The conservation of historical keyboard instruments:

to play or to preserve?


This paper may be quoted in part or in its entirety with permission from the author.

          Ideally the modern keyboard instrument restorer would be trained in the conservation of wood, metal, leather, ivory, bone, cloth, paper, and in painted and varnished surfaces. He should have a good grounding in chemistry and physics (especially acoustics) and be conversant with analytical techniques such as X-rays, X-ray fluorescence, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, linear regression analysis, and so on. In no other field is a restorer or conservator expected to have some knowledge of as many different fields in order to carry out the preservation of the objects given to him for treatment. As though this is not enough it is also essential that he must be a part-time musicologist and musician, and must know at least something of the history of art and of furniture design. How can an instrument restorer do his job properly on a scientific and historical basis unless he has a training in all of these fields? The fact is, of course, that there is probably not a musical instrument restorer or conservator in the world who is sufficiently well versed in all of these different aspects that he could carry out a restoration that would not be faulted by a specialist in one or more of these fields.

          An associated problem is that there is an almost total lack of fundamental research providing information on the effect of the operations that we normally carry out on the instruments we are restoring. What is the effect of the solvents used to remove old varnish and dirt from a harpsichord soundboard on the acoustical and musical properties of the soundboard? How does filling cracks and wood-worm holes affect the soundboard? Normal conservation techniques for cloth and leather do not normally require that these materials continue in active use. Are the usual techniques of cloth and leather conservation therefore applicable to these materials when used in keyboard instruments where they are required to perform their original mechanical functions? What is the effect of ageing on a wood and how long can we reasonably expect an instrument to be able to withstand string tension? Are the acoustical properties of a soundboard time dependant? If so does a soundboard sound better or worse as time goes by? - does it reach a peak? These are but a few of the questions that should be answered before any restorer lifts a knife or chisel and begins the restoration of a keyboard instrument.

          One of the most obvious reasons for restoring a musical instrument is that the sound and feel under the fingers of a well-restored musical instrument will have an effect on the interpretation of the music written for it. Basically the purpose of restoration boils down to discovering the relationship between the music and the instrument. Only a few years ago harpsichords strung with steel and phosphor-bronze strings, with repla­cement jacks with regulating screws and leather or plastic plectra, and with modern felts in the keyboards, were accepted without question as sounding and playing as they did in the 17th and 18th centuries.

          But in recent years we have become much more demanding and critical of keyboard restoration. The importance of using soft wire for stringing harpsichords, spinets, virginals and clavichords is only now being realised. We want to know if the depth of touch of the keys is correct and are now discovering that the depth of touch is not the same in all regional schools of building. What is the plucking order? what is the angle of the plectrum to the horizontal? - how arc the dampers cut? — what is the correct length of the plectra in each register? what is the lost motion of the keylever before the first register plucks and after the last register has plucked? These are but a few of the questions facing the modern keyboard restorer.

          The problem for the restorer is not so much that he has to re-string the instrument with soft strings and re-regulate it along historical lines, but that there are no longer any instruments left as primary documents which can tell us what actual size of string to use, and what the depth of touch, plucking order, plectrum length and angle, etc., should be.

          Further, I am absolutely sure that we will become even more sophisticated and demanding in the future. Even the most conscientious modern restorer faced with the restoration of an instrument with original keyboard cloths, jacks, plectra, dampers and strings, who carefully records and documents all of the features that are currently felt to be of importance, will probably fail to record or observe details that will be of interest to future generations.  A few years ago I visited a major European Museum which publicly professes a scientific approach to restoration and conservation and which had just bought an important French harpsichord. Although the instrument had only been in the hands of the museum a few weeks it was already in pieces, the baseboard had been removed and the keyboards had been stripped down and the original keyboard cloths had been removed. The original depth of touch had not been recorded, the plucking order had not been noted and the adjustment of the registers which would have given the original plectrum length had been altered.

          This is but one of a long catalogue of horror stories I could quote. The fact is that we are destroying primary evidence at an alarming rate. Despite our attempts to ensure reversibility, we are constantly having to carry out irreversible operations and evidence not only of the stringing, mechanical operation of the instruments, but also evidence of the construction and decoration of these instruments is being lost at an accelerating rate.

          What has led us to the present state of musical instrument restoration? Why are we destroying evidence on these instruments as though there were an endless supply of them from which to draw more information, should it accidentally be lost from the one we are working on? What are the basic assumptions and the philosophy of restoration that has given rise to the present state of restoration? It is what I call “The Existentialist Philosophy of Restoration”. The essential tenet of this philosophy is “If it exists, restore it”!  The only book dealing specifically with the preservation and restoration of musical instruments puts this succinctly: “Where possible the restoration of a deteriorated instrument is commendable”.  This attitude is basic and unquestioned by many museums, private collectors, restorers and conservators. Underlying this attitude is the belief, which I feel to be mistaken, that because an instrument is old and was built in the historical period it must sound better than a modern copy. Also there is the mistaken belief that the sound of any given instrument is representative of its builder's usual work. But there are good and bad sounding Ruckers instruments - I know this from personal experience. The beautiful 1755 Kirkman double-manual harpsichord in the Russell Collection, Edinburgh is a fine piece of furniture, but is disappointing as a musical instrument in comparison with other examples of Kirkman's work. Thus even for instruments in sound condition there is no guarantee that they will be either representative or musically instructive after restoration.

