A Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord, originally a transposing harpsichord made in Antwerp in 1617, and then ravalé in Paris in 1750 by François Étienne Blanchet, and then in stages by Jacques Barberini, Paris, c.1775 and by Nicolas Hoffman, 1786.



Some problems of restoration ethics applied to early keyboard instruments

and to the Franco-Flemish harpsichord in particular.


          Some of the problems and situations faced by the modern harpsichord restorer are discussed elsewhere on this site including the question of whether an instrument should even be restored at all.   Have a look at: Owner's guidelines before restoration is begun and To restore or not to restore??



          The (at one time considered) authoritative work on the restoration of musical instruments is the 1967 publication by Alfred Berner, J.H. van der Meer and G. Tibault-de Chambure, Preservation and Restoration of Musical Instruments, Provisional Recommendation, (The International Council of Museums, Evelyn, Adams & Mackay, London, 1967).  Several subsequent publications have appeared since this early date.

          One of the basic tenets of the ethical restoration of musical instruments put forward in these works is that one should aim to restore the instrument to its last state of historical use.  This, in general, means two things:

  1. Any accretions added to an instrument after the historical period such as lead weights in keylevers, soundbars under the soundboard, or the use of any modern material such as plastic, piano felts, leather plectra, etc that would not or could not have been used in the historical period should be removed.  By implication, the same would normally apply to any later decorations or changes to the appearance of the instrument.

  2. Although many instruments have been altered from their original state during the historical period, no attempt should be made to return the instrument to its original state.  It is the last historical state that should be considered in the restoration. This would mean, for example, that a Ruckers harpsichord which has undergone a petit ravalement or a grand ravalement should not be returned to its original width, compass, disposition and decoration.  To do so would mean that the history of the instrument which is so important to our understanding of musical style and performance practice in the intervening historical period is destroyed and a great deal of information is lost in the process.

          The reasons for following these basic ethical principles are very clear.  For instruments which ceased being used, at least for a time after the historical period, the principle to be followed is to restore the instruments back to their most recent historical state without, at the same time, losing information about the transformations carried out to them in the historical period.  The reason for doing this is that we do not want to lose information which informs us about their use throughout history.  The problem is that musical instruments take many different forms, and what might apply to one instrument type, may not apply to another.



          Because of these differences, I want here to restrict myself to the restoration of early keyboard instruments:  harpsichords, virginals, spinets, clavichords and early pianos.  These instruments have four different aspects when it comes to restoration, each of which in a way has to be treated separately:

  1. The musical aspect:  the compass, disposition, string scalings, plucking points, quill material and stringing material.

  2. The acoustical aspect:  the soundboard material and its properties (especially its stiffness determined mostly by the thickness), the soundboard area as distributed by the maker in each part of the compass, the bridge materials and the bridge tapering, the barring under the soundboard and the physical mass of the soundboard and bridges.

  3. The mechanical aspect:  the keys and keylevers and how they are balanced, the weight and construction of the jacks, and the system of coupling the registers and the guiding the jacks.  In addition, the function and operation of the genouillère, stop levers and the keylever or register coupling system need to be added to the list of the mechanical aspects which may have been altered since the historical period of use. 

  4. The decorative aspect:  the painted surfaces, the veneered surfaces, inlay, marquetry, mouldings, soundboard rosettes, decorative buttons or inlay, and such features as keywell scrolls, decorative metalwork, etc.

           I know of no other field of restoration that brings together such a wide range of different aspects - each with its own problems - as is faced by the restorer of early keyboard instruments.  Because of the passage of time during a period of at least 200 years since these instruments were used in the historical period, it seems to me that it is impossible that one single unifying principle can apply to all of these different aspects of the restoration of an historical keyboard instrument.

            How, then can I, as an ethical restorer, hope to go forward and still maintain these generally-accepted principles



          For the Franco-Flemish harpsichord, the 'last state of historical use' principle poses a number of problems to the decorative and to the musical, acoustical and mechanical parts of the restoration.  How can this single principle be applied to the specific case of this particular instrument in all of its complexities?  Some of the problems for this instrument are outlined below:

  1. The musical aspect:  the history of the compass and, to a certain extent, the disposition are fairly clear and so there were few difficulties encountered restoring this aspect of the instrument.

  2. The acoustical aspect:  nothing has been replaced regarding the soundboard and the bridges so these can be left alone entirely.  However, numerous bars had been added underneath the soundboard which were increasing the stiffness of the soundboard.  These were all removed in the current restoration in order to return the acoustical aspect of the instrument to its 1786 state.

