Copy or not?

Most of the instruments used nowadays in the field of ancient music are copies of old ones and this fact has become so obvious that is now considered absolutely normal. Some models have become pretty much a standard: there is the great Taskin for France and single or double Ruckers representing Flanders. Giusti is something the archetype of the Italian harpsichord, while German instruments long remained something for insider.  Also in the field of clavichords, the popular models are just three: Friederici, Silbermann and Hubert. All in all, we certainly cannot complain about the mnemonic effort, as these 6 names summarise 300 years of instrument making in over 20 European countries.

It will not be a waste of time to remember how we came to the present situation: if there is a year to remember in the harpsichord revival, this is probably 1889, the year of the universal exhibition in Paris for which also the Eiffel Tower was built. On that occasion, three brand new harpsichords were presented, built respectively by Tommasini and the famous Pleyel and Erard piano factories. Believe it or not, the path of the next 130 years was already set: while Tommasini built a harpsichord largely based on a Taskin he had restored, Pleyel and Erard chose to use several technical solutions derived from piano behind an eighteenth century outfit.

In the following 70 years, almost all the manufacturers joined Erard and Pleyel in their attempt to reinvent the instrument. Changes were sometimes so radical that, comparing these instruments with historical ones, in some cases it seems more correct to speak about “plucked pianos” than harpsichords. Leaving philological or artistic issues aside, the main problem of these instruments lies in their acoustic part: sound production in the harpsichord relies on a fairly limited energy source (the pluck), and this doesn’t go well together with modern piano-building approach.

After the Second World War, we could say that Tommasini had his revenge, thanks to a movement oriented towards more authenticity. Instead of continuing to reinvent the harpsichord in the light of the piano, people began to copy the originals; since ancient instruments are absolutely better models from an acoustical point of view, good results came pretty soon. After some controversy between supporters of “modern” and “historical” harpsichord, thanks to artists like Gustav Leonhardt and excellent recordings on ancient instruments, the world of ancient music has finally oriented itself towards the traditional way of construction.

Unfortunately, in spite of the unquestionable improvements and perhaps because of the experience with modern harpsichords, we never came much beyond the stage of copying and nowadays the idea that a builder designs and develops his own instruments is still regarded with a bit of suspicion. We rather prefer to rely on the big names listed above, as if the ancient masters could generously watch over any mistake of modern builders. Unfortunately, however, experience shows that copies of the very same instrument can turn out both excellent and mediocre. While it is obvious that ancients should not be accounted for failures, it should be also clear that copying is no guarantee of success. In fact some of the best builders of our time build notoriously in a rather free way. One last though: if our goal is really authenticity, then the most philological attitude would be for each builder to developed his own type of instrument, as was normal in the past.

I could not escape the impression that sometimes, behind the whole business of copies, there is also a little bit of fear: some musicians simply want to be philologically uncriticizable, in front of purist colleagues. However, you can trust me when I say that not only good copies, but even originals, are unfortunately no medicine against malice or envy.
Even from the point of view of the builder, copying is the safest way to avoid criticism from customers: when something turns less than optimal one can always say that the original is like that
. Being not inclined to purism and incurably critical of my work, I was never fully able to profit from these advantages.

Unfortunately, since documentation is only available for a fairly small number of instruments and it seems that over time the enthusiasm of museums in publishing drawings has waned, the tendency towards copies has inevitably ended up narrowing the great variety and richness that we can admire in collections to the small rose of names I mentioned in the beginning.

The scarcity of models, combined with the multifarious needs of musical practice, has therefore led to an infinite series of modifications to the copied instruments, which can in practice cover almost every element: materials, pitch, compass, mechanics, transposition, just to name the most common. As a result, for every Ruckers harpsichord with 45 keys (as its creator conceived it), there are today at least a dozen that are completely transformed and which have little in common with the instruments whose name they proudly bear.

On the other hand, if musicians themselves are in first place looking for an instrument that is suitable for their musical needs, as it has always been, they should not blame themselves, since this expectation is healthy and reasonable. For this reason I suggest you dare to get rid of the rigid mindset of copying, except in those cases where one really wants an instrument just like the original.

My approach runs on two different levels: first of all I am convinced that ancient masters have developed acoustically excellent artifacts and I therefore gladly copy, on request, instruments that I consider particularly interesting. On the other hand, I copy historical instruments for didactic reasons, i.e. to get accustomed to the work of the ancient. Then, from what I have learned, I develop my own models, which are my normal production.

This kind of dialogue between ancient and new has the advantage that by designing one gets much more aware of the challenges that each instrument poses, while by studying ancient models one learns several brilliant solutions to such issues, which probably wouldn’t have figured out himself.

In practice all of my models are largely based on ancient instruments, although none is really a copy; many features technical solutions borrowed from different manufacturers. In this way, while taking advantage from the experience of the ancients, not being constrained to a particular instrument and working method, I am free to use technical solutions, materials and dimensions that best suit my working methods and the needs of the customer. For musicians this means receiving a highly customized instrument at a significantly lower price.

In my view, the task of building instruments on personal models is way not as arbitrary as one might think: on the one hand it is delimited by the choice of right materials, traditional construction techniques, and by the study of historical instruments. On the other hand, the work is strongly influenced by the musical needs of the customer and the acoustical result one wants to achieve. The room for fantasy, as you see, is quite limited; on the other hand the more you take all these elements seriously, the more safely you’re guided in the development of instruments that are fit for their purpose.

My working starts therefore with a dialogue with the musician: I ask what kind of use and repertoire he has in mind, what kind of sound he prefers, his availability of space, money and of course the desired pitch and compass. Based on these fundamental elements I do my best to offer him an instrument that can meet his needs as far as possible.
How much my attempts to meet musician’s expectations have been successful, is something you can judge for yourself, by listening and playing my instruments.