Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord,
This section of this website refers to the Franco-Flemish harpsichord discussed in depth elsewhere on this site.
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 present restoration
I admit quite frankly that my restoration of this harpsichord has not complied with some of the most basic precepts of an ethical restoration as discussed below nor with some of the principles that I have advocated during my past career. Initially when I began the restoration of the instrument I knew almost nothing of the historical importance of the instrument. As I studied the instrument before even considering its eventual restoration, I saw an instrument with a decoration that was deteriorating badly. It had been painted with a thick coat of linseed-oil varnish, probably by Arnold Dolmetsch in about 1915. As a result of the cross-linking of this varnish covering much of the surface of the instrument it had turned dark brown and was pulling the original paint and gilding away from the foundation ground layers. Regardless of anything else and of any other aspects of its restoration, in my view, this deterioration of the beautiful decoration had to be stopped.
The initial study that I did on the design of the instrument led to the conclusion that it was not built by any of the members of the Ruckers/Couchet family, and that this could be shown by scientific arguments. However, the same study of the instrument showed that is was made in Antwerp. This immediately led me to realize that it was an instrument of particular interest because of the scarcity of Antwerp-made non-Ruckers double-manual harpsichords. After long discussions with fellow restorers, colleagues and the then owners, and after long delays, the decision was finally taken to undertake the restoration. But this restoration was plagued by problems of the decorative aspects, By far the most serious is that, having decided to have the layer of varnish removed, I decided to have the paintings underneath restored. But the style of the decorations around the figure paintings by Christophe II Huet are so idiosyncratic and unusual that it was simply impossible for a restorer who was not intimately involved in the style of this painter to re-construct some of the missing or damaged parts of the decoration. This will be discussed further below.
Among others, the following additions or alterations to the instrument have been made by me:
a new wrestplank, wrestplank veneer, nuts and tuning pins replacing those of Roberto de Regina who 'restored' the instrument in Buenos Aires in 1971,
a new baseboard replacing the 1971 de Regina baseboard which was made of South-American plywood,
I had to re-construct the original scalings and plucking points by positioning the nuts so that the design of the restoration scalings for the f notes were hose usual for French harpsichords of the period,
new wood was added to the keylevers to fill in the gaps, apparently made by De Regina in 1971, which had been left in the underside of the lower-manual keys,
new pads for the buff stop,
a new, unhistorical disposition including a re-constructed peau de buffle register of jacks,
new strings of the diameters and the materials consistent with current knowledge of historical 18th-century French stringing practice,
a new bass section to the 8' hitchpin rail to raise the ends of the bass strings up to a level corresponding to the height of the bass section of bridge,
new backpins placed in the 8' bridge in the holes of the original Blanchet backpins,
replacement jacks and registers both of which were damaged by the 'lead disease' caused by the modern pure lead added to the 1750 Blanchet jacks,
new lead/tin weights in the keylevers (possibly giving a different balance and touch to the keyboard) but necessary after the removal of the lead causing the lead disease,
new register levers replacing the bad levers placed in the instrument by Roberto de Regina which were, in turn, probably replacing the non-original register levers necessary after the removal of the the genouillère when it was 'restored' by Dolmetsch,
a new lid stick and hinge in the historical style replacing the previous piece of doweling,
new storage boxes inside the case of the instrument to hold the 1750 Blanchet jacks and what remains of the Blanchet upper and lower guides.
This means that now a whole new layer of history has been added to this instrument by me. This layer of its history has nothing to do with its historical state.
Some of most serious problems that had to be faced in the course of the restoration of this instrument are the following all carried out by previous restorers:
The non-uniform use of linseed-oil varnish on much of the exterior and interior of the instrument causing the serious discoloration of the case decoration.
The addition, probably by Arnold Dolmetsch, of the 'stifle' bars underneath both the 8' and 4' bridges.
The jacks and keylevers were loaded with modern pure lead all of which was suffering badly from 'lead disease'. [Antique, impure lead is stable and does not cause these problems.]
