DOUBLE-MANUAL FRENCH HARPSICHORD
Barraba, NSW (1985)
This double-manual French harpsichord made in 1985 by the Australian maker William Bright includes 3 sets of strings (8’, 8’, 4’), a lower manual coupler, and a ‘buff’ stop (this mechanism creates a lute-like sound by facilitating the placement of small leather pads against one set of 8’ strings).
Three levers protruding through the name-board control which row of jacks plucks which particular set of strings, and the buff stop.
This harpsichord has the conventional five octaves of eighteenth century harpsichords. The two keyboards can be simultaneously transposed up or down in order to facilitate playing at pitch standards commonly used by ‘early’ or ‘modern’ instruments (usually a-415 Hz (early) and a-440 Hz (modern). Transposition by a semitone is a feature not found in eighteenth century French harpsichords.
Musical instruments from bygone ages are fascinating not only because of the qualities inherent in their sound, but also because they are often so beautiful to look at. Harpsichords, because of their ample surface area, can be lavishly decorated. Costly materials and decorative features such as painting, elaborately carved soundboard roses, applied gilt or inlay demonstrate the loving care that went into their manufacture. Sumptuous decorative features demonstrate the high esteem in which harpsichords were held both by owner and player.
In 1636, the learned French monk Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) wrote in his ‘Harmonie Universelle’ (a survey of the music of his epoch), that “the beauty of the instrument should enhance the quality of the sound; the eye should, as it were, share the pleasure of the ear.”
This harpsichord by William Bright reflects not only Mersenne’s sentiments, but also those expressed in the inscription found on an extant sixteenth century Italian harpsichord: “I delight the eye and the heart alike”.
The lid painting is by the Australian artist Rupert Richardson, and depicts a view of part of the 400 acres that comprises the property north of Tamworth, New South Wales, where William Bright lives. Lid paintings by this artist are one of the characteristic decorative features of William Bright’s harpsichords.
The soundboard painting is by William Bright, and is typical of many Flemish and French harpsichords in its depiction of flowers, birds and butterflies. The soundboard rose-hole (the design of which traditionally functions as the maker’s signature) is based on those of the Flemish master harpsichord maker Andreas Ruckers the elder (1579-after 1645). The initials WB frame an image of William Bright’s pet peacock, Willie.
William Bright is regarded as one of the greatest living harpsichord makers. This harpsichord was commissioned by Musica Viva Australia in 1983; the instrument is on long-term loan to the School of Music from Musica Viva.