Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0057, April 21, 2015


Unexpected Grace

Copyright 2015 by S. W. Paul Wyszkowski

     This Zuckermann/Wyszkowski baroque Italian harpsichord was built in three days and nights one long weekend in 1979 by S. W. Paul Wyszkowski, then a chemical engineer (by default, not having been trained in any other trade). Of course it was built from a kit (by the excellent harpsichord designer and builder Zuckermann) and it was at least a couple of weeks before it was strung, tuned and voiced.

     From the beginning, this was one loud instrument. Not the gentle tinkling we tend to associate with harpsichords but an assertive voice that was almost shrill. I always felt it was too loud. And on a harpsichord there is no way to change the volume - it is what it is. From my experience as a string instrument builder (classical guitars - as a self-taught amateur though I did get some guidance from several master luthiers) I judged that the small size of the soundboard and its high stiffness and lightness were chiefly responsible for the fierce voice.

     Also, the soundboard came pre-cracked. According to the Zuckermann people, this in no way affected the sound. Well, perhaps not at first. However, this harpsichord was destined to lead a complicated and difficult life which involved much travel and storage in less than optimal conditions. Long story short, thirty six years later the sound board was not only cracked but distorted - twisted out of shape where the crack allowed the wood to move as it wished. This did not improve the sound and ultimately the warp caused the soundboard to come so close to the strings that they would touch it when sounded. This made the harpsichord unplayable. Something had to be done.

     At first I tried weighing the soundboard down with a heavy weight on stilts that contacted the soundboard between strings. This actually worked but it was not practical as a permanent solution. (Curiously, weighing down the soundboard did not change the tone at all). I hoped the weight would, after time, re-warp the soundboard to its original shape but after a year with the weight on, it only took a few weeks for the soundboard to pop back up once the weight was off.

     Next, I drilled a hole in the bottom of the harpsichord, put a large brass washer across the warped crack and anchored a piece of brass wire to it the other end of which I anchored under the harpsichord. Then I tensioned the wire to pull the soundboard away from the strings. This worked very well and appears to be a practical and permanent fix (see the picture below). But imagine my astonishment when I discovered that since this procedure the tone of the harpsichord has greatly improved - it is less strident, more musical, more harpsichord-like.

     Evidently, now that the soundboard is mechanically linked to the bottom of the harpsichord case this has put a damper on its strident response which is just what was needed. It is a pleasure to play. And if it hadn't been for that cracked and warped soundboard it would still be its original shrill self. "An amazing story," says Prickles. Thank you, I was afraid you'd be bored.

Copyright 2015 by S. W. Paul Wyszkowski

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