Principles of the Harpsichord
by Monsieur de Saint Lambert, translated and edited by Rebecca Harris-Warrick
Cambridge University Press, 138 pp., $14.95 (paper)
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by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 84 pp., $8.95
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Museo d’Arte Moderna Ca’ Pesaro, Venice (August 26November 25)
by Serge Sabarsky
Edizione Mazzotta, 197 pp., 25,000 lire (paper)
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by George Perle
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One of the most useful and enjoyable books to appear this year is the first English version of Saint Lambert’s 1702 classic Les Principles du Clavecin Contenant une Explication exact de tout ce qui concerne la Tablature et le Clavier. The translation is felicitous, the introduction and notes are an uncommon instance of musical scholarship lucidly presented, and the volume is elegantly produced—format, cover (with Thomas Hill’s painting Garton Orme at the Spinet), quality of paper, print, and music examples (both in facsimile and, for those containing more than one part, modern notation). This second publication in the Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs series deserves high praise.
Saint Lambert’s title does not claim enough. Besides being a treatise on playing the harpsichord, the twenty-eight brief chapters are an authentic guide, as distinguished from a latter-day commentary, to musical performance generally in the time of Lully. The author, about whom the only known fact is that he had been called from Paris to the provinces to teach the clavecin, writes as if his lessons were intended for children. However that may be, professionals as well as amateurs, and of dance as well as music—the principal forms are chaconnes, gavottes, passepieds, rigaudons, sarabandes—should enroll in Saint Lambert’s course.
Harris-Warrick believes that François Couperin’s dictum, “The difference between notation and performance is immense” (L’Art de toucher le clavecin, 1716), may have been aimed at Saint Lambert’s literalism. Yet the Principes acknowledges the player’s considerable freedom in choosing agréments, while demonstrating that the object of the strict rules, such as the one for starting a trill with the upper note on the beat, is to achieve the “grace” which is Saint Lambert’s aesthetic ideal.
The most absorbing pages are devoted to the relationship between meter and tempo, but Saint Lambert’s unit of measurement must set a record for vagueness: “the steps of a man of average height who walks one and a quarter leagues in an hour.” All that can be said about average height in 1702 is that it would have been smaller than today. But with the help of Pascal Boyer’s Lettre à Monsieur Diderot (1767), and Ronald Zupko’s French Weights and Measures before the Revolution (1978), Harris-Warrick establishes that the league most likely intended by Saint Lambert was the “lieue de Paris,” which is equivalent to 2.4222 miles, and that the stride, if not of “a man of average height,” then of a French regiment, was ♩=107 per 2 1/2 feet, or ♩=125 for “deux pieds.”
When Umberto Eco’s Il nome della rosa first appeared in English, many reviewers avoided criticizing it, being content merely to provide a résumé of the plot and to describe the principal characters, the two monks, William of Baskerville, a fourteenth-century Holmes (“It seems elementary to me”), and Adso of Melk, his Watson (“Once again I admired my master’s erudition”), the author of the novel within …