Scott Ross - rebel with a cause
Scott Ross - rebel with a cause © Getty  /  JACQUES SARRAT

Scott Ross – Rebel with a cause and legendary harpsichordist

An atypical multi-faceted and erudite baroque musician, concealed beneath a rocker appearance, unpredictable and eternally searching for recognition, Scott Stonebreaker Ross revolutionised the world of the harpsichord.

Nonchalant and carefree, with a beatnik style and glasses reminiscent of John Lennon’s own iconic style, he would walk on stage, patiently contemplate his audience and nod his head, before sitting at the harpsichord …one could rightly be surprised to see such a character appear on stage and perform the works of Couperin, Rameau, Scarlatti, or Bach, with incredible precision, fastidiousness and elegance, features that made him one of the greatest harpsichordists of his generation…but who was this unlikely figure, whose presence and influence are still felt to this day?

Born in Pittsburgh in 1951, the young Scott Stonebreaker Ross moved to France at the age of 13 with his mother. Orphaned at 17, he would forever march to the beat of his own drum. Despite his non-conformist attitude, or perhaps precisely because of this, he eventually became the crown prince of the harpsichord. Defiantly confident but in truth forever seeking to prove his musical worth, his short but productive career cemented his reputation as a musician unafraid of confronting the wildest of challenges and disrupting traditions.

Odd one out

Unashamedly unkempt and refreshingly rebellious, a proud fan of Brian Eno and Nina Hagen’s music, Scott Ross eschewed the ranks of stereotypical shirt-and-tie baroque performers. The leather-clad “bad-boy” rapidly became the iconoclast of his field, breaking unspoken sartorial rules and concert behaviour, drawing in a growing and varied crowd that may never previously have been interested in such an instrument.

Not only with his appearance, Scott Ross also often perplexed audiences and critics alike with his ostensibly uncaring attitude, including on his album covers (such as his recording of the works of Antonio Soler). He even went so far as to admit during interviews that he often wondered, before going on stage, whether he would not be happier at a desk writing letters. In answer to the question as to why, ultimately, he continued to perform, Ross answered simply: “Because I can“.

Cover of Scott Ross's 1997 recording of Antonio Soler's Fandango and 9 Sonatas
Cover of Scott Ross's 1997 recording of Antonio Soler's Fandango and 9 Sonatas

A job like any other, and yet…

When asked if he felt any kind of musical emotion during a concert, his answer was brutal but honest: “None at all […]. I do my job and I am preoccupied by the reactions of the audience”. First opined by philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot, Ross shared the belief that an audience does not come to see the tears of an artist but rather be brought to them by an intelligent performance. "The more you want it to sound free, the more you have to calculate how you'll manage to make it sound free", Ross often told his students during his twelve years as a professor at the Laval University in Quebec (1971-1983).

Behind the grumpy rebel façade and evasive behaviour hid in reality a shy and self-effacing perfectionist. Though he regularly cultivated the image of a nonchalant and almost unconcerned musician, purposefully pretending to rarely practise his instrument, he spent in reality entire nights perfecting his craft. Ross himself admitted that his image was in no small way a weapon explicitly conceived to shake and stun the stifled “bourgeois” audiences and atmosphere so commonly associated with the harpsichord.

Such a perfectionist was he that he was often criticised by his students for his strict and old-school attitude, condemning their musically liberal attitudes: “try already playing like the master, and if you can do that…it will already be an achievement in itself”. A rebel with a strict adherence to the rules, how ironic.

Authenticity, but within reason

Though he sought an intelligent and rigorous interpretation, he nonetheless shunned musicologically-researched authenticity: “where does one stop?” As suggested by Gustave Leonhardt, one cannot be authentic and convincing at the same time. However, despite this rather open-minded approach, this did not prevent Ross from criticising his contemporaries for their styles of performance, including Horowitz, Landowska, Maria Tipo, and even Gould (“he understood nothing about Bach”). 

One cannot say “I don’t like the harpsichord” or “it’s too limited”. It’s ridiculous! It is important to identify Bach’s creative process, and this is only possible through the harpsichord”. 

