A harpsichord with a storied history makes its concert debut
by Carol Bogard with Larry Erdmann for Vocal Area Network
Posted March 29, 2016

Erdmann harpischordMusic on the Hill opens its 2016 season on Friday, April 1 with an evening of Baroque music for chorus, harpsichord and strings. The Festival Chorus and a small vocal ensemble, led by Artistic Director Ellen Dickinson, will perform the Durante Magnificat and works by Telemann, Buxtehude and others, joined by violinist Daniel Lee and friends. But the story underlying the concert is the story of the harpsichord donated to Music on the Hill in 2015 and showcased in this performance, an instrument whose history is tied to a pivotal figure in the modern resurgence of Baroque music.

The instrument is a replica of a single-manual harpsichord built by Hans Moermans in Antwerp in 1584, during the golden age of harpsichord-making in the Southern Netherlands, from the late 16th to the mid-17th century. The original Moermans was owned by Frank Hubbard, one of the 20th century’s pre-eminent authorities on historic harpsichords. Hubbard had restored the antique original and used it in his home for evenings of Baroque chamber music.

Hubbard was an early pioneer in the 20th century renaissance of period instrument construction and design, “a visionary,” according to the man who later became his business partner, Larry Erdmann. “His dream was to re-create an entire Baroque orchestra,” meaning an orchestra of historically authentic instruments like those known and used by the composers of the Baroque era. The harpsichord was ubiquitous in this music and thus essential to Hubbard’s vision.

Since the modern harpsichords being built in the first half of the 20th century bore little resemblance to the historic instruments -- in their sound, their actions and materials -- the harpsichord was where Hubbard began. He left his post-graduate work at Harvard in 1947 to explore the relatively few early keyboard instruments surviving in Europe.

Hubbard made several of these European tours to study historic instruments, housed mostly in museums, including the Louvre in Paris. He produced highly accurate drawings -- “at which he was masterful,” says Erdmann -- of the instruments’ actions and construction. Often the drawings were done in conjunction with restoration work, which required his taking the instrument fully apart and then re-assembling it, a process which enabled him to study its detail and design. Hubbard would later go on, in 1965, to publish his authoritative Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, based on his extensive study.

In 1958 Hubbard established a workshop in Boston and began building his own instruments to reproduce the sounds of the Baroque harpsichords. “Most were replicas of French and Flemish originals built between the mid-17th and late 18th centuries,” says Erdmann, “much in demand by a new generation of players who were building their careers playing the music these instruments were built for.

“Hubbard was soon joined by other builders, many of whom had apprenticed in his shop, creating a small industry, principally in Boston but soon expanding to England, to supply a burgeoning demand from young players and ensembles re-discovering the music of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and other masters.”

The growing demand for true harpsichords posed a problem, however.  “Frank made only a handful of harpsichords each year,” says Erdmann, “not nearly enough to satisfy the demands of this renaissance. He had a nearly 10-year waiting list.”

Enter Erdmann, with a background in business and a life-long passion for Bach and the Baroque. Erdmann, as a young man working in New York in the mid-1960’s, had purchased and built several harpsichords from kits supplied by a company in the East Village called Zuckermann Harpsichords, the first company to produce harpsichords in kit form for do-it-yourself amateurs. While the kits dramatically increased availability, Erdmann found the instruments “unsatisfactory musically, with little resemblance to the sound and nuance of period instruments.”

Erdmann approached Hubbard in 1972 to see if he would be interested in creating kits -- complete with parts, drawings and instructions -- that would allow amateurs to assemble true replicas of historic instruments and that would satisfy the rapidly growing demand for concert instruments. After some initial reluctance, Hubbard agreed, and the two men embarked on a new venture: Frank Hubbard Harpsichord Kits, Inc. “Hubbard spent most of his time restoring original instruments and building his own replicas,” says Erdmann. “I developed the shop, suppliers and marketing to build the kit business, based on Frank’s drawings and detailed knowledge of construction.”

They began with a French double-manual harpsichord, a copy of one built in Paris in 1785 by the great French builder Pascal Taskin. This had been “one of the first instruments Frank studied in the basement of the Louvre,” and one that Hubbard had often replicated as a young builder. The kit they created “was the only true (i.e. authentic) harpsichord available in kit form, and the completed kits found homes in conservatories, concert halls and with established players who could not afford (and whose careers could not wait for) finished instruments. Within a few years we had sold about 1000 kits and spurred other kit makers into producing kits that were true to historic designs.”

The company grew to include kits to build English virginals, Viennese fortepianos and Dutch chamber organs. “What was missing was a kit to build a single-manual harpsichord,” says Erdmann, “that would be smaller, more readily moved between studio and concert hall, and easier to build than the large French double with which we began.” He urged Hubbard to develop drawings for the Moermans harpsichord that sat in his own living room. It was the only harpsichord Hubbard himself owned, and it made “a lovely, lovely sound,” says Erdmann. Hubbard agreed and made the drawings so that the kit “copied the structure and scaling of the original as closely as possible.”

As the kit for the Flemish single neared completion in 1975, Hubbard died suddenly, leaving Erdmann to finish the project and build the prototype from the kit. It is this prototype which he has generously donated to Music on the Hill and which makes its concert debut in “Friday Evening Baroque.”

Larry Erdmann had a singular vantage point from which to view Frank Hubbard’s seminal role in the resurgence of authentic performance of Baroque music. “He left a legacy of hundreds of superb instruments, dozens of apprentices who went on to successful careers, and a deep knowledge of the instrument passed on to countless other builders, musicians, and the musical public,” says Erdmann. “This legacy has produced ever finer instruments, from American and European harpsichord makers, that in turn have inspired the finest of young musicians to devote their careers to historically informed performance of Baroque and early Classical music.”

Comparing this new generation of musicians to those that came before, Erdmann observes that “the facility of these players, whether on harpsichord, violin, viol, oboe, bassoon or other replica, is head and shoulders above what it was 25 years ago. We’re seeing truly virtuosic playing of the Baroque literature. He cites, as an example, Daniel Lee and the Baroque ensemble he founded, the Sebastians.

Music on the Hill is pleased to bring together in one concert Festival Chorus singer Larry Erdmann, the harpsichord he built, and Daniel Lee and friends. “Friday Evening Baroque” starts at 8 PM on Friday, April 1 at the Wilton Presbyterian Church, 48 New Canaan Road in Wilton, CT. Tickets are $20 in advance at www.musiconthehillCT.org; $25 at the door.

Carol Bogard is First Vice President of Music on the Hill. Larry Erdmann sings with Music on the Hill.