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Carey Beebe at the Willard Martin harpsichord in Hong Kong 23K jpeg
Doctor on call: Carey Beebe’s work
takes him far afield.

The ‘doctor’ who stays highly strung

All harpsichords need tender loving care. Jane Ram meets the man administering it

Early music lovers from Port Moresby to Xian can sleep soundly. The harpsichord doctor is doing his rounds.

Instead of pills, potions and stethoscope, Carey Beebe’s 30-kilogram bag holds reels of wire, quills, knives and tuning hammers—all to keep harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments in perfect health.

Although harpsichords are not quite as frail as their dainty appearance and subtle timbre suggests, they require different treatment from the more robust modern pianos. This is why Beebe, 34, is already Australia’s most travelled specialist builder, restorer and general fixer of harpsichords and other historic instruments.

His parents wanted him to be a concert pianist but he admits that he was never enthusiastic about practicing. During his studies at the Sydney Conservatorium, he seized the opportunity to learn the harpsichord.

Soon he needed an instrument and ordered a kit from leading international suppliers, Zuckermann.

As he and his father assembled it, Beebe realised there was a great deal more to a harpsichord than merely playing it.

Like every harpsichordist, Beebe soon learned the rudiments of tuning and maintenance to keep it in good order. But he felt that this was not enough.

With his degree (the first awarded by the conservatorium to a harpsichord major) and three professional diplomas behind him, Beebe looked set for flourishing career as a performer.

Instead, he headed for Connecticut in the United States where he trained at the workshop of Jacques Way, the maker of the Zuckermann kits. The timing was perfect: in 1982, the Australian representative for Zuckermann wanted to retire and Beebe was invited to take over as the company’s youngest international agent.

More than a decade later, he continues to expand his knowledge by scrutinising original instruments in museums and private collections around the world as well as attending international professional symposia and workshops on new materials and techniques.

Building and maintaining instruments is only part of Beebe’s work.

He also delights in spreading the word about the joys of early keyboard instruments through illustrated lectures, demonstrations and open days where he welcomes those attending for a “hands on” experience of the harpsichord’s special appeal.

On Monday he will be at the University of Hong Kong Music Department presenting a Lunchtime Guided Keyboard Tour, which will be followed next week by a lunchtime harpsichord recital by Joyce Lindorff.

“It’s a pleasure to hear good musicians play on my work and it’s very satisfying to be able to step into the past and understand something of what the makers did and why,just as the players try to understand the composers’ intentions,” Beebe says.

His understanding of the harpsichord is invaluable. Like a new car, a new model requires special handling and understanding.

“It’s important to be able to play it, adjust it, play it a little more, make some more adjustments and so on until it’s reached its full potential,” Beebe says.

Unlike a car, however, there are no dials and meters on a harpsichord and the builder must rely on his judgement in matters of touch and tone to bring out the full resonance of the instrument.

When the instrument leaves Beebe’s workshop, near the George’s River bushland, half an hour south of central Sydney, that is by no means the end of his involvement with it.

Not all makers are willing to travel to do on-site service, and harpsichords are temperamental about travel.

But Beebe says he loves to travel and every year takes him further afield. Even within Australia he clocks up impressive mileage, as his work takes him to every major city at least once every two years.

He thinks nothing of a five-day drive across the Nullarbor Plain to visit some of his most isolated individual customers.

Recent years have seen a boom in Early Music and the sound of “authentic” instruments of all kinds.

“I was 19 when I first touched a harpsichord, but these days it’s not unusual for kids of five or six to start learning the harpsichord without ever having studied the piano,” Beebe says.

The distinctive plucked tone of the harpsichord can be heard in some of the most unlikely places.

Australia must have several hundred instruments, Beebe estimates, but in the past five years he has been attending to more and more instruments overseas.

Singapore has a number, including a beautiful French instrument from the time of Louis XVI, which was recently returned after a year undergoing restoration in Beebe’s workshop.

He is making his third visit to Hong Kong, where there are a score or more of harpsichords (two of them owned by French bankers, who are enthusiastic and talented players outside business hours).

Beebe has just made his first trip to Taipei, where he attended to about 10 harpsichords, and has made his first visit to Xian, in response to an SOS from a conservatory: “Our instrument requires extensive repairment. Please bring building materials.”

Before he returned to Hong Kong, Beebe did Shanghai housecalls on the beautiful harpsichord owned by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and another at the Conservatory.

And, when he finishes in Hong Kong, en route to Sydney he will blaze a new trail through the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea to check on a doctor’s Goble harpsichord.

He has already held a workshop at Baptist College, aimed at enabling players, students teachers and instrument technicians to maintain a harpsichord in top condition. Beebe hopes this will help to keep them going for a couple of years, while major work awaits his next visit.

He says he does not know how many harpsichord makers there are in total worldwide, although he does know a few who have changed their professions over the past decade, despite the undoubted romance of instrument building.

“One gifted US builder has switched to making pet slugs for American gardens. He’s a millionaire now although he never made more than US$10000 [HK$77000] a year as a harpsichord builder,” Beebe says.

For the moment, however, he is happy and does not even plan to cash in on the discovery that the wire used for harpsichord strings makes excellent cheese cutters and glider control cables.

His diversification will be geographical, as he is already planning to extend his practice to Japan next year.

Article by Jane Ram
Eastern Express (Hong Kong) September 29 1994

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