FRANK HUBBARD AND WILLIAM DOWD
Ten years before Landowska’s death a new direction for the harpsichord revival was set by two young Harvard men—Frank Hubbard (1920–1976) and William Dowd (born 1922). Who could have known then that this short-lived partnership would alter the direction of early keyboard instruments both in the United States and in Europe, or that players and builders alike during the next two decades would be pulled “kicking and screaming, into the eighteenth century”?1 The two men who accomplished this unprecedented maneuver had been English majors. How they came to set up a shop dedicated to the building of harpsichords in a historic manner and how they founded the first firm in the twentieth century to build classical harpsichords of various historic types is quite a story:
[Frank Hubbard and I] were boyhood friends and were both in college together. Frank was two years ahead of me and graduated before the war, went into the army, then returned to get his Master’s degree. I left, came back four years later and got my AB degree.
. . . We decided to make harpsichords when we were still in college. . . .
I had been in love with the harpsichord ever since I was a freshman [in 1940] and first saw one . . . in the music department. . . . It was built by Chickering. It was supposed to be in working order but it had fallen into disuse, between Ralph’s [Kirkpatrick’s] time there and mine. Actually a classmate . . . Daniel Pinkham . . . sprung the thing loose again. In those days, when harpsichords were rare, and no one knew what they were, an instrument could sit locked up in a room for years. Danny applied to the powers that be and brought the instrument back into use.
One of my teachers was Irving Fine, a brilliant young composer, and I asked him about it. He took me in and opened up the instrument. When I saw it for the first time it was so beautiful and marvelous it took my breath away. A little while later, I heard it in a concert at The Museum of Fine Arts, played by Claude Jean Chiasson.2
Hubbard, the graduate student, had a stall in Widener Library in the section then occupied by music books:
I found myself poring over the beautiful picture books devoted to musical instruments. Once I stumbled across a treasure: Heron-Allen’s Violin-Making, As It Was and Is (1884). This young Victorian gentleman’s curious evocation of the world and technique of violin makers . . . fascinated me, and I spent a whole summer making a violin after his instructions. Alas for romantic scholarship, I found his technical devices often deficient and that his varnish wouldn’t dry, but the experience was meaningful for all that. The violin still hangs on its nail in a dark closet, a sort of instrument maker’s family skeleton.
About this time [Bill Dowd’s] passionate interest ... in the harpsichord began dimly to indicate a path out of the intellectual maze in which I found myself wandering. Together we examined the books in Four West, attended the concerts of the only practicing harpsichordists in the area, Claude Jean Chiasson and Daniel Pinkham, and gradually concocted the grandiose project of reviving single-handed the whole baroque orchestra. I, it was decided, would deal with strings, Dowd with keyboards, and winds in some unspecified way would take care of themselves.
The only makers of such instruments we had ever heard of . . . were Arnold Dolmetsch in England and his disciple, John Challis, in Detroit. Since my G.I. Bill support was a bit more substantial than that of Dowd, it was decided that I would go to Dolmetsch, Dowd to Challis.3
Frank Hubbard was accepted by the Dolmetsch shop as a non-paying, non-paid apprentice. Although “the old man” had died seven years earlier the shop was going strong, making not only keyboard instruments but recorders and stringed instruments as well.
At Dolmetsch’s I was permitted to drill identical holes in thousands of small objects, make tea at eleven each morning, and sweep. Occasionally, but not always, my questions were answered. Still by watching, if not doing, I learned something of woodworking and the sort of compulsiveness that makes a craftsman. Of the history of the harpsichord or the glorious examples still extant I learned nothing.4
After a year in Haslemere Hubbard parted ways with the Dolmetsch clan. He found a second year’s work in London, with Hugh Gough, who “had seen many old instruments and had notebooks full of details I devoured.”5 He also made visits to the important instrument collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and on the continent (Paris, Brussels, The Hague). Armed with a reader’s card at the British Museum Hubbard began his research into period descriptions of harpsichords.
