In Search of the Key with Linda Nicholson
Long Reads 24.12.2017
Words Peter Lyle
Photographs Christopher Sturman
Step through the doors of her South London home and you will discover one of the finest keyboard collections in the world. And for Linda Nicholson, playing them is everything: it’s the only way to appreciate how the works of the great composers were first heard…
Authenticity is a funny thing. The New Yorker’s Louis Menand once described it as ‘a snark’: we’ll always go hunting for it, but we can’t ever grasp it – not in the real, uncomplicated way we crave.
You might choose to ignore that fact, or to give up chasing it. But Linda Nicholson has another way. She doesn’t claim to know exactly how things were, or how they should be. She just wants to ever-so-politely share the incontrovertible fact that if you’re playing the works of the great Western classical composers on a modern piano, you’re doing it all wrong.
Over her adult life, Nicholson has amassed one of the world’s finest collections of keyboard instruments from before the invention of the modern piano. They date from 1571 to 1831 – partly because that’s when the piano began to take the form we know today, and partly because ‘there’s no more room in the house’. Nicholson’s South London home is also the home of her collection, and where she plays her instruments and researches their backgrounds – but she wears her unrivalled understanding of them lightly.
‘For sure, in 50 years’ time, people will come along, discover new things, and I will sound very dated,’ she says one Wednesday evening, having concluded her four hours’ practice for a looming concert. ‘Inevitably, I am of my time, so the way I interpret it will be of my time – early 2000s, or wherever we are.’
Ignore the digital humidifiers and modern insect traps scattered around the house, and her home feels anything but 21st century. It’s been designed and decorated around the instruments that it houses, so that you might step from 18th-century Venice to Vienna. Over two floors, rooms are given over to harpsichords, tangent pianos, spinets, organs, period paintings and furniture. In a small Chinese-style room stands a clavichord by Sweden’s royal instrument maker – thought to have been made for the Swedish envoy to China. It is striking and intricate, with reversed white-on-black keys, but Nicholson delights in pointing out that its ‘ebony’ keys are only edged with the expensive wood: centuries of playing have worn the black stain off the cheaper wood beneath.
Between rooms and themes are all sorts of instruments on chairs, tables, walls and mantelpieces; horns and castanets, even a painted ‘serpent’ horn. But the keyboards rule the roost, and except for a few that aren’t in working order – like the Irish one ingeniously hidden in a half-round table, Nicholson can rarely resist playing each one as she talks about it.
And with each one, it becomes more and more clear why Nicholson is so much more inclined to play these historical instruments, rather than harangue modern musicians about their blind spots. The sounds she can summon from them make her core case – which is, essentially, that Mozart, Beethoven and company were writing for instruments very different from those on which they’re now typically played – better than any words could.
Even listening back to Nicholson’s keyboards on my voice recorder now is like rewinding a dream in sound: at once alien and familiar. An Ennio Morricone twang here, a wind chime tinkle there. Others switch modes like 1980s synthesizers, and make noises to bring Moog lovers to tears. A table organ with glass pipes sounds like some long-lost Oliver Postgate theme. Many of Nicholson’s keyboards have felt dampers that radically change their sound when raised. Some keyboards sound brittle and tired; others are rich, bassy and warm.
‘In the 18th century, keyboard music was not specific to an instrument,’ she explains. ‘They just played whatever came to hand really. So my aim was to show what different sounds they had, and how different the techniques for playing them were. Different composers had relationships with different instrument makers. One couldn’t possibly pretend to know how they played 200 years ago. All I’m saying is – this is what they had, so this was the sound. With the playing, it was a question of learning a little bit by trial and error, getting to know what the instruments could and couldn’t do – because they’re all so different.’
Learning to play the instruments was always interesting, she says, ‘because things in the music were illuminated: for example, something like the Mozart violin sonatas, the balance with the modern piano is unbelievably difficult, because the violin is drowned out. But when you play the early instruments, if anything, the balance is the other way. Some things are made more difficult, but other things are easily resolved.’
The limitations of the early instruments also throw up unique challenges. ‘If you’re playing Mozart on a modern grand,’ Nicholson points out, ‘he only used a certain part of the compass; he only used five octaves because that’s what he had. So there’s this kind of miniaturisation that goes on – you’re using just a tiny bit of this huge machine’s capabilities. All of a sudden, when you play it on an old instrument, you’re using it to the maximum of its capabilities and beyond. So, especially with Beethoven, the instruments couldn’t cope. The pictures of him playing with strings coming out and all the rest of it may involve some 19th century exaggeration, but there is that feeling that the instruments are really being stretched and could barely cope with what he was asking them to do.’
Keyboard instruments got bigger, adding octaves over time, ‘literally incrementally, note by note, every few years. It all goes together – the size of the instruments increased as concert halls became more normal. That’s what resulted, eventually, in the invention of the modern piano, with an iron frame that could make even more noise.’
London’s famous Wigmore Hall is the largest venue that any of her instruments could be played in, she says, but many are way, way too quiet for that, having often been conceived as centrepieces for well-to-do family homes. ‘At the time they were made,’ she explains, ‘they were probably the most important piece of furniture people bought. That walnut harpsichord downstairs probably cost three times what a Chippendale commode cost. It was the most important item that even very wealthy families would buy.’
The acquisition and upkeep of Nicholson’s collection has not been cheap either, but she credits her early start with having made it possible at all. ‘I was very lucky because I had instruments to play. The great problem for people today playing the harpsichord – and especially the fortepiano – is getting access to instruments, because they’re so expensive, which can be a real bar to a career.’ One Austrian fortepiano was bought 25 years ago for £500. ‘The £2,000 to restore it was no small thing,’ she adds, ‘but a modern copy today would be £60-£70,000.’
