Speaking with the dead

As I practice, I often am reminded of things that teachers have said to me. One teacher in particular seems to be hanging around and that’s Ray Ferguson.

Ray died a few years back. Before he did I had a couple of chances to thank him for all his help as a teacher.

When I sit and play Bach or Couperin I often think of comments Ray made about them. Particularly about certain pieces on the organ or harpsichord. Ray played tons of Couperin himself. He was aware that many of his colleagues and even some of his listeners felt the music was a bit light (he quoted a man at his church who called it the boop di boopety music). He seemed pretty unperturbed by this. He managed to get his church to purchase a very nice harpsichord on which he performed (I think he even allowed me to use it in my senior recital…. I know I played a french double which means a two manual harpsichord in the French style on my Senior recital).

Conversations with dead teachers and composers seem more and more important to me these days. I have very few colleagues and friends with which to discuss music, art and ideas. So I talk to the ghosts around me, teachers and composers.

Couperin is so interesting because he had that combination of gentility and rigorous intellect that typifies much French intellectualism. On the one hand his pieces do seem light as air with fanciful titles. On the other hand, his compositional technique is there below the surface. So that when you start to scratch around as to why a piece is working so well, you are often rewarded with very clear counterpoint and motivic relationships. This complexity I more often associate with Bach’s finer works. But then I remember how fond Bach was of Couperin.

In my imagination, these two men stand tall. For me, they both expand the notion of what it means to be human. Couperin, arcanely polite and mannered, modest but fiercely and quietly talented; Bach, practical, down-to-earth and in the grips of his own obsessional technique and skill as a performer and composer.

Somewhere in the foreground of my thoughts stands Ray. He had a bit of the quality of those other two men. He tended to lead with his skills and abilities as a teacher. But he also tended to be extremely civil with even the most recalcitrant student or teacher. And he did have the fierce passion underneath the surface.

Once when he had hired me to substitute as a Messiah harpsichordist for him. He asked me to bring my Messiah score to the next harpsichord lesson to give me some pointers. During the course of the lesson he grimly told me that he had recommended me and that I was to prepare thoroughly enough to show up and “shine.” It was a challenge and a compliment at the same time. Good teaching. And as poor starving student with a fam, it was extremely helpful to make a little money.

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