  3. The mechanical aspect:  The genouillère added by Nicolas Hoffman in 1786 should, ideally, be reconstructed for the present restoration so that it could be returned to this, its last state of historical use.  However, there is no surviving instrument either by Hoffman, nor which has an added genouillère by Hoffman.  Indeed among the small number of surviving harpsichords with a genouillère, there is none with a mechanism, like that the Franco-Flemish harpsichord must have had, that was contained entirely within the keywell of the instrument.  Hence it would be necessary to invent a genouillère system for this instrument, but without any historical basis.  I have therefore decided not even to try to make a 'new' genouillère system since I have no idea how it operated or what registrational possibilities it provided.  If an instrument by, or altered by, Hoffman is eventually found with a genouillère, then a new genouillère system could eventually be made for this harpsichord on the basis of the factual evidence provided by such a discovery.  However, at least from this aspect of the restoration, it has not and cannot at this stage at least, be returned to its last historical state.  In other words, it is impossible to apply the principle.  But does this mean that the instrument should not be restored?

  4. The decorative aspect:  by this I mean the painted surfaces, the veneered surfaces, inlay, marquetry, mouldings, soundboard rosettes, decorative buttons or inlay, and such features as keywell scrolls, decorative metalwork, etc.  The present decoration of the soundboard is probably by Mabel Dolmetsch and it is certainly not in the style of any eighteenth-century decorator.  According to the principles outlined above, it should be removed since it is clearly modern and was added after the historical period.  I have, however, decided not to do so for two reasons.  First, the flowers, borders and arabesques are painted in oil, and not in gouache, a medium based on gum arabic.  Gum arabic is the material which would have been used historically and is easily soluble in water.  It would be an easy matter to remove it if it from the soundboard if it were gouache.  Removal of the oil paint would require the use of some powerful organic solvent as physical removal with a scalpel would never succeed in removing it entirely.  The effect of organic solvents on the physical and acoustical properties of a soundboard is, however, entirely unresearched.  Does such a solvent remove part of the pitch or resin or other soluble components of the wood in such a way as to change its acoustical properties and therefore the sound of the instrument?  The answer is that we simply don't know!  Because we don't know the effects of solvents on the acoustical properties of the soundboard, we have to abandon the principle of 'last historical state' of the decoration to the clearly important effect that solvents might have in altering the acoustical properties of the soundboard.  The way the different aspects of the restoration of a musical instrument are inter-related means that altering one aspect may have unacceptable implications to another.  In this case the removal of the later decoration is simply incompatible with retaining the acoustical properties that the instrument had in its last state of historical use.  Therefore it is a question of giving different aspects of the restoration different priorities:  in this case the acoustical restoration is much more important than the restoration of the decoration!
           Second, even if it were possible to remove the Dolmetsch painting, what would we replace it with?  Again if I were to have the Dolmetsch soundboard painting removed I would have to have it replaced with something totally invented since we don't have any surviving examples of either Barberini's or Hoffman's work on which to base any replacement decoration.  It is effectively the same problem as that of the genouillère discussed above.  If future research shows that organic solvents have no effect on soundboard wood and if an instrument is discovered by either Barberini or Hoffman on which to base the decoration of this instrument, then this aspect of the problem can be re-visited. 
          One possible intermediate solution, which is entirely reversible, would be to isolate the present soundboard painting with a layer of removable varnish (the soundboard has, after all, already previously been varnished with a thick layer of brown varnish which has been removed physically without the use of solvents) and then to re-touch the Dolmetsch painting in a way to make it more in keeping with the eighteenth-century decoration of the rest of the instrument.  This overlying paint and varnish could then easily be removed in the future if it were decided to do so.
          Having removed the Arnold Dolmetsch stifle bars from underneath the soundboard, and the added lead weights from the keylevers along with the other Dolmetsch accretions, I have, on the other hand, left the Mabel Dolmetsch soundboard painting presumably from exactly the same period.  This has not resulted in a unified restoration situation, at least not from this aspect.  This aspect of this restoration has also not returned the instrument to its last 1786 state. 
         As mentioned in the section of the modern history of the instrument, there are some additional decorations on the instrument by the decorator who decorated the instrument by Louis Tomasini now in the Berlin Musikinstrumentenmuseum.  This decoration by Tomasini's decorator is to be found, for example, on the two top lid battens of the outside of the lid:

Click here to see an image of the Tomasini decorations on the batten on the top of the main part of the lid.


In addition to the top surfaces of the lid battens, the front surface of the nameboard, the sides of the keywell and the top of the jackrail are also decorated in the same hand as the Tomasini decorator:


Click here to see a larger image of the jackrail with the added Tomasini decorations.


The front surface of the nameboard is, on the other hand (see below), beautifully decorated and seems to date from the 1786 Barberini/Hoffmann state.  But sides of the keywell are poorly painted and do not even take into account the presence there of the keyboards.   This part of the Tomasini decoration is in good condition and would need little or no cleaning or re-touching.  It is in an appropriate place for this type and style of decoration and these factors make a good case for just leaving it alone. 

          But the most potent reason for leaving this decoration is that it would preserve the connection of this harpsichord with Louis Tomasini and the important role he - and this instrument - played in the modern revival of the harpsichord at the time of the Exhibition Universelle in Paris in 1889.


