Unlocking a Voice from the Past: Gregory Crowell

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Like cooks or gardeners, musicians depend on having the correct tools to achieve the proper results; every musician knows that a player is only as good as her instrument. But not all instruments are suited to all purposes—a hammer is the wrong tool use when tackling thumb tack, and a banjo might be great for Bluegrass music, but it hardly fits the bill when it comes to, say, a romantic ballade. A chance encounter in 2010 led me to come to know an instrument in Grand Rapids that could have great importance for our understanding of one of history’s most important and beautiful musical instruments.

That summer, my friend Gayle DeBruyn, knowing that I had a deep love for the harpsichord, told me that there was an instrument in the Public Museum of Grand Rapids that I might find interesting. I get calls all the time from people who have found a “harpsichord” in their attic or garage—only once has such a call resulted in the discovery of a significant instrument. But there is always hope, so I made an appointment with the Museum to see what they had. After ushering me through the aisles housing the small but interesting collection of musical instruments (including two rare ophecleides—but that’s another story), we turned a corner, and I literally began to gasp for air. Before us stood an original, eighteenth-century Italian harpsichord! My first reaction was of excitement, but my second was of embarrassment—I had driven past this building for some fifteen years, never knowing that this treasure lay within.

The harpsichord, which had been a very important domestic and performance instrument for some four centuries, fell into a period of dormancy in the nineteenth century. Efforts to revive the instrument in the early twentieth century were varied in their success, but usually failed in one important aspect—the sound. As much as these revival instruments (as they have come to be called) might have looked like pianos, their makers were on a quest to make them sound as un-piano-like as possible, and the results often yielded a very unmusical twanging or pinging sound. More recently, however, instrument makers have turned to studying surviving old instruments in an effort to understand what they really sounded like, and to find the sort of musical tool that would suit the sparkling and colorful music of a composer such as Domenico Scarlatti. Gradually, this intense study has allowed a new picture of the harpsichord to emerge, an instrument whose singing and sustaining sound gives it the right to be compared with the lute and its namesake, the harp.

Unlike these instruments, however, keyboard instruments are loaded with ephemera—delicate bits of cloth or felt or leather that deteriorate with time and use.  In addition, loose bits, such as the harpsichord’s jacks—small strips of wood that hold the quills that pluck the strings—are often lost or stolen over time. Often, vital information is destroyed when historic instruments are restored to playing condition. Fortunately, the Grand Rapids harpsichord is unrestored, and so it retains much of its ephemeral material, including original action cloths and jacks. Of particular interest is the material that plucks the strings. Traditionally this material has been bird quill (some modern instruments use a special kind of plastic). Only very rarely have other materials, such as brass, been used. The Grand Rapids harpsichord is particularly interesting because it miraculously retains its original plectra, which are made of leather. Studying this rare survival from the eighteenth century might well allow instrument builders to understand what sort of leather was used, and how it was cured and treated. At this point, once can still only imagine the rich, lute-like sound this instrument must have had when it was new.

This instrument has a story to tell that goes beyond technical details of its construction.  It retains its original decoration, which is elaborate; indeed, there is little doubt that it was originally built for a wealthy, probably aristocratic household. In fact, there is a painting on the inside of the lid of a noble woman sitting in a lavish garden, playing a harpsichord not at all unlike the instrument her image adorns—perhaps this is a portrait of the original owner. While I believe that I might be close to determining who built this unsigned harpsichord based purely on technical grounds, identifying its original owner would help us to establish even better when and where it was built, and what sort of music it was meant to play. This little harpsichord has so many stories to tell!

Those of us interested in recapturing the lost sounds of the past turn to such instruments as the Grand Rapids harpsichord as a rich source to mine for information on how things were done and why. This allows builders to make copies of historic instruments, in a quest to recapture their sound. This is, ultimately, not really a matter of recreating the past, so much as it is of reawakening in us a musical voice that can still speak to us as human beings. Unlike bits of cloth or leather, our ability to respond to music does not diminish with time or use; we are ready at all times to be moved and delighted. As the little harpsichord in Grand Rapids stands poised to give up its secrets, we await an important voice from the past that promises to enrich our present.

Scott Ross: Scarlatti


The great Scott Ross plays Scarlatti’s sonate K209 in Le château de Maisons-Laffitte (1988).

Harpsichord: David Ley

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