The removal of the 18th-century soundboard painting, which was probably by Blanchet's usual soundboard decorator.
The soundboard had also been given a heavy coat of linseed-oil varnish which was discolouring and 'bubbling'.
The removal of the unique genouillère system.
Although it cannot be proven definitively for any of the above, it seems highly likely that Arnold Dolmetsch was responsible for all of the above six very serious problems that I have had to face in the current restoration.
??Back to the last state of historical use??
The (at one time considered) authoritative work on the restoration of musical instruments is the 1967 ICOM publication by Alfred Berner, J.H. van der Meer and G. Thibault-de Chambure, Preservation and Restoration of Musical Instruments. Provisional Recommendations, (The International Council of Museums, Evelyn, Adams & Mackay, London, 1967). Several subsequent publications on the ethics, practice and practicalities of restoration have appeared since this early date. The interested party has only to do a search on the internet to find a vast quantity (and quality!) of publications on the subject.
There are many aspects to this subject, but I will restrict myself here to just a few. One of these is the basic tenet of the ethical restoration of musical instruments that one should aim to restore the instrument to its last state of historical use. This, in general, means two things:
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.
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 would be destroyed, and a great deal of important historical information would be 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 during the historical period. The reason for doing this is that we do not want to lose information which informs us about their use throughout their history which, as in this case, have played a very important role in a period after they were first built. A 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:
The musical aspect: the compass, disposition, string scalings, plucking points, quill material and stringing material.
The acoustical aspect: the soundboard material and its properties (especially its stiffness determined mostly by the thickness), the soundboard area as designed 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.
The mechanical aspects: the keys and keylevers and how they are balanced, the weight and construction of the jacks, the guiding of the jacks and the system of coupling the registers. In addition, the function and operation of the genouillère, stop levers, and the 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.
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 built and 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 ICOM 1967 principles?
For a start: the 'last state of historical use' principle poses a number of problems to the restoration of the musical, acoustical, mechanical and decorative parts of the Franco-Flemish harpsichord. How can this single principle be applied to the specific case of this particular instrument in all of its complexities? Some of the related problems for this instrument are outlined below:
The musical aspect: the history of the compass, string scalings and, to a certain extent, the disposition are fairly clear for this instrument, and so there were few difficulties encountered restoring this aspect of the instrument.
The acoustical aspect: nothing has been replaced regarding the soundboard and the bridges so these can be left alone entirely. However, numerous additional 'stifle' bars had been added underneath the soundboard in the modern period which were increasing the stiffness of the soundboard and certainly would have affected the sound in a deleterious way. These were all removed in the current restoration in order to return the acoustical aspect of the soundboard, bridges and barring of the instrument to its 1786 state.
The mechanical aspect: The genouillère added by Jacques Barberini/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 when it had this feature. However, there is no surviving instrument either by Hoffman or Barberini, nor one which has an added genouillère by Hoffman/Barberini (see the discussion of the genouillère elsewhere on this site). Indeed among the small number of surviving harpsichords with a genouillère, there is not a single one 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 new genouillère mechanism for this instrument, but without any historical basis. I have therefore decided not even to attempt to make a 'new' genouillère system since I have no idea how the 1786 genouillère operated nor of what registrational possibilities it provided. If an instrument by, or altered by, Hoffman or Barberini is eventually found with a genouillère contained entirely within the keywell under the keys, then a new genouillère mechanism could eventually be made for this harpsichord on the basis of the factual evidence provided by such a discovery. However, at least for 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 have been restored?
The decorative aspect:
for this instrument I mean the
painted and gilded surfaces of the exterior and the painted
decoration of the soundboard.
decoration of the soundboard is probably by Mabel Dolmetsch and it is
certainly not in the style of any known eighteenth-century French decorator.
