February 08, 2019

In Praise of the Harpsichord, and the Bird Feathers That Play Them

Never in my life did I ever think, "I want to play the harpsichord."

My Grammy was a piano teacher and, until her death in 1985, she taught me to love the percussive banging on keys on hammers on strings as I played the upright in her living room.

In fact I'd only heard the music that comes out of harpsichords—and hadn't seen one up close, much less played one—until just a couple of weeks ago, when I visited Curtis Berak's studio in Downtown LA.

Everybody's got a claim to fame in Hollywood—and Berak is the harpsichord guy, the one who can tune vintage and new ones as well as build his own, even faithful reproductions of antique ones that are considered pretty near perfect.

I wondered what the bag of feathers was for—and it turns out that the traditional manufacture of a harpsichord includes the quill of a raven's wing, used to pluck the strings (rather than hammer on them, like a piano). While many modern makers have replaced the quills with plastic, Berak can make do with feathers from our resident—and abundant—populations of Canadian geese.

And so he's got one of the most faithful Neopolitan-style harpsichords you can find in the Southland—making this and others in his collection in high demand for movie and TV shoots, as well as musical performances and music videos (including Alicia Keys).

The harpsichord, of course, predates the piano—having emerged in the Renaissance period of the 15th century and endured throughout the Baroque period, eventually being eclipsed by the piano.

I that transition from string to percussion, instrument makers somehow dropped their outward expressions of devotion—references to angels and the like—as well as the ornate decoration of the sound cabinet, with birds and flowers having been painted on the surfaces behind the strings.

The Flemish models of harpsichords—particularly those made by the Ruckers family—painted to look like marble and resemble a coffin.

These were the most premium harpsichords of the time—as Berak says, the Stradivarius of the harpsichord—but they were not perfect. The theory was that nothing made by man could be perfect, otherwise it was the devil's work. Because Soli Deo gloria—only God is glory.

The harpsichord relayed a message—namely, that the player is transient, the music he plays is transient, and the instrument itself is transient.

And, in fact, each note played on the harpsichord feels too short. There's no sustain pedal. There are no pedals at all.

But pressing each and every harpsichord key—across two parallel keyboards, no less—feels ever so much more satisfying than tickling the ivories ever did.

So goes the glory of the world, or Sic transit gloria mundi. It's nice while it lasts.

Related Posts:
Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour
Photo Essay: Taylor Guitars Factory Tour

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