8 May 2016

Interview - John Rawson

From The Sunday Feature, 1:50 pm on 8 May 2016

John Rawson interviewed by James Gardner 24 June 2015.
Edited and checked by James Gardner and John Rawson 6 May 2016.

Full transcript of an interview conducted for The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6.

A virginals made by John Rawson. The decoration is done with hand-printed papers.

A virginals made by John Rawson. The decoration is done with hand-printed papers. Photo: John Rawson; used with permission

James Gardner: How did you first meet Thomas Goff?

John Rawson: It was over sixty years ago, but I remember it well – through Ruth Draper.  She was an American actress who was a friend of my mother's, and she used to come to London every summer to give remarkable one-woman shows at the Criterion Theatre.

Then one year, when I was about sixteen, as she gave us her theatre tickets I gave her a fine woolen scarf, which I’d woven on a loom that I’d built myself, and she got the idea that I was skilful with my hands. So she swept me off to see Tom Goff.

Now, Tom didn’t like visitors because he didn’t like being interrupted at his work.  I think he was a bit shy too. He agreed to see me only because I was taken there by Ruth, whom he liked very much. Well, he showed me what he did, and he encouraged me to make a clavichord. He gave me a plan of one and told me where to buy materials, so I started work at home. I didn’t work in his workshop but from time to time I did go there for advice and comments. Eventually I finished it and I took it to his house in a taxi. I can't remember what he said about it, but he encouraged me to start a second one.

This second one was more posh – it was veneered in burr walnut, like many of Tom's instruments. Musically, it was just about usable.  Many years later, after a rebuild, I sold it to Felix Aprahamian. These two clavichords took up a couple of years of my spare time.

When I was 18, I went into the Royal Navy to do my National Service, and after that I went to Cambridge for five years to read architecture.  So making things stopped. Then, after ten years as an architect, I decided to go back to instrument making but by then Tom was no longer working, so I went to the London College of Furniture to learn all the basic skills, as by then there were courses available there. And that’s where I learned how to do it in a really professional way. We were taught all the techniques: cabinet making, veneering, gilding, turning, theory of music, acoustics, instrument regulation, tuning and temperaments and all that. Later, when I was building instruments, I researched their design further, and worked out how to make them louder, and more reliable, and with good tone right to the ends of the keyboard, which is not easy. But if I hadn’t met Tom I wouldn’t have changed my career.

What was Tom's house like?

Ah, it was very big.  He lived in No. 46 Pont Street, near Sloane Square in London. Very close to Harrod’s.  It was a large red-brick terrace house in a semi-Dutch style – very tall and narrow.  It’s still there – you can see it in Google Earth.  On the north side of the road, between the church and the pedestrian crossing. The ground floor was used mostly for storing harpsichords, which he rented out for concerts.  The first floor was let to Lord Waldegrave and his family. I think Tom lived on the second floor. Certainly his workshops were on the third and fourth floors, in attics with sloping walls.

He had a butler, who was called Pink, who lived in the basement. When I went there, Pink opened the front door. He was polite and formal – as butlers were – and he’d direct me upstairs to the workshop.  I never met him on a social basis, as it were. We didn't know at the time, but it was later rumoured that Tom was gay, and that Pink was more than a butler.

There's a nice story about a visitor to Tom’s house: As I said, the first floor was let to Lord Waldegrave and his family. One day someone rang the first-floor front door bell, and a teenage Waldegrave girl answered the door. There was a little old lady there who asked for Tom. The girl said:  “You rang the wrong bell!” and flounced off, just leaving the old lady in the hall.  The following morning Pink appeared at the family breakfast table and said witheringly:

“And WHO let in the Princess Royal?”

Tell me something about Goff's workshop, and his cabinet maker, Cobby.

Well, it was in the attics.  Several rooms. As far as I know, Cobby did all the cabinet making on the keyboard instruments, while Tom did the stringing, tuning, voicing and adjustment, which is a big part of the work. I can’t remember which of them made the soundboards.

