Dear fellow harpsichord enthusiasts,
I see my first post has turned into quite a ramble, but I’ve only come to engage seriously with the harpsichord quite late in my life, so for anyone interested, here is the back story.
I’m Mark from Pretoria, a 50-something researcher and lifelong musician. I took piano, violin and trumpet lessons as a child, then progressed to viola, baritone horn and church organ as a teenager. I studied mathematics and natural sciences (PhD in Chemistry) but always continued music as a hobby, playing church organ and joining symphony orchestras wherever I went as a student and young adult. My work has included chemical process improvement, environmental chemistry, waste management, Life Cycle Assessment and material development for energy devices (fuel cells, batteries).
In 2010 I bought my first piano, knowing little more about pianos than how to play them. Somewhat naively, I acquired an old Ed. Seiler upright that was offered as “fully restored” by a local German-trained master piano builder, but turned out to be little more than refinished and cosmetically refurbished. The wrest plank hardly held a tuning and the more I played it, the more I realised that the uneven action was a minimally maintained high-miler - dirty and “kept running” with different spare parts over the decades. The seller exchanged the Ed. Seiler for an equally old Zimmermann, and while this had a better looking keyboard and more even action, and held a tuning better, it had a more brash, percussive tone. An inspection by an independent tech confirmed that the “Master builder” had refinished the case and installed heavy, hard hammers (Chinese, by all accounts) and plastic keytops, but done little else. Lesson learned.
Fortunately I came across a private sale of a 1970s Ibach upright, which I had inspected independently. It was reasonably well kept, especially the action, and I decided to play this for enjoyment, while making the Zimmermann into my project piano. Always having been mechanically inclined, I familiarised myself with piano technology. I spent much time reading up textbooks and online information, including meeting piano technicians online, and bought tools from Schaff Piano. In due course, I practised tuning and regulation, replaced felts and leathers in the action, re-glued a bridge apron and carefully tried to voice down the worst offending, rock-hard hammers. Over time, I’ve come to tune and service pianos for a small but loyal circle of customers.
In 2021, my parents moved into a retirement village and had to dispose of their harpsichord. I inherited the instrument, which I had known from new and tuned since I was a teenager. It was built in the mid-1970s by German engineer and instrument builder Rainer Schütze from Heidelberg. The model is called “Ortega” and is a replica of the Flemish Ruckers style, single manual with two 8’ stops, one of which has a damped lute stop.
Other than regular tuning and replacing the occasional broken string or plectrum, the harpsichord has seen very little maintenance in its lifetime and with regular playing, I’ve come to realise that it needs serious regulation. Also, the soundboard is showing signs of sagging, and the hitchpin rail is starting to separate from the case (hairline crack).
I’ve been a member of the PianoWorld forum for many years, and when I asked the technicians there about some harpsichord basics, I was referred to Carey Beebe’s webpage and to this forum. (I know I’ve seen Ed Sutton here.)
So, in due course, I’ll read more on harpsichord regulation and some repairs, and post questions as I go along.
Glad to be here!
After reading some more posts here, I’ve edited this to add:
I have had pitch memory ever since I can remember (was shocked in primary school to find that other kids could not recognise any played note or produce any named note). My two brothers grew up under the same conditions I did, but don’t have this “gift” / curse. If I know a piece and it is performed at more than about 50 cents off A=440, it sounds wrong to me and I cannot enjoy it. If I see a keyboard instrument played and the resulting sound is a semitone or more removed from A=440, I’m immediately confused and sometimes quite viscerally upset. Also, I find a very deeply satisfying sense of balance in a thoroughly, carefully tuned ET - a balance that is easily disturbed, particularly by sweeter and even more so by sourer thirds. (And I’ve certainly tried some mild well temperaments for several years.) Basically, the whole oeuvre of “historically informed” practice is inaccessible and unpalatable to me. I’ve made peace with that. (Even though some HIP-performing friends still try to “rescue my musically damned soul”.) I even tune my own harpsichord at 440 - gasp - and - double gasp - in ET. I hope this won’t get me summarily banned off the Jackrail…