Music professor mines riches of the subtlest sounds

By Nancy Chapman, Public Affairs


Davitt Moroney
Malcolm Crowthers photo

13 March 2002 | Music Professor Davitt Moroney was a schoolboy in France when he heard a recording that changed his life: Bach’s Toccata in F major. “I brought it back to England and began studying piano,” he says.

It wasn’t the piano that he liked as much as the Bach; in fact, he would have preferred to play the organ, for which the toccata was written, but at 14 his legs were too short to reach the organ pedals. Undaunted, he learned the piano keyboard while his legs grew.

He extended his keyboard repertoire to the harpsichord when he was 17. Throughout his work on a master’s degree in musicology at King’s College, London, and during his doctoral work at Berkeley, his preference for the organ and harpsichord never abated. He spent the next 21 years in Paris as a freelance recital organist, harpsichordist, teacher of master classes, and recording artist.

The allure of an intellectual community, though, brimming with extensive music collections, original manuscripts, fellow musicologists and exquisite musical instruments, eventually drew him back to Berkeley. “I’m happy to be back at Berkeley,” he says. “People here think about music, not just experience it.”

‘Brainy’ composers
Thinking about music is especially important to Moroney. He admits that he has a passion for the “brainy” composers, like Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and Byrd.

“Music is like discourse,” he says. “I know what they are saying to me. I don’t play a piece if I don’t understand what the composer found interesting about organizing sound. Rhythmic, melodic, harmonic — something about a piece holds our attention.”

An emotional response to music, Moroney notes, ”is not incompatible with a profoundly intellectual response. . . . It can be like mathematicians, who are excited about the relationships between numbers.”

Wishing to engage his mind may have something to do with Moroney’s preference for the harpsichord over the piano. The piano, with its capacity to produce sound of great resonance and tonal variation, leaves less for the listener to imagine, he points out. The piano is a percussion instrument in which sound is produced by hammers that strike the strings.

The sound from a harpsichord, however, is produced by little “plectra,” which pluck the strings when the musician strikes the keys. A hammered piano string has more tonal coloration than a plucked harpsichord string, he says.

Subtle nuances
Not all of his students come around to Moroney’s way of thinking. One student in his course last fall on Bach, in which Moroney often played harpsichord music, was a pianist who could not appreciate the sounds of the harpsichord until the semester was nearly over. “All he could hear was what was missing,” says Moroney.

But Moroney finds nothing missing; in the subtle nuances of the quieter instrument, he finds ample suggestions of tonal coloration that are abundant in the piano.

“The piano is like a beautiful color photograph; the colors are true to life,” he said. “But personally, I prefer Ansel Adams, where everything is in the power of suggestion, and there are a thousand shades of gray. The blues and reds and yellows are all suggested, forcing me to imagine and to interact actively with the music. For me, the harpsichord is black and white, with a thousand shades of gray.”

Last December, Moroney gave a concert at University House to a select audience of 35 to inaugurate an even subtler instrument, the music department’s new clavichord. It has to be played in a small venue, he says, because “it’s a quiet instrument, the last instrument before silence.”

He has shared his musical talents in other unique ways.

In his first class after the Sept. 11 attacks, Moroney scrapped his planned lesson and instead played the music that arose from Bach’s grief upon the deaths of his wife and child.

“No words were necessary; I just let the music speak,” he says. “Music’s most important power is to heal; it can heal the soul.


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