8 May 2016

Interview - Paul Downie

From The Sunday Feature, 1:40 pm on 8 May 2016

Paul Downie interviewed by James Gardner 22 September 2015.

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

James Gardner: When did you first encounter this Goff harpsichord?

Paul Downie: The first time I saw that Goff was when it was in Dunbar Sloane’s and it was to be auctioned. I think Peter Averi had asked me to come and have look at it for somebody he knew. And I went and looked at it and said “well, you know it’s a bit of a rare beast. If you want it, basically you’re going to put in a bid for it.” But I didn’t hear any more. And the next thing I found out was that the Nicolson family had bought the harpsichord and they were very keen to get it restored. That came about through Douglas Mews, who knew the Nicolsons and they’d asked him who would be good to do it. So he suggested me and I had a look at it and it was…it’s a little bit of an unusual instrument in that it’s not a classical harpsichord – it’s got lots of pedals and leather plectra and all sort of things that are not part of the classical harpsichord. Anyway, it was such a magnificent piece of work I felt it deserved the best treatment possible

Were you aware of Goff harpsichords before?

Yes. Only from reading – I’d never actually seen one in the flesh. It’s the only one in this part of the world. I don’t think there are any in Australia*. I think it had quite an important place in New Zealand’s musical history in many respects because it arrived in 1956. It wasn’t the first harpsichord here, but it was certainly one of the early ones. There was an Alec Hodsdon instrument from 1952 that the University of Auckland used to have. And that was another of these enormous English harpsichords with seven pedals and 16’ strings and all those wonderful things

[*A Goff harpsichord had been purchased at some point by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, but was eventually returned to Peter Groome, a former assistant of Goff’s, in the UK. More information on this instrument would be welcomed!]

When you first saw it at Dunbar Sloane did you get a chance to assess it?

Yes, it was possible to take some of it apart and have a look at it. It was quite clear it needed a lot of work. It hadn’t been worked on for years. It was sort of semi-playing, and it had a wonderful kind of sonorous, rich sound. But it turns out that the chap who was interested in looking at it when I went to Dunbar Sloane didn’t end up with the instrument. But I think it’s gone to the right owner. I mean, Donald’s completely passionate about that harpsichord – he loves it.

From what you’re saying it sounds like you’re not a purist

I’m not sniffy about it. I mean, I suppose I’m a purist where harpsichords are concerned. But one can just as easily be a purist about the revival harpsichords of the 20th century and say “well these are really quite magnificently-built things and we should respect the makers and try and do the instrument justice”. That’s something it deserves, as part of the whole early music revival and all this kind of thing.

Donald talked a lot about The Beast needing a lot of maintenance, particularly with the leather plectra…

Yes. We did a couple of restorations in fact. In the first one I went right through the whole instrument, and there are five ranks, so that’s five times sixty-one jacks, all with leather plectra. And it’s a very big job, releathering a harpsichord. First of all you’ve got to cut the leather so that it will fit into the hole in the jack and then very carefully manipulate that with a scalpel. And if you take off a tiny bit too much then you’ve got to start the whole thing over again etc., etc. It takes ages to do and the end result is not terribly reliable because of humidity changes and this sort of thing.

The releathering worked pretty well for a while but Donald eventually found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep it playing well. And I said to him well, the only way we can really make this reliable is to change to Delrin plectra, which is the modern DuPont plastic that’s used almost universally in harpsichords as a plectrum material. It’s really very good and reliable. So I said to him that’s one thing we could try and he said “let’s do it!” So I then requilled all the jacks – again. And it was instantly successful. I expected that the sound would be a little bit metallic-sounding. I’ve done this operation before on other revival harpsichords and the end result’s not been particularly nice. But this one really seemed to respond incredibly well. It didn’t seem to produce any unpleasant sounds with the plastic plectrum material. It turned out to be very successful.

