Harpsichording on...

Carey Beebe runs a harpsichord building and restoration workshop in Sydney and is an important part of the Pinchgut family. We caught up with Carey to talk all things harpsichord…

Carey Beebe

What drew you originally to harpsichords?

I found something instantly captivating about the harpsichord sound. Like many, my first experience of the instrument was probably that played by Lurch in The Addams Family. I’d already been learning piano from the time I was five, but it wasn’t until my teens that I played a single note on a harpsichord! When I started my BMus degree as a piano major at the Sydney Con in the late 1970s, I discovered that 13 of the 32 students in first year were piano majors. I particularly loved baroque music, so it was a relatively simple step to change to harpsichord. The only way I could get an instrument to practice on was to build one, which I did with the help of my father. I had no idea at that time that it would become my life’s work.

How many instruments do you build per year? Is there a variety of types?

While I’m a harpsichord maker, only part of my work is physically making. Much of my time is spent in maintenance of all early keyboards instruments—either in my own workshop or out in the field—and tuning or hire of my instruments for concerts and performances, so I’m lucky to complete one new instrument a year. My latest delivery was a Ruckers (Flemish) Double harpsichord commissioned by Pymble Ladies’ College, and opened by Paul Dyer in June. That style is my most popular model, but I also build spinets, virginals and clavichords in various traditions.

You were just in Shanghai. Do you often travel for work?

Yes, I seem to enjoy spending at least four months overseas each year. I have my business card printed in ten languages, and harpsichords took me to 15 countries in 2013. This most recent short trip was at the invitation of the Middle School affiliated with Shanghai Conservatory, to bring their near-new harpsichord of European make up to standard in time for an early music week they are having later in the month: Four specialists from Oberlin including the harpsichordist Webb Wiggins are making their second trip there to work with the young students.

Harpsichords seem to travel with an entourage, needing careful maintenance, tuning, and time to rest after travel. Why is that?

Any stringed instrument player will have noticed how sensitive their instrument is, particularly when conditions change dramatically as they can during and after travel. The harpsichord has the added complication of being a machine, so it’s not only the wood and wire being affected by change in temperature and/or humidity, but there are moving parts to consider as well: its mechanism must work faultlessly. Harpsichordists obviously learn how to tune their own instrument, but for critical applications it’s essential for a specialist like myself to be around to help prepare the instrument and make sure it is functioning and sounding as best it can – a great stress reduction for the conductor and other keyboardists because such work is, by its nature, rather time-consuming, and disruptive to their normal pre-concert focus.

Which harpsichords will be featured in Cavalli’s Giasone? Can you tell us a bit about them and what kind of instrument would have been used in Cavalli’s time?

Well, it’s not just a simple case of plunking any harpsichord in the middle of an orchestra and hoping for the best. The harpsichord was the central instrument for more than three centuries of Western music, but each era and region had their own requirements. To Pinchgut’s credit, substantial care is taken in the selection of appropriate keyboards for each production. The Italian harpsichords have a very distinctive sound because of their all-brass stringing and rapid “crunch” of attack. The differences are very obvious when compared side-to-side with the voluptuous sounding late French Double we used last year for the Rameau. Most early Italian operas are continuo-intensive, so we will using two Italian harpsichords, a wooden-pipe organ and a regal – the latter being a snarly reed organ whose sound was particularly associated with the Underworld. 

You're pretty involved with pre-production and performances during Pinchgut seasons. Why is that?

To mount an opera in a month is no easy task as you know, and the keyboard instrument preparations certainly ramp up when we proceed into the orchestral calls with the extra instruments and players coming into the picture. Part of the problem is that as the temperature rises as it always does during performances, the stringed instruments go flat whereas the wind instruments (including the organ) go sharp. The audience will certainly see me making my regular cameo appearance in the City Recital Hall pit during every interval!

Are there many historical harpsichords in Australia? Have they arrived recently in our history?

Australia is a relatively young country, established at the time when the popularity of the harpsichord was being eclipsed by that upstart, the piano. It is believed that the first harpsichord which reached our shores was brought by the gentleman convict John Grant in 1804, and probably returned to England with him when he was pardoned seven years later. The exact details of his instrument are unknown: It was almost certainly of English make, but could have been a spinet rather than a full-sized harpsichord. The few historic plucked keyboard instruments that are here now, have arrived more recently. There are a few English harpsichords (Sydney, Melbourne and Perth), one or two English spinets (Sydney), and a particularly rare small Ruckers virginal (country NSW) that I know of.

What would be some highlights for you in your career as a restorer/builder?

Ooh, it’s been a buzz. There’s been so many highlights, and I’m only halfway through! But if I think of just this past year, I’d have to name the opening of my 2011 Ruckers Double in March for the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman by Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra; the inaugural Hobart Baroque Festival; my fifteenth year as tuner/technician at the Carmel Bach Festival in California; and my being humbled at witnessing the amazing eighteenth century workmanship of my original 1773 Jacobus et Abraham Kirckman harpsichord during its restoration.