Heritage of the harpsichord making

Harpsichord making is listed as an “endangered” craft here: Keyboard instrument making | Heritage Crafts
It’s a somewhat pessimistic vision, as the site says only 5 makers and 1 apprendice in UK (but then lists 14), and nobody elsewhere: France, Italy (we in Italy have currently about 20 makers), Germany, Austria etc. To say nothing of USA, Canada, Australia etc. Evermore, there is a fair number of amateur makers.
Moreover, the organological knowledge built in the last 50-60 years shall not be erased. There are books, videos, articles, a whole lot of great harpsichords to study, apprentices, and so on.

BUT we cannot deny that the harpsichord movement is in its fall, so I asked myself whether there actually is something we could lose forever in a few years.
I’d say no for techniques and organological knowledge.
Neither for materials: hide glue will not be discontinued as there is a huge number of restorers and the like who need hide glue. Should it be discontinued, there is a great amount of knowledge so somebody could start producing it.
Same for the bone. Wood: some trees are scarce now and it will not go any better, but alternatives are available.
Ruckers papers, oil paint are not endangered. Pins (even tuning pins) are readily makeable yourself.
And so on.

This is not true for the wires. Today we rely primarily on two producers of more or less historical strings: Stephen Birkett and Malcolm Rose. Maybe we could add Little Falls Alloy for brass and Westphalian iron for iron strings. Both are reportedly less satisfactory to the harpsichord maker than Malcolm Rose and - ever more - Stephen Birkett.
Both haven’t published their composition and procedure (I don’t know anything about Little Falls and Westphalian) so when they will stop producing the harpsichord world will remain without historical strings. This is the single reason for harpsichord making being endangered. Are we relying to too few sources to feel confident for the future?

There are other risks, too: for example museums no longer sell their drawings, or much less, we can only rely on Marc Vogel for drawings. But the strings are, in my opinion, the only part of the harpsichord we just must have an external source for, both for the know how and for the material production.

(Roberto Mattiazzo, an Italian maker, used to draw his wire and sell it: Corde per clavicembalo
I haven’t tried them, however his production seems ti have stopped: http://www.robertomattiazzo.com/)

What do you think?

Dom

Dear Domenico, let me comment more broadly my personal impressions on

The twilight of the Early Music movement

In the 1960-1980s, as we all know, the EM movement was in full swing.
Then something happened, some of the best-known harpsichordists and conductors passed away, some writers (famously Taruskin) wrote (against the personal experience of so many of us and universal acclaim of knowledgeable reviewers) that trying to revive past musical styles was an illusion.
However, these writings (known only to some of the performers involved in EM) were surely not the cause of the present state of things.
Already a decade ago I had the pleasure to briefly discuss this matter personally in Dublin with the great Monica Huggett, and she deplored how over the years in her public performances audience numbers were going down, the stalls looked like a carpet of light-grey hair …
To a lesser extent this is true of all classical music, but is certainly more noticeable in the EM field.

Possible reasons for this sorry state of affairs:

  1. (As per an account I read about a decade ago). The traditional classical music arena was based on full-time employed musicians working in the cities’ symphonic and opera orchestras all over the Western World and beyond, plus freelance concert performers (mostly violinists and pianist). The EM movement, however, hardly ever enjoyed the luxury of full-time orchestras, and only a handful of performers have ever been able to live out of playing early instruments freelance. Initially, while the EM movement was in full swing, it was not the concert hall but the recording and marketing of Audio CDs that financed the thing. But the CDs are virtually indestructible, and as every one of us had a few hundreds of their favourite music on record, we stopped purchasing more. Somebody years ago published scary numbers about this downdraft of the classical music recording industry.

  2. Another matter that contributed to the decline was the 2008 crisis, which caused many western nations to reduce significantly the budget devoted to cultural activities. In the process, the full-time orchestras were mostly kept in place, but hardly so the financial help to freelance musical activities.

