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Restoring a classical note

Jennie Lay

— To play an authentic Mozart opera, Vivaldi, Bach or Handel’s “Messiah,” you must have a harpsichord, Hayden piano tuner and restorer Kathleen Allen said. This was a realization many musicians made in the 1950s, at the start of the harpsichord revival movement.

“People were playing Bach on the piano, but bear in mind that that was not the sound that Bach imagined in his head,” she said.

Because harpsichords are hard to come across on Colorado’s Western Slope these days and there is a growing repertoire of classical music performances in the Yampa Valley, Allen decided last year that it was time to bring one of these old, stringed instruments into the community fold.

Now, she has a harpsichord of her own, an instrument made in 1973 as a replica of a museum-piece harpsichord dating into the 1700s.

Once Allen finishes its painstaking restoration, groups including Strings in the Mountains, the Steamboat Chamber Orchestra, Rocky Mountain Summer Conservatory and Emerald City Opera will be able to rent it from her.

Allen’s harpsichord is scheduled to make its Yampa Valley debut Aug. 14, when Steamboat Springs piano teacher Vicki Sharp will play it during a concert at Strings in the Mountains. The instrument is a “French double manual,” with two sets of 63 ebony and bubinga wood keys, a soundboard that is painted with flowers in the Flemish tradition and sidewalls that are wallpapered in the historic French tradition.

Allen calls the harpsichord restoration her “Lazarus project.”

She has disassembled the instrument inside her home workshop high on top of the Cog, and now she is piecing it back together. Even when reconstruction is complete, the maintenance work on a harpsichord is never done, she said.

“A harpsichord is very delicate compared to piano. It is not a robust instrument. It needs a lot of tuning, sort of like a guitar with a keyboard,” Allen said. “It’ll be OK through a concert, but the next morning it’ll be appalling. It’s the nature of the beast.”

A harpsichord’s quiet, plucky sound is very different from a piano, she pointed out.

Allen described the sound as delicate and crisp, and because there is no sustaining pedal like a piano has, the listener hears only one string at a time — like a mandolin or a plucked guitar. A harpsichord’s sound goes neither as high nor as low as a piano and the volume is irrelevant of the pressure on the keys, dependent only upon how many strings are being plucked at once.

“The sound is really so distinct and so unlike a piano,” Allen said. “It’s a lot harder to play — you can’t hide. If it’s off, it’s very obvious.”

Harpsichords were invented in the late 1600s and existed largely in the French courts at first. Later, they appeared in the Netherlands and Germany. It wasn’t until 1721 that the piano was invented as a modified harpsichord.

But the piano didn’t take off until after 1850, when superstitions about metal ruining an instrument’s sound were lifted and Industrial Revolution sensibilities made it acceptable to put metal in an instrument, Allen said. The iron in pianos made it possible to make much larger instruments with a dynamic range, whereas a harpsichord with no metal would either crumple under the tension or have to be a solid block of wood in order to be so large, she said.

Allen spent 17 years teaching the physics of musical instruments in the music department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She not only taught the physics and mechanics of a piano but also took care of the department’s 40 pianos, three harpsichords and two pipe organs. Because Boston was the center of the 1950s harpsichord revival movement, Allen said she always had the masters to consult with when she had questions for projects such as this one.

As it turns out, Allen comes from a long line of mechanics and musicians, a calling she said was impossible to resist.

“I was doomed from birth,” she said.

Luckily for local musicians, Allen’s musical fate is now the raison d’etre for a community use harpsichord.


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