The eminent American harpsichordist, clavichordist, pianist, music scholar, and pedagogue, Ralph (Leonard) Kirkpatrick, commenced piano studies with his mother when he was 6. He pursued his academic education at Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1931. The university acquired a harpsichord in 1929 and he was given the opportunity to learn how to play the instrument. During his studies there, he had made his first public debut as a harpsichordist in Cambridge, Massachusetts (or Paine Hall at Harvard) in May 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 pursuing research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he undertook harpsichord instruction with harpsichord revival pioneer Wanda Landowska and studied music theory with Nadia Boulanger. The summer months of 1932 were spent in England where he studied with Arnold Dolmetsch in Haslemere. The following year, he travelled to Germany where he worked briefly with Heinz Tiessen in Berlin and Günther Ramin in Leipzig.
In January 1933 Ralph Kirkpatrick made his European debut as a harpsichordist in Berlin performing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). He also performed several concerts in Italy, including one at the Florence villa of Bernard Berenson. In 1933-1934 he taught at the Salzburg Mozarteum. In 1937, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Equipped with this funding, he was able to advance his research into performance 17th- and 18th-century chamber and keyboard 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 Shortly thereafter, he initiated his explorations into the music of Domenico Scarlatti, examining great quantities of unpublished material found in Italy, Spain, and Portugal.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 1938, he inaugurated a festival of Baroque music at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia and, for a number of years, he continued to be the adviser and principal performer in annual festivals there. In 1940, he was appointed visiting lecturer and instructor in harpsichord performance in the music faculty at Yale University and he remained at Yale until his retirement in 1976. His pupils included distinguished harpsichordists such as William Christie, Albert Fuller, Mark Kroll, Martin Pearlman, and Fernando Valenti. In the 1940's, he gave numerous recitals throughout the USA and Europe.
Ralph Kirkpatrick was an eminent harpsichordist and scholar, and one of the most influential figures in the revival of the harpsichord in the 20th century. He was also an important figure in the re-evaluation of Baroque performance practices that began in the 1930's and 1940's. He not only performed on the harpsichord but on the clavichord and fortepiano as well. He played the modern piano for pleasure and occasionally in performance. 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. He greatly distinguished himself as an interpreter of Baroque keyboard music, excelling particularly in the works of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. His interests extended well beyond Bach and Scarlatti, however. His performing repertory embraced also much French music written for the clavichord, and even extended into the realm of music written for the virginals. So he performed and recorded music by, among others, Mozart, Rameau, François Couperin, Byrd, and Purcell. He was also very interested in contemporary music and played music by composers such as Henry Cowell, Walter Piston, Quincy Porter (Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra), Elliott Carter, Igor Stravinsky, and Darius Milhaud (Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord). A number of works were written specifically for him, including Carter's Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras.
While in Europe, Ralph Kirkpatrick continued his research into the life and works of Domenico Scarlatti which he had begun in the late 1930's. He discovered descendents of Domenico Scarlatti living in Madrid and they provided him with valuable sources of information. Twelve years of research culminated in Kirkpatrick's acclaimed biography of Scarlatti, published in 1953. In this book, he also catalogued Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas. In 1965 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.
Ralph Kirkpatrick continued to perform concerts throughout the world, playing at many of the major European festivals and performing with a number of orchestras in the USA and Europe. He gave the first public clavichord recital ever heard in New York City at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1961. He was selected to perform at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center shortly after its opening in 1969. He also gave a number of concerts at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall), including a Mozart program in which he played the harpsichord as well as the 18th-century and modern pianos. He suffered from chronic ophthalmia and in 1976 became totally blind, which caused him to cut back on performances and travel, but he did continue to give concerts and learn new music. He played a recital at the first Boston Early Music Festival in 1981 that commemorated the 51st anniversary of his first public concert.
Ralph Kirkpatrick's valuable biography Domenico Scarlatti (Princeton, New Jersey and London, 1953; 3rd edition, revised, 1968), won a reputation as the most comprehensive, most thoughtfully organised study of that composer's music to date. His published critical editions of Scarlatti's sonatas (1st edition, 1953) were likewise regarded as major accomplishments in scholarship, and his "K." numbers became widely accepted. His chronological catalogue, 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. He also edited 60 of the sonatas (New York, 1953) and a complete collection of the keyboard works in facsimile (New York 1971 et seq.) of Scarlatti. Kirkpatrick was the author of Interpreting Bach's "Well-tempered Clavier": A Performer's Discorse of Method (New Haven and London, 1984) and of the memoir Early Years (New York, 1984). 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.
As a recording artist, Ralph Kirkpatrick became best known for his harpsichord recordings of the keyboard music of J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. In 1956, Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, the German recording company, selected Kirkpatrick to record all of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach, with the exception of the works for organ, for its Archiv label. He recorded most of the works on the harpsichord but recorded the entire Well-Tempered Clavier on both the harpsichord and the clavichord. He finished the project in the late 1960's and a number of the recordings were received with great acclaim, particularly the recordings othe Well-Tempered Clavier. He also recorded other works on the clavichord (e.g. Bach's two- and three-part inventions) and on the fortepiano (especially works by Mozart). For Columbia he recorded the 60 Scarlatti sonatas which he had edited. In addition to numerous sound recordings, left several performances on video, the most prominent among them assembled in an hour-long program entitled Ralph Kirkpatrick Plays Bach. 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 specialised in keyboard music of the Baroque and early Classical periods is assured.
In addition to being an extraordinarily accomplished musician, Ralph Kirkpatrick was fluent in French, German, and Italian and read widely in these languages. He used his knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese to translate documents for his biography of Scarlatti. He was also a collector of books and prints and his house was filled with works by artists such as Durer and Rembrandt. After Kirkpatrick died in 1984 at the age of 72, his art collection was given to the Yale University Art Gallery. The Gallery mounted a special exhibition of these works in 1985. Kirkpatrick's papers were bequeathed to the Music Library at Yale University. According to the library, they include over one hundred 20th-century works for harpsichord, many either dedicated to or commissioned by Kirkpatrick. They also include source materials, notes, and correspondence related to the various editions and translations of his biography of Domenico