Click here to see an image of the keywell.



What would you do in my situation??

  1. The purists might say that I should have done nothing and left the instrument in the state in which it was when it came to my workshop.  This would mean that the amazing history and historical importance of this instrument would never have been research and discovered.  Neither would the stunning sound of the instrument ever have been heard.

  2. Should I leave all of the Tomasini decorations (to unify the decoration) and leave the dark varnish on the lid battens?

  3. Should I leave the keywell and jackrail decorations and remove the decorations on the outer lid battens (where they are inappropriate and almost impossible to clean properly)?

  4. Should I remove all of the Tomasini decorations - all later than the 'historical' period - and lose any trace of the connection with Tomasini and the important role that he, and this instrument, played in the revival of the modern interest in the harpsichord and its repertoire?

          Clearly the principle of 'restore an instrument to its last state of historical use' is too prescriptive, and simply cannot apply to each of the musical, acoustical, mechanical and decorative aspects of a restoration all at the same time.  But the question to be posed now is:  "Is the Tomasini state and his decoration on the harpsichord now part of the 'last historical state' of this particular instrument?"  Given the important role that this instrument played in the history of the harpsichord and given the highly-important role that Tomasini and Dolmetsch played in the modern revival of interest in the harpsichord it seems like the idea of the 'last state of historical use' extends at least to 1889, and not to the end of the eighteenth century as it is normally understood.

          But if this is so, is it justified to remove the Dolmetsch interventions given the important role that Dolmetsch also played in the history of the harpsichord?  There is little difference in the dates of the Tomasini and Dolmetsch interventions - the important difference in these interventions is that the Dolmetsch intervention seriously affected the acoustical and mechanical properties of the instrument:  the stifle bars under the soundboard reduced the rich resonance of the sound, and the lead weights Dolmetsch added to the keylevers and jacks made the touch of the keyboard more like that of a modern piano.  The Tomasini interventions seem, on the other hand, only to have affected the decoration aspect.   Do we distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' historical restorations??  Regardless of how this question is answered, how do I make a rule that covers both situations??  Is it even possible to make rules to govern such a complicated musical/acoustical/mechanical/decorative system??

          To retain the stifle bars and the keyboard and jack lead weights would markedly distort how the instrument sounds and plays to a modern observer.  It would totally misrepresent the ideals of the sound and keyboard touch of the instrument in the historical period.  The decorative state of the instrument represents the apogee of French mid-eighteenth century furniture decoration.  Surely the mechanical and acoustical states have to match the decorative state.  But this cannot be accomplished and still follow the (I think, now outdated) principles of ethical restoration.

          So exactly what principles should I be working to??



What do you think??

           I think the whole subject of the restoration ethics of musical instruments needs to be thought through another time in the light of situations like this that must arise again and again!!  The present publications on restorations are simplistic in their approach to the subject which is much more complicated than what was previously considered.  My personal view is that the 'traditional' rules of restoration were developed by white-collared experts, but not by the practical restorers who had their sleeves rolled up and actually got their hands dirty!


          What, exactly, is to be understood by 'historical state' and what by 'modern state' in such cases?  The modern history of an instrument may, in some cases such as that found here, be very important to our understanding of the modern history of the harpsichord and of the modern revival of interest in the harpsichord.  And clearly the modern revival of interest in the harpsichord is equally important to the interest in the historical pre-1800 history.


          How important is it that a restoration be consistent in all of its aspects?  Can leaving some of the results of an intervention be compatible with removing other results of the same intervention?  This situation arises twice with this restoration - once for Tomasini and once for Dolmetsch.  On the other hand the very idea of leaving one part of an intervention and removing another part of the is same intervention is anathema to a restorer of fine art.  And this leads me to the conclusion that

 the same principles of fine art restoration cannot be applied in a blanket way to musical instrument restoration.  

But where do we draw the lines?

          Should I re-touch the un-stylistic Mabel Dolmetsch soundboard flower paintings to make them more in keeping with the usual eighteenth-century soundboard painting style?  Generally it is considered unethical in fine-art painting restoration to 'improve' the historical material.  But in this case it is not strictly the historical material that is being 'improved'.  So where does this leave me in making a decision? 

          The whole question of reversibility (once considered the great solace of the restorer) can never be totally achieved in practice, and this principle needs to be thought through again too.  It is not a panacea - it is a principle that is simply not achievable in practice.

          I would like to work as a conscientious restorer working to accepted and clearly defined principles. 


          But I don't know what these principles are - - - !!! - - -??? 

          Is it even possible to formulate principles that can be applied to such a complicated and intricate object and get things right for all four aspects of the restoration as outlined above?




Important Features of this harpsichord


A brief history of the musical and decorative states of the Franco-Flemish harpsichord


Details of the original state of the instrument


Details of the eighteenth-century states of this harpsichord


 Details of the modern history of this harpsichord


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