By Jane Lenel
Too bad most of us probably didn’t hear 100-year-old Virginia Pleasants’ harpsichord concerts on her tours throughout Europe in the 1950s. Even at her debut in Essen, Germany, a critic noted that the response was “staggering,” and later another called her playing “sovereign.” In Munich it was reported that she received seven curtain calls.
This was remarkable since performing on the harpsichord — as well as the clavichord and fortepiano of the 15th to 18th centuries — was a new venture for her after a considerable career in New York as a pianist. Though all are keyboard instruments, they required renewed technical study.
The clavichord is very small with sound only loud enough for intimate chambers and minimal (or no) dynamic contrasts. It uses brass blades (”tangents”) attached to the ends of the keys to strike its short strings into vibration, and those vibrations are snuffed out by a damping cloth.
The harpsichord, larger and shaped like a grand piano, has plucked longer strings that produce somewhat greater range and volume. It also sometimes has stops similar to those of organs that allow greater musical expression.
The fortepiano of the 18th century foreshadowed today’s piano with its use of hammers and its ability to produce subtler gradations and sound colors worthy, for example, of Beethoven’s music. However, it doesn’t fill large concert halls, as today’s pianos can.
(A two-harpsichord concert in honor of Virginia Pleasants’ 100th birthday was presented on Sunday, May 8, 3 p.m., at Cathedral Village in Upper Roxborough. Performing music by Bach and Couperin were Scott Anthony, Katelyn Bouska, Abigail LaVecchia, Joyce Lindorff and Silvanio Reis.)
Virginia had studied piano since she was a child (following her forays, as she said, “pounding on the family piano”), first with a teacher in Urbana, Ohio, then at the Cincinnati College of Music (an independent school at the time), and thereafter in New York under the tutelage of the famous accompanist Frank LaForge (1879-1953), noted for bringing Lawrence Tibbett and Richard Crooks to fame.
She had earned her living and reputation in New York as a freelance pianist playing at the Three Arts Club, in ensembles and in the enviable position of vocal accompanist. To get known, she said, “I played everywhere possible,” adding, “The more I played, the more I learned.”
Eventually, she moved into the world of contemporary composers, which she thought would work out well because “I could sight-read easily and could play their difficult music without hours of practice.”
That new door was opened for her by Henry Pleasants, a music critic for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin from 1930 to 1942, whom she married in 1940 (having been given a grand piano instead of an engagement ring).
In 1939 he introduced her to Tibor Serly, a well-known composer and violin/violist in the NBC Symphony under Toscanini who invited her to preview his newly composed (“very difficult”) violin sonata for a group of composers and music critics at a gathering in his studio. That she did, though at the end Henry said, “Now you’ve gotten over your nerves; why not play it again?” Which she did, evidently successfully.
It isn’t quite clear why Henry fostered this new-music avenue for Virginia, since he was noted for decrying contemporary music (aside from jazz) in the many books he wrote. In his “The Agony of Modern Music,” he stated his point of view in no uncertain terms: “What we know as modern music is the noise made by deluded speculators picking through the slag pile.” (Quoted in Wikipedia encyclopedia).
Actually, it was Henry who in 1950 helped Virginia decide to turn from the piano to old instruments. This suggestion was evidently based on his feeling that her keyboard touch didn’t suit the necessary strength and “drama” required for the modern piano. The change away from new music may also have been determined by the reasoning of both of them that the prevalent public nay-saying about “all that dissonance” was not good for the pocketbook.
So after some time in England concertizing on the piano throughout Europe, Virginia studied how to transform her fingers for the new touch, and took off on her career performing on the harpsichord and teaching about old instruments for 20 years as an Adjunct Professor at the London Royal College of Music. She also purchased a valued Dolmetsch clavichord, a harpsichord built by David Rubio, and a fortepiano of her own, on which she performed for many years to come.
The couple’s New York life ended when they found a small house on Camac Street in Philadelphia, where they lived until 1942 when Henry went off to the Army, and they were separated until the end of the war. Virginia decided to go to business school and became a legal stenographer. (“It made sense with my fingers.”)
With that trade in hand she moved to Washington and worked for the Office of War Information, and when the office opened a London branch, she went with it. In 1948, Henry re-entered the military as a liaison officer with the Austrian government and in 1950, because of his knowledge of German, as well as Russian and other languages, he was recruited by the CIA as an intelligence officer working in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where Virginia met his musical acquaintances and concertized.
In 1964 Henry retired and settled in with Virginia in London, where he continued writing articles on European musical events for the New York Times and in 1967 became London music critic for the International Herald Tribune.
Virginia has also written numerous articles on music and has made a recording of Quincy Porter’s 1959 Harpsichord Concerto, and four discs for the Haydn Society under HC Robbins Landon, an American musicologist who worked in Europe.
In 2004, after Henry’s death in 1999, Virginia decided to move back to Philadelphia. It was of course unthinkable to leave her instruments behind, so she underwent a major packing job and shipped them off to her prospective new home in Cathedral Village retirement community in Upper Roxborough.
There, at 95 and 96 — by any standard a retirement age but clearly not Virginia’s — she gave one concert on the harpsichord and another on the fortepiano. Recently, however, she decided her prized old instruments needed new, younger parents, and after a long search she found them (though the destiny of her fortepiano still remains unsettled). She donated her clavichord to the London Royal College of Music and her harpsichord to Skidmore College.
Now, at age 100, despite the departure of her old instrument companions, Virginia Pleasants should surely never retire from looking back on her long and successful involvement with them.