  3. The significant reduction of cultural activities due to COVID has also been another factor.

  4. In the particular case of harpsichords, a well-built one will last for many decades and along its useful life will have more than one owner. Therefore, in the long term, there are more and more playable harpsichords around, while, as we have observed, the number of players does not increase …

The above, of course, is no reason to despair. Some of the causes of the present situation may well (and let’s hope so) change for the better.

I believe that, generally, for a profession to continue to flourish, it requires an influx of new practitioners every 15 years. This means a range of people aged 25, 40, 55 and 70 years old, a full continuum of four generations with overlapping tenures. I choose the 15 year gap in order to have generations that can communicate with each other without feeling threatened, thus encouraging mentoring and the passing on of experience.

If we look at contemporary harpsichord building, we see that it really only got going after the second world war. The first generation has died out and the second is not far from retirement. There are young people, but where are the two generations that need to be in the middle to keep the tradition alive? There is a gap there, with a consequent possibility of loss of continutity in techniques.

Alongside that, we have to consider that in 1950 there were not many authentic copies as we recognise them today. Since then many have been made and, because they are still in good playable condition, there is not the need to replace them at the same rate as they were being made 30 or so years ago.

Although the kind of wood that Italian harpsichords are made from does not take as long to grow to maturity as the wood used for northern instrument, changes (for the worse) in modern commercial drying methods make the necessary wood less easy to obtain.

As Dom points out, this last is not a problem with wire or other parts, including feathers.

The repertoire certainly seems to have been rediscovered pretty thoroughly. New entries are generally of less stimulating klein Meister. I am not convinced that any really significant contemporary pieces have been written that demand harpsichord and challenge the supremacy of the baroque literature. Most of what I have heard could be played on a piano or synthesizer without any disadvantage, which is not, in my opinion, true of the great baroque works.

Dolmetsch, Landowska, Leonhardt and a few others were focal points of the development of harpsichord performance; but I see no obvious equivalent today.

I dont blame economics because harpsichords are relatively cheap to make and do not require modern industrial machinery. It is amazing what one person working in isolation can achieve in this metier.

As far as the current closure of concert halls is concerned, it should be realised that most early music performances have never taken place in large halls and there is still the possibility of performance in spaces that accommodate smaller audiences. While performances on the scale of Mahler VIII may not be viable today, the smaller ensembles required for baroque music, and solo and chamber music recitals still have a chance. Concentrating on the more lively atmosphere possible in smaller events would give a chance to appeal to a younger audience, that is understandably put off by the habits of older audiences, some members of which seem to enjoy the opportunity of a good snooze, uninterrupted by any startling events.

We need to rethink the format of our concerts: in too many of them the players are remote from their audience and make little contact.

The enforced lockdowns give us a chance to plan how we can renew our concert life and bring pleasure and enjoyment to more in our communities who do not know our instrument or its repertoire. I know that Claudio and others are already doing this: I applaud their efforts and hope that others follow suit.

David

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David, the wood for Italian harpsichords is in a bad condition, worse than for northern harpsichords. The cypresses are targeted by a illness which eats their wood, so it’s more and more difficult to find good cypress wood free of knots. The price is stellar (and give a look at the price Grant O Brien asks for his cypress on his website claviantica!): more than ebony or other exotic woods.
Well, we’ll make less florentine harpsichords and more neapolitan maple harpsichords! :slight_smile:

However I focused on strings because I think that strings are the only part of a harpsichord for which you just can’t find a substitute (a substitute does not exist) or do yourself. And I don’t want to go back to the times when you had to use piano strings.

I agree with you on the causes of the decline.

D

Yes, there are problems, and we havent even spoken about rising temperatures. But there is wood. The Leita brothers and others are harvesting and using PEFC wood. See here But my earlier point was that hard woods take longer to grow and, if encouraged to do so, the soft wood forests recover faster.

