Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

On that sleeve for his 1985 recording of the Goldberg Variations, Scott Ross is seen standing in the grounds of Château d'Assas in Languedoc. It was here that many of the harpsichordist's great recordings were made. Then, as today, the château dwelt in the twilight zone between grandeur and dereliction, and thirty years ago the recording sessions were regularly interrupted by the sound of rats scurrying across the floor. Scott Ross was born in Pittsburgh in 1951, and moved to France with his mother following the death of his father in 1964. He studied at the conservatoires in Nice and Paris, and first came to Château d'Assas in 1969 to give music lessons to the grandson of its owner Mme. Simone Demangel.

When an early music academy was established at the Château d'Assas, Scott Ross gave masterclasses and became a frequent visitor. At first he stayed in a room in one of the towers, but from 1983 he rented a small house across the road from the château. The photos below were taken on my pilgrimage to Assas in 2013. In the first the château overlooks Scott Ross' modest house. The second photo shows his house, while the third looks through the château gates to where the Goldbergs cover photo was taken. More scenes from Assas come later in the post.

Scott Ross' genius at the keyboard was the product of a prodigious talent. But it was also the product of his fascination with the teachings of the 18th century French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot. In the Paradox of Acting (Paradoxe sur le comédien) Diderot taught that, paradoxically, spontaneity and freedom can only be achieved if underpinned by an inflexible, almost mathematical, technique. One of Ross' students quotes him* as explaining that in Frescobaldi's improvisatory passages nothing must be left to chance - "the more you want it to sound free, the more you have to calculate how you'll manage to make it sound free". Diderot was also the originator of the now unfashionable concept of the fourth wall across the front of the stage, which he believed must separate performer and audience. This is a concept that may have a poignant contemporary relevance to post-COVID classical music. Denis Diderot explained how:
When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.
Scott Ross had no time for musicologically-approved, agreeing with Gustave Leonhardt that a musician cannot be authentic and convincing at the same time. However he dismissed Glen Gould as "a nutcase", going on to say Gould "was wide off the mark, so wide off the mark that you'd need a 747 to bring him back". Despite these musicologically-incorrect views Scott Ross' definitive account of Domenico Scarlatti's 555 keyboard sonatas is one of the great achievements of the gramophone. We can only speculate on how Diderot's paradoxical teachings - tight but loose - influenced the narrow but immensely deep recorded legacy that the harpsichordist left behind when he died at the age of just thirty-eight. And we can also only speculate as to how those paradoxes - project yourself as if behind an impregnable wall - influenced Ross as a person, and how it contributed to what the French professor of music Henri Prunières describes in a tribute to the harpsichordist as "the terrifying demands of the artist's condition".

At which point the question of whether we should concern ourselves with the personal life of a musician must be raised. Personally, I take Pablo Casals' view that: "A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life" as confirmation that exploring the personal life of a musician serves purposes beyond the merely salacious. So, trigger warning, this tribute will now reach beyond Scott Ross' sublime music making.

It is no secret that Scott Ross died of HIV/Aids related complications, but his other biographies, almost without exception, avoid stating he was gay. This is almost certainly because much of the biographical material dates from the years immediately following his death in 1989, a time when HIV was misunderstood and misrepresented. However, his sexuality is confirmed in Frédéric Martel's book The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968. Scott Ross was an early victim of Aids: the virus was first identified in 1981 and he exhibited the first symptoms of the virus - bronchitis which turned into pneumonia - just two years later.

The difficulty of the harpsichordist's final years were compounded because he never formalised his French residency and had not made social security payments. Which meant he was not eligible for professionally qualified medical care; so, in his last months he depended on the support of devoted friends, notably the harpsichord maker David Ley and music producer Monique Davos, who cared for him at his home in Assas until his death. This at a time when attitudes towards homosexuality in rural France were still heavily influenced by the dogma of the Catholic Church. The ravages of HIV can be seen in the still below taken from a very moving video of his final concert, given in Rome just eight weeks before he died.

Yet, despite this, those last years produced some of Scott Ross' finest works. His monumental overview of Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas was recorded between June 1984 and September 1985 in Paris, Avignon and Château d'Assas across ninety-eight sessions and 8000 takes, and remains in the catalogue today**. Ross' reputation is safeguarded by his extraordinary recorded legacy. But he should also be remembered as a musician who crossed musical and cultural boundaries. He was an expert breeder of orchids, and his explanation of this passion is also epitomises his wider outlook: “I’m not after the beautiful varieties that florists like,” he said, “What I’m after is strange ones, because I’m always interested in anything unusual.” His biographer Michel Proulx suggests it was this dilletantism - in the original meaning from the Latin dēlectāre 'to delight' - that explained his appeal far beyond traditional early music audiences.