Dowd, in Detroit, “had a very successful year and a half. . . .”6 His work consisted largely of making cases, some of walnut plywood, some of solid walnut, to surround aluminum frames. He also worked on actions, both new and those in need of repair. The most important of these repair jobs was the releathering for one of Kirkpatrick’s Chickering harpsichords, an instrument the concert artist owned in addition to the harpsichord that had belonged to Busoni.7 Dowd was impressed with Challis’s “integrity as a craftsman. [The man] set... a standard of professionalism. In other words, the instrument had to give good service, it had to work well. If it didn’t you had to do something about it. You just couldn’t build an instrument and run off.”8
Hubbard continued the saga:
In November of 1949 Dowd and I rented an unheated loft in a ramshackle building on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. We managed to scrape together enough money to buy a circular saw, band saw, drill press, two benches, and a surplus army coal stove wich devoured endless quantities of fuel without producing any noticeable heat. Cold winter mornings we huddled around that stove until eleven before we could find courage to venture into the corners of the room. Even so, we did manage to lay down four harpsichords which were epoch making in the simple fact that we were attempting to follow old models. Subsequent opportunities to examine the interior construction of old harpsichords have indicated how far we inadvertently departed from ancient practice, but at least we had been the first to set foot on the new path. That our philosophy of harpsichord making filled a need sensed by many musicians is indicated by the fact that all four were sold before they were finished.9
Of these first harpsichords based on a 1637 Johannes Ruckers single-manual instrument, the first went to Thomas Dunn, the second to Albert Fuller. The third went, for a short time, to an amateur, Austin Ashley, and then to David Fuller. Number four, a two-manual harpsichord to the same design as the three single-manual instruments, was purchased by Stoddard Lincoln.10 Between 1949 and 1955 the partners also completed fourteen restorations of antique instruments and built four clavichords, six small Italian harpsichords, and two English double harpsichords. A large German harpsichord with 16-foot register was designed by Hubbard and Dowd, but Dowd did most of the actual construction of this project, while Hubbard went back to Europe for two years to continue his research on historic harpsichords.
During Hubbard’s absence Dowd reorganized the business. The workshop was moved to the barn of the Lyman Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Charles Fisher joined the firm as a third partner. An important new design based on the work of Pascal Taskin was initiated, and the first five of these instruments went to a trend-setting crew of younger harpsichordists: Louis Bagger, Thomas Dunn, Albert Fuller, David Fuller, and Ralph Kirkpatrick (next to Landowska the best-known player in the United States at this time). David Fuller’s Taskin model, Hubbard and Dowd number fifty-five, was the first of the firm’s instruments to have Delrin plastic plectra. The partners had discovered that this synthetic material produced a sound similar to that made by quill in antique instruments.
In 1958 Hubbard bought out Dowd’s share of the partnership. The following year Dowd established his own workshop in Cambridge, where he continued to build the Taskin model as well as a newly designed Italian harpsichord. “Frank never liked to do the same thing twice, and I did. I also felt that we had come to a point where we had produced some excellent instruments but we really hadn’t done anything with them. We were years behind in orders and were making enemies because we weren’t producing anything on time.”11
Important changes were occurring in the basic concept of the harpsichord. In 1964 Dowd introduced a newly designed harpsichord based on a Blanchet instrument of 1730. Like the earlier Taskin-style harpsichord, it became extremely popular with professional harpsichordists. In 1965 Dowd rethought the keyboards of his instruments, copying the key size, pinning, and balance point of historic models. In 1966 he dropped the widely used plywood cases in favor of solid softwood cases made of linden or poplar. Step by step he was reinstating the practices of the past.
Professional concepts of what constituted a proper harpsichord were changing radically. As Dowd pointed out, the three great controversies of mid-century were “the sixteen-foot choir, quill versus leather, and pedals.” The 16-foot stop was not offered in Dowd harpsichords after the earliest unsuccessful experiments, and it was gone from the instruments of most other builders by 1970. Quill-sounding Delrin was the plectra material, the only exception being an occasional instrument with a soft buffalo leather peau de buffle stop added. Dowd was willing, through the late 1960s, to build pedals if one insisted on them, but he used his considerable skills to talk his customers out of the idea.12
Hubbard was pursuing a similar path, building a reputation for exciting instruments made with consummate craft, a reputation only slightly marred by the haphazard organization of his shop, which cast doubt on predictions of delivery dates. Both makers attracted hordes of young apprentices, many of whom went on to establish their own shops, making the “Boston School of Harpsichord Makers” more nearly a university. Even a partial list of alumni is impressive: Jeremy Adams, Christopher Bannister, Walter Burr, Carl Fudge, Willard Martin, John Nargesian, William Post Ross, Thomas and Barbara Wolf, and fortepiano makers Philip Belt and Robert E. Smith. The third of the most established Boston builders, Eric Herz (born 1919), spent two years with Hubbard and Dowd, then started his own shop in Harvard, Massachusetts, in 1954. He settled in Cambridge in 1963. Herz’s well-regarded and widely played harpsichords owed more to John Challis’s spirit of innovation than to the Boston School’s search for historic truth. The use of fiberglass lamination for the soundboards and a generally heavier construction of the instruments’ cases were quite far removed from the norm for the Boston builders.