The other thing that had to be done…when I rebuilt it, the 16’ strings were basically made like piano bass strings. They had a steel core and they were overspun, but in the case of the Goff harpsichord, the wires were incredibly fine – the overspinning wire was about .12mm up to .19, I think. I got some spinning brass from England and made these strings which were about 1200mm long and you can easily work out how many turns that is [10,000] if you close-wind .12. Thousands of turns of wire. It took ages to spin them. And the problem was that the overspinning wire was so fine that they failed in much the same way that the originals had, because the fine covering wire, as soon as it breaks, it loses its grip on the core wire and the string just goes dull and produces a very unsatisfactory sound.

I take it overspinning was not done on early harpsichords.

No. No it wasn’t.

That’s a piano technology.

Yes, it is, and actually an early piano technology too. I mean, they were overspinning strings in the late 18th century, but usually they were open-wound, so that there would be like a spiral of wire wrapped round the core just to add a bit of extra mass so you could get the lower frequencies sounding truer. But generally speaking, harpsichords did not have overspun strings. The bass strings were long enough to be able to deal with just being plain wire and get a very good sound – a really nice focused sound with a lot of fundamental and all the things that you want with harpsichord sound. So when we requilled the harpsichord with Delrin, I said to Donald “let’s just take some measurements”, and we measured the scaling of the 16’ ranks of strings and I said to him “I think we could probably restring this with plain brass wire.” And we worked out a stringing schedule for stringing the 16’ register in brass.

When you say ‘schedule’…?

The diameters…the range of diameters for that 16’ stop – where they change diameter and so on. So starting off with, from memory, I think about .3mm brass going down to about .6, something like that. Without referring to notes I can’t say exactly. But there was a range of wires. And it was just a total success. The 16’ ended up being a beautiful-sounding register. It sounded almost like some of those lovely Flemish virginals and it was possible to voice it quite quietly. But the effect of the 16’ was to reinforce the two 8’ stops just wonderfully, and produce this incredible richness, which astounded both of us, really – we were surprised that the harpsichord had so much in it to give. It was hugely successful. So the strings will never go dull – they’ll perform perfectly unless they break, which is unlikely.

Coming back to the leather plectra – were they lacquered to make them harder?

No. It’s basically shoe-sole leather*. It’s good tough stuff. It’s one of those materials…when you voice the register with leather and start playing on it you think ‘”wow, this is really good – why did they not continue with this?” And then the problems start to emerge bit by bit…

[*According to Goff’s 1969 taped reminiscences, he used “a very hard oak-tanned leather.”]

Because it only stays good for a very short time?

Mmm. Does. Yeah – and the tip of the plectrum, which is working very hard, you know, plucking the string – although you might not think so – there is an awful lot of working of those fibres at the tip of the plectrum and they seem to sort of lose their strength, and their ability to recover after being plucked umpteen times. And then the ends will fall off and you have to try and move the plectrum into engagement a little bit more with the string. And that’s only temporary. So I think while it’s not being totally true to Goff’s original plan, with leather plectra and overspun 16’ strings, the end result is an instrument that’s a lot more reliable and useable.

Did you find evidence of Goff’s condor quills as plectra?

There was no quill in it, no. The other stop, which I didn’t mention – the fifth rank of jacks – was the so-called lute stop.  This is a rank of jacks that runs sort of obliquely across the wrest plank and plucks very close to the nut so you get a very nasal sound – it’s a really good sound too. And the original material on that appeared to be whale bone. And I know that has been used before – baleen or something, which is pretty interesting.

I know Donald was saying that he had to go through quite a big rigmarole to get it exported because of the exotic timber and ivory…

Yes, massive solid ivory sharps – such extravagance! [laughs]

Somebody had a supply…?

Oh they must have. Yeah, because I mean piano keyboards – the ivory is a veneer and it’s a 16th of an inch thick, maximum. But these things were great solid blocks of ivory. Just amazing.

So you were able to work on all this in conjunction with Donald. But from your own point of view were there new challenges that the Goff threw up for you?

