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I have just completed two ottavini, copied from an anonymous original in Vienna. These charming, tiny Italian instruments have a sweet but pungent tone.
Having seen a few similar ones, it was important to me, to ensure that these little instruments were reliable and absolutely playable.
The photos show the stages of construction, through to the finished pair.
(Click the photos to enlarge.)
(Ottavini are small spinets or virginals at four foot pitch. Harpsichords at octave pitch were more common in the early Renaissance, but lessened in popularity later on, whereas the ottavino remained very popular as a domestic instrument in Italy until the 19th century.)
I am working towards a complete recording of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, which I plan to release later this year. As is usual for my recordings, there will be a novel feature to this new CD. By way of a preview, I have posted a new article (which will appear in the booklet notes) on the Read page. I feel sure all who are seriously interested in this wonderful work will find it stimulating.
I am pleased to announce that the website for the Soundboard record label has now been incorporated into this site. The full collection of CDs is available for sale on the CDs page.
We are celebrating the move with a
SPECIAL CHRISTMAS OFFER:
THREE FOR THE PRICE OF TWO!
One CD - £12, three CDs - £24.
This new harpsichord was built in the first part of 2016. It is based on the design of the Celini original harpsichord, and will be my personal recital instrument. Although still very new, the sound is remarkable.
(Click the photos to enlarge.)
Like Grounds for Pleasure (see below), my latest CD, Louis Couperin, was recorded on the early French harpsichord by Nicholas Celini that I restored during 2013. The music is by the 17th century French master Louis Couperin, uncle of the more famous François.
Poetic, luxuriant, emotionally compelling…
a fascinating musical experience.
Available on the Soundboard record label, at an introductory online price of £12 (RRP £14.50), including p&p.
Grounds for Pleasure, released in 2014, has now received five enthusiastic reviews, including from the three most prestigious periodicals in the field - The Consort, Early Music and Gramophone.
Available on the Soundboard record label.
The picture shows Yonit Lea Kosovske with the new Italian harpsichord I recently delivered to the Irish Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick. Professor Kosovske commissioned the instrument, which is a musical twin of the one she purchased from me a year ago.
Photo: Maurice Gunning
I recently took part once again in the Sligo Festival of Baroque Music in Ireland.
In response to my recital, Dark Harpsichord Music, John Fahy, a member of the Festival Committee, said,
‘The late night concert was very moving and it still lingers in our memories. We had a lot of positive feedback about it.’
Many in the audience particularly enjoyed the two contemporary works: “Overture to Orpheus” by Louis Andriessen (1981-2), and “Tactus” - commissioned from the English composer Liz Lane in 2010.
Pictured is the instrument used in the recital - my 2003-built two-manual harpsichord based on the single-manual original by Christian Vater, Hannover, 1738. The dark tone quality worked perfectly for the music chosen.
In November 2012 I was fortunate to be able to buy an exciting old harpsichord, and during 2013, following a careful examination, I undertook its restoration. The following series of articles shows the instrument before, during and after this process.
Use the following links to go directly to
each article. The topics are:
The Project - Background
Restoration of the Celini harpsichord - Part One, Summary
Restoration of the Celini harpsichord - Part Two, Assessment of the interior
Restoration of the Celini harpsichord - Part Three, Completion
The Celini harpsichord as a musical instrument
The Celini harpsichord being played - videos
The audio clips on this page are taken from the CD “Grounds for
Pleasure - Keyboard Music from 17th Century England”, played on
the newly restored Celini harpsichord. For more information about the
CD, see the
(Click on the photos below to enlarge.)
The instrument appears to be an original 17th century harpsichord, made in Narbonne in the extreme south of France, and apparently by an Italian. The maker’s name and the instrument itself both have a combination of French and Italian features.
I was both excited and daunted, since the instrument was not in a very good state, and had been through a rather unsatisfactory restoration in the 1980s. (The keyboards which are shown in the photos date from this restoration.)
