An Evening of Glorious Music in Northleach
CHRIS COOKE '76 & THE HARPSICHORD THAT WAS BORN IN PORTSMOUTH
In the summer of 1975 as I was swanning around the Allenhurst Beach Club as a 16-year-old cabana boy, I knew I had two important decisions looming: which universities I would apply to and, more importantly, which would have me, and secondly, what was I going to do for my Sixth Form project? I knew the two might impact each other but little did I know I was about to make a decision, which would partially define my life for the next 40+ years.
Having always been interested in music but, unfortunately, not very good at seriously playing an instrument, I thought, “What can I do that will capture the music theme but not be too impossible to achieve?” And then it hit me. Build a harpsichord!
I had started some initial research on this idea a year prior because of my love of baroque music and knew that the only way to go was to build a Zuckermann harpsichord from a kit. I knew about the Zuckermann factory in Stonington, CT, from my conversations with Father Ambrose who had always been my musical inspiration at Portsmouth and a mentor. On a visit to a friend’s house one weekend with my good pal and housemate Chris Ferrone, we went to the Zuckermann factory on a rainy Sunday without any idea if it would be open.
The factory itself is a nondescript two-story building that had been founded as Zuckermann’s second home after it outgrew its originnal Greenwich Village origins. They specialised in building harpsichords, clavichords and spinets, restoring instruments and devising kits for harpsichord enthusiasts to try their own hand at making.
After just a few short years the Zuckermann name because synonymous with the revival of these fabulous keyboard instruments as well as beautifully designed replica kits.
We parked outside the building, and several of us peered through the small windows, looking for any signs of life. Then a small face popped up and beckoned us to come to the door. I know I’m embroidering this somewhat but this old gentleman who let us in looked very much like Ben Franklin – fabulous shiny dome with wispy long hair to his shoulders, small round glasses at the tip of his nose. He looked us over and said “How can I help?” I said “I’m thinking of building a harpsichord and knew this was the place to come.”
He said “Follow me,” and took us through the showroom with new instruments, and around the design area where they make the kits. He showed us the drawings of the most popular design at that time, the Andreas Ruckers Flemish single-manual built almost to the exact specs of the original 18th-century design, with only the substitution of plastic jacks for the original wooden ones.
He then took us to the room where they restore older instruments
and showed us a particular clavichord from the early 1700s, which he himself was restoring. As he carefully lifted up the soundboard to this ancient and beautiful work of art, he said, “Now look at the writing inside the soundboard and around the inner cavity. Can you see what it says?” It was the signature of the builder, plus brief notes from the builder’s apprentices and friends who had helped him on the project, preserved for us to look at almost 250 years after the soundboard had been sealed into the instrument.
We were frozen. It was something truly magical and unexpected, completely unplanned but, for us, a gift to meet this man and see this particular instrument.
I decided that summer of 1975 I would approach my parents with this proposal, which naturally needed funding. And, by the way, the cost was not cheap. A kit at that time cost about $600. After some convincing and massive promises on my part to complete the project, and being affronted by their obvious doubts about my being able to carry this off, my
parents reluctantly agreed.
I had an equally challenging time convincing Father Ambrose and Father Gregory. But I prevailed, promising them I would not leave a pile of wood for the bonfire. I finished that summer job, returning to Portsmouth in the first week of September anxiously awaiting the arrival of the kit.
I think I was lounging in the inner courtyard of St. Bedes (now gone!) when I got the call from an out-of-breath Third Former who had run down from the administration building to tell me that my delivery had arrived. Well, we all tore up to the drop-off area, and it was a daunting sight. There must have been 30 or more odd boxes of things lined up on the School’s main drive – all sizes and shapes from six feet to minuscule. Father Ambrose had agreed to allocate a room for me in the music department for the project. With that, several members of the various Forms helped me bring the boxes down the long, dreary basement steps to the music rooms.
Those rooms would become my headquarters, if not dungeon, for the next nine months until the birth of the harpsichord. There were moments of joy, moments of strife and moments of sheer madness as I cursed to myself as to how I would get through this project. Father Ambrose had insisted that I enlist a local advisor with some experience with this type of project, and together we found Glenn Giutarri, a music professor and harpsichord enthusiast who had graduated from Brown (and now heads the Harpsichord Clearing House) and who would provide me with sanity checks and much needed shortcuts on woodcraft from time to time. But the deal was that I had to hammer every nail on my own to make this creation come to life.
I can’t take you through all the stories. I can’t take you with me down to the depths of despair I felt when I found I had installed one of the braces backwards, or when I knew I had to drill more than 400 holes precisely to hold the strings and the pegs so that the jacks would hit them properly, or when I had to do countless other small procedures that my lack of training made even more daunting. But I will tell you one or two anecdotes that have outlived the agony. When it came time to put my soundboard in and seal it for its life, I recalled the magical little man from Stonington and the impact of seeing who had written inside that instrument so long ago. I then asked all my friends and classmates who had helped in any way, including Father Ambrose, to write a note in the soundboard. Those notes are still there. We sealed up the keyboard with the nameboard and carried the harpsichord up to the reception rooms in the administration building the night before the project was due. I can remember carrying the completed harpsichord up the long steps that I had climbed so many times dreading what was waiting for me. But now on that warm May evening before midnight l was carrying it with class-
mates and friends, and it was finished!
During graduation weekend Bill Buckley, the guest speaker and an avid harpsichordist, knocked the hell out of the newly tuned harpsichord with a mind-blowing Scarlatti piece. He pronounced the harpsichord “acceptable, if in need of voicing”! We all breathed a sigh of relief. My harpsichord has been a companion for the last 4-plus decades, during my Georgetown years, and while I lived and worked in the States in the 80s. And did it help with that GU acceptance? Well, I certainly didn’t get in because of my board scores! The harpsichord came with Lesley and me to England in 1990 and has been in our homes in the UK ever since. It’s passage over the Atlantic saw a few bumps, so we’ve had the instrument tightened up and painted black on the exterior now, although you may re- member it as red while at Portsmouth.
I’ve continued to stay close to music, although as I said earlier, never as a serious player, but now as an amateur promoter instead. The harpsichord has been featured in concerts in my home and local church, mostly played by a wonderful local harpsichordist and music historian, Stephen Devine. It was featured last year in a concert with Emma Kirkby and will be featured again this June at the Cotswold Festival of Music, which I’ve organised here in the Cotswolds to celebrate high end music, mostly from the Baroque period and played in our local churches.
I look back at that time in 1975 and 1976 and marvel at the encouragement and guidance I received from people like Headmaster Father Gregory and my mentor, Father Ambrose, and Glenn. I also think about my housemates and friends from Portsmouth in those years and thank them for their unwavering help and support. I could not have finished the harpsichord without them.
That harpsichord born in Portsmouth in 1976 is now happily residing in the library of the Old Rectory, which is our house that was built in 1788. It holds a story within it that may be unsealed at some point in the future, but hopefully long after I’m gone.