In a move that expanded both his business and his influence, Hubbard surprised many by producing do-it-yourself instruments in kit form. When asked “What led you to the kit idea?” he responded, laughing, “Money!” The great success of this venture was evident in the number sold: more than 1,000 kits or partially assembled harpsichords by the time of Hubbard’s death in 1976.
There are really several things. To begin with I was hounded by amateurs who wanted to make their own harpsichords and came around for advice and I found myself repeating the same things over and over again. Then too, my natural bent in harpsichord making is somewhat experimental and fussy in nature and I am not very well psychologically equipped for mass production. I got married and was starving to death so it seemed to me that this kit might turn out to be a meal ticket which would subsidize making harpsichords and that’s exactly what it is.
In addition I found the problem interesting. The problem of designing an instrument and methods of making it which an amateur could build without too much experience and training. I enjoyed working that out.13
An enduring legacy of Frank Hubbard’s scholarship was his pioneering book, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, published by Harvard University Press in 1965. Nearly twenty years later Gustav Leonhardt wrote,
Whatever refinements have been made and will be made in the knowledge of early harpsichord making, his monumental book will last, as it laid the foundation for the structure of knowledge as well as creating the structure itself. Only those now fifty years of age can comprehend how large a step Frank Hubbard took. He could hardly take for granted the accuracy and completeness of earlier researches and found that many widely held beliefs even proved to be erroneous.14
Dowd, too, made an enduring impression on the European harpsichord scene when, in 1972, he reversed centuries-old cultural patterns and established a second location for harpsichord construction in Paris. With the operation directed by Reinhard von Nagel, the shop made William Dowd harpsichords for Europe. The Paris atelier had produced 235 instruments by May 1983—a mighty nudge in the direction of an effective classical revival on the Continent.15
KIRKPATRICK JOINS THE SURGE TO THE PAST
The effect of the Hubbard and Dowd instruments on harpsichord playing was nowhere more evident than in the work of the foremost concert player in America, Ralph Kirkpatrick. Looking back at the end of his distinguished career, he wrote:
With the arrival on the scene of Hubbard and Dowd and their imitators there began what for me was a joyful period; but it began far too late. I now discovered new resources of playing and I enjoyed the privilege of bringing out the beauties of an instrument rather than being obliged to conceal its defects. I was not only enabled to get rid of all those fancy registrations, but I was able as the action improved to cultivate a vocabulary of articulation that far exceeded anything I had before possessed.
. . . Thanks to these instruments I was able during the years of the late 1950s and 60s to make enormous progress in my playing. For the first time I played a harpsichord by Martin Skowroneck [born 1926], one of the few European instrument makers at that time who was working along the same general lines as Hubbard and Dowd. I discovered that thanks to its action I had no trouble in balancing the eight-foot of the upper manual against the tutti of the lower manual while literally following Bach’s indications of piano and forte in the Italian Concerto. At last I was able to play this piece without tinkering with the registration, as I had been obliged to do on all my existing recordings of it. My report to Bill Dowd of this experience may have had something to do with that alteration in the action of his keyboards that made it possible to balance one register against another by means of touch. . . . 16
Kirkpatrick, playing the responsive new harpsichords, toured widely in the United States. A typical news account of his activites in 1960 appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
There is going to be more harpsichord playing in the United States by both professional and amateur musicians, Ralph Kirkpatrick, harpsichordist, predicted yesterday after rehearsal with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall.
Kirkpatrick will be the first harpsichordist to appear as assisting artist in the regular series of the orchestra in its 42 years. He will play in three concertos for harpsichord and orchestra, Robert Shaw conducting. . . .
He believes that a harpsichord type of instrument is destined to play a household role comparable to that of the old upright piano of the American parlor at the turn of the century, and that it will become common for American children to take harpsichord lessons.
He said such a trend was already well established in Europe, especially in Germany, where there is now mass production of harpsichords. He said that at Steinway’s in Hamburg he saw three times as many of these as pianos.