Nicholson first learnt to play a keyboard at eight years old, after her family moved from Geneva to a rented London home that had a piano, and she quickly took to it. At the age of 20, while studying for a Bachelor of Music degree at the Royal College and feeling stifled by the rigid lesson regimen and repertoire available, she decided to take up the harpsichord for her final year.
Around the time she began looking for her own instruments, Linda Nicholson met her husband, an antiques dealer with his own growing interest in musical pieces, at a time when most other dealers had little knowledge of – or interest in – what they dismissed as useless curios or dysfunctional furniture.
In 1978, she won first prize at the Concours International du Pianoforte, in Paris, the first international fortepiano competition ever held. She was fortunate that her interest coincided with a niche but passionate revival of interest in period music – even today, she explains, the skills of the people who restore and tune instruments for her, who fix water-damaged soundboards and track down damper-leather tanned in just the right, old way, can be traced back to one pioneering Kent workshop.
The instruments have accompanied her through two moves, and her current London home was decorated and conceived around them from the day she moved in. Just as she accepts her duty to perform her instruments despite the travails of taking them out of her home, so her love of them means she gets used to welcoming other people into it. Student groups visit, and guests of other cultural institutions are entertained at events there.
Explaining why she went off the modern piano, and why the instruments that preceded it now mean so much to her, she points out how different their insides are to those of pianos, how many fewer processes and pieces of equipment there were between the human act and the aural experience.
‘You have a sort of concept of the music and then that has to be tempered by whatever instrument you’re playing,’ she explains. ‘It’s not how modern pianists work at all, but it’s how I work, because I’m sort of dictated to by the instruments.’
That goes right down to the tempo of a performance, as the capacity to sustain notes, or volume, varies hugely between her instruments. Moreover, it tends to vary with each keyboard for each of those instruments. ‘It’s a completely different approach, because the aim of the modern piano is equality from top to bottom: equality of sound, of character – in terms of evenness of touch, of actual volume, assuming you put the same amount of pressure on the key.’
Like a perfect machine? ‘They are machines. They’re products of the industrial revolution. Whereas with the instruments I play, that’s not the aim at all. There’s a considerable inequality between the top and the bottom, and composers used that.
‘In the 19th century they brought in a new piano technique that was about equality of the fingers,’ she continues. ‘Our fingers aren’t equal in strengths: the little finger is much weaker than the thumb.’ And composers used to acknowledge that ergonomic reality. ‘That’s been my preoccupation for many years really. It’s not just with keyboard instruments, it’s all instruments.’
‘Keyboard’: when Nicholson started talking about this Enlightenment-era quest for absolute equality of response, I awoke for the first time to the fact that the piano ‘keyboard’ and the word-processing keyboard might have something in common. That they shared a promise of a perfect machine performance, abstracted from corporeal human weight and weakness.
Later, walking from her house, I saw the blue plaque marking the home where Graeme Greene wrote The End of the Affair, and I thought about the Byron epigraph he used for another novel: ‘This is the patent age of new inventions… All propagated with the best intentions.’ On the Tube, I vaguely remembered how the musician and former Microsoft bigwig Jaron Lanier had expressed his concerns about digital music making in You Are Not A Gadget, his tract against the platitudes of the internet age. When I got home, I reread the relevant passage, which is about the invention of MIDI. Lanier complains that a technology designed as a keyboardist’s tool got ‘mission creep’ and became entrenched as the parameters of 21st century popular music-making. This was bad, he adds, because ‘the definition of a digital object is based on assumptions of what aspects of it will turn out to be important… It captures a certain limited measurement of the original source’s unique qualities.’ On the other hand, ‘a physical object… will be fully rich and fully real whatever you do to it. What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.’
Nicholson may be making a related point about the industrial age, but she does it through playing – using her own elegant digital equipment, and following her appetite for discovery. ‘I think why I’m incredibly lucky is that basically because I’m an eternal student, I’m always reading and I’m always learning and I still get really excited about silly things that make you say, “Oh, that’s why it’s like that,” and something clicks that you hadn’t been able to make sense of before.’
Ten days later, Linda Nicholson gave the solo recital for which she’d been practising, playing on the dainty clavichord and a tangent piano in the 101-year-old meeting hall at the back of the Artworker’s Guild building in Bloomsbury. The names and faces of past members – Ambrose Heal, Arthur Rackham and the Bohemian-born, English-based early 20th-century baroque instrument revivalist Arnold Dolmetsch – looked down from the walls. The audience was asked not to applaud between pieces, so as not to disturb the performer’s focus at quiet instruments that require such coaxing and concentration. They almost managed it. In fact, the music’s biggest adversary was a creaking floorboard which required some emergency tuning in the interval.
I had already seen Nicholson play the instruments at home, but during her performance I saw, and heard, and felt something else. The fingers digging into the keys, then falling soft as snow moments later; the bullying then the gentle pleading; marches and sonatas that demanded the warm body and the wooden box wrestle and work to a common end. In one passage, the keys had to be hit so hard, they made woodpecker-like raps louder than the notes.
At the end of the concert, the 100-seat hall rattled with so much pent-up applause that there were two encores. Nicholson impishly announced that, in order to convey the breadth of keyboard sounds in circulation when her chosen composers – who included Handel, Haydn and Mozart – were writing, she was playing these pieces on instruments for which they probably weren’t intended. If you really want to learn something worthwhile, the only way is to play.