Alan Stanley Curtis
Professor Emeritus of Music
1934 – 2015
Alan Stanley Curtis, for 34 years a professor and director of the Collegium Musicum in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley, died on July 15, 2015, after a fall in Florence, Italy. In retirement his residences alternated between his home in Florence in a renovated fourteenth-century castle and an apartment in Venice where since the 1970s he had accumulated a small but significant collection of early musical instruments. His sudden death at the age of 80 interrupted extensive plans for further music productions on an international arena.
Born in Mason, Michigan, on November 17, 1934, from an early age Alan Curtis played the keyboard. He received a Bachelor of Music degree from Michigan State University in 1955 and then moved to the University of Illinois to complete a Master of Music with a thesis on Louis Couperin. He was the first modern harpsichordist to address the problems of that composer’s notorious unmeasured preludes. Upon receipt of a Fulbright scholarship, he moved to Amsterdam for two years (1957-1959) to study with early music scholar and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt with whom he soon began issuing recordings of Bach concerti for multiple harpsichords. He returned to the University of Illinois to complete a Ph.D. in 1963 with a dissertation on the keyboard music of Sweelinck that remains the standard authority as Sweelinck’s Keyboard Music (Oxford University Press, 1969). He was hired as a teacher in Berkeley’s Department of Music in 1960, advanced to full professor in 1970, and retired in 1994. He edited scholarly editions with an appreciation for authenticity, effective performance, and stage worthiness: Pièces de clavecin by Couperin (1970) and Balbastre (1980), and Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1989).
Dividing his career between Berkeley and Europe, Curtis pursued a parallel career as a harpsichordist and conductor, issuing in the 1970s albums of the keyboard music of Rameau and J. S. Bach. Utilizing period instruments, Curtis founded in 1977 his own orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco, to support his research on the performance of Baroque opera based on original sources and period choreography. In 1978, he attempted for the first time to recreate Handel’s own opera orchestra for a production of Handel’s Admeto. His reconstruction of Handel’s opera Rodrigo, which Curtis conducted in Innsbruck, Madeira and Lisbon in 1984, was said to be the work’s first complete performance since Handel himself presented it to the Medici in 1707.
Soon after coming to Berkeley, Curtis mounted what was probably the first performance in California of Monteverdi’s opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea. While previous performances had utilized an augmented orchestra, Curtis used research to prove that the composer’s intentions should be read literally. He commissioned the first modern copy of a chitarrone, a large lute-like instrument, as well as the first chromatic (split-key) harpsichord to be built in the twentieth-century. His use of the archlute in Baroque opera was considered groundbreaking. Such revolutions in performance practice made Curtis a world-recognized authority on the interpretation of early dramatic music.
The Collegium Musicum of the music department flourished under Curtis’s direction and encouraged devoted students and supportive audiences to appreciate Baroque music. One of those students, Davitt Moroney, who went on to his own successful double career as a harpsichordist and professor in Berkeley’s music department, spoke of him: “I first knew him in 1975 when I arrived as a graduate student … He had a reputation for arriving back in Berkeley in the second week of each quarter and leaving in the penultimate week. But in those days, long before emails (sic) and electronic attachments, he did whatever was necessary by mail, keeping in close touch with the students who worked with him. Every day, in the department office, the “Out” mail box was filled with correspondence, much of it addressed to festivals and record companies around the world. He worked very hard at his several separate careers.”
His scholarship and conducting helped lead to the revival of international interest in and enthusiasm for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera. The International Handel Recording Prize was awarded to him three times: for Arminio in 2002, Deidamia in 2004 and Radamisto in 2006.
The exploration of the madrigals of Monteverdi, Gesualdo, and Rossi led to many of the Collegium’s performances. Alan Curtis’s fascination with the life and work of Carlo Gesualdo culminated in Death for Five Voices, a film by Werner Herzog in which Curtis and Il Complesso Barocco figure prominently. He also collaborated with novelist Donna Leon on Handel’s Bestiary, a book of essays accompanied by a CD of 12 arias by the composer on 12 animals.
Alan Curtis is survived by his partner, Pier Luigi Ciapparelli; his first wife, Jennifer Cushing Curtis; and two daughters, Daria and Julia.
Mary Kay Duggan