Dan Morgenstern: The harpsichord builder

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Dan Morgenstern: The harpsichord builder

Life is combination of business and music
What is a harpsichord?

Dan Morgenstern doesn’t just enjoy building harpsichords – he has two close to completion and two ensconced in his home in Ticolote northeast of Elmore’s Corner – his brain harbors a treasure trove of knowledge about the instrument.
“I call it the Baroque home entertainment center because that’s what it was,” he said. “They were called virginals because young ladies were expected to learn how to play them as part of their finishing. They started in Italy, like everything else in the Renaissance.”
Harpsichords come in different sizes, scales and tones. Morgenstern is finishing building a muselaar, a Flemish-Dutch design that makes up about 80 percent of harpsichords, and a virginal, the English version. Like all harpsichords, they pluck the strings, albeit in different places along the string, as opposed to the piano, which has a hammer that strikes the string.
The harpsichord was a prominent instrument throughout Europe in its heyday.
“The harpsichord was the instrument played in Russia during Peter the Great’s reign, in the Age of Versailles while Louis XIV was in power,” Morgenstern said. “It was popular in Elizabethan England. Frederick the Great of Prussia, a flutist who unified Germany, played accompanied by Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, on the harpsichord.”
Harpsichords don’t just produce music, they are canvases for works of art. The two harpsichords Morgenstern is currently building feature recreations of historic paintings by his aunt, Esther Morgenstern Gilman. The muselaar showcases a group of young women playing a variety of instruments including a harpsichord, the virginal contains a scene of the “bourgeois” strolling in St. James Park in London.
The French double manual harpsichord in his living room, the instrument Morgenstern calls his magnum opus, features the Morgensterns’ son, Michael, as a cherub, the smaller has daughter, Julia, in a similar pose.
While the piano, credited to Bartolomeo Cristofori, was invented in the early 1700s, it did not instantly replace the harpsichord.
“It took 70 to 100 years,” Morgenstern said. “Part of that is the slowness of communication and transportation. And it took time to evolve. The piano of Mozart and Beethoven bears little resemblance in quality of sound and volume to pianos today.”
The harpsichord experienced a resurgence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, being used not only to play music originally composed for it, but inspiring modern composers to incorporate it in their pieces.
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