For Scott Ross, perfect authenticity may have been unattainable, but understanding the instruments for which the composers wrote their music was not only feasible, but of the utmost importance.
For Scott Ross, perfect authenticity may have been unattainable, but understanding the instruments for which the composers wrote their music was not only feasible, but of the utmost importance. © Getty  /  JACQUES SARRAT

Poorly-tempered harpsichordist

The rebellious look may have been a front, but the attitude was certainly authentic. On one occasion, nowhere to be found minutes before the start of a concert, Scott Ross arrived tardily but no less casually through the public entrance, walked onto the stage and sat at his harpsichord, almost as a calculated display of impertinence, baiting his audience. 

In 1985 at the Aix en Provence festival, when given a simple wooden chair rather than an adjustable stool such as those given to the pianists, he simply sat and waited until a stool was found. Why should he settle for less simply because his instrument was a harpsichord? Capricious? Perhaps, but Ross fought long and hard for a respect that he felt not only he deserved, but more importantly his instrument deserved.

Why should he settle for less simply because his instrument was a harpsichord? Scott Ross would forever fight to be respected...
Why should he settle for less simply because his instrument was a harpsichord? Scott Ross would forever fight to be respected... © Getty  /  JACQUES SARRAT

Scott Ross, to the rescue…

One of the first to choose and dedicate himself exclusively to the harpsichord, Ross became its greatest defender. Most insulting of all was the notion that any mediocre pianist could become a good harpsichordist. Ross sought to protect this beautiful, living, and subtle instrument, often unjustly portrayed in a world where "we are assaulted by the sirens of police cars and violinists saw their instruments in half […] It is certain that [the harpsichord’s] subtlety is more anachronistic than ever."

Worse yet, those composers writing for the baroque instrument clearly incapable of telling the difference between a harpsichord and a “diesel engine”, as Scott Ross so eloquently put it. Forced to perform the (sometimes questionable) works of composers during his studies at the Nice and Paris Conservatoires, he became aware of the current state of the harpsichord. Its standing amongst contemporary composers and performers was a subject of great despair for Ross, resentful of the fact that modern harpsichordists were forced to become pedagogues or musicologists in order to earn a living, unable to exploit freely their instrument and its repertoire. “I am somewhat an exception, because I perform many concerts and have little need for money.”

A man of many passions…

Scott Ross was a man of varied passions and simple taste… “I do not live for music”, he once declared. His home in Assas resembled not that of a dedicated baroque musician, the harpsichord often found shut and buried under a pile of more recent interests. A famously passionate breeder of rare and strange strains of orchids (the rarer and stranger, the better), Ross was also a more-than-amateur geologist, an inquisitive tinkerer of computers, a skilled carpenter, a photographer, a voracious knitter, and a lover of cats.

“This is probably the origin of my style, the "impulse" that I try to give to my style […], the randomness, the inspiration of the moment, […] I think the fact that I do not devote myself entirely to the instrument, that I allow myself to live other passions, results in such a freedom.”

Scott Ross enjoying the fresh air of Assas, his home from 1983 until his death in 1989.
Scott Ross enjoying the fresh air of Assas, his home from 1983 until his death in 1989. © Getty  /  JACQUES SARRAT

Lazy, but in his own way

A passionate man, Ross nonetheless lived by one principle above all else: the rule of “minimal effort”. Though he enjoyed the idea of exploring the world of chamber music, he stopped at the thought of having to recruit fellow musicians with whom he would have to regularly perform. Similarly, intrigued by film and electronic music, having to learn entirely new methods of creation prevented him from ever exploring the domain. Even the very idea of buying a piano proved too complicated, required to earn enough money to buy the piano and the rent necessary for a large apartment, and of course having to deal with complaining neighbours.

My laziness is not that of a slacker but rather of an independent man who likes to work at his own pace.

Photo of Scott Ross recording Domenico Scarlatti's 555 sonatas, at the Radio France Studio 107, on 4 December 1985 © Radio France / Radio France
Photo of Scott Ross recording Domenico Scarlatti's 555 sonatas, at the Radio France Studio 107, on 4 December 1985 © Radio France / Radio France © Radio France  /  Roger Picard

And what a pace… When left to his own devices, Scott Ross produced an impressive discography including recordings of the complete works for harpsichord by Rameau and Couperin. In 1984, despite suffering from increasing health complications related to the recently-discovered AIDS virus, Ross embarked upon his most ambitious project and a landmark in recording history: the complete keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti, a total of 555 works requiring 98 sessions, 8000 takes, and over a year to record. Hoping to continue the ambitious tradition of recording entire bodies of work for the harpsichord, he was interrupted in 1989, finally succumbing to his illness, surrounded by his orchids and his cats in Assas.

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