Making Way for Beautiful Music

A 1981 handcrafted double harpsichord is introduced to great acclaim at a recent Music Masters concert. The instrument is the second to be ready for regular performance use by the USC Thornton School of Music.
By Alex Boekelheide
Recently built with modern touches, the harpsichord is a historical copy of an instrument dated from the time of Louis XV.

Photo/Lucinda Carver
Earlier this month, a new performer took the stage at the USC Thornton School of Music.

At a Feb. 17 Music Masters concert led by faculty artist Lucinda Carver, the USC Thornton School introduced a new addition to its collection: a 1981 French double harpsichord handcrafted by Peter Fisk.

The baby-blue instrument, slightly smaller than a piano and with two keyboards instead of one, is the fourth harpsichord presently owned by the school, and the second to be ready for regular performance use.

Although built recently with some modern touches the plectra, or the mechanisms that pluck the harpsichord’s strings, are made of a synthetic material, rather than quills from crow’s feathers the harpsichord is a historical copy of an instrument dated from around the time of Louis XV.

Carver found the instrument last summer on a trip to Rehoboth, Mass.

“In Rehoboth, there’s a fellow with a service for buying and selling harpsichords called the Harpsichord Clearing House,” she said. “There was a large sample of nearly 50 different instruments in his gallery. That was a rare occurrence. You certainly don’t find that many harpsichords in one place very often.”

The instrument’s exceptional quality was evident the first time she played it, Carver said. “It’s a really beautiful, sweet, colorful sound but at the same time very clear.”

Sometimes “color” in a sound can be very muddy, she explained, but this instrument “has an excellent clarity of attack combined with a beautiful quality of sound.”

As professor of harpsichord, Carver continues a strong tradition of study and performance of the instrument in the USC Thornton School.

After its initial success as a concert instrument during the Baroque period, the harpsichord soon became unpopular with musicians who favored a marvelous new instrument known as the piano. Soon the piano had replaced the harpsichord so completely as the keyboard of choice that harpsichords were burned for firewood at the Paris Conservatoire during the French Revolution.

It wasn’t until the 1920s when the “great lady of harpsichord,” Wanda Landowska, rediscovered the instrument and its popularity in classical music circles returned.

One of Landowska’s prize pupils was Madam Alice Ehlers, who came to teach at USC in 1941, lending her considerable prestige to an institution that had already gained international prominence.

Ehlers in turn served as teacher to the late Malcolm Hamilton, who was Carver’s professor when she earned her doctoral degree from the USC Thornton School. In this way, Carver can trace her expertise directly to one of the most prominent figures in her field.

All of this historical background is evident in the tender care that Carver shows for her department’s new acquisition. Immediately after signing the purchasing paperwork, she started worrying about getting the instrument back to its new home.

“Harpsichords are delicate instruments,” she said, “because the wood expands and contracts, and there’s not the strong structural metal frame you find in a piano. I kept my fingers crossed the whole time it was being shipped.”

The fluctuations in the wood can make the instruments difficult to transport and maintain, not to mention play in performance. But Carver doesn’t let these difficulties frustrate her. “There’s a joke among harpsichordists. We spend half our time tuning our instruments, and the other half playing out of tune.”

The harpsicord made a smashing debut at the Feb. 17 concert.

Carver was joined by a cast of other USC Thornton faculty artists and accomplished musicians: Allan Vogel (who is also principal oboe for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra), Lyndon Johnson Taylor (principal second violin at the L.A. Philharmonic), Judith Farmer (nationally renowned bassoon professor) and Janice Tipton (flute, guest artist and Vogel’s wife).

The program included music by French composers, highlighting the French lineage of the instrument, but it will finish with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 “one of the greatest works written for harpsichord,” Carver said.

The piece is written for solo harpsichord, violin and flute and string orchestra made up of students from the USC Thornton Symphony, and practically the last half of the first movement is a big harpsichord cadenza.

As Carver put it, “the glory of the harpsichord is embodied in this piece.”

For now, as students come and go, Carver will continue to pass her love of the harpsichord on to new generations of performers.

“It’s rare for college students to have a resource like this at their disposal,” she said. “To be able to practice and perform on a world-class harpsichord is truly a wonderful thing for our students.”