Year 2005 | Volume 12    Southern Methodist University


With the harpsichord and organ,
Larry Palmer rules

For many contemporary music lovers, the harpsichord can seem quaint and antiquated, forever associated with the Baroque sounds of Bach, Couperin, and Scarlatti. But musician Larry Palmer relishes that even 20th-century jazz masters Erroll Garner and Duke Ellington (who performed under Palmer’s baton during a 1968 concert) wrote pieces that incorporated the instrument, which reached its golden years of musical repertoire in the 17th and 18th centuries. And use of the harpsichord in the 1951 popular tune “Come On-A My House,” sung by Rosemary Clooney, guaranteed its being heard over the airwaves.

For more than 40 years, Palmer, professor of harpsichord and organ in Meadows School of the Arts, has observed a resurgence of the public’s interest in the harpsichord. He wrote about the revival of what had been regarded as an instrument for the parlor in Harpsichord in America: A Twentieth-Century Revival (1989, 1993). In the book’s preface, he attributes the renewed interest to “an intrepid band of dreamers – men and women, some academic, some temperamental, some frankly quite mad – all determined that their chosen instrument should live again to make music.”

Palmer believes that a combination of factors led to its reappearance – including a growing interest in performing Baroque music on appropriate period instruments, more American musicians receiving their training and education in Europe following World War II, and an increasingly historical emphasis in the craft of making harpsichords. Palmer himself benefited from musical training in Europe. An organ major at Oberlin College in the late 1950s, he recalls that “I had no intention of studying the harpsichord; I was too busy trying to catch up with my peers in learning how to play the organ.” A required junior year abroad for all Oberlin music majors changed his mind.

Oberlin harpsichord students attending the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria in 1958 were taught by Isolde Ahlgrimm, an internationally renowned Viennese harpsichordist. Palmer says he fell in love with her and with the harpsichord because of its “exciting repertory.” Student and teacher remained lifelong friends until Ahlgrimm’s death in 1995.

After graduating from Oberlin in 1960, Palmer continued his studies in organ and church music at the prestigious Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, earning his Master’s and doctoral degrees. He also studied under the great Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, who had taught James Tallis, the faculty member who began SMU’s graduate program in harpsichord in 1968. (SMU conferred an honorary doctorate on Leonhardt in 1983.)

After Tallis’ death in 1969, Palmer was hired to continue the program. From 1971, when the first Master’s degree was awarded, to 1996 nearly 30 graduate degrees in harpsichord were granted by SMU. During these years, Palmer taught harpsichord to as many as 14 students and organ to as many as 10 during each semester. He also organized annual summer workshops at SMU-in-Taos and in France and London.

Although fewer students specialize in the harpsichord and organ today, some continue to study and perform while majoring in other subjects, in large part because of the economy. “Not many are able to earn a living playing the harpsichord as their main source of income,” he says. Palmer observes that many keyboard musicians now turn to careers in the computer industry because the skills required are quite similar.

Teaching has been only one part of Palmer’s career at the keyboards. He served as organist-choirmaster for several Dallas churches until the 1990s, and continues to do “a fair amount of substituting at various places,” he says. He also presents numerous concerts at SMU and in the Dallas area each year, as well as playing nationally and, occasionally, internationally. Last fall he performed with the Meadows Symphony the “Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings” by longtime composer and friend Gerald Near, who had written the work for Palmer to play at the 1980 national convention of the American Guild of Organists. Most recently Palmer celebrated Bach’s birthday (March 21) with a performance in the Meadows Museum.

Palmer, who owns six harpsichords, also is known for his commitment to commissioning and performing new works for the harpsichord and organ. “Involving composers in our performing lives is one of the most rewarding actions we can take,” he wrote for The Diapason, for which he has served as harpsichord contributing editor since 1969. “For us, it provides the excitement of adding new pieces to our repertoire; for them, it is an affirmation of their necessary contributions to the ongoing vitality of our art.”

His discography includes A Recital of 17th and 18th Century Harpsichord Music and Dedication Recital: Fisk Organ Opus 101, featuring the organ in SMU’s Caruth Auditorium first played in concerts in fall 1993. He also is the author of Hugo Distler and His Church Music (1967), the first English-language book about the influential German composer who died in 1942.

In college, Palmer, who also played the oboe, had to choose between the keyboards and the reed instrument. Reflecting on that decision nearly 50 years later, “I don’t think I made the wrong choice,” he says.