The Art of the Harpsichord: Two Texas Treasures
In mid-June 2017 the Dallas Chapter of the American Guild of Organists hosted its most recent regional convention, an event that attracted a record number of registrants. In addition to programs featuring the plethora of recent organ installations in the metroplex, the area’s most unusual harpsichord also made a stellar impression. I had not been aware that the Magnum Opus instrument was now at home in Texas, but its current owner, Jason Alden, graciously loaned it for a recital by Elizabeth Farr, whose choice of works by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, J. S. Bach, and Claude-Bénigne Balbastre proved to be the right vehicles for her skillful demonstration of the varied registrational possibilities made possible by this unique instrument.
The harpsichord’s builder wrote the following description of the 12-foot long instrument for publication in the convention program book:
The harpsichord was built in 1983 by Keith Hill and Philip Tyre. It is the largest harpsichord in existence having three keyboards, each of which has its own sweet-sounding 8-foot set of strings, plus a vocal 4-foot played on the middle manual and a robust-sounding 16-foot set of strings played only on the lowest manual. Called ‘Magnum Opus,’ this harpsichord was recently rebuilt by Keith Hill for the purpose of upgrading the acoustics, which involved replacing both soundboards. This harpsichord also has three buff stops (called ‘lute’ stops) in which pads of soft leather are brought into contact with the strings to dampen the bright harmonics of the plucked strings. Additionally, there are three pedals: one activates the 4-foot register for suddenly increasing the brilliance of the sound, another engages the 16-foot register for suddenly increasing the depth, breadth, and power of the sound, and a third pedal makes possible the coupling of all the three registers to be playable from the lowest manual for creating the loudest, strongest, richest sound of which any harpsichord is capable.
Owner Jason Alden is himself quite an addition to the metroplex’s musical scene: a Renaissance man who keeps busy with his Alden Organ Service Company and is also a top-notch organist whom I heard for the first time in concert as he played a superb recital at the most recent East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, thrilling us with a demanding program that culminated in the entire Vierne Symphonie IV. I subsequently invited Jason to relate the history of his involvement with the Magnum Opus harpsichord. He responded:
My association with the instrument was really a result of familiarity with Edward Parmentier’s studio instrument at the University of Michigan. I really still love that instrument because it sounds so colorful, warm, and transparent all at once. Also, it seemed well suited to a very wide variety of literature. You can imagine I heard just about everything played on it during Parmentier’s studio classes.
Once I was ‘out in the world’ I really longed for that kind of sound in my own instrument (a Hubbard double that had been built from a kit by my first harpsichord teacher, Bill Eifrig at Valparaiso University). The Hubbard ended up with a number of problems related to case stress and the collapsing of the gap spacers (which I had already replaced on my own some years before). So I decided to sell it even though I didn’t have another specific instrument in mind.
After looking at Keith’s website and having a couple of phone conversations with him, I quite resigned myself to the idea that I’d never be able to afford one of his instruments. I planned a trip to his shop anyway, hoping he’d take pity on my poor soul! So, I had a nice evening with him in Nashville, and played a couple of instruments he had recently finished. We got to talking about many things that night, and he mentioned that the Magnum Opus was ‘available.’ I was curious, but doubtful that it would work for my budget. After some lengthy discussions, I decided that it would, in fact, work as a home instrument.
Magnum Opus had been neglected for years, and Keith reported to me that when the instrument entered his shop the original soundboard had 17 cracks in it! It was irreparable! So, he began by replacing both soundboards. We decided that there should be decoration [on the soundboard] since the original was decorated. From there it required re-stringing and re-quilling. The result is as good as I could ever hope for as regards my preference for harpsichord sound. I find it not just thrilling to play (it is rather a harpsichord version of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at Rouen Cathedral), but the harpsichord remains intimate and inspires me each time I sit down to play it.
An Exception to
“Everything is Bigger in Texas”
A favorite trick question for visitors to our spacious music room is “How many harpsichords do you see here?” The most obvious answer is “four.” The usual complement of instruments on display comprises a William Dowd single, plus two-keyboard instruments by Yves Beaupré, Richard Kingston, and Willard Martin. A few inquisitive guests may have noticed an additional canvass-covered wing-shaped instrument stored behind the pipe organ: an Italian single by Tom and Barbara Wolf. But only a few very observant viewers give the exact correct total, which would be “six.” The omission of the usually overlooked harpsichord is not surprising, for it is only eight inches long and three inches wide: a handcrafted mini-harpsichord made for a dollhouse by Arthur Bell of Arlington, Texas.
Art Bell was a meticulous observer and connoisseur of miniature models, and his very rare specialty was the creation of exact scale replicas of historical keyboard instruments. My University of Texas at Arlington colleague Linton Powell was the proud owner of one of Bell’s model instruments. I first met the modeler himself at one of Linton’s annual faculty recitals, told Bell how much I admired his painstaking work in producing these scale miniatures, and asked him if I might commission one. A few letters back and forth ensued, his with pictures of several completed instruments that were available, and I opted for a French double with a decorated soundboard. Then came the biggest surprise of all: it was a gift! What a generous and thoughtful person!
Several years later when I learned that my first harpsichord mentor Isolde Ahlgrimm, now in an assisted-living apartment, had donated her David Rubio harpsichord to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, I turned again to Art Bell and requested another miniature instrument that could be sent to help her overcome the terrible sense of loss that not having her instrument any longer had engendered. For the second time Bell refused payment. However, we were both deeply touched and amply rewarded by Frau Ahlgrimm’s heartfelt response in the last typewritten letter I received from her, dated July 22, 1992. I have kept her idiomatic spelling and syntax in the following excerpts:
. . . you should have seen me, the packing was put aside, I started to cry! Having my harpsichord back means so much to me. It was the worst moment of my moving . . . . As it is now, [the model] has a place of honour in my bookshelf and I feel as if it would have come back, telling me that I should not be unhappy, it always will keep me in memory . . . . I do still hope to get a place on the side of my harpsichord, somewhere on a nice cloude, the little one holding in my hand as a little baby. Mr. Bell did a wonderful work . . .
He did indeed! I only wish that these minute instruments were playable; an 8-by-3-inch model would be a dream instrument to transport, but its key span assuredly would be too narrow for human fingers. Might there be a viable solution?