Most people’s passion for music stems from performing or listening to it.
And, sure, David Schulenberg has spent countless hours playing historic keyboard instruments and listening to music of all kinds.
But early on, he was intrigued by something deeper — music as a “learned, scholarly discipline.” He was captivated by music’s role in culture, how it was woven into paintings and literature.
“I was always fascinated by music history,” he said. “What was music like before the music we hear today?”
Not every college or university gives students an opportunity to explore that. But Schulenberg’s alma mater, Harvard, did. So he scrapped his plan to study biology and became a music major. Today, the Delmar native is a professor and chair of the music department at Wagner College on Staten Island and teaches historical performance at Julliard.
He returns to the Capital District on Friday, Sept. 23, for a concert at the University at Albany. Schulenberg will present a program of Harpsichord Music of Four Centuries at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus.
Given his ties to the area – he still has family who lives here – Schulenberg had always wanted to do a recital in Albany. The field of music research is a relatively small one, he said, and he was fortunate to meet Albin J. Zak, the chair of UAlbany’s music department, at a conference. They talked, and Zak made the arrangements for Schulenberg to perform.
He noted with a laugh that he and Zak study very different fields within music history. While Schulenberg’s specialty is early music, Zak’s is popular music, particularly rock and roll. He’ll give the inaugural lecture at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s new lecture series on Wednesday, Oct. 5.
The harpsichord, a keyboard instrument that gained popularity in Europe in the 1500s and is often considered a forerunner to the piano, isn’t as far off the beaten path as it might seem at first glance, though, Schulenberg said.
“It’s a historical instrument, but very much a living instrument,” he said. The Beatles used a harpsichord, and even modern acts like Vampire Weekend have worked it into songs, he said.
UAlbany is extremely fortunate to have a pair of excellent harpsichords, a French model and an Italian model, Schulenberg said. Although they were made in the 1960s, they are replicas of historic harpsichords, and Schulenberg is excited to play them.
He’ll give the crowd some background on the instruments, but he said he’s not planning a lecture.
“People are coming to hear music, not to hear me talk,” he said. “People don’t hear harpsichord music everyday.”
With that in mind, he’s planning a wide variety of music that cuts across 400 years. There will be a piece by the 16th-century English Renaissance composer William Byrd, one from about 1615 by Girolamo Frescobaldi that represents the beginning of the Baroque style in Italy, and two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti from roughly a century later. Schulenberg will also perform the Italian Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Bach has been one of the focal points of Schulenberg’s career. He is considered one of the country’s leading experts on the Bach family, and “The Keyboard Music of J.S. Bach” is among the books he’s written. He said that when he hears a piece of modern music, he often thinks, “Well, that’s interesting, but how did Bach play it, or his contemporaries?”
Exploring that question is essentially the cornerstone of his teaching work. He said while looking at music while considering the tempo, instruments and other factors that influenced earlier generations, “you come up with ideas you would never get otherwise.”
When he’s not teaching, Schulenberg does spend a fair amount of time playing the harpsichord and other historic keyboard instruments. He and his wife, Mary Oleskiewicz, an international performer on the Baroque flute, play as a duo. Oleskiewicz teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Although he maintains an apartment in New York City, Schulenberg also has a place in Boston with his wife. He called the arrangement “the best of both worlds.”
Adding Albany to his mix of cities only sweetens the pot, he said.
Tickets for Schulenberg’s show are $8 for the public and $4 for students, seniors and UAlbany faculty/staff and may be purchased through the Performing Arts Center Box Office. For more information, call the box office at 442-3997.