The beginning, winter 1967 - 1968
Many people don't really know what a harpsichord is. They may know what it sounds like, thanks to modern day electronic counterfeits, but they really don't know the significance of the instrument in musical history. Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you all that. Maybe just a few interesting facts. Like the harpsichord,
Bach's favorite instrument, was
not a single invention claimed by any one country. The instrument seems to have appeared simultaneously in as many as five different countries during the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The piano, whose modern day escapement was perfected by Mozart, did not appear until the middle eighteenth century and was not widely used until after Bach's death.
Bach was presented with an early piano in 1736 but found it "weak in tone
and heavy in touch". The first public performance of a piano was in
1767, Bach had already died 17 years earlier. That's one reason that I chuckle a little when someone tells me about playing Bach's piano pieces.
In the late sixties, harpsichords (mostly electronic) found their way into popular music. I soon developed a fascination for the sound and began my research. I had already been studying pipe organs from the middle ages and was mostly impressed with the technology. I was amazed at the musical machines the makers were able to create some four or five hundred years ago. With the help of my Aunt Mary, I was able to meet a genuine harpsichord maker who lived in Binghamton, NY. After boldly knocking on his door and introducing myself as a harpsichord fan, he quite surprisingly let me in and spent the evening educating me about the world of ancient music. I was hooked. I had long since given up the idea of building a twenty rank, three manual pipe organ and was determined that since I couldn't afford the $15,000 to buy a harpsichord, that I would build one.
But Derwood was not about to do the work for me. If I was going to build a genuine, historical harpsichord, then I would have to do a great deal of homework first. Sure, why not. I had all the energy in the world in those days. (little did I know how big a job it was really going to be.) So, I received two assignments from my mentor. One, read the book, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making by Frank Hubbard, and two, build a psaltery, the true ancestor of the harpsichord. After buying the book, I got my first inkling of how big the project would be. It was hard cover and over
four hundred pages. It actually turned out to be good timing however, as it was
February, 1967 and IBM sent me on a three month special assignment to White Plains, NY. So I lived alone for three months without a TV and
had only my guitar and the Hubbard book to keep me busy. I worked nights and was able to master the Chet Atkins style of guitar playing during the day time. In the spring of
'67 I was back home and visiting Derwood often as my psaltery progressed. The Hubbard book had convinced
me that I could build a harpsichord and I was very anxious to get started.
I was, by now, in love with an Italian instrument
built in 1677 that was depicted in drawings in the back of the book. As luck would have it, Derwood was beginning an Italian instrument with similar scaling (although expanded to five octaves in order to play modern material) and agreed to let me borrow his string layout. The string layout was a full size piece of paper (7 feet long) with the precise location of each hitch pin, bridge pin, nut pin and tuning pin. This was the result of endless hours of calculations to determine the correct length and placement of each of the 122 strings that would bring the instrument to life.
Derwood left the rest of the planning up to me. He said, "There's
enough information in the Hubbard book for you to do the rest yourself".
Construction, 1968 - 1977
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