The project to build four harpsichords


            Most modern harpsichords are built one at a time using full-scale drawings and incorporating all of the measurements from the drawing with millimetre or half-millimetre accuracy into the instruments.  However, in the current project, undertaken by Graziano Bandini and Grant O’Brien in Castel San Pietro Terme, four harpsichords were made instead of one, and the measurements were taken from little more than a sketch on which the measurements were given in units of the Neapolitan oncia used in Naples until about 1840.  The use of the methods followed here is totally unique in modern times, and in many ways comes very close to the approach used in historical times.  It is perhaps the first time since the seventeenth century that the methods actually used by the historical harpsichord makers has been followed by a modern harpsichord builder and represents a major break-through in our understanding of how these instruments were designed and built.  In fact, so new are the ideas involved that a seminar to explain the principles involved was organised in the workshops of Graziano Bandini and Grant O’Brien on the weekend of February 27-29 of this year.

            Recent research by Grant O’Brien, one of those involved in this project, has shown clearly that harpsichords, like all other hand-made objects made in Italy before Unification and before the universal adoption of the metre, were designed and made using the local unit of measurement.  According to the location this was either the oncia, the soldo, or the pollice or one of the larger units like the piede, palmo, braccio, trabucco, canna, bavelle, etc.  The sizes of these units was different in each of the cities and regions throughout Italy, and therefore the size of the unit used to design and build an instrument was characteristic of each different city or region.  Since over half of the surviving antique Italian harpsichords are undated and unsigned, the determination of the size of the unit of measurement used to build them has provided a possible means for the determination of their place of origin.  The method has also been useful in the validation of some instruments of doubtful authenticity by showing (or not as the case may be) that an instrument is made in the known location of the putative maker.  The determination of the unit of measurement used to design and build an instrument is based on some simple measurements and geometrical principles used by the makers when designing and laying out the baseboard and string lengths of their instruments.  Naturally it also involves a knowledge of the different sizes of the units of measurement used in each of the major centres throughout Italy.  Over the years a database of almost 2,500 length measurements, many of which are duplicates of the same unit recorded in different sources, has been assembled in order to be able to compare the unit of measurement determined from any instrument with the various units used throughout Italy during the period from about 1500 to 1800.  This study has taken place over a period of the past 14 years and the completion of these instruments represents the culmination of this study.

            In this project the whole process has been turned around.  Here these four new instruments have been designed using an historical unit of measurement instead of determining the unit of measurement used to design a historical instrument.  The study of a number of harpsichords by Onofrio Guarracino who worked in Naples in the second half of the seventeenth century showed them to be excellent models both musically and technically on which to base these modern instruments.  Indeed these instruments were so highly regarded in the eighteenth century that many were even re-worked by Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the modern piano action, at the Medici court in Florence.  Cristofori, working in a totally different cultural and musical atmosphere, found that the qualities of these instruments were preferable to those of any other makers, and that it was worth the time and expense to import them from Naples to Florence.

            The study carried out on the instruments of Guarracino showed that he designed his instruments starting from the string lengths which were chosen in simple whole numbers of Neapolitan once, and that he then designed the case sides around the resulting string band.  Not surprising the lengths of the case sides were also based on simple whole numbers of the Neapolitan oncia.  What Graziano Bandini and Grant O’Brien have done is to design an instrument in the same way as Onofrio Guarracino in the seventeenth century with the same string lengths, plucking ratios and other musical properties.  The only difference is that the modern instruments have a slightly different compass and number of notes in order to be able to play a somewhat larger repertoire than that possible on Guarracino’s original instruments.  An oncimetro was made and divided up into units of the Neapolitan oncia.  Several sticks were marked out with the case dimensions, string lengths and plucking points.  Using these sticks the plan of the instrument was marked out onto the large piece of wood which eventually became the baseboard.  The position of the strings, the bridge and the nut, the wrestplank and all of the structural parts inside the instrument were marked out using these sticks divided out using the Neapolitan oncia.  The baseboard shape was then cut out and the internal structure of the instrument was built up onto the baseboard.  The case sides were added and the soundboard glued into the case.  The whole process went extremely quickly and in a matter of a few weeks the basic instruments swiftly evolved out of a few pieces of raw wood.