Unlocking a Voice from the Past

Dr. Gregory Crowell

Like cooks or gardeners, musicians depend on having the correct tools to achieve the proper results; every musician knows that a player is only as good as her instrument. But not all instruments are suited to all purposes—a hammer is the wrong tool use when tackling thumb tack, and a banjo might be great for Bluegrass music, but it hardly fits the bill when it comes to, say, a romantic ballade. A chance encounter in 2010 led me to come to know an instrument in Grand Rapids that could have great importance for our understanding of one of history’s most important and beautiful musical instruments.

That summer, my friend Gayle DeBruyn, knowing that I had a deep love for the harpsichord, told me that there was an instrument in the Public Museum of Grand Rapids that I might find interesting. I get calls all the time from people who have found a “harpsichord” in their attic or garage—only once has such a call resulted in the discovery of a significant instrument. But there is always hope, so I made an appointment with the Museum to see what they had. After ushering me through the aisles housing the small but interesting collection of musical instruments (including two rare ophecleides—but that’s another story), we turned a corner, and I literally began to gasp for air. Before us stood an original, eighteenth-century Italian harpsichord! My first reaction was of excitement, but my second was of embarrassment—I had driven past this building for some fifteen years, never knowing that this treasure lay within.

The harpsichord, which had been a very important domestic and performance instrument for some four centuries, fell into a period of dormancy in the nineteenth century. Efforts to revive the instrument in the early twentieth century were varied in their success, but usually failed in one important aspect—the sound. As much as these revival instruments (as they have come to be called) might have looked like pianos, their makers were on a quest to make them sound as un-piano-like as possible, and the results often yielded a very unmusical twanging or pinging sound. More recently, however, instrument makers have turned to studying surviving old instruments in an effort to understand what they really sounded like, and to find the sort of musical tool that would suit the sparkling and colorful music of a composer such as Domenico Scarlatti. Gradually, this intense study has allowed a new picture of the harpsichord to emerge, an instrument whose singing and sustaining sound gives it the right to be compared with the lute and its namesake, the harp.

Unlike these instruments, however, keyboard instruments are loaded with ephemera—delicate bits of cloth or felt or leather that deteriorate with time and use.  In addition, loose bits, such as the harpsichord’s jacks—small strips of wood that hold the quills that pluck the strings—are often lost or stolen over time. Often, vital information is destroyed when historic instruments are restored to playing condition. Fortunately, the Grand Rapids harpsichord is unrestored, and so it retains much of its ephemeral material, including original action cloths and jacks. Of particular interest is the material that plucks the strings. Traditionally this material has been bird quill (some modern instruments use a special kind of plastic). Only very rarely have other materials, such as brass, been used. The Grand Rapids harpsichord is particularly interesting because it miraculously retains its original plectra, which are made of leather. Studying this rare survival from the eighteenth century might well allow instrument builders to understand what sort of leather was used, and how it was cured and treated. At this point, once can still only imagine the rich, lute-like sound this instrument must have had when it was new.

This instrument has a story to tell that goes beyond technical details of its construction.  It retains its original decoration, which is elaborate; indeed, there is little doubt that it was originally built for a wealthy, probably aristocratic household. In fact, there is a painting on the inside of the lid of a noble woman sitting in a lavish garden, playing a harpsichord not at all unlike the instrument her image adorns—perhaps this is a portrait of the original owner. While I believe that I might be close to determining who built this unsigned harpsichord based purely on technical grounds, identifying its original owner would help us to establish even better when and where it was built, and what sort of music it was meant to play. This little harpsichord has so many stories to tell!

Those of us interested in recapturing the lost sounds of the past turn to such instruments as the Grand Rapids harpsichord as a rich source to mine for information on how things were done and why. This allows builders to make copies of historic instruments, in a quest to recapture their sound. This is, ultimately, not really a matter of recreating the past, so much as it is of reawakening in us a musical voice that can still speak to us as human beings. Unlike bits of cloth or leather, our ability to respond to music does not dimihish with time or use; we are ready at all times to be moved and delighted. As the little harpsichord in Grand Rapids stands poised to give up its secrets, we await an important voice from the past that promises to enrich our present.

Here is one of my favorite videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vpG1PgFF34


From Grand Valley Department of Music Website:

Gregory Crowell has appeared as organist, harpsichordist, clavichordist, lecturer, and conductor in Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Canada, and the United States. He has performed in many international festivals and conventions, including the Boston Early Music Festival, four National Conventions of the Organ Historical Society, Region V Convention of the American Guild of Organists, the Saugatuck Chamber Music Festival, the Boston Clavichord Society, and numerous meetings of the Southeastern and Midwestern Historical Keyboard Societies. Particularly noted for his performances of the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Crowell has been a featured performer at the Weener (Germany) International Bach Series, the Grand Rapids Bach Festival, the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra Bach Concerto Concerts, and the Old West (Boston) Bach Marathon. In the spring of 2000 Dr. Crowell was the only non-Japanese invited to perform and lecture in the Bach Organ Festival held at St. Luke’s in Tokyo, during which time he also performed Minato Mirai Hall (Yokohama) and International Christian University (Tokyo-Mitaka), and served as Visiting Scholar at Rikkyo University. Broadcasts of Gregory Crowell’s performances have been heard on MPR’s Pipedreams, WCRB Boston, WGUC in Cincinnati, the Westdeutsche Rundfunk, and Belgian Public Radio; his compact disc recordings include live organ performances on the OHS label.

Gregory Crowell also enjoys collaborating with other musicians in chamber music, and he has appeared in concert with harpsichordists and organists Peter Sykes, Christa Rakich, Harald Vogel, and Guy Bovet, viola da gambist Emily Walhout, baroque cellist Pablo Mahave-Veglia, and baroque violinist Patricia Ahern. He regularly tours Europe and the United States with hornist Paul Austin, performing historical works for horn and organ, as well as works written for the duo by composers such as James Woodman, Bruce Saylor, and Robert Schechtman. Crowell’s solo performances have been described as “beautiful, flexible, expressive” (The Diapason), “full of panache and expression” (Ostfriesen Kurier), “reliable as a sunrise, steady as a rock, especially in the virtuoso finale” (The Grand Rapids Press), and “this listener cannot recall ever having heard better” (The Boston Herald).

An avid researcher of eighteenth-century topics, Gregory Crowell has published articles in The American Organist, The Diapason, Clavichord International, Informazione organistica, De Clavicordio, Reformed Worship, Tangents, Japan Organ Society News, and other publications. He has been a featured lecturer at regional and national conventions of the American Guild of Organists, the International Clavichord Symposium in Magnano (Italy), the American Organ Archives, and meetings of the Midwestern and Southeastern Historical Keyboard Societies.

Dr. Crowell holds degrees from The New England Conservatory of Music and The University of Cincinnati, and has studied further at The North German Organ Academy, Academia del Organo (Pistoia, Italy), and Musika Hamabostaldia (San Sebastian, Spain).  He studied organ with Brigitte Dubiel, Yuko Hayashi, Bernard Lagac¿, Roberta Gary, and Harald Vogel, and harpsichord with Harald Vogel and Mireille Lagac¿. Dr. Crowell serves as Director of Publications for the Organ Historical Society, Director of Music at Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids,University Organist at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and President of the Midwestern Historical Keyboard Society.