THOUGHTS ON COPYING

This is an abbreviated version of the ‘Workshop News’ bulletin from May 2005

I have recently completed two ‘Portuguese’ clavichords; one of them was made in chestnut and has gone to a fellow instrument-maker – an organ builder – actually in Portugal: coals to Newcastle, so to speak. It was painted green and red – the national colours of that country – click here for a workshop photo. The other is in plain pine and is going to a client in the USA.

It would be hypocritical of me not to admit that I was extremely pleased with both these instruments: the sound has a kind of warmth, both instruments have decent trebles (by which I mean a good balance of loudness and sustain), and the feel under the fingers is so seductive that most players, once they have started, find that they cannot keep their hands off the instrument.

I have now made four clavichords of this type, and with each one I believe I understand the model a little better and achieve a better result. This has set me thinking again about the philosophy of copying. There are those who consider that the only legitimate course for makers of harpsichords, clavichords and fortepianos is to copy surviving examples of those instruments from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as strictly as possible. One celebrated fortepiano maker recently explained that he knew he could improve the treble of his instruments by a certain adaptation of the stringing and soundboard, but he did not do so because ‘they did not do that’. Another extremely fine craftsman I know calls his instruments frankly ‘replicas’. It is now hardly respectable (outside Germany) for a clavichord or harpsichord maker (even less a fortepiano maker) to proclaim that he is making instruments to his own designs.

I have never felt easy with this approach, which in my view is an over-reaction to twentieth-century developments which we now do not like. I think a maker must take responsibility for his own work: if there is something unsatisfactory about an instrument, it will not do to say ‘don‘t blame me, blame Christian Gottlob Hubert/Johann Adolf Hass (or whatever)’. A conscientious maker will evaluate his/her own efforts and learn from them; and in fact, most do so.

However, makers do not start from scratch: they must learn from all those who went before them. Generally speaking, old makers knew what they were doing : the mistake revival makers made, I think, was to dismiss too readily those aspects of the surviving old instruments that they did not understand. Luckily for us, the detailed study of old instruments has advanced enormously in the last 100 years and we are now in a much better position to study and evaluate them.

I have twice used the word ‘evaluate’. What is the basis for this? How do we judge whether an old instrument, or one of our own efforts, is good or bad? The criterion is, of course, what suits the music – what seems most effectively to express it. But how to assess this? There is no escape from it – we must use our own, twenty-first century musical judgment, based on our own knowledge, musical taste and study.

Frank Hubbard, in a charming essay entitled ‘Reconstructing the Harpsichord’ which appears in the first volume of the Historical Harpsichord series edited by Howard Schott and published by Pendragon Press, says:

The instrument … must be appraised – and not on the scale of arbitrary taste, but with a taste consciously deformed by acquired knowledge of the expressed opinions and preferences of old authorities and by internal clues left by composers which might indicate their assumptions about the sort of instrument that should be used to realize their compositions … to the extent that he is able, the harpsichord maker should attempt to direct his decisions by reference to the past and not by an absolute and arbitrary aesthetic standard … The harpsichord is an instrument of the artistic purpose of other times. The syntax of its speech stems from a language that is not ours …
I am not sure I entirely agree with this. If the syntax of the harpsichord's speech is so foreign to our own age, how are we to understand it? If we took this idea to its logical conclusion, the exercise of playing old music would be as precious and uncommunicative as a performance of Shakespeare that insisted on using reconstructed Elizabethan pronunciation. No, the language of the harpsichord (and clavichord) is not as foreign as all that: moreover, there is nothing arbitrary about the fundamentals of musical expression, which in my opinion are rooted in human nature, though of course tastes and fashions change constantly. And the clavichord – even more than the harpsichord – is not only a vehicle for the music of earlier ages, but of our own too.

I invite anyone with a view on these matters to e-mail me.

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