The evolution of my interest in the Neapolitan school
school of harpsichord building
A new passion!
As long ago as 1974 I worked with John Barnes, late curator of the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments at the University of Edinburgh, on the restoration of an anonymous instrument from the Royal College of Music (Catalogue number RCM 175) . This harpsichord had a sharply-pointed tail, a case made of maple or sycamore rather than the usual cypress, the keyboard was raised above the baseboard on a frame attached to the baseboard, the usual scrolls beside the key touchplates were replaced with beautifully-carved female figures, and there was an amazing proliferation of mouldings decorating the delicate case. It is, as I later came to realise, a highly typical example of a Neapolitan harpsichord.
Anonymous harpsichord attributed by me to Onofrio Guarracino, Naples, c.1660
Royal College of Music, London, Cat. No. 175
Many years later, at a conference of the American Musical Society, I heard John Koster talking about Neapolitan harpsichords in connection with the work that he was doing for the catalogue of the Musical Instrument Section of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I realized that the the instrument from the Royal College of Music must also have been built in Naples. And I also realized that some of the instruments that I had worked on in the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome were made in Naples. Then, by sheer coincidence, I saw a single-manual harpsichord by Onofrio Guarracino dated 1651 in the workshop of Andrea di Maio, an ex-student of mine, in Rome. This was the first harpsichord that I had seen that was signed by a Neapolitan harpsichord builder and was therefore an instrument which was definitely made in Naples. Because of its importance to the other instruments that I suspected were made in Naples, I then decided to study this instrument very carefully.
I also happened to be able to purchase an original Italian harpsichord. Using my geometrical method to determine where it was made (see: Geometry and the Unit of Measurement) I was able to show that this instrument was also made in Naples (for the analysis and the procedure used see: Determination of the centre of construction - 64Kb).
Following shortly on this I analysed the anonymous single-manual harpsi64chord in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments (see The anonymous Neapolitan harpsichord in the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments at the University of Edinburgh) using the same method and was able to show that it was also made in Naples (see: The Russell Collection anonymous harpsichord and the Neapolitan oncia - 33Kb.)
By now I had examined very closely many instruments, all clearly made in Naples. It was clear that these instruments were totally different in their construction and sound from those made in Northern Italy during a contemporary period. Indeed I began to realize that there is probably as much difference in the sound between a Neapolitan harpsichord and a Venetian harpsichord as there is between a Venetian harpsichord and a Flemish Ruckers harpsichord!
My interest was fired and I wanted to know more!!
In April of 1991 I was fortunate enough to be able to buy an historical Italian harpsichord from a private owner in Brussels. A photograph of this instrument with some details of its original case and lid painting can be seen by clicking on the image below.
Since buying this instrument I have examined it closely and made a detailed report on its condition, history, and provenance. I have decided that the instrument is sufficiently robust to be restored back to playing condition, and I plan eventually to do this. As explained in the details given with the link to the image above, the original case and lid painting has disappeared and so I have since had a new case built. This case was painted in 2000 by Stefano Pessione and given a new lid painting. This painting and some details about it can be obtained by clicking on the image below:
Recent work by me has shown that this instrument was made in Naples. Further details about this work can be obtained by clicking on the link below:
The discovery that this instrument was made in Naples, and the need to study other instruments also made in Naples as part of the background work necessary prior to the restoration of the instrument has further stimulated my interest in Neapolitan harpsichords.
This instrument has recently been sold as a restored and playing harpsichord. Full reports on its condition, origins and a restoration proposal are available. For further details contact any of the addresses given in:
This harpsichord is a typical Italian harpsichord from the beginning of the seventeenth century. An elaborate analysis of the alterations to this instrument during the historical period by John Barnes, the late curator of the Russell Collection, showed that the original compass was C/E to f3 and that it had a number of enharmonic split accidentals. The compass of the instrument is now C to d3 chromatic.
The sound of this instrument is crisp and pungent and has a constant quality that balances well over the whole of the compass. It articulates trills and ornaments particularly well. Because of the excellent balance of the various parts of the compass the instrument plays contrapuntal music, where each of the different voices needs to take an equal part, clearly without one part dominating any other.
Recent work by me has also shown that this instrument was made in Naples. Further details about this work can be obtained by clicking on the link below:
This was therefore yet another Neapolitan harpsichord, unrecognised until my analysis of the unit of measurement used in its design and construction established its origins. The acclaimed musical qualities of the instrument and the knowledge that it was made in Naplies whetted my interest in the Neapolitan harpsichord-building tradition even further.
Further details can be found about this instrument on the Russell Collection Website at:
It is also discussed and compared with the Royal College of Music anonymous Neapolitan harpsichord RCM175 elsewhere on this site.