Amadeus Beaux-Arts

At last night’s Boston Early Music Festival concert, the harpsichord on stage was a French-style double-manual built in 1984 by the late David Jacques Way, currently owned by Boston organist and keyboard addict Peter Sykes.

That is one seriously pretty instrument. (It’s better in person—the palette actually tends towards an uncanny glowing verdancy.) Looking at it made me curse the one-size-fits-all 2001-monolith grand piano design that is now pretty much ubiquitous.

It’s interesting, given our human propensity towards all things blingy, that piano design has become so staid in comparison with its plucked ancestors. It’s probably the result of a combination of form-following-function and the music-appreciation ideal of keeping one’s attention soberly focused on the music. I would suspect the advance of the Steinway brand played no small part, as well. (And given some of Steinway’s recent forays into more elaborate cases, basic black certainly starts to look better in comparison.) But really, instruments all around have become pretty sedate, design-wise. Guitars still get a little adventurous (though less so than in the heyday of 70s metal); accordions still break out a bonanza of mother-of-pearl now and then, as does the occasional drum set. But you have to hang around the period-instrument crowd to see string instruments with heads, for example.

Someday—as soon as I am deemed worthy of attention by those fickle mistresses, time and money—I’m going to build my own harpsichord, paint it black, and then decorate it with old-school tattoo flash: skulls, hula girls, hearts that say “MOM,” &c. (At the rate I get through projects, tattoos will no longer be cool by that point—even better.)


  1. That is a beauty. I also regret the piano monoculture; why would anyone want to play Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy on the same type of instrument??

  2. You are right about those Steinways – some shockingly bad stuff. So much apparently unconscious kitsch on their part is just depressing. Schimmel has made a few odd pianos, too, but they are more amusing. Click on the three choices under “Art Collection” on this page – It would be smart to just commission artists to decorate the standard versions of pianos, rather than trying to redesign the instrument itself. Sort of like those wonderful BMW art cars decorated by the likes of Lichtenstein, Warhol, Calder, Rauschenberg, Hockney, et al.

  3. Historically, harpsichordists rarely owned such ornately decorated instruments. Such things were the domain of the rich. A 17th- or 18th-century harpsichordist would more likely have had an instrument with minimal decoration. My faded merde doie Dowd is something I never could have afforded new, and my newer instrument is very simply decorated: midnight blue with a small band of Flemish papers on the interior. But I'm not jealous of those with ornate instruments! Why would I want to worry about damaging a painting when I have enough to think about before a concert? (I am also reminded that the decoration work on some modern instruments costs more than the instruments themselves.)

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