In 2012, even though technology is pervading every aspect of life and business, there are still some people who devote themselves to crafts that are as ancient as the ink pot or candle light. As ancient as the harpsichord, one can but say, since the aim of rebuilding 16th century keyboard instruments is precisely to give new birth to Renaissance and Baroque sonorities by taking a deep plunge into the old woodworking techniques. A complete identification with the mastery of 14th, 15th and 16th centuries builders is essential for making harpsichord music sound like it did in its golden years. This is Marco Brighenti’s line of thinking. Born in Parma in 1971, he is one of the very few Italians to commit their lives to the art of harpsichord building. Following his passion for ancient music, developed during his Science High School studies, he earned a Musicology degree in Cremona, the land of universally known makers of violins such as Antonio Stradivari. Brighenti, however, started building rare keyboard instruments rather than violins.
WSI: How was the decision to build this kind of instruments born?
Marco: I am a musicologist and my love for Renaissance and Baroque music goes back to my childhood. I have always been fascinated by keyboard instruments and their musical repertoire. Besides, I have always had a penchant for precision manual work. At a certain moment in my life, I realised that I wanted to make these two passions blend. Of course I had no certainty that they could turn into a real job.
WSI: Was there a nostalgic element in the choice of this profession, a profession which entails a less frantic life-style, consistent with the natural seasoning of timber?
M. Brighenti: Yes, there is. But I couldn't say that I miss the golden years of the arts and crafts; after all, I cannot miss an era which I never had the opportunity of enjoying at all. I just mean that, among the reasons that led me to this job, there is definitely my inclination for an “intimate” profession, for a close contact with raw materials and for the old processes of transforming them into an artistic, aesthetically appealing final product.
WSI: What repertoire can be performed on the harpsichord?
M. Brighenti: The repertoire is limitless. The harpsichord's golden period spans from the 1500s to the 1700s. This period in time encompasses a great variety of styles, depending on the country (Italy, France, England, Spain, Germany…), depending upon the time period and upon the creative flair of the many performers who lived in this musically active Europe of that time. Moreover, the harpsichord was not only a solo instrument but was also employed in Baroque orchestras and chamber ensembles to supply a particular type of musical accompaniment called “thorough bass”. A perfect example of “thorough bass” may be found in the notorious “Four Seasons” concerti by Antonio Vivaldi.
WSI. Where is it possible to learn this trade?
M. Brighenti: Unlike instruments of the violin family, whose building tradition has never been interrupted since ancient times, the harpsichord's history has a blind spot (the 19th century) in which all trace of the building techniques was lost. This is why there is no modern “building school” akin to that of string instruments. A new interest in harpsichords began to develop at the beginnings of the 20th century, but the early attempts to rebuild them were quite rough and bizarre, producing kinds of plucked pianos. The idea of “imitating” the original instruments came at a later time and, in many aspects, it is still in its developmental phase. Some original instruments may be found in museums or private collections: some of them have come to us in good condition but usually a restoration has to be done in order to make them work again. These are good opportunities for disassembling and studying them, measuring their inner parts, taking pictures and so on. Every restoration contributes in the gathering of important pieces of information about the types of harpsichords, the original structures, the materials used and the musical aesthetics required. For this reason the knowledge of keyboard instruments may be considered a continuous “work in progress”. Learning how to make harpsichords is a very personal process, comprised of studying (restoration reports, organologists articles and technical drawings), of comparisons with other artisans and of interactions with players. I have had the chance to attend seminars and classes about building and restoration, too.
WSI: How can wood processing techniques be learnt?
M. Brighenti: First of all, it is all about understanding that wood is a living material and that no one can dominate it without knowing how to envisage its unpredictable behaviour over the course of time. I personally learnt how to use woodworking machines thanks to a carpenter who took me under his wing. Besides, I read all the relevant literature that I managed to collect, even the 17th e 18th century books about woodworking tools and decoration techniques. Finally, I also learnt a lot from an old furniture restorer who mastered old tools and adhesives perfectly. Meeting this beautiful person gave a vigorous twist to my training process. He made me realise how working by hand could be more satisfactory, versatile and precise than using a machine.
WSI: Is there any modern tool that could facilitate your job?
