1,000 Sunday Mornings To Make A Harpsichord
GLOUCESTER, Mass. — There are labors of love, and then there’s this story. In the late 1980s, woodworker Gregory Bover decided to build a pretty incredible gift for his wife, Frances Fitch, an internationally known harpsichordist. Now, 25 years later, her new instrument is finally finished, and Tuesday night it will be played in public for the first time in Rockport.
When I arrived at the couple’s home in Gloucester, the musician was keenly focused on tuning her brand new instrument, which looks like a fine antique. She delicately turned the pegs, using a key to tighten wires inside its elaborately painted body. Her husband looked on — then took me back to the beginning.
“Francie and I met in 1975, when I was a carpenter and a boat builder, and she was in graduate school studying harpsichord and organ,” Bover said.
Bover was inspired by his love, and got a job building harpsichords with William Dowd, a legendary craftsman. Years later, one of the couple’s friends was closing down her harpsichord shop and gave them the beginnings of this instrument.
“It was mostly just pieces of wood,” Bover said. “And I started in working on it, a few hours on Sunday mornings in between everything else that is in our lives. Little by little, over 25 years, it got built.”
Twenty-five years — or as Bover puts it — 1,000 Sunday mornings, even though the couple already had two other harpsichords.
“But they are an Italian and a Flemish,” Bover explained, “and to really play some of the great harpsichord literature, Francie really needed a French harpsichord with two keyboards, like this one has.”
But the musician said there was also a more practical motivation.
“We didn’t really have the $30,000 to plunk down for a new one,” Fitch said.
In the beginning, Fitch was thrilled with her husband’s project, but as the years passed she wondered if he’d ever finish it.
“I went back and forth over the period of time that it’s taken,” she said, “being encouraging, keeping my mouth shut, saying that all I wanted for Christmas was my two front teeth — I mean a harpsichord. And so I would get a box full of sharps for Christmas, for example, just to show me that yeah, he wasn’t forgetting he was working on it.”
In his defense, Bover told me how much painstaking detail went into this effort.
“The keyboards alone took over a year of those Sunday mornings,” he said.
That’s because the seven-foot harpsichord is a faithful copy of one by famed master builder Nicholas Dumont in 1707. Only three original Dumonts survive today. The replica’s case is made of bass wood. The sound board is spruce.
“The keyboards are ebony for the naturals, and the sharps are pear wood that’s been stained black — and then they’re capped with cow bone, not ivory,” Bover said. “Cow bone would have been the choice of materials in 1707 as well.”
The 186 metal strings inside were made in England, exactly the way they were in the 18th century.
“There were moments where I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, we should just save the money and buy one!’” Fitch said.
But Fitch’s husband kept at it. He enlisted an expert friend — Allan Winkler of Medford — to help with the critical task known as voicing. Pianos use hammers to make sound, but tiny bits of quill pluck the strings inside a harpsichord.
“One has to carve them with a scape,” Bover said.
The quality of those quills can make or break the instrument’s sound. Fitch recalled the moment when she finally got to hear her harpsichord after fantasizing about it for decades.
“I already knew that it was very resonant, because you could just tap on the case and hear that whatever sound is produced by the quills is going to be very live, but I was pretty amazed that all through the range of the instrument it’s what I really had dreamed of — which is to have a fascinating sound,” she said.
Sitting at the keyboard, Fitch said she feels very lucky indeed to be on the receiving end of her husband’s perseverance.
“And I’m spoiled, because I live in a house that’s full of things that Greg made, but this is a pretty elegant piece of something made out of wood,” she said.
Bover is 100 percent satisfied with the outcome as well.
“The most fun is to build things that take you somewhere,” he said. “Either literally — like boats or musical instruments — that can move people in a spiritual way. Sometimes when I listen to Francie playing it makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.”
And Bover hopes other people will experience that sensation Tuesday night, when Fitch plays her gift at its “coming out” concert in Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center.