According to the principles outlined above, it should be removed
since it is clearly modern and was added well 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 using gum arabic as a medium. Gum arabic is the material which would have been used historically and which is easily soluble in water. It would be an easy matter to remove the decoration from the soundboard if it had been painted by Mabel Dolmetsch using gum arabic as a medium. Removal of the present oil paint soundboard decorations, on the other hand, would require the use of some powerful organic solvent, as physical removal with a scalpel would never succeed in removing it entirely without damaging the soundboard wood below it. 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 more 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 in an 'ethical' way 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, to me, 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 even if we do know the general style of the usual Blanchet soundboard decorator which has survived on numerous instruments. 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 a modern decorator is willing to take on the production of a 'reproduction' soundboard painting for this instrument, then this might be considered. On the other hand I don't feel that the present decoration is causing any physical damage to the instrument in the way the linseed-oil varnish was. It seems that there is only one solution: just leave the Dolmetsch decoration as it is. And forget about trying to return it to its historical state??
But, having removed all the Arnold Dolmetsch stifle bars from underneath the soundboard and the lead weights added by Dolmetsch from the jacks and 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. But my restoration has also not returned the instrument to its last, 1786 historical state either.
As mentioned in the section of the modern history of the instrument, there are some additional decorations on the instrument probably placed there by the same 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 compared to the decoration on the Berlin Tomasini harpsichord.
The front surface of the nameboard above the keys is beautifully decorated (see below) and seems to date from the 1786 Barberini/Hoffmann state. On the other hand the 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, however, in good condition and needs 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 of the sides of the keywell (and the lid battens and jackrail) 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??
Should I leave all of the Tomasini decorations (to unify the decoration) and leave the dark varnish on the lid battens?
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)?
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?
The purists might say that I should have done nothing at all and left the instrument in the state in which it was when it came to my workshop. This would have meant that the damage to the decoration and paintwork would have continued, and would mean that the amazing history and the historical importance of this instrument would never have been researched and discovered. Neither would the stunning sound of the instrument ever have been heard.
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 modern 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 just to the end of the eighteenth century as the historical period is normally understood.
But if this is so, is it justified to remove some/any/all of 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 not just the physical appearance of the instrument, but also its acoustical and mechanical properties as well: the stifle bars under the soundboard reduced the rich resonance of the soundboard, and the lead weights Dolmetsch added to the keylevers and jacks made the touch of the keyboard heavy and unresponsive and 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. We would not really understand how the instrument sounded or played when it was part of the French Royal Court with these non-historical accretions. To leave these uninformed later accretions would totally misrepresent the ideals held by the historical makers regarding the sound and the keyboard touch of their instruments. 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 as outlined in the ICOM publication.
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 very carefully 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. They are written mostly by 'ivory tower' academics who have never had to face the actual day-to-day problems of a glue-pot and chisel musical instrument restorer. 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 its modern revival. 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 period or intervention? This situation arises twice with this restoration - once for Tomasini and again for Dolmetsch. On the other hand the very idea of leaving one part of an intervention and removing another part of the 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 musical-instrument restorer) can never be totally achieved in practice, and this principle needs to be thought through again too. The principle of reversibility is not a panacea for the restorers' problems - it is a principle that is simply not achievable in practice.
I would like to work as a conscientious restorer guided by 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?
I am now left with the strong feeling that it would be very difficult to draw up a set of principles to guide the modern restorer through the complicated maze of history and bad restoration practices that have occurred during the course of its history such as those by Arnold Dolmetsch and Roberto de Regina encountered in the situation like that of the Franco-Flemish harpsichord. I am struck by the realisation that none of the authors of Preservation and Restoration of Musical Instruments, Provisional Recommendations, referred to above has, to my knowledge, ever rolled up their sleeves, wielded a plane or a chisel or a paintbrush in a musical instrument restoration workshop. Is such a group of people really qualified to give any broad-brush guidance about the restoration of musical instrument as would have to be applied here?
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
The attributions of the 1750 state to François Étienne Blanchet, Christophe Huet and François Boucher
This page was last revised on 16 February 2020.
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