I’m up at six, an hour before dawn on a grey Melbourne day, cold and dark and not yet winter. I make a strong coffee, then roll a thin cigarette and huddle on the balcony, puffing a dismal little cloud over the city. I get up, go to the kitchen, and play a bit of Bach and Rameau on Dorian. I’m clumsy and sausage-fingered after so many years away from the keys. Who, or what, is Dorian, might you ask? Let me gather myself and pull together some recent notes about the reasons why, the search, and how I found him.
During my childhood in Trollstein, the cottage in the lakeside village above Oslo, my mother played her oboe daily, most often the suave but melancholy strains of Marcello’s concerto in d minor, a sonata she continued to practice for years. Norwegian radio was usually tuned to classical music, and mother must have drawn my attention to broadcasts of oboe sonatas. Perhaps that was why I was aware of the sound of baroque chamber music and the aurelian glimmer of a harpsichord. As a contrast, the first time I recall hearing the piano on the radio it was distinctly unusual. A thick, deep, sustained sound, so different from the sparkle of the earlier instrument, as though hearing a bass clarinet, a cello, or a baritone crooner for the first time after having heard oboes, violins and trilling sopranos. The only real pianos I heard after that were battered school or church hall ones and I never fell in love with their fluffy, tremulous timbre.
A year later we shipped out to Australia and found a home in rural Victoria. Mother won the Wangaratta Eisteddfod the year she played the Marcello, with Father Harvie at the town hall piano. I ended up boarding in this cathedral town, taking music lessons from the same elegant, abrasive père and singing in his choir. As well as a drawing room grand piano Father Harvie had an Elizabethan style virginal, a forest green box with honey coloured keys. He used it to accompany recitatives on annual occasions when the choir would perform Handel’s Messiah with soloists hired from Melbourne. And I got to pluck bits of baroque or renaissance keyboard music on it when I went for music lessons. I loved the thrum of the virginal, as dark and sweet and tart as plum jam. It gave me the idea of conjuring a harpsichord out of one of the dilapidated pianos at Wangaratta high school. I was going to stick thumbtacks into the felt-covered piano hammers to make the struck strings resonate in a harpsichord-like fashion, then gild and decorate the battered case. I recall the reverend Harvie’s solicitous and slightly mocking interest in this dressing up of a tired old school piano as a harpsichord, the which, like so many of my plans, came to naught.
Years later, after a two-year grand tour of the seductive underbelly of the world, I started as an organ student at university. But the organ at the University of Western Australia was big, loud, crude and dull, in an ugly hall with bad acoustics. Musical vanity was offended by such unforgiving aural response. I became bored. My interest was shallow. But there were several harpsichords in the music studio and they drew me in fast. The ebony and boxwood keys stroked my skin as I stroked them. And as I did so a hundred and twenty two gilded fingernails plucked gently at my nerves. I thrived in this protected environment, obtained my honours degree in Harpsichord and Composition, and left Perth Western Australia for London, where cocky colonial keyboard plans splintered under the weight of self-doubt.
Over the past few years, slowly settling into the ground back here in Australia, I’d idly Google “harpsichord for sale.” The same page would pop up: the used instrument list on the web site of a harpsichord builder in Sydney. Would I ever own one? And why would I want to? Ah, once more surfing the wave of dream and doubt! The dream of finally “making it” with an instrument I loved to play, and the backlash this engenders. It’s not about making it. It’s about being touched and remade by the making of music. And now in middle age the time and opportunity has come to settle down for good. The urge to play arises again.
There are several possible instruments on the second-hand harpsichord list. The biggest and most enticing: a budget-priced French double-keyboard somewhere in Melbourne. One afternoon browsing through my favourite antiques shop in Fitzroy I’m chatting with the furniture restorer, a friendly young man. He owns a virginal himself, but no longer plays, and offers to lend it to me while I look for an instrument of my own. He says that the instruments on the second-hand harpsichord list have been there for a long time. No takers. He urges me to bargain hard and try to get the price down. The French Double is in Abbotsford, in inner Melbourne, and I contact the owner. Her mother, a Sydney piano teacher, had owned it for decades and then retired to tropical far north Queensland. The music teacher had died and her instruments came south. Her daughter is keeping the grand piano and selling the harpsichord.
I find it stored in the garage of an inner-city post-industrial townhouse. A large gilded, raspberry and cream-coloured affair, it’s not in the best shape, but has a nice enough sound for being out of tune. Does it have potential? The soundboard, flowered and gilded, has a crack in the treble. The strings and levers are rusty and the action needs work, with some of the plectra (plucking quills) missing. And the soundboard and inner case are heavily blotched with Queensland mildew. It could be a bargain, but what of the restoration costs? I run my clumsy fingers across the keys, feeling the rise and fall of hope and doubt, then take a few photos of the damage and head back home.
