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Things That Have Interested Me

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James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published 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, 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.

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