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In general, the concert programmes presented by the KPO are varied and diverse, ranging from contemporary works to large Romantic Symphonies. Occasionally the odd baroque piece is performed — which usually prompts the despairing cry of “But where shall we find a harpsichord?”
The answer is that we do not find a harpsichord, but we do find a spinet; in particular, an English Bentside spinet, kindly lent to us by Diana Ford. This acquisition always elicits attention from both orchestra and audience members alike so I went in search of Diana to find out more about this attractive musical instrument.
Diana Ford lives locally, teaches double bass and plays in various community orchestras, including the KPO. Though trained as a teacher of art, Diana says that she had “always been in love with harpsichords and their distinctive sound.” However it was only in the early 1980s that she discovered Carey Beebe, a Sydney musician and harpsichord maker. He invited Diana to decorate one of his harpsichords. It was traditional for the soundboard — the horizontal piece of wood which lies beneath the strings — and occasionally the inside of the lid of these early keyboard instruments to be painted. Traditional designs were of pastoral scenes or, more usually, flower decorations, the latter being popular as flowers, per se, had yet to reach Europe except in the form of paintings (most gardens were reserved for the growth of vegetables and fruit).
Diana estimates that she has painted approximately fifteen of Carey’s harpsichords to date, the most recent being the newly acquired Barker College harpsichord. Though each may take an average of eighty hours to decorate it is nonetheless a particularly fulfilling task for Diana as it “combines my love of art, music and gardens.”
Strictly speaking, the piano did not develop from the harpsichord, spinet or the virginal but is more closely related to the clavichord. Like the piano, the clavichord produces sound through the striking of the strings, whereas the strings of the harpsichord, spinet and virginal are plucked by small plectra.
The spinet’s single set of strings runs at an angle of about 45 degrees to the right of the keyboard, as opposed to the virginal, where they run crossways from right to left, and the harpsichord where the strings run out directly in front of the player at right angles to the keyboard. The spinet was therefore recommended for its economy of space and was used in the 17th and 18th centuries more for intimate chamber music than for concert performances.
Diana’s particular spinet is made largely of alder wood and has 54
keys. These notes are opposite to the piano in that the sharps and flats are
white (made from beef bone) and the naturals are black in colour (made from
ebony). When acquiring this particular spinet from Carey Beebe, Diana first
heard it played in a recital of early English music. She inscribed the nameboard
(the vertical piece of wood in front of the keyboard) using English black letter
style. The inscription reads:
Carey Beebe fecit – 1984
– the word fecit meaning “made.”
Diana was also rather pleased to inform me that Handel owned a Bentside spinet which is now housed in the Royal College of Music, London.
Although the sound of these early keyboard instruments has been variously described as a “scratch with a sound at the end of it” or “a performance on a birdcage with a toasting fork,” there is no doubt that for KPO members and audiences alike the addition of Diana Ford’s spinet always provides a new visual and aural dimension to our performances.
Article by Louise Keller
Journal of the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra Incorporated
September 2000, Volume 2, Number 2
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