copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
13 October 2007
A recent offering on eBay: an electric harpsichord,
acquired some years back from expatriates in Malawi. The body
was made of aluminium, a cross section of the sides looking
like a half girder or a square bracket, like so. The lid and
the music stand were made of Plexiglas, and the legs of wood.
This radical mixture of materials (a concrete stool would have
completed the ensemble perfectly) made me think that this was
the work of some visionary designer, and I began to look into
the history of the electric instrument.
Cannon Guild was the name of the original company,
and the designers were Caleb Warner and Eric Herz, in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, some time in the 1950s. But it was in the following
decade, manufactured by another American firm, that the Baldwin
Harpsichord began its career in pop music. The Beatles used
one in the song "Because", with George Martin at the
keyboard, recording it in August 1969.
From the harpsichord maker's point of view
it is an absolute horror, and the account of it in The Modern
Harpsichord (1970) by Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann is dismissive:
"Physically, the design is not very successful; it uses
an aluminium channel section in place of wooden case, and three
legs without any charm whatever. The Lucite top and music rack
gave this instrument an outer-space quality not easily associated
with harpsichord design. One could perhaps swallow the design
(a bitter pill!) if the instrument had a pleasant sound ...
This, unfortunately, is not the case."
A harpsichord from outer space: that must have
been precisely the designers' aim. The author of this passage
was himself a harpsichord-maker (responsible for, among other
things, the Zuckermann kits from which people used to build,
or try to build, their own harpsichords) and the least likely
authority to see the point of this radical rethink. I have since
seen another Cannon Guild prototype for sale, with a lid made
of Formica: you could put down your hot coffee cups on it, or
even dishes straight from the oven. It was very handy.
For a completely different attitude, the interested
reader can turn to www.baldwinharpsichord.com, which serves
as a discussion forum for owners and fans, and which gives some
photographs of the mechanism and its parts. Here we find that,
even 30 years after Zuckermann gave his detailed assessment
of the shortcomings of instruments he had handled, an amateur
fan could restore his Baldwin to working order, using a small
screwdriver to scrape away the gobs of wax which had melted
onto the sound-board from the fixtures of the pick-up coil.
Although Zuckermann hated the Baldwin, he makes
some surprising comments elsewhere in his book about the differences
between old and modern harpsichords (that is, modern harpsichords
of "traditional" design). The thickness of the cases
and the sound-boards, the modern materials used for the mechanism
(the jacks and the plectra), the construction and the weighting
of the keyboards - there are so many differences that Zuckermann
concludes that "the modern harpsichord is a different instrument
from the historical one, and often shares with it only the name".
In the early days of the harpsichord revival,
instruments were built by piano makers who went for massive
construction, metal frames, separate dampers for each note and
other modifications based on piano technology. It is as if the
piano (as Zuckermann puts it), after forcing out the harpsichord,
said: "You can come back again, but only by copying me
If you were to buy an early-20th-century Pleyel
or Sperrhake instrument, the bulky and imposing object you would
have acquired would not be considered remotely suitable for
today's authentic style. On the other hand, if you bought an
elegant, more modern, light-framed harpsichord based on a specific
historic instrument, the chances are that the jacks would be
plastic and the plectra made of something called Delrin, instead
of, for instance, goose quills.
The difference between the Cannon Guild and
other modern harpsichords was not that it used modern materials,
only that it featured them with such brio. Originally designed
as an acoustic instrument (or so I believe), it was then adapted
for amplification, and given a swell pedal and other resources
to develop its potential sound, by analogy with the electric
guitar. Definitely a museum piece, I had hoped to give this
model a home, and see whether it could be made to work its electric
magic again. But my bid was expertly sniped in the last seconds,
and I let it go.
Footnote: you will see in the above that I
have used the plural "plectra" instead of "plectrums".
The poet Don Paterson, in his newly published book of aphorisms,
The Blind Eye (Faber), makes fun of this: "Pedant at the
guitar clinic: ' ... the available choice of plectra ...' -
both correct, and a stupid affectation; the word is possibly
current among concert mandolinists, but beyond that queer milieu
you will impress no one but the shade of Fowler. Best speech
lies in its judicious concession to bad speech."
So it's queer to say plectra, at least in the
guitar clinic, and it would be better (more blokeish, less affected)
to make a concession to "bad speech" and say plectrums.
I take the point. I defer. But it's going to be hard to ask
for a box of Delrin plectrums (for my future Baldwin harpsichord)
when nobody else follows or appreciates such usage. The solution
is to use the term "guitar picks" in the guitar clinic,
and "plectra" among the harpsichord-makers.
And finally, if you want a good laugh at the
expense of the early-music movement, there is on YouTube an
excellent early film of Arnold Dolmetsch playing the clavichord
while Mabel Dolmetsch dances in an "early" style;
and another of Gustav Leonhardt, at the harpsichord, in one
of the Brandenburg concertos, with a very picturesque band visible
only in the final seconds.