Harpsichordist/clavichordist/scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick was, by the time of his death, recognized as much for his scholarship and work on behalf of composer Domenico Scarlatti as for his estimable performing career. His interests extended well beyond Scarlatti, however. His performing repertory embraced a majority of Bach's keyboard works and much French music written for the clavichord, and even extended into the realm of music written for the virginals.
Kirkpatrick began music lessons with his mother at age six 6 graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1931. During his studies there, he had made his first appearance as a harpsichordist in Cambridge in 1930. At Harvard, he had won a John Knowles Paine Traveling Scholarship which he applied toward additional studies in Europe, first in France (1931-1932), then in England and Germany. While at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he undertook harpsichord instruction with Wanda Landowska and studied music theory with Nadia Boulanger. The summer months of 1932 were spent in England where Kirkpatrick studied with Arnold Dolmetsch. The following year, he traveled to Germany where he worked briefly with Heinz Tiessen and Günther Ramin. In 1933-1934, Kirkpatrick was an instructor at Salzburg's Mozarteum.
Further opportunities were afforded through a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1937. Equipped with this funding, Kirkpatrick was able to advance his research into performance of seventeenth and eighteenth century chamber music in France, Germany, and England. He compiled source materials, assembled treatises on performance practice, and made a close study of ornamentation issues. Shortly thereafter, he initiated his explorations into the music of Domenico Scarlatti, examining great quantities of unpublished material found in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
In 1940, Kirkpatrick was appointed visiting lecturer and instructor in harpsichord performance at Yale University. Later, he was made a full professor and remained at Yale until 1976 as a fellow of Jonathan Edwards College. The final stage of Kirkpatrick's academic career was spent as the first Ernest Bloch Professor of Music at the University of California at Berkeley.
After a successful Berlin performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations in 1933, Kirkpatrick enjoyed a major performing career throughout Europe and America. On a radio broadcast from New York City in 1946, he made his first appearance as a clavichordist, and he subsequently performed publicly on fortepianos and their immediate successors.
Kirkpatrick's volume Domenico Scarlatti, published in 1953, won a reputation as the most comprehensive, most thoughtfully organized study of that composer's music to date. His published editions of Scarlatti's sonatas were likewise regarded as major accomplishments in scholarship. His cataloging system, listing a total of 555 sonatas, was considered an important advance over that of Alessandro Longo, whose edition of Scarlatti was published by Ricordi in 1913.
In addition to numerous sound recordings, Kirkpatrick left several performances on video, the most prominent among them assembled in an hour-long program entitled Ralph Kirkpatrick Plays Bach. Among his many other published items is a charming commentary on clavichord performance appearing in the July 1981 edition of Early Music as "On Playing the Clavichord."
Subsequent performers on early keyboard instruments may have achieved a greater fluidity of execution, but Kirkpatrick's playing was always imbued with integrity and conviction born of exhaustive study. His place among the most significant of those who have specialized in keyboard music of the Baroque and early Classical periods is assured.