I think it was all fairly…well…it didn’t throw up any major challenges. I think the solving the business with the 16’ register was a good thing and the requilling was good. Otherwise the main challenge is keeping it in a good state of regulation. Makers in the early 20th century had a tendency to make things far too complicated. And they would take the keyboards and devise these very complicated manual coupler mechanisms, which are just a pain in the neck. This one had these little tappets that were set in a bar that was rotated so that they would be standing vertically and that allowed the keyboards to be coupled. And when it was uncoupled it was turned so that they were sitting horizontally and not connecting the two keyboards together. Maintaining that in a good state of regulation was a problem. All the pivot points were all potentially problems because of the friction.  So the thing would come on, and then it wouldn’t turn off properly. And then to solve that problem you then had to take all the jacks out, remove the keyboards – again – which was very, very time-consuming. To dismantle it all just to fix a very, very simple thing. So I think eventually we got it working quite well. We only did that once or twice, actually, with the manual coupler – “alright we’ve got to nail this – this has got to work perfectly on the bench before it goes back in the instrument” otherwise we’ll be going through that again. And Donald was very good – he got very good at taking all the jacks out and…

He got his hands dirty.

He certainly did, yeah. And then the…normally on a harpsichord jack, at the top of the jack, there’s a slot cut in the wood and a piece of felt is wedged into that and that becomes the damper. Not on a Goff harpsichord. It’s got a brass bracket, which is screwed to the side of the jack and the damper is crimped into that brass thing. So to change those is a mission in itself. And when that’s been done a few times then the screw that holds the bracket on the jack – the hole gets chewed out and the screw won’t hold properly. So there were quite a few of those that needed repairing. It just goes on and on.

Presumably the half-hitches were quite tricky to sort out.

Those, I think, are more successful when you’ve got Delrin plectra but with leather plectra to get the half-stops working is incredibly difficult. I mean it’s a lovely idea, to be able to put it on half-pedal and get a pianissimo to create these lovely dynamics. I think on some of those old Landowska recordings, where she’s playing on her big Pleyel harpsichord ­­– she achieves that. But they must have had a full-time technician, I would say, to keep these instruments going.

Was Cobby’s cabinetry in good condition?

Generally pretty good, yes. It was. Beautifully done – wonderful marquetry. Beautifully-laid veneers and all that sort of stuff. Very, very good bit of workmanship. And the cast frames too, they were quite nice. Beautifully cast aluminium frame, painted gold – doesn’t look like aluminium. Some of the revival instruments used duralumin, which was a very low-expansion aluminium alloy, in order to get round the temperature issue, which puts harpsichords out of tune very quickly. I don’t know if this one is duralumin, but it’s certainly an aluminum alloy of some sort.

Do you think the decline of the Goff at Radio New Zealand was down to the difficulties with maintaining it mechanically?

That would be one of the things. And when it arrived in 1956, that was the pinnacle of revival harpsichords. But at that point too, people like Martin Skowroneck in Germany and other makers in America like [Frank] Hubbard and [William] Dowd and people like that were starting to look at harpsichords from the 18th century and earlier, and thinking “gee, this is the way to do it – why on earth did they ignore these instruments?”. And so the [historical] harpsichord revival started in the early ‘50s. So what happened is that the rise of the classical instrument was on the up and the decline of the 20th century harpsichord was becoming quite obvious at that point, I think.

So it was more to do with the combination of revival harpsichords going out of fashion as well as the difficulty in maintaining them.

Very much so, and it just didn’t figure in music any more. Very sad. Apparently Goff threw himself out of his upstairs apartment window. For whatever reason.

I don’t really know much about him – the only photo I’ve ever seen of him is the one you sent me….I pinned that into my copy of Grove’s.

What’s your general opinion of the makers of revival harpsichords?