Kirkpatrick is in the process of recording all the keyboard music of Bach (except that for organ) on the harpsichord and clavichord for a German recording company.
He attributed the revival of interest in these instruments, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in part to a change of musical taste and to increased appreciation and respect for composers of those times.
But he said that such instruments (whose strings are plucked) are also suitable for expressing the musical ideas of modern composers. He will soon give an entire program of modern music for an audience in California.
One concerto he will play here is a modern work in one movement by Quincy Porter [1897-1966], who is Joseph Battell Professor of Music at Yale University. . . .
The harpsichord Kirkpatrick will play is a new one marked “William Dowd Boston 1960,” which the musician termed “magnificent.” It was borrowed for the concerts from the First Unitarian Church . . . Shaker Heights, where Robert Shaw is minister of music.
Kirkpatrick said there is no doubt that the best harpsichords in the world are made in the United States.
Kirkpatrick is credited with being an important influence in the revival of popularity of keyboard music for plucked strings. . . . Through hundreds of personal performances and recordings over many years he has familiarized people with this instrument and the music made for it.17
The other works with solo harpsichord on this program were Bach’s Concerto in A major, BWV 1055, and Manuel de Falla’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Ensemble.
Kirkpatrick’s interest in new music for the harpsichord was genuine and ongoing. In 1939 he gave a program of twentieth-century works at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall, with compositions by Ernst Levy, Otto Luening, Robert Oboussier, H. A. Seaver, John Barrows, Robert McBride, and Florent Schmitt. In a Town Hall concert with violinst Alexander Schneider on 30 November 1945, Kirkpatrick premiered one of the most distinguished American works with harpsichord, Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord by Walter Piston (1894-1976). Subsequently this work was recorded for Columbia Records as part of the Modern American Music Series.18 The concert of modern music mentioned in the Cleveland interview was given at the University of California at Berkeley on 26 January 1961. Kirkpatrick wrote in his program notes:
This is my first complete program of modern harpsichord music in over twenty years. While it represents only a small segment of the music that has been composed for the harpsichord in our time, and while it does not even pretend to present a balanced sampling of styles and schools, it contains a number of works I have long intended to play, and one at least, especially written for this program. It is my intention henceforth frequently to perform contemporary harpsichord music and to encourage those experiments with the harpsichord in which nearly every composer of my acquaintance has expressed an interest. . . .
I have always been more interested in what can be suggested through the harpsichord than in the mere harpsichord itself. . . . Therefore, while I see the practical future of modern harpsichord music substantially oriented toward exploitation of its most striking peculiarities ... I welcome with interest and hope any attempt ... at liberating the instrument from its confining specialties and making for it a place, no matter how modest, in the main stream of musical expression.
The concert began with the premiere of Set of Four by Henry Cowell (1897–1965), which seems tailor-made for Kirkpatrick:
I never asked Henry if he so intended it, but the passages with the tone clusters [in the opening movement, Rondo] always reminded me of a hymn tune played on a wheezy old harmonium. Somewhere in the piece [at the very end of the fourth movement, Fugue and Resume] there is a trill in octaves for the left hand which Henry put in at my special request. Along with other corresponding features I have abnormally large hands whose extensions were further increased by stretching exercises given me by a piano teacher when I was eleven or twelve years old. The result has been that I have always been able to trill in octaves with either hand but found little use in classical keyboard literature for this slightly monstrous capacity. However when I was still playing continuo I occasionally noticed the page turner looking with horrified astonishment at my left hand creeping over a bass doubled in legato octaves.19
Also on this program were works by Lou Harrison (Six Sonatas20), Frederick Delius, Ernst Lévy, Peter Mieg, Halsey Stevens, Douglas Allanbrook, Daniel Pinkham, Mel Powell, Vincent Persichetti (first movement of Sonata for Harpsichord, opus 52), and David Kraehenbuehl (Toccate per Cembalo, 1955).
Kirkpatrick was recognized as a man of stature outside the world of music: In 1963 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1964 a member of the American Philosophical Society. In 1965, after twenty-five years at Yale, Kirkpatrick was promoted to full professor. “High time,” he is reported to have snorted when a colleague congratulated him.
An aging master in 1973, Kirkpatrick returned to earlier repertoire when he played the Goldberg Variations again:
Ralph Kirkpatrick played ... in Houston’s Rothko Chapel on February 10 and 11. Indeed, so great was the demand for tickets that he played Bach’s superb work three times in less than twenty-four hours. One might have feared, having tickets for the third presentation, that such an effort would leave the artist in less than full command of his technical resources, but such was not the case. Kirkpatrick played magnificently with a prodigious technical command of the work as well as with spacious feeling for the overall architecture of Bach’s most lengthy set of variations.
