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Harpsichords: Reconstructing an Era

Harpsichords: Reconstructing an Era

by Byron Will

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly, Volume 5 ,#4, 1977

The music of the renaissance and baroque has undergone a rebirth in the twentieth century, with musicians and makers attempting to rediscover the high level of the art which was reached. A great deal of work has been done in the enormous process of making a musical era live again, with the scholar having to be cautious of falling into preconceptions and making personal assumptions which may be quite false. This long an difficult process has many times changed the musicians and makers outlook on the “correct” approach. Although there are not and never were absolutes, much more is known than twenty years ago and the modern maker has a better idea of what is required of the musician interpreting the great compositions of the past.

The most logical approach the modern harpsichord maker may take is to carefully study the old instruments and attempt to understand the old makers methods. There are many antiques that have been restored, although not all with the greatest of care. Many old instruments have been altered, perhaps many times, so not much of the original remains. What can we tell from the antiques which are two or three hundred years old? The antiques play music with the clarity, growth, and beauty that a great instrument has, having a strong character that works with the music and performer to give a completely satisfying performance. The antiques sometimes have a certain ugliness or crudeness to their tone adding charm and incisive character. The modern maker must determine what he hears in the antiques, study how they were constructed and incorporate this information in his work in order to properly approach the old makers’ art. Their need for caution is as important as the scholars’.

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