M. Brighenti: In the past, cutting and truing of raw wood was inevitably done by hand. Modern machines do enable you to save time and money but they have considerable limitations, they lack precision. I opt for combining the quick, unrefined work of a machine tool with the precision and beauty of a subsequent hand-made finishing. A very sharp plane is able to remove superfine wood shavings, as thin as ¼ the thickness of a sheet of normal paper, so that wood can be given the exact dimensions needed with the greatest accuracy. Similarly, the use of old collagen-based glues made from leather or animal bones is extremely useful but it requires a certain amount of expertise. These substances produce strong and lasting adhesives which can be reversible, unglued, in case the instrument ever needs restoring.
WSI: Apart from wood, how many materials do you have to handle?
M. Brighenti: The range of materials used in a workshop such as my own is quite wide: metal, parchment, leather, fabrics, felt. In addition, decorating an instrument with original old techniques implies coming into contact with a very broad range of other fascinating materials: pigments, Arabic gum, natural resins, gold leaf, beeswax, drying oils, essential oils, chalk…
WSI: Has there been any moment of discouragement during your training process?
M. Brighenti: I have not missed out on difficulties and discouragement, especially at the beginning. Everything was a problem, often a challenging one. I remember when my first instrument’s soundboard broke and when I first failed in bending the wood to shape it in a particular way. Obviously each of these moments puzzled me for a while and I used to ask myself whether carrying on with my project made any sense at all. The carpenter as well, the first who taught me how to use woodworking machines, was doubtful at the beginning. That artisan, who learnt the trade when he was a child, used to look at me and shake his head, as if considering my venture desperate for a man in his thirties. It was not very encouraging. He changed his mind when he saw my first instrument completed.
WSI: When did you decide to do this as a job?
M. Brighenti: The moment which definitely marked a turning point was when I asked Trevor Pinnock to test my third instrument, which I built together with my sister and a very close friend of mine, Leonardo (they both worked with me at the time). Pinnock, one of the most eminent harpsichord players and orchestra directors in the world, was in Parma for a concert at that time and he accepted. He was so enthusiastic that he bought my harpsichord in the end. Immediately after that sale, I had another very important buyer, Fabio Biondi, the famous violin player and director of the Europa Galante Baroque ensemble. I think these two early successes helped me to make up my mind and commit myself to the project totally.
WSI: How long does it take to build an instrument?
M. Brighenti: Each instrument requires a different amount of time. Usually it takes from three to six months, even if the decorative part may delay the completion of the work considerably.
WSI: How many kinds of instruments do you build?
M. Brighenti: The harpsichord “family” itself encompasses a varied array of instruments: the Virginal, the Spinet, the Clavicytherium and the Harpsichord in the strict sense of the word. Each of them is different from the other and has been subject to considerable changes in history, depending upon the place and the time of production. Consequently, the range of objects that a harpsichord builder may run into is really wide. I build harpsichords whose mechanical and musical features are very appealing for a modern player but I am always in search of different technical drawings as well, hoping to be commissioned for more uncommon models by some perhaps audacious performers. In any case, my creations are accurate reproductions of the instruments found in museums or private collections and they are assembled with old building techniques. The demand comes mainly from musicians interested in recreating the performance practices of a past era therefore I believe that my duty, as a builder, should be that of reproducing the actions and sonorities of original instruments as faithfully as possible.
WSI: Is the harpsichord market more significant in Italy or abroad?
M. Brighenti: The widest and most notable market is north of the Alps. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Holland, Belgium, England... are nations whose musical culture is much more developed than in Italy. Ancient music there offers interesting job opportunities and it always rewards merit. That environment leads the performers to consider the purchase of a harpsichord not as a mere whim but as an investment for their career. Another interesting market I had the pleasure to discover is the Japanese market. Japan shows a great curiosity and sensitivity towards occidental music and it is starting to gain a good knowledge of the ancient repertoire too.
WSI: Who are the usual buyers?
M. Brighenti: Students, performers, institutions and, sometimes, music amateurs. Each buyer has different requests. Students usually need economical instruments which they can play the widest possible repertoire on. Performers are in search of specific musical and aesthetic features. Recently I sold a harpsichord to the Geneva Haute École de Musique and I had another important experience with institutions, that of restoring a 17th century Virginal for the Superintendency for the Cultural and Artistic Heritage in Florence. I have to admit that my passion for this job being so great, few things are as emotional and moving as making an ancient instrument play again after centuries of silence.
Translation by Elisa Campani, Dominic Eckersley
For further information: www.brighenti-harpsichords.com