I think it’s amazing, really. I think it’s fantastic. They were very courageous because at the time I think they were probably viewed a little bit as nutters, in kind of a way. But there were a lot of very serious makers. Alec Hodsdon was another one. There was another Gough as well – he made fortepianos in the immediate pre-war period as well as after the war. He was [Hugh] G-o-u-g-h. Actually I have a very interesting recording of the C.P.E. Bach concerto made in about 1953 with a Goff harpsichord and a Gough fortepiano. On the record the harpsichord’s described as a Kirkman copy by Thomas Goff and the fortepiano is a Stein copy made by Hugh Gough. That’s 1953, so they were obviously thinking “gosh we really ought to try and do this music in a more authentic way”.

Goff’s harpsichords were supposedly modelled on a Kirkman instrument – but it’s clear that they bear little resemblance to such things.

It’s all in the cabinetry. You stand back and look at a Goff harpsichord and you think “ah yes, I can see that that …it looks a little bit like a Kirkman harpsichord”. The proportions are all wrong, and as you say, when you look inside it’s just so unlike a Kirkman harpsichord. But that was his interpretation of it.

So it’s just from a cosmetic point of view.

Very much so. Yep.

The first revival makers –were they effectively improvising with the then-new technology, on a loose historical  template?

I think they were. Because I think when Dolmetsch started making harpsichords in the 1890s he was able to walk down to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington and look at these wonderful instruments – Ruckers instruments, early Italian instruments and so on. But he totally ignored them. He went home and made his own version. The same thing with the clavichords. You know, there were some wonderful examples of German clavichords in that collection. [laughs] It’s astounding, really!

Were they playable in those days?

That’s a good question. I don’t know – possibly not.

So they were using historical instruments as a sort of visual style guide rather than examining the original mechanisms and materials?

Mmmm. I’ve got quite an interesting article somewhere from a magazine of 1905. It’s an article about the harpsichord and clavichord. And it’s quite clear that they knew all about Taskin and all those famous makers.

But the notion was “we’re in the 20th century…”

“We’re in the 20th century, this is what piano builders have been doing lately – obviously all this stuff is an improvement and a development over what went before, so let’s incorporate the best of the new piano technology and improve the harpsichord!” [laughs]

Did you have any trouble with the 4’ register on the Goff?

The only trouble with that is trying to change a string on it, because it’s right at the bottom. It’s underneath the 16’ and two 8’ranks – that’s right down below –and getting a new string on there is extremely difficult. Otherwise I think the 4’ is perfectly fine, and string breakages are almost unheard of on those instruments because they were using very, very high-tensile steel strings. A bit like fine spring-wire, really.

What would have been a more ‘authentic’ material?

What was used on old harpsichords – ‘real’ harpsichords, pre-1800 harpsichords – was soft iron. And they could get away with using soft iron because the scaling of the strings was a lot shorter, than on these revival instruments. For example Goff’s C above middle C would be about 38cm long. On a classical harpsichord it would be about 32. So there you could use a much softer material and tune it up to the same pitch…but as soon as you increase the speaking length and still want that same pitch, the tension goes way up so the material has to be much stronger, have a higher tensile strength. It’s the same with pianos – they have a much longer string scale.

And in order to deal with the tension need a stronger frame.

Yes, and I think that’s probably why Goff put aluminium frames in his harpsichords too, because the tension was so much greater.

In what way would you say the metal frame changes the sound of the instrument?

It gives you a lot of sustain. A great deal of sustain. The sound on that harpsichord of Donald’s just goes on and on and on. You know, you play a chord and it just rings and rings and rings. It makes it difficult to damp the notes as well. On the older instruments, with a faster decay, it’s easier to start and stop the sound. And to get better articulation and so on. The Goff is very much a legato instrument – it’s almost like an organ, really.

Donald transcribed some French Baroque organ pieces and he said they worked really well on the Goff because its decay is so long.

From your point of view the seven pedals must represent another mechanical difficulty…

There’s a huge number of linkages, and they do funny things. With a classical harpsichord you turn the register on by pushing the register into the ‘on’ position. On the Goff when you turn the register you have to…it’s a bit hard to describe. There’s a spring that pushes the register to the ‘on’ position, and the spring is allowed to push it to the ‘on’ position when the lever releases the register and allows it to move.

