Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped, “The sound of a harpsichord is two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” Beecham, however, never heard one of Gerald Self’s harpsichords.
“There's no skeleton copulating here,” Self said as he played one of his own harpsichords. “The skeleton might be doing something else.”
Self is one of the leading harpsichord makers in Texas. Step inside Self’s San Antonio home and you’ll see why. It’s filled, wall-to-wall, with harpsichords.
“Three, four, five, six, seven, eight and then nine and 10. And this one being worked on out there, and one here for a repair. So, it's a bunch,” Self explained.
All of them are Self-built. And each was constructed while paying exact attention to historic detail. He is one of about two dozen harpsichord master craftsmen in America.
“Everything you see here is plagiarism. In fact, everything you see here is outright plagiarism. I have old pictures of old instruments, and I just did my absolute best to copycat.”
Even down to the ornate paintings of flowers and insects that populate the inside of the case.
“I did my best just to, to try to copy stroke-by-stroke,” he said.
The result is an instrument that doesn’t just sound like it was plucked from another time – but also looks like it. That is what the audience saw at a recent recital at Texas State University, when afterwards they were invited on stage to get a close-up gander at one of Self’s harpsichords.
“The biggest difference for me is the keys are wider on a piano. The splatting, there is less room to fit your finger on there,” said Ezra Bartz, coordinator for the piano program at Texas State. He said he enjoys performing on a Self harpsichord.
“It’s great. It’s one of the best I’ve played on,” Bartz said.
Self is self-taught about harpsichord making and its history.
“(The) earliest type of harpsichord evolved alongside the violin. It was very light," he said. "It could be taken out and played on a table or it could be played inside the case -- you know, prop the lid up with a stick -- and because of the construction, the tone is drained off rather quickly."
“And this was the classic harpsichord for the 16th century, the 17th century," he added. "The opera orchestra grew up around this instrument.”
Over the next