Jack Peters Harpsichords
Buying a harpsichordPart 2
Keep in mind that there is not such thing as an ideal harpsichord suitable for all harpsichord literature. Listen to old and new instruments. Many times old instruments suffer from age or from poor restoration jobs. New instruments can be heard in concerts and at various makers workshops. Builders can be a helpful resource when deciding what type of instrument to purchase.
Although cost is usually a consideration, good instruments will appreciate in value.
In England, the most expensive instruments by the finest makers can be seen in concerts and can be sound investments. Some makers assemble harpsichords from kits and these can sometimes be less expensive. A craftsman working buy himself with low overhead can produce an instrument for the same price as an assembled kit. Assembling a kit yourself can be inexpensive, however the quality of the result depends on your skill to craft the instrument and tend to its precise regulation. Although many kits today are based on historical designs, they do not have a distinctive tone. It should be noted that there is a difference between the true craftsman maker and the skilled kit assembler.
Mid and low priced instruments can vary greatly in quality. For professional players that dont have a lot of money, seek a builder that is working to establish himself. A good maker will believe in their own ability, is self critical and admires the work of their peers.
To judge the quality of an instrument inspect start by inspecting the joinery. Sloppy work on the case should be questioned. Next, evaluate the keyboard and action. Keyboards must be well designed, well made and have good touch (avoid instruments with loose keys, inoperable keys or keys that look uneven). For classical harpsichords the smoothest designed were those from Blanchet (these types of actions should be on 18th century French style instruments). Flemish instruments will have a crisper action due to the balance point being closer to the player. The least satisfying touch is on 18th century English instruments.
Jacks and guides are perfectly fine to be made of wood so long as sufficient tolerances are provided to allow for changes in climate (jacks will stick if tolerances are too tight). Short bottom adjusting screws are acceptable, long, heavy adjusting pilot screws are not. Top adjusting screws for moving position of the plectra are often seen on plastic jacks but they can encourage sloppy quilling. Wood jacks are preferred with the option of bottom adjusting screws.
The first instruments from a maker often will often be lacking in tone or precise action. This can be due to the first instruments not being exact copies. It is best practice to build exact copies or serving an apprenticeship before introducing modifications and new design features.
My first article on buying a harpsichord surveyed the many different types of historical instrument designs. The instrument you choose will depend on the type of music you will enjoy playing the most.
Unless you will be performing frequent solo recitals or must play the Goldberg Variations, a single manual harpsichord will be suitable. Italian and Flemish models are frequently promoted by builders, many which are assembled from kits, though many Italians instruments made have a dry and hard sound. An instrument of this type is well suited for much of the literature and is ideal for continuo playing. Unless you will be playing a fair amount of Scarlatti, stick to an instrument with a small compass with a short octave or broken octave in the bass.
Flemish instruments are very adaptable to a variety of harpsichord music. A copy of a Ruckers with 8+4, 2x8 or 2x8+4 would be both an excellent ensemble as well as solo instrument. Copies of 18th century single manual harpsichords are also available based on designs of Dulcken and Kirckman.
For two manual harpsichords, a Flemish/French traditional design after Blanchet would be a suitable choice for music of the first half of the 18th century. Copies of mid 18th century Flemish harpsichords after Dulcken are better suited to Bach than to French music. Interest is gaining in 17th and early 18th century instruments while moving away from decedent, overbearing French instruments. Seventeenth century French and 18th century German have been neglected and it is hoped that makers take further interest in these.
Given the wide variety of instruments available there is surely one available to meet your needs. If it seems that you are not finding the ideal instrument than you may be expecting too much of a single type of instrument. It is impossible for a single instrument to represent the 200 years of harpsichord building or of its literature.
The final decision to make on an instrument you will be having built is the finish. Be sure the color and decoration reflect the country of origin of the original design from which it is based upon.