The sound had been captured on record in 2003, by Christopher Stembridge, who had connections with the owner. After examining the instrument, I thought both the iron stringing and pitch used at the time of that recording were inappropriate. Nevertheless it was a beautiful sound, and I can say that after the current restoration it is even better - at an appropriate pitch for the place and period. It is now strung in brass, and the pitch is the later 17th century French standard pitch, around a minor third below modern pitch.
The Celini harpsichord features in several specialist publications, and its origins are not questioned. I have reservations about certain aspects of it, but am in any case very lucky to now own a splendid old instrument which plays and sounds extremely fine.
Old harpsichords, particularly early French ones, are rare. So it is my duty and pleasure to share my good fortune with others, with whom I will happily discuss my experience.
This article offers a technical summary. There is a risk that it will be too brief for the specialist, and perhaps too technical for the uninitiated. My apologies in advance. Feel free to contact me for any clarification.
It was important to try to establish from the start which parts of the instrument were likely to be original, and which were later additions. This proved difficult. The decoration appeared old, and it is possible that the instrument was constructed from parts as old as the date on the nameboard (1661) but at some later date - a not uncommon practice. Any old instrument which appears without a clearly documented history must be viewed critically, and this one is no exception.
The harpsichord’s history prior to its being offered for auction in 1987 is unclear, since the restorer through whose hands it passed at that time is no longer alive, and records have been lost. It was understood at the auction that the jacks and keyboards were made just before that time and after examining the stand I concluded that it too was not original. Not only was it more appropriate in style to that of an instrument from Spain or Portugal, but only a few portions of the wood actually looked old. The stand is therefore now in storage, and I have built a new one in the 17th century French style.
Cleaning the interior of the harpsichord revealed interesting details: there were marks which may have been caused by drops of molten wax before the build-up of the dirt, and scratch-markings from the design stage which seem to have been altered later when the instrument was assembled.
The string lengths proved to be of that awkward 17th century intermediate length which suits either brass strings at a low pitch, or iron ones at a high pitch. No original strings were present, and I had to remove the existing iron ones to carry out the cleaning and restoration of the inside of the harpsichord. After conducting a trial I decided to re-string the instrument with brass, as this produced a good sound and a pitch which would have accorded with 17th century French practice.
This article describes the removal of the bottom-boards and assessment of the interior.
The extremely small distance between the soundboard level and the top of the case leaves very little space for the jacks to rise and fall. Therefore the keyboard coupler fitted during the 1987 restoration could never have worked properly. Indeed, discussion with colleagues who were involved with the instrument at an earlier date confirmed that at the time of the 2003 recording it was not possible to make the coupler work. This explains why it had not been used in the recording - rather than for stylistic or historical reasons, as I had first thought.
It was therefore clear that no shifting keyboard coupler was part of the original design. This would conform to what we know (and even in the 1960s Frank Hubbard observed): that is, that a shove coupler was seldom if ever a feature of French (or any other harpsichords) at the time of this instrument (still assuming the name-board date of 1661 is original). Most likely, a solo 4 foot was originally available on the upper keyboard. This is the arrangement which the present restoration has provided.
So the keyboards (which were well-made and not visually unsuitable) were modified and the coupler removed. They, and the jacks and registers, were stored while the instrument itself was partially dismantled.
It was curious that the keyboards as fitted could only just be jammed under the fixed name-board. This had been glued in place, which would not have been normal practice and by soaking the joints it wasn’t difficult to remove. The oak wrestplank was revealed and its surfaces, where not normally seen, were very roughly finished. This was encouraging, since I was on the lookout for signs left by modern machinery - the best indication of fakery!
I removed the bottom-boards in the same way. The interior showed signs of scorching, but two of the braces were dowelled in place in a way which suggested that the bottom had been removed at some stage. This must have been before the external decoration was applied in its present form.