A week later I’m in Sydney to visit Carey Beebe Harpsichords, whose atelier is tucked away in the badlands of South-West Sydney. I show him the photos I took in Melbourne. He agrees it could be fixed, but the mold will always infest the instrument. To clean it off properly would destroy the painting on the soundboard, and be but a temporary control. It’s a relief to have this rickety possibility eliminated. It’s too big anyway. Should I ever have occasion to play at some small regional Early Music festival, I’d need an instrument I could fit in the back of a van. Carey invites me to play the custom-built instruments in his showroom. I’ve bought a bit of Bach, a bit of Sweelinck, and nervously tinkle a few bars on a couple of handsome and very expensive harpsichords before venturing into his workshop where several dismantled instruments are having their nerves untwisted, their bones realigned, their skins freshened up and their teeth reset and cleaned, as it were. Carey’s assistant is busy with a dismantled keyboard. A tall, rosy-cheeked young man with a noble nose and watery eyes, he sniggers audibly as I brush past an eighteenth-century walnut case with perhaps fearfully exaggerated care. I’m talking about playing the Sweelinck fantasias and toccatas on the harpsichord and he opines flatly, that it’s organ music, not harpsichord music. Well, I reply, I can play it on a harpsichord, in the privacy of my own salon if I so choose! Then I decide to be even more annoying and gauche by referring to my desire for “a little four-cylinder number” rather than a big V8, all the better to go touring with. He rolls his eyes. Ah, the orthodox and intolerant piety of a young early music nerd.
There are two more possibilities on the second-hand list, and both of them aren’t too far from Sydney. The first, a single-manual concert harpsichord from 1975. Pretty cheap too! It’s up in Raymond Terrace, north of Newcastle. The second, a single-manual Flemish style instrument in the Oberon Valley southwest of the Blue Mountains. It looks very nice, and is a reasonable price. Both of them originated as kit instruments, put out by Zuckermann, a company in the United States specializing in the reasonably priced reproduction of antique harpsichords, clavichords, virginals and spinets for use in early music. The quality of these instruments will depend on how well they were crafted and how well they’ve been kept. How much work might need to be done to these harpsichords? How hard should I bargain? I’ll go and check them out on my next trip up to New South Wales, and next time I’ll drive up in my battered little Toyota.
Two weeks later I’m back in Sydney for the mother’s day weekend, and have set aside the following Monday and Tuesday to visit the two possibilities.
Monday morning, there’s heavy traffic through the Northern Sydney suburbs, then a fast freeway drive north to the Hunter Valley, past Newcastle to the sleepy town of Raymond Terrace. A young man greets me as I get out of the car. He floats before me like a white sheet of crumpled paper, his house full of furniture and piles of clothes. His mother, knitting in front of the TV with the cat, smiles at me as I am ushered through to a small room chock full of stuff. The harpsichord sits tightly in a corner, surrounded by shelves of books and pieces of furniture. There’s a small, elegantly paneled box in front, labeled Roland, with a familiar-looking keyboard, black naturals and white sharps. This harpsichordist has decided to go digital, which is why he’s selling the big instrument. I raise my eyebrows, but only inwardly, and realize that early music pieties play out on a relative scale. We manage to get the lid up, and I have a quick play. The instrument is decked out in thick olive green and custard coloured paint, but doesn’t sound too bad. He could have given it a tune before I arrived though, and he clearly hasn’t looked after it. But it’s a bargain price, so there’s leeway to spend more on restringing and re-voicing it, and I could always give the case a makeover. We measure the length, and I give my brother a quick call. He lives in Wollongong, south of Sydney, and has agreed to lend me his van should I purchase something, and at two hundred twenty centimetres in length, it’d just make it into the back. Hmm, this one could do. With a single keyboard it’s not as bulky as the French double, but the stand does not disassemble. Still, it’s an option, and if it weren’t for the instrument I will see tomorrow I’d make an offer right away. So I promise to call back, and the papery young man lets me go with a tremulously hopeful air. Things seem to be happening, and I head south and west through the entrails of western Sydney up to the Blue Mountains, where I’ll stay the night with an old friend before heading further west.
Next morning I’m up at dawn. The mist rises into the forest canopy as I prepare coffee for my still sleeping host, and I’m back on the slow winding highway by eight o’clock. Passing through Katoomba and Mount Victoria the rising sun sets the cliffs and gum forests of the south-facing gorges alight, and I have the uncanny sense which comes now and then: “I should live here some day.” The Flemish style harpsichord lives on a farm in the Oberon Valley south and west of the mountains, in the little village of Sodwalls. It takes a few hours and a couple of missed turns to get to the farm, and by eleven o’clock I turn in to a shady graveled drive by a cozy timber and sod-walled house, a little Rivendell in this valley on the far side of the mountains, far from the brutal hedonism of Mordor on the Harbour. A quietly cheerful silver-haired woman invites me in for a chat over tea and homemade apple cake before I play. As she ushers me in to the hall I see the harpsichord before me, hugging the wall of the living room, small in the middle distance, elegant, neat. I don’t know it yet, but a decision has already been made.
Elizabeth is a recorder player and this was her continuo instrument. A neural condition made it impossible for her to continue making music, and it’s time for the harpsichord to find a new home. I imagine that this must be a wistful parting. Despite her difficulties with high frequency sound Elizabeth has tuned the instrument in a late 17th century form of temperament. A couple of strings are out of order, but the sound is sweet and clean. Over conversation about music, and a couple of bashful attempts at playing an early French prelude, I realize I have no desire to bargain for something I already love. You don’t make bargains with hope, with appreciation or with acceptance, and this is what I feel as I look over the slim jade-coloured lines of Elizabeth’s harpsichord.
“Yes, I want to take it. I’ll be back tomorrow. Let’s do bank details so I can pay you right away.”
So I bid farewell until tomorrow, then point my old Toyota back towards Wollongong to spend the night with my brother, to prepare the van in the morning for the drive back over the mountains to claim my beautiful Flemish single-manual harpsichord, still to be named.
To be continued.
This essay will appear in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.