Restoration Report

Copyright © 2019 CBH

on Kirkpatrick’s
1966 William Dowd French Double Harpsichord
now owned by the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

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1966 Dowd French Double Harpsichord 38K jpeg
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Historical background

One of the most interesting modern instruments I regularly maintain is the French Double Harpsichord built by Boston maker William Dowd (1922–2008) in 1966. This harpsichord was once owned by famous American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911–1984), probably most remembered for his critical edition of Domenico Scarlatti’s complete keyboard works.

Over the years, Ralph Kirkpatrick owned a number of Dowd instruments, and as playing style and taste changed, so too did his choice of instruments. The earlier ones had half-shifting pedals to change registration, and more than one of his Doubles had a 16⁠´ choir.

By 1966, though, the historic movement was well underway. This instrument, Dowd #85, began its life as a rather plain-looking Shop Instrument, its case a light green/gray color. Its soundboard was painted by Rosemary Pool, who worked in the Dowd shop at the time. This decoration did not please everyone, and the instrument was nicknamed “Flora”. (There was a matching “Fauna”, which actually had the soundboard painting removed!)

In 1968, Flora was purchased by Ralph Kirkpatrick, and repainted in its present color scheme of vermilion interior, black exterior. The late Don Angle (1943–2008) recalled seeing Bill Dowd actually doing some of the painting and showing Walter Burr—an employee at the time—how to apply french polish over the newly-painted case. Flora was always voiced very loudly, and was used incessantly by Kirkpatrick until he arranged its sale through a friend in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. Flora was shipped there after coming into the shop for requilling and a paint touch-up.

1966 Dowd harpsichord soundboard view 24K jpegIntroduction to the instrument
When I made my first visit to Hong Kong servicing instruments in 1991, I was not able to see Flora. However, during March 1993 when I was spending the entire month in Hong Kong at the invitation of the Hong Kong University Music Department, the Cultural Council had coincidentally scheduled Colin Tilney to give a solo recital in City Hall, and I was requested to prepare the instrument to suitable standard for the sold out performance. On a subsequent visit, I was also able to prepare Flora for several successful engagements with the late Igor Kipnis (1930–2002).

Many other visiting harpsichordists have used the 1966 Dowd. It must be one of the most frequently-heard instruments in Hong Kong, either in City Hall on HK Island, or in the Cultural Centre on the tip of Kowloon.

Keyboards & Stringing
As expected of an instrument of this vintage, the keyboards do not transpose. This means that the piano tuners must unfortunately raise or lower the pitch of the entire instrument according to the instruments it might be scheduled to be used with. The harpsichord spends most of its life at A440, but must be detuned when period instrument ensembles come to town, which they often do for the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

As a result, the strings have a hard life, with many odd replacements made over the years. The instrument was entirely restrung on a maintenance visit in 2001, and used the next day with rehearsals and concerts by the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The Dowd’s historic scaling enabled considerable tonal improvement with tinned soft US wire instead of the original steel in the treble. US red brass wire was used in the extreme bass, and yellow brass up to the low crossover for safety at F#.

1966 Dowd harpsichord action 36K jpegAction
The instrument uses the Dowd plastic jack with adjustable top screws and end pins, working in leathered registers. Many Dowd harpsichords of the 1960s had the jacks facing opposite directions to that which we expect now. As well as changing the tone, this meant that the tuning pins closest to the player actually tuned the front 8⁠´ register playable from the upper keyboard.

The old leather had worn, making accurate voicing and reliability of touch impossible. Don Angle kindly supplied exchange registers with new leather, punched to suit, and these were installed and the harpsichord revoiced with natural celcon plectra in May 2005. Opportunity was taken to revert the plucking direction of the unison choirs to match the historic norm. The dampers were replaced at the same time.

The fourth register, so thin that it was made from brass, operated an additional row of jacks on the back 8⁠´ register. For most of the harpsichord’s life, these were quilled in delrin, but voiced to contrast with the “normal” back 8⁠´. This register was made captive in 2005, pending tongue replacement for a conversion to a true peau de buffle with soft leather plectra. That work was completed in May 2007.

Movie thumb 2K jpeg Movie 1K gif Replacing a leather plectrum
Carey Beebe demonstrating replacement of a leather plectrum.
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Tsang Fook Piano Co Ltd Tuners around the 1966 William Dowd harpsichord 42K jpeg

Staff from Tsang Fook Piano Co Ltd pictured with the
1966 Dowd in the piano storeroom, backstage at the Concert Hall.
L to R: Ronald Law, General Manager; LAI Chun-fai, Junior Technician;
KWOK Chi-moon, Master Technician; Carey Beebe;
CHAN Po-chu, Pearl, Sales Manager; & YEUNG Wai-lun, Technician.

One of the most enjoyable and important parts of my work around the world is assisting the local technicians.

During the revoicing project in May 2005, I was asked to meet with the piano technicians entrusted for the upkeep of the keyboard instruments in the Concert Hall. This contract was held at the time—and is now held again—by Tsang Fook Piano Co Ltd, a company established in 1916 and still family owned.

We spent several happy hours together immersing ourselves in the operation of the harpsichord, and introducing temperaments other than the normal Equal.

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