Mr. Kirkpatrick’s playing has mellowed through the years. A sense of nuance, not always present in the past, is now most gratifyingly there. He played the Goldbergs complete, with all repeats, on his William Dowd instrument of 1966, a harpsichord with handstops. There were very few changes of registration: all double keyboard variations were played with the two eight-foot stops, left hand on the upper manual and right hand on the lower. With the richness of sound provided by these two stops, however, all was sufficient. Bach himself provides all necessary changes of color in his masterful creation.21
The very next year Kirkpatrick underwent a successful, but serious, heart operation. Soon thereafter the eye problems that had plagued him for thirty-five years became irreversible and he went totally blind.
To watch Ralph Kirkpatrick make his way onto the stage of New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was a moving experience. His recital on 29 May 1981, was a special event of the first Boston Early Music Festival. Refusing, as always, to be assisted to the harpsichord, Kirkpatrick had affixed a string from the tail of the instrument to the far stage doorway. Touching this thread lightly, he made his way slowly to the instrument. He seated himself, oriented his hands on the keyboards, and began to play works from the greatest of Baroque masters: Couperin (the 18th Ordre), Rameau, and his signature composer, Scarlatti (six sonatas). It had been fifty-one event-filled years since his first recital across the river at Harvard’s Paine Hall.
Just before this concert, the Boston critic Richard Dyer wrote of the elderly musician:
Today Ralph Kirkpatrick is still full of energy and vitality. He continues to play concerts as often as he feels like it; he is writing his memoirs22 and preparing various musicological studies and a “catechism” for performers for publication;23 he plays the great Romantic literature of the piano for his personal pleasure; he continues to restudy his own repertoire (about thirty full recital programs, from memory); he is putting poetry in several languages into Braille; and he has decisive opinions about everything, which he sets forth with charm, verve and edge.
“If you concern yourself exclusively with the keyboard, you will asphyxiate yourself.” “Boston is full of memories for me, but you must not forget that it is the land of the bean, the cod, and the tin ear.” “I don’t teach master classes. You cannot paint a house that has not been built.” . . . “My best recorded playing is in the second book of the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier,’ particularly in the clavichord version.” “Students found me disturbing because I asked questions rather than answering them.”24
Looking back at a rich life devoted to music and a career that extended from the pioneering days of the early-music movement to the post-classical harpsichord revival, Kirkpatrick wrote:
With so many people in the [early music] game, it is natural that there are the mediocre who are attracted by mediocrity. They often attach themselves to composers who ought to have been buried as soon as possible after their exhumation, many of them keyboard composers. But nevertheless there are all sorts of admirable and beautiful things to be found in this over-populated world of early music. Let us hope that once more sanity will return, that music will once more dominate over concern with instruments. . . .25
With concerted opinions the two primary revivers of the historic harpsichord expressed a similar view. To the question “Have you any philosophies pertaining to your life as a builder that you would like to share with us?” Frank Hubbard responded:
I would say that I see myself faced with a body of music that, of course, is part of the period in which it was composed. . . . [A] composer from the past had a talent greater than anything I will ever have. He used the means at his disposal in an imaginative way that staggers my imagination. Therefore, the only word I can apply is arrogance to the people who feel they can devise a harpsichord more suitable to his music than the instrument he had, because he wrote his music for that harpsichord. That’s why I feel so strongly that one should attempt to return to the original instruments. . . .26
And William Dowd made this summation:
The classical revival is more than thirty years old and has long since prevailed over the modern school. The vast majority of harpsichords made today in the United States and Europe are to classical designs, and the least distinguished among them sounds better to us than the best of those made before 1950. To be musical, however, far more is required of a harpsichord than beauty of sound. A good harpsichord not only sings, but it “speaks” articulately. That is to say, its tone quality is such that minute differences of detache can be perceived making it possible to mold and phrase a musical line. The player can create an illusion of crescendo, decrescendo, or even sforzando. Each stop should have its own characteristic quality, while not being unnaturally different from the others, and the ensemble should grow from its parts. . . .
I would like to think that these instruments, if presented to the great harpsichordists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, would not only be accepted as normal to their use, but would please them.27