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12 January 2023

How Scott Ross broke the rules of classical music

The harpsichord “cowboy”, who died from Aids in 1989, left behind a heroic body of work.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

In 1967 a teenage American called Scott Ross knocked on the door of a chateau in the French village of Assas, just north of Montpellier. He’d travelled 200-odd miles from Nice, where he was studying at the conservatoire, on the invitation of the chateau’s eccentric owner, Simone Demangel. She’d recently acquired an exquisite 18th-century harpsichord and was looking for a talented student to give lessons to her children. The boy who pitched up that day, with long hair and John Lennon-style glasses, was the perfect candidate. Before long, Scott had moved in. In 1989 he died in Assas of pneumonia related to Aids, aged 38.

Six years later Simone Demangel died, leaving the home to her daughter Marie-Claire, who describes what happened there in the late Sixties as a miracle. There was the beautiful chateau with excellent acoustics, an extraordinary harpsichord, and a patron. The missing piece of the puzzle was an exceptional player, and then this teenager rolled in like a “cowboy”. A once-silent chateau became filled with music. Simone organised summer academies, with Scott giving classes, and it was on this harpsichord that Scott began his recording career. Most notably, in 1984, he took on a project most musicians would think absurd: recording all 555 keyboard sonatas by the Italian baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti – 34 CDs’ worth of music.

There was more to Scott’s relationship with the Demangel family than acting as a kind of modern court musician. It was with them he found a home after a complex early life. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1951 and suffered from scoliosis, forcing him to wear a corset and be what no child wants to be – different. His father, a newspaper editor, died of a heart attack when Scott was nine. In 1964 the family moved to France, only for Scott’s mother to return to the US with his brother James. Aged 13, Scott was left to continue his studies, and fend for himself. In 1970 he was orphaned. His mother, Madeline, took her own life on his 19th birthday.

According to those I interviewed for a Radio 3 documentary about Scott, he never spoke about the death of his parents. It was a burden of pain that he kept within himself, but likely had an effect on his outward personality. He could be loyal, kind and respectful, but was also capable of immense fits of rage. The staid protocols of classical music meant nothing to him.
He kick-started his professional career by winning the prestigious Bruges International Competition in 1971, playing without a score in full hippy regalia. Later, his look changed dramatically – first to full leathers, and then, during a decade teaching at Laval University in Canada, to a lumberjack aesthetic.

His playing style was intriguing, too. He was clinical, following the logic of the music with a complete lack of affectation. “He didn’t move,” Michel Proulx, who knew Scott and wrote a self-published biography of him, told me. “He sat at his harpsichord – nothing. None of his body moved – all his energy was directed to the tips of his fingers. He had so much expression in his playing because he had this micro-management of his fingers.”

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Scott contracted HIV while living in Canada in the early 1980s, years before there were treatments for the virus, and it’s been speculated that he recorded the 555 sonatas as a final act of heroic human endeavour. Those I spoke to stressed that he was feeling well throughout the sessions, but there’s no question he was increasing his work rate, acutely aware that time was slipping away. He died, his friends say, content that there was very little repertoire for the harpsichord that he hadn’t recorded.

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In recent years there has been a quiet resurgence of interest in a man once called “the John McEnroe of the harpsichord”. There’s a documentary film in production and, in 2021, the New York Times marked what would have been Scott’s 70th birthday. Why now? It’s a stretch to say that classical music is getting better at lifting up unconventional characters from its past. More, it’s taking time to get a grip on who Scott Ross was and what he achieved in such a short life. There’s a myth that his ashes were scattered across the Assas region from a light aircraft, but I can’t verify it. It makes sense, though, that there’s no specific final resting place for a man who was always on the move, and never easily defined.

BBC Radio 3’s “Sunday Feature: Scott Ross – Harpsichord Rebel” is broadcast on 15 January at 6.45pm, and then available on BBC Sounds

[See also: How Janis Joplin set the template for rock’s outcasts]

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