and it was fine. He recommended I study with Anneke Uittenbosch; so, from 1980 to 1983 I studied with her at the Amsterdam Conservatory. Then, interested in a contrast of approaches, I went to study with Ton Koopman for two years. After that, I had one year of tuition from Gustav Leonhardt himself. In 1999, in combination with my doctorate, the subject of which was Beethoven, I went to Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) and took lessons on fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson.
PH: I understand you live in Sweden now.
TS: Yes. I have been in Sweden for 22 years and do most of my playing there. What happened was that, following my studies, I freelanced in Holland for a few years and then somebody called me from Sweden, informing me of a position in the unlikely city of Borås, a community of some 60,000 inhabitants east of Göteborg. It was to help establish “Corona Artis”, an ensemble of six players on early instruments; I was to be harpsichordist and fortepianist. For the first six years of its existence, playing with “Corona Artis” was a full-time job, then becoming a half-time job. We did evening concerts, we helped church musicians in the performance of choral works such as cantatas and we did quite a lot of children’s concerts at schools.
PH: Does the group still exist?
TS: What happened was that there was a shift of policy and the financial backing we had been receiving was then to go to world music. “Corona Artis” was dismantled, although we occasionally play together…either some of us or all the players, taking part in various projects.
PH: Do you give solo recitals?
TS: Yes. I play recitals and also do research.
PH: Would you like to mention something about your latest research project?
TS: Yes. Just last year I concluded a post-doctorate at the University of Southampton (UK) on the subject of 19th century Viennese piano building; this meant looking into negotiations between builders and customers and seeing how the public’s wishes influenced changes in piano construction. Well, we do know that piano construction changed much in the 19th century: the piano became twice as heavy, got twice as many keys, etc. and we have always supposed the Schumanns and Beethoven etc. to have been responsible for that. But the push to bring about change in piano construction must have come from other sources; so there is a new story to be told, tying in with sociology and the history of technology. I am trying to combine a few different aspects there. It is coming out as a book and I am now busy putting the finishing touches writing the last chapters.
PH: Do you also build instruments?
TS: No. That is my father, Martin Skowroneck. He is 85 years old and, at the moment, is busy building a harpsichord. But I do occasionally do maintenance. Of course, I have seen and learned a lot in my father’s workshop and I feel it is important to be able to maintain my own instruments and other instruments built by my father. Maintenance is an important part of keeping the instrument sounding good. It is much to the detriment of a harpsichord if it is not regulated properly. As to the mechanical aspect, I cannot say the task thrills me greatly – it is a lengthy process. Regulating a two-manual harpsichord can take three hours and it is fiddly work. My own harpsichords at home are equipped with bird quills and not plastic plectra; keeping them in good shape is slightly more work-intensive – each quill has a different lifespan.
PH: What about teaching?
TS: I would love to teach more! At the moment I am busy teaching in a masters program for organists in Göteborg . With the historical approach there, I am teaching continuo classes on harpsichord. I am also doing supervision in two different music departments of the University of Göteborg.
PH: Do you compose?
TS: I would like to. It is a matter of having time for it, and I am not trained as a composer. However, I did notice that in England there is to be a competition for composers, for which submissions are due this coming August; I am toying with the thought of trying my hand at writing a piece.
PH: Have you written arrangements?
TS: Yes. An interesting project I was involved in was to do with a ballet written by Anders von Düben – the third generation of a line of Swedish composers; he was writing in the French style around 1700. Having just returned to Sweden from studying in France, he wrote a work – “Narvabaletten” (The Narva Ballet) - to commemorate the Swedish victory over the Russian enemy at the Battle of Narva (1700) and it was a work that needed to be finished very quickly. He missed out a lot of the inner voices in the score; some instrumental parts had beginnings but were not completed. I am not quite sure how the work was conceived. The manuscript was in the Uppsala University Library in Sweden. Organist, musicologist and conductor Hans Davidsson was interested in making recordings of this kind of music. We got our hands on a version of the piece arranged by a Swedish musicologist. Some of the ballet consists of ensemble pieces by French composers. So, there we were rehearsing when the oboists claimed their parts were unplayable. There were also some voice-leading problems. Someone was needed to rework the manuscript in the French style, so I took upon myself to do most of the reconstruction of the score.
PH: Would you be interested to conduct harpsichord and fortepiano master classes here in Israel?
TS: Most definitely.
PH: Now that you have completed your second, large research project, what are your plans?
TS: I feel it is time to give some more recitals. Having been at Southampton University for the recent research project, I did make contact with some of the players there, performing a recital and a double concerto of J.S.Bach.
PH: How does one combine being a performer and a musicologist?
TS: This is not at all simple! It is difficult to fit both into one day as the mindsets are so different. One cannot practise in the morning, then drink coffee, eat lunch and switch over in the afternoon to sitting at a desk doing research, for, in the afternoon, your mind is still working on the music you were playing in the morning. The other way around does not work any better – you end up trying to play the harpsichord in the afternoon with your mind distracted by concepts from the morning’s reading! So what works best is doing a whole week of one and then a week of the other.
PH: How does it work with practicing harpsichord and fortepiano?
TS: Actually, that is a similar problem. A few years ago I participated in a fortepiano-flute recital - Kuhlau, etc. – and I practiced a lot for that. Following the concert, I thought I would now just go over to the harpsichord; but I learned that one needs a break before doing that.
PH: What harpsichord repertoire do you especially enjoy playing at this stage in time?
TS: I am very comfortable with French Baroque music and like to include some in recitals. I also have a real love for music of Elizabethan England - virginal music, especially that of William Byrd. The latter is challenging to perform, although one should not include too much of that style in a concert as not all audiences will want to hear a whole evening of Elizabethan harpsichord music. The exquisite beauty of this English music must be presented in a specific way, so two or three pieces of it in one concert are a real treat.
PH: What about contemporary music for harpsichord?
TS: Strange you should raise the subject. I have just ordered the sheet music of a new harpsichord work by a composer who won first prize for it in an American competition. It is a tonal work and easy for me to access, much more so than most of the music written in the 1960s and 1970s. With my approach to the harpsichord as a “vocal” instrument, I am not interested in music that takes a mechanical/percussive approach to the instrument. The harpsichord is an instrument that can sound very ugly!
PH: How do you see trends in harpsichord-playing at the moment?
TS: For a while I was so busy with my own activities that I was not really following trends, as were many of my colleagues. But, of late, I have been listening to many players on YouTube. Harpsichordists tend to post recordings of their playing on YouTube at all stages of their studies and careers. I have discovered some amazing performances by people one has never heard of. So, with a bit of creative searching on the Internet, one discovers some gems. It is a medium allowing for many players (of a variety of levels) to be heard. I am pleased that players are daring to record their playing on YouTube and CDs. But, of course, it is not easy to be a unique performer, to have something special to say with your playing.
PH: Do you sing?
TS: Well, I have sung in choirs and I don’t “not sing”, but no, it is not a focus of mine.
PH: When it is not music, what interests you?
TS: I like to cook. I do like gardening, time permitting (but am a lazy gardener). I enjoy the outdoors although we are not spoilt for sunny weather in Sweden! I am interested in model trains and I used to draw quite a lot, but seem to do less of that nowadays.
PH: Tilman, many thanks. It has been most interesting talking to you.