There was class distinction in the workshop. In the thinking of those days, Cobby was a ‘workman’ – a hired hand. He always entered the house through the back door. He was a very highly skilled cabinet-maker. He did all the fine veneering and French polishing of the casework, which Tom’s instruments were renowned for. He kept regular hours and didn’t take part in Tom’s social life at all, and he was always called “Cobby”, which was his surname, and many people have wondered what his first name was – it actually seems to have been Joseph. Tom did, however, always credit him on the instruments - which had “TRCG and JCC” on the nameboard.

He was incredibly skilful: he could measure things by feel. When I took my first instrument to Tom to be criticized, Cobby walked into the room carrying a glue pot. As he passed by, he put his thumb and knuckle on the nearest corner of it, as it lay on the bench, and said “It’s not square.” I couldn't believe that he could know that on a touch, so I said “What about the other corners?” He put down the glue pot and walked round. And he said: “That corner is square; that corner is square; that corner is square; but that corner is NOT square.”  I knew he was right, because one of the big pieces of wood I’d used was just a tiny bit curved – it had warped – making one corner scarcely half a degree out. But he could feel it. I thought: “Oh dear, I have got a long way to go.”

He worked in a separate room from Tom. I would go for ‘workshop tea’ and talk to Tom, and Cobby would come in and boil the kettle on a gas ring, make the tea, and take his cup away.

But I did chat to Cobby when I could, because I knew he was incredibly skilful. They were both very kind and helpful to me. And also to other young makers – there were signs in the workshop of other people making guitars and lutes, but I don’t remember meeting them.

Did Goff tell you how he ended up making instruments?

No, he didn’t talk much about his past. He’d been a barrister, and he’d hated it.  No good being a barrister if you’re shy.  Then he’d met someone ­– it may have been Violet Gordon Woodhouse ­– and had fallen in love with the clavichord. So he studied for a while with Herbert Lambert, who taught him a lot, and I think Tom pretty much inherited his designs. He didn’t seem to ever make major changes – though he may have made a few – and his drawings were on sheets of metal, whereas most makers now have rolls of paper drawings. Later, when I got to know them better, Cobby once told me that he himself often made small changes to instruments. If they turned out well, he claimed the credit; but if they didn’t, he kept quiet.

Tom didn’t do much research into original designs as far as I know. Arnold Dolmetsch had been a more notable figure in the field and he had worked more closely to the old designs.  But that was at the end of the nineteenth century.  Looked at from nowadays, Dolmetsch instruments are OK, but they don’t sound that well.

From today's vantage point, how do you view Goff's instruments?

Well, he was a very important figure in the development of the harpsichord. There were two major streams of knowledge about old keyboard instruments in the early part of the 20th century. The first was composed of people who took the view: “If those old makers had known what we now know about making:  new glues, metal frames, etc., etc., they could have made better instruments.” And the second was composed of people who said: “Those old instruments are wonderful – let’s see if by making very close copies of them we can re-construct their sound.” Now at the time, it has to be remembered, there were very few original working harpsichords in existence.  A couple of centuries disuse will have a bad effect on anything mechanical: for instance, a bit of woodworm and they won’t carry the string tension. So it turned out that only a handful in the whole world could be got back into playing order with very little restoration. When it was done, they turned out to sound wonderful.  But the early workers in the 20th century had little to go on.

So it was quite reasonable for Tom to follow the first course of action, and to try to improve on historical designs. But his instruments weren’t very resonant, and it was really not good to have to amplify them for concerts.  So as knowledge progressed, his world was cast aside. This was a pity, because his instruments had an important place in the revival of harpsichord music.  At the time, however, he was immensely successful – his concerts for four harpsichords in the Festival Hall were a fixture on the London music scene in the 1950s.

All Tom's harpsichords were heavily influenced by piano technology – they had cast aluminium frames – and produced rather little sound. But the quality of the sound was good, and when he amplified it – which was done very discreetly – the result was very acceptable.

Tom once said to me that people said of his concerts in the Festival Hall: “Oh, it’s such a pity that they are amplified”, but that after he painted his microphone cable to match the floor, the comments stopped!