I agree with Dom about wire: it is encouraging that a few people have taken the trouble to research this area and taken major steps forward in attempting to recover the ancient manufacturing processes during the past 20 years. But the supply, relying as it does on the work of isolated individuals like Stephen Birkett, who has a full time academic position and produces wire in his “spare” time, is potentially insecure and cannot continue reliably forever as a one-man band. Personally I think there is no substitute for Birkett wire; but what if the source were to vanish without an established succession?

David

On strings, the two main current makers seem likely to take their experience and knowledge and processes to the grave with them, I am sorry to say, with no disrespect intended in any way. For makers, this is a huge problem.

I have been reflecting on this and was led to consider that gut string making for violins and so on went into a huge decline, with the 17-18c techniques lost, and gut almost universally eclipsed by steel in the 20c. And the market for gut strings is tiny compared to that for steel strings, and yet, particularly in Italy - always the home in the 17-18c of the best gut strings - makers like Aquila and Toro to name two have recovered the historical techniques over the last twenty years and appear to be thriving businesses, even in such a small market corner. And even Pirastro makes gut, Chorda, of example.

I think the niche market for harpsichord wire is far more problematic, as it is even tinier than for gut strung string instruments, and the infrastructure of having the correct iron ore and suitable furnaces and drawing equipment is on an entirely different scale to the tubs and benches you need for gut string making. Also, It is hard to image large wire companies having any interest in drawing this wire, as the cost benefit analysis does not add up in today’s times. Having said that, 40 years or more ago BHP the huge mining and steel company here in Australia made Waratah music wire, which is great and my even have quite high phosphorus. But it’s hard to imagine BHP doing this again now.

I think the modern gut making businesses will be here for the forseeable future, but I think the iron wire situation is grim.

Except, in the case of brass wire, since it is commonly used in engineering and technology it will be made for ever. Little Falls will continue to make brass, But the super specialized yellow or red or other varieties that we like to use are also in mortal danger.

I don’t know what else to say. Heaven forbid we have to go back to high carbon Roslau steel. Carbon fibre perhaps?

I did not know Cupressus Sempervirens was endangered by disease. A disaster. Such a superb timber.

There are many species of cypress. Monterey Cypress, Hesperocyparis macrocarpa or Cupressus macrocarpa from California, while not on a par with Sempervirens, is a usable timber and it is almost a weed here, used for windbreaks on Australian farms. In fact there is so much of it that there is a glut, and it is highly sustainable.

But I have not used it for an instrument so I can’t really comment, except to say that I think we can look for Sempervirens alternatives given the bad situation. There are dozens of amazing Australian and New Zealand woods by the way that can make fine instruments, although the best case timber Kauri Pine is more or less totally finished.

Dear Andrew:

Don’t forget that gut is also used for stringing high end tennis racquets. The companies supplying this demand are relatively small and thus flexible. Much of the process is manual and thus theoretically easier to provide what is needed on a custom basis.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCHkNko0OvI

Other videos about this manufacturing process are also available.

Theoretically if the proper steel is available, stings could also be made on a small scale. This should be for us relatively low technology, although I do not wish at all to underestimate the skill and experience required! At some time I would love to visit Stephen Birkett when I am in Canada next time. (He lives in the same region where my family is loosely based.) I have no desire to try to make such strings but would love to understand the process better.

I am not sure about the specialized brass strings. I suspect many are being made for specific purposes. We just do not know where to get it and if we did how to acquire quantities less than 20000 meters.

Regards,

Andrew Wedman

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“Theoretically if the proper steel is available”

That’s precisely the problem Stephen Birkett has worked for 20-30 years. Probably there’s something about the process, too, but the exact composition of the steel is the main problem.

D

I ended up on a local piano teachers mail list. Sadly every month or so, there’s a free piano on offer to a good home. And a neighbor had one broken up.

Decreasing numbers of students results in orphan instruments.

Should the list get together on placing a collective order from Birkett and Rose to provide makers and owners with sufficient supply for the next few decades?

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