The framing and soundboard barring were uncomplicated. Two small ribs passed under the tenor area of the bridge, but were too short to have prevented deforming of the soundboard. I made new light ribs and glued them in place, making the soundboard flat, and avoiding the problem of strings buzzing against it. (The ribs were cut away where they passed under the bridge, as were those found in place.)
An extra brace was fitted, which greatly reduced distortion in the case by taking the strain produced by the strings in the treble area.
The bottom-boards were then replaced, and holes which had been cut in the bottom using circular hole-saws were replaced by rectangular pieces.
This final article describes regulating the instrument to make it playable and restoring the decoration.
With the harpsichord reassembled, all that remained to make it playable was to re-install the keyboards and action parts, then regulate it for playing. The new strings had by this time become quite stable and remained at the 17th century pitch of a = c390 (around a tone below modern pitch) without any risk of breaking.
The keyboards and jacks, which had been made during the previous restoration, after some considerable re-working were retained. The coupler (which, as described earlier, had never worked) was removed. The bone sharps were also all taken off, and the upper manual ones and lower ones now changed places, since it was more appropriate to have slightly longer sharps on the lower (main) keyboard.
A considerable number of keys had become twisted and warped - this had to be corrected. The keydip could not be controlled by the felt under the jackrail, since the rail was too shallow and flexible. A new front rail was therefore added to both keyframes and cloth fitted, to regulate the keydip at the front of the keys. This is a normal feature of Italian harpsichords and far less common elsewhere.
The jacks are of walnut. This too is often found in old Italian instruments. The dimensions of the jacks are quite small, making the touch light and the voicing (that is, the strength given to the plectra) also has to be light, to balance this.
Since there is now no coupler, the lower keyboard governs the two registers which operate at normal pitch, as in the 2-manual Italian by Migliai at Nuremberg and, as far as the evidence can suggest, in several other early French harpsichords.
The remaining work was to partially restore the damaged decorative work, both inside and out. I decided not to “overdo” this, which I felt would have altered the character of the instrument. Some “before and after” photos will illustrate the process:
Much of the detailed external arabesques and lettering only remained as ghost images - as holes in the gold layer onto which the detail had been applied. The original paint which must have filled these holes, but had not adhered well to the gold, had been worn away. Some was still visible in a few places, and this was imitated now, to make the motifs and lettering somewhat bolder.
In its restored state, the musical qualities of this harpsichord are considerable, and their character not altogether surprising. There are tonal characteristics reminiscent of both French and Italian sound, although the actual tone is unique. It does not sound quite like any other harpsichord, either new or old.
When exploring suitable repertoire for the instrument, I was struck to find that music by the important early French composer Louis Couperin* worked particularly effectively. The long sustain allows for the very slow and reflective performance both of pieces marked to be played “très lentement” (extremely slowly), and of the famous unmeasured preludes for which Louis is famous in the harpsichord world today.
(*The uncle of François Couperin, who died a year before this harpsichord was dated.)
At the same time, the tone can have an attack which the main, lower keyboard commands when both registers are used together. This gives dramatic force to the music when required. It is a very expressive harpsichord indeed.
I will be recording music by Louis Couperin later in 2014. My first recording on this instrument, though, (now available on CD from Soundboard Records) features English music from the seventeenth century. The music chosen, including a number of Grounds, demonstrates how music by the English “virginalists” (Byrd, Gibbons, etc.) and music from a century later by Purcell, can sound equally at home on this instrument. This repertoire formed the basis of several well-received recitals during 2013, and gives an opportunity for exploring the different sounds available from the instrument.
My colleague Dr. Peter Mole has kindly made some short videos of music played on the restored Celini harpsichord. These are just a taster (as video sound quality cannot match that of CD. Full details of all CDs are available on the CDs (Soundboard records label) page.)
A collaboration with video artist Stephen Malinowski has led to a complete series of stunning video animations on YouTube of my recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations :
© 2013-2017 Colin Booth, harpsichordist and harpsichord maker