          The situation for instruments that are in a damaged or fragile conditions is even more problematical. It is pointless to restore an instrument to a pitch below that for which it was designed, or to use strings thinner than those originally intended in order to prevent too great a tension on the structure of the instrument. Doing so falsifies the sound of the instrument and the music that will be made on it. A decision must be made:  either the instrument is able to withstand the string tension at the required pitch and with the correct string gauges, or it cannot. If it can, then restoration may be considered, although not necessarily eventually carried out. If it cannot then it should not be restored to playing condition. Many instruments have been damaged or altered and restoration to playing condition means that some or all of the original scalings, plucking points, structural, mechanical and acoustical parts have to be reconstructed. These reconstructions are often based on insufficient or hypothetical evidence from other instruments. I say: “What is the point of reconstructing half an instrument unless there is a good certainty that the final sound and touch of the instrument are representative?”.

          Instruments of extreme old age or exceptional rarity are also not immediate candidates for restoration. The German clavicytherium made about 1480 and now in the Royal College of Music, London is too fragile and delicate to withstand string tension. The 1638 Ioannes Ruckers double-manual harpsichord in the Russell Collection, Edinburgh is unique: it is the only 'transposing' harpsichord in the world which still has its original unaligned keyboards. It is in sound physical condition and could withstand string tension easily, but it retains most of its original keyboard cloths which have been attacked by bacterial or fungal activity leaving the fibres weak and brittle. A restoration to playing condition would result in the destruction of these cloths from mechanical damage, or they would have to be removed in the restoration. Many of the other original features of this harpsichord would also be lost or altered in an eventual restoration. When I was Curator of the Russell Collection, I therefore took the decision not to restore this original and unique instrument.


          To summarize the present situation briefly: the process of restoration of musical instruments is destroying evidence about the very objects that we are supposed to be conserving. That all processes carried out in musical instrument restorations should be reversible is a commendable ideal, but it is impossible to achieve in practice. Instruments should be restored to the most recent state of legitimate musical use, but doing so may involve much conjecture and arbitrary re-construction, and it is often the case that this state may have been introduced in the historical period by someone who was unskilled or unenlightened about what he was doing. Restoration to this state would be musically unsatisfactory and restoration to any previous state would involve many irreversible operations to be carried out and the destruction of much of the history of the instrument. Many instruments are too fragile, too old, or are unique examples of their kind and restoration of them is therefore out of the question.

          What is the solution to all of these problems? Can we go forward and learn from these historical instruments without restoring them and without destroying evidence on the instruments which are, after all, the primary documents? One of the suggestions that has been put forward is that copies be made of the instruments, rather than carrying out the restoration of the originals. There are many good reasons for doing this. The copy will be made of new wood, and there will be no danger that it will be damaged by the string tension. Experiments with stringing, pitch, voicing, etc. can be carried out on the copy without any chance of damage to the original. The copy can be played an unlimited amount without any restrictions or worry about over-use. If the original has been altered, the copy can be made in the original state of the instrument and any reconstruction can be made and then altered later in the light of new evidence without any harm to the original. Probably the copy will sound more like the historical instrument did when new than the original would if restored. Objections have been made to this suggestion by people saying that copies made by different builders each sound different. However, despite the fact that the copies are usually described as 'exact', I know of no copy that has been made on a truly scientific basis. The contours of the soundboard thickness have never, as far as I know, ever been copied exactly, and no one has refined this to copying the soundboard stiffness which is actually the acoustical parameter which is essential to achieve a similar sound in the copy to that in the original.

          Carried to its logical extreme, the making of copies of historical instruments would mean that our museums and collections would become galleries filled with modern reproductions. This would be as unacceptable as if our great painting galleries put all the originals into storage and out of harm’s way and exhibited copies instead. Nonetheless the acoustical and musical function that a musical instrument has to serve does argue in favour of the making of copies in some of those cases discussed above.

          Also, closely related to the making of copies is that of making replacement actions for some instruments. Because it is really the mechanical part of a keyboard instrument that suffers from over use, the making of a new set of keyboards, and jacks or piano hammers allows a popular instrument to be used as much as desired. At the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, we have decided to restore our 1608 Andreas Ruckers double-manual harpsichord with a modern set of keyboards and jacks. We have also decided to make a replacement action for the unique early-English grand piano of 1772 by Americus Backers. The Ringve Museum, Trondheim, in Norway has decided to commission a replacement action for their 1783 fortepiano by Andreas Stein. Replacement actions are especially important in early pianos since the original actions can be preserved separately with their original (if worn) leathers and action cloths which would otherwise have to be replaced.

          - Written by Grant O'Brien

(This is the text of a paper that was presented at a conference in Venice Conservazione restauro e riuso degli strumenti musicali antichi:  per una Carte Europea del Restauro.  Convengno internazionale di studi.  (Fondazione Levi Venezia per l’Anno Europeo della Musica 1985).  It was published in 1987: Per una carta europea del restauro.  Conservazione, restauro e riuso degli strumenti musicali anitichi, (Olschki, Florence, 1987) 291-8.) 

See also:

There is also a section on this website dealing with the situation arising from the restoration of any musical instrument: 

 To restore or not to resore?


And also The CIMCIM website


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Some problems of restoration ethics in the restoration of a Franco-Flemish double-manual harpsichord


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