In the early days I guess he had little competition – probably mainly the Goble family – and he had the players under his wing – George Malcolm, Valda Aveling, Eileen Joyce, Thurston Dart and so on. That was when I knew him. But twenty years later, when I went back to instrument making, things had changed. Tom had retired, and the whole field was much bigger: lots of people had made instruments that were close copies of originals and they were lighter, cheaper, louder and sounded better, and there was no doubt about the direction makers should follow.  After all, in the past musical instruments were developed over centuries, and no-one could short-circuit that.  Re-discovering how to do it would take longer than one person could do in a lifetime.  But when a number of makers got onto it they made a lot of progress. And they were finding that the old ways of making were actually better than new ways.  For instance: some parts of the action – the jacks and registers, in particular – are extremely hard to make.  And some materials were hard to find. Consequently, many makers now use Delrin, which is a plastic. And Tom had used commercially available music wire, but later we had brass wire of special alloys made by specialist harpsichord-wire makers.  And as the length of the wire you need for a particular note depends on the breaking stress of the piece of wire concerned, this matters a lot.  The right wire sounds different.

What particular qualities do condor quills have?

Well firstly, they’re big. You need the middle of the flight feather, where the feather is strong. So you strip off the sides and you cut off the end, and you cut the core shaft of the feather into strips and cut little pieces about half an inch long. And you can’t use the bottom of the feather where it’s hollow, and you can’t use the top where it’s too thin, and you can only use the middle. And condor feathers have an awful lot of middle. You can probably do most of one rank of jacks with one or two condor feathers. If you use Bronze turkey, which is much the same – well, it’s not quite as strong – there’s much less of it than a 14” feather. It’s only going to give you 2” or 3” of useable shaft of the feather. And if you use smaller feathers, you might only get one or two quills out of a feather. So you want the biggest feathers you can find. Maybe eagles and things would do, but you can’t get these things on the market! [laughs]

Does anybody use condor quills these days?

 Not as far as I know, no. Tom was the only maker working at the time, and he had a hotline to the keeper at the zoo and that was that. I couldn’t get condor feathers, and I had to negotiate with people who succeeded in finding Bronze turkey feathers. What would happen would be a maker would find somebody who had some and he’d buy a sackful and share them out with other makers. And then when he went there a year later he couldn’t get any more. So we’re always looking around for Bronze turkey feathers. And that was why people went to Delrin, which strangely enough sounds much the same and is much quicker to fit because the stuff is manufactured and fits the jacks exactly.

Were you aware of Goff’s aristocratic background?

Yes, he was clearly very aristocratic, so he must have had money to live in that place. Harpsichord-making must really have been a hobby for him. And I don’t think he sold very many instruments because they took a hugely long time to make and he had five or six of them in his house and he rented them out. So they would obviously have been extremely expensive to sell. And I don’t think many people bought them. On the other hand he sold quite a number of his clavichords and they lurked around in a number of peoples’ houses. Some of them had been painted by…one of them was painted by Rex Whistler, the well-known painter. I think it was stolen…I don’t know what happened to it. But his clavichords were very nice – no metal frames or anything. They were more like the original old instruments.

Have they been viewed more kindly than his harpsichords?

I should think probably, yes. I mean the two that I made to his designs were perfectly acceptable instruments – well they would have been if I’d made them really well. Because as I say, I rebuilt the second one – I put in a new soundboard and things like that. Making soundboards is a lot of the skill of a harpsichord-maker. You have to arrange the thickness of the soundboard and the bars on the back of it so that it vibrates at all the frequencies that the strings make. And that’s not easy to do. In the treble of the soundboard it has to be very light and very stiff, so it’s about 1½, 2mm thick and it has tiny, tiny bars on the back to make it stiff. And then down at the bass end it’s thicker. More like 2 or 3mm thick and the bridge is heavy and it has some quite big bars and there it’s more flexible and more heavy. I used to test them – which I’m sure Tom never did – I used to scatter dust or grit or sugar or something on the board and vibrate it electronically at different frequencies, and the sugar would form Chladni patterns on the surface of the soundboard and you could see where it was vibrating, and you would try and make sure that it vibrated at a lot of different frequencies. A bad soundboard would only vibrate at a very small number of frequencies. But I don’t think Tom ever tested anything. Mostly harpsichord-making worked on the basis of sort of old wives’ tales – people did it according to what their masters had told them to do. And they would knock soundboards with their knuckles and say ‘yes’, you know, ‘I think that’ll be alright’. But it usually wasn’t.

Back to The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6

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