Perhaps it was Diderot's injunction to think no more of the audience than if it had never existed, that prompted Ross to demolish sartorial conventions decades before informal concert dress became a revisionist mantra. He played the keyboard music of the baroque masters dressed in the biker gear seen on his Soler recording above, in the lumberjack outfit seen on the Goldbergs cover, or, even, wearing the ultimate in convention-busting attire seen an early release of his Rameau recording.

There are parallels between the lifestyle and career trajectories of Scott Ross and Canadian composer Claude Vivier that may be more conditionality than coincidence. Both were products of the North American post-war baby boom and both were outsiders who actively cultivated 'bad boy' images. What would these two maverick musicians, who died far too young but left a lasting artistic legacy, have made of today’s creative somnolence induced by the opiate of social media approval? As Baba Rampuri explains: "[I]t's the outsider that has the ability... to look at things from a distance, rather than being in the midst of things, and assigning some sort of moral values, the good and bad, the good and evil, to things".

A paradoxical delight in the unusual found expression in Scott Ross' fascination with synthesizers***. His artistic inclusivity resulted in a passion for the ambient electronic music of Brian Eno and the then relatively unknown Philip Glass, and in his enthusiasm for the German punk legend Nina Hagen. He loathed Glenn Gould's playing, but expressed unreserved admiration for harpsichordist Don Angle, who was noted for his pop arrangements. Scott Ross' non-musical interests including weaving; he restored and used an old loom from Château d'Assas and went to become an expert knitter and tailor. His mathematical aptitude made him an early adopter of home computers, which he used to create a database of his complex orchid cross-breeds. Volcanoes and minerals were among his other passions; he amassed a large collection of crystals and climbed Stromboli to see an active volcano close up.

He was a keen photographer with his own darkroom, was skilled at carpentry, and his expert restoration of a house in the remote Lozère region gave added significance to his uncommon middle-name 'Stonebreaker'. An accomplished cook, he had a pasta maker decades before they became a designer kitchen accessory, and, like John Cage, was an authority on edible mushrooms. He loved cats: his favourite felines accompanied him on his commutes across the Atlantic.

Scott Ross died on June 13th, 1989 in the little village house seen in my photos. He was 38 years old; in compliance with his last wishes his ashes were scattered from a plane over his beloved Assas.

Scarlatti' one-movement harpsichord sonata The Fugue in G minor (K. 30, L. 499) popularly known as the Cat's Fugue is, of course, included in Scott Ross' masterly survey of the complete Scarlatti Sonatas, and a fascinating sequel to this post is provided by his love of cats. The cat in the first photo below lives in what was his house in Assas. I took the photo during my 2013 visit because I like cats. At the time I just knew Scott Ross also loved cats. But I later learned from Michel Proulx's invaluable biography of Scott that the harpsichord master adopted a black and white female cat while living at Assas. That cat is captured with Ross sitting on the steps of his house in the archive image below my photo. Could I have photographed an unknown feline member of a great music lineage?

* Michel Proulx's Scott Ross: An Unfinished Destiny (published in 2001) was a primary source for this post.

** Scott Ross' survey of the complete Scarlatti keyboard sonatas has been reissued by Warner Music. Also essential is Erato's budget 11 CD box of his survey of Bach's keyboard music.

*** Scott Ross was fascinated by keyboard instruments, included electronic instruments. He was a noted organist, and his Scarlatti and Bach overviews use the organ as well as harpsichord.

This post is a revised version of my 2013 post. Thanks go to Michel Proulx for directions to Scott Ross' house and for his support for my enthusiasm for Scott over the years. My visit to Assas was self-financed. And, believe me, you have to be a serious Scott Ross fan to drive 1000 miles and do battle on the Montpelier ring road in order to visit Assas. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Unknown said…
This is one of the best posts I've read for some time, Bob. Thank you.
Jackie Power said…
Thank you for posting this wonderful history of Scott Ross with pictures and also the account of your visit to Assas. I have been a devotee for some time and cannot understand why we do not hear more of Scott Ross and his music. I recently heard a Scarlatti sonata played by Scott Ross on BBC radio 3 - for their composer of the week programme featuring Domenico Scarlatti. But they should have played many more. (Still available for another week or so). There was also a programme about Scott Ross on BBC Radio by Phil Hebblethwaite in January 2023 - it may be still available.

Thank you again.

Jackie Power
Jackie Power said…
Here is the link to the R3 programme which is still available for now

Scott Ross - Harpsichord Rebel

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