James Weaver Remembered

News came last week that James Weaver was claimed by the Corona Virus in Rochester, New York at the age of 82. One should use words like “towering” or “pioneering” to describe his contributions to the twentieth-century project of bringing antique keyboard instruments and the techniques used to play them back to sounding life. Though tall and handsome into his ninth decade, Jim did not tower or daunt: he was warm and generous, polite and encouraging. He listened and laughed; he did not bluster and loom. Gracefully and without showy self-modesty he diverted attention away from his own impressive talent and lasting accomplishments. For countless hours as a teenager I listened and listened again to recordings he made on two of the most beautiful extant eighteenth-century harpsichords—one French, one Flemish—in the collection of the Smithsonian, where Jim was long a vital force. What made these performances so compelling and will make them endure is his taste and technique that could flash when called on, but was especially marked by poise and restraint. There is brilliance, but what remains with me most strongly is the beauty.

A graduate of the University of Illinois, Jim was one of the first Americans to study in Amsterdam with Gustav Leonhardt in the late 1950s. Jim would have learned from Leonhardt much about grandeur and elegance, but, not wanting to make invidious distinctions, I nonetheless hear in Jim’s playing a warmth and wonder that I sometimes felt lacking in his teacher’s interpretations.

After his studies in Europe Jim returned to Illinois to complete his master’s degree and then moved to Washington, DC where he founded the Smithsonian Chamber Players. In 1969 he recorded J. S. Bach’s six violin sonatas (known in their own day as harpsichord trios) with baroque violinist Sonya Monosoff, whose colleague I would later happily become at Cornell University, one of the many institutions where Jim also taught. I bought this record about a decade after it was made when it was reissued on the Smithsonian’s own label. Immediately I was captivated by the spirited duo playing—the pair’s exuberance and precision, the dialogue animated not so much by competition but the desire to buoy one another. Viola da gambist Judith Davidoff joined the pair to play the bass line on two Bach “continuo” sonatas in which Jim improvised the chordal accompaniment with finely calibrated imagination. This classic recording has not lost its verve and currency fifty years on.

I spent the summer of 1979 in Washington, DC learning to play the organ, and I went a few times to the Smithsonian where I was allowed to play for extended periods on the keyboard instruments in its collection, including the J. D. Dulcken harpsichord from 1745 used by Jim for the violin sonatas, and later for his 1978 recording of Bach’s six keyboard partitas. This box set of three LPs included an 80-page full-format booklet contained a facsimile of Bach’s original 1731 publication. It must have been Jim’s idea to include this invaluable material that allowed, indeed encouraged, many like me to have their first exposure to eighteen-century musical scores.

Issued separately from 1726 and collected into a set of six in 1731, the partitas (suites of dances each with their own introductory movement) make up the first of the four volumes of Bach’s monumental Clavierübung [Keyboard Practice] series. In his recording of this seminal collection, Jim imbues each individual partita with a quality somehow distinct from the others, even as he shapes the individual movement. Side 1 of LP 1 begins with the first partita (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=qCNL3xW_5m0&feature=emb_logo), Jim’s reading of the prelude is energetic, precise, profiled. The quick notes are confidently snapped, but never harsh. He gives certain figures more energy, Bach’s motivic turns brought into engaging relief— confident, but not quite strutting. After little more than a minute the prelude comes to a cadence in the home key that could end the movement, but Bach tacks on a three-bar coda which he fills out with ever-bigger chords dashed with chromaticism. Jim strides through these without hesitation—forthright, unapologetic. That brisk finish made my teenage self think: my piano teachers had always had me slow down at the end of any piece. As I listened to Jim, I following the score, proofed by Bach himself. There was no ritardando marked. Where is it written that every piece must end with a slackening, a drawing out, or a puffing up?

The subsequent dances assume unique characters, their qualities still informed by the assurance of the prelude. Even Jim’s Sarabande (the emotional heart of any suite) resists the elegiac, adopting instead a proud posture.

Before the “perfecting” fixes made possible by digital editing, Jim flawlessly tosses off the concluding gigue, a breathless exercise in flamboyant hand-crossing, with what I came to recognize as an exuberance that never lost its balance: his virtuosity is all the more impressive for appearing not to try to show off.

Near to the Dulcken in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Instruments is (or at least was, when I spent my time there) a sumptuously painted and decorated French harpsichord from 1760 made by Benoist Stehlin. In 1977 Jim recorded an LP of music on this instrument by one of the best harpsichordists of the ancien régime, Jacques Duphly, who died in 1789 the day after the storming of the Bastille.

The glowing beauty of Jim’s playing matches that of this gorgeous harpsichord. The whiff of decadence hovers above Duphly’s music—and what an aroma it is! There are shadows and light in this music, reticence and gossip, grandiosity and grandeur, too: and Jim captures it all. He has the courage and skill to play many trills that characterize the French style slowly so that they never disturb or aggravate: there are few things more difficult to do than this. The superficial becomes essential: the effect is hardly incidental to the sound of the music just as it is crucial to the look of the richly ornamented harpsichord: its gilded moldings, the flutings of the elegant legs, the garlands and arabesques on the outside of the case, and the Arcadian landscape filing the underside of the lid of the harpsichord. There is nobility and humor in abundance on this recording, but it is the tendresse—especially in the D-minor Rondeau, its accompaniment on a “lute” stop that makes the harpsichord strings sound as if they are being plucked by the finger— that will break your heart, now in the aftermath of his death and long after it. For all its apparent poses, the music attains under Jim’s hands a profound sincerity.

To be sure Jim was more than a wonderful harpsichordist, organist, and fortepianist. In 1981 he conducted the first American recording of Handel’s Messiah on period instruments—the Smithsonian Chamber Players that he founded. An unfailingly convivial fellow, he also led a recording of 19th-Century American Ballroom Music as the head of what he called the American Social Orchestra and Quadrille Band. How bitterly ironic the title of this ensemble rings now, even as its music conjures better times.

For a decade Jim spearheaded an initiative to establish a National Music Center and Museum, having left his post as Chair of the National Museum of American History’s Division of Cultural History. In his “retirement” he was indefatigable as President the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Insturments, and then executive director of the Organ Historical Society, working tirelessly to find a home for the organization’s vast and important archive.

He died on April 16th, the day my wife, Annette Richards, and I had been scheduled to play a concert on the famous antique Italian organ in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, at Jim’s invitation. Even as the present crisis broke over New York in March, he was energetically on the phone to us, hoping that the concert might still happen, or a new date be fixed for it. His last voicemail, sounding, in retrospect, sadly husky, is still on Annette’s phone. As the efforts of his last year at reviving the organ concert series at the Rochester museum confirm, he was a selfless galvanizer, organizer, advocate. Jim always seemed—and it must have been genuine—more interested in others, eager to support and praise when merited.

I hadn’t yet met Jim when I listened so often to his magnificent recordings decades ago, performances that were crucial in drawing me to the harpsichord and to early music. Listening to them again now after many years in this week since his death, I can’t help but hear these performances not just as revealing hidden facets of this superb music and the instruments played, but of the character of the musician and the man, Jim Weaver.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com