So there’s another extra layer of complication in between.

There is. Yes. So there’s a pedal to operate the manual coupler, and there’s one to operate the buff stop – which is the row of little pads that damp the strings and produce a sort of lute effect. There’s another one for the lute stop itself; 16’, 4’…, and I think the two 8’s as well. I think all of the ranks could all be turned on and off, and then there was the addition of the buff stop, and the lute stop and the coupler.

And then there’s the complication of the half-hitch.

That’s right – and then the complication of the half-hitch!

Donald did a concert in Wellington Town Hall with the harpsichord, and when we moved it I put it back on its stand, which has all the pedals and the all push-rods that operate. It had to be adjusted again when it got to the Town Hall. And then when it got back to his place after the concert, the same thing. So it was quite an interesting thing. You spend a lot of time lying on the floor on your back sort of twiddling screws and things.

These are instruments that aren’t really designed to be moved.

No, I think set it up at home and try not to move it…

And yet they were used in those Festival Hall multiple harpsichord concerts in 1950s…

I think he kept most of the harpsichords he built, didn’t he?

It looks like only 13 – around that number. So Donald’s instrument is one of only 13.

I think Donald was saying that Goff had this plan to put one of his harpsichords in every country of the British Empire  – that was his master plan. [laughs] Never quite succeeded.

Do you think that at the moment there’s a bit of a revival of revival harpsichords?

I think there is. And there’s a lot of 20th Century repertoire that is perfect on those instruments. There’s Ligeti and Poulenc, Carter, Xenakis

There’s a lot of music that is totally appropriate for that instrument. So I think it’ll hold its own happily. Among those people who know what these instruments are all about – they have a place. Whereas I think 40 years ago they would have been happily dumped!

What’s your opinion on the pros and cons of real quill versus Delrin?

I think real quill sounds better. Simple as that. [laughs] It does. Any material you pluck a string with…the different materials will always produce a different sound. I think the bird quill picks the string up, holds on to it and it releases it in quite a different way from this very slick, slippery modern plastic.

So there’s a difference in the attack transient.

Very much so. Yes. It’s a bit like the way the sound stops on fortepianos. You know, if you put leather dampers on them, which is what they should have, the sound stops in a completely different way from modern piano felt.

You mean the felt dampens the sound more completely, more quickly?

Yes, it does, and it produces quite a different sound when a leather damper hits the strings. Felt is incredibly smooth – it sort of smothers the sound, just sort of shuts it off so smoothly and quietly you’re not left with this…well it’s almost like the reverse of the attack, in a way, the damping on an old fortepiano with the leather.

So when you release the key there’s more of an articulation.

Yes. That’s right.

Do you see yourself going back to Donald’s Goff and doing more work on it?

As long as Donald is keen for me to come and work on it, there will always be something to do. [laughs]. That applies to any instrument – if you want to keep them working really well it takes a lot of time to keep them absolutely right up there. But he’s quite good, you know – he’s quite good at voicing these days. He’s quite happy to get his scalpel out. I suppose the only thing you could do to that would be to put real quill in it. And that would definitely improve the sound. It would be more work again to keep it regulated. One of the harpsichords I built for the University of Auckland has quilled plectra.

As opposed to Delrin.

Yes. And I built a new harpsichord for Douglas [Mews]. His is quilled throughout.

With Bronze turkey feathers?

I used turkey that was available locally. I think the birds are too lazy, though, so the feathers – the material – is not very strong. But what I’ve found works really well is gannet quill from the West coast. You can wander down Muriwai beach, just go for a walk and come back with a fistful of feathers

How many plectra do you get out of one of those?

Quite a few – at least half a dozen.

From each feather?

Yes. In fact they’re all over the bench – left over from…

I thought you were using them to write [laughs]

I did try that – it’s not very good – have you ever tried it? No, they’re terrible. You start off with a huge blob of ink and it tails off really quickly. I don’t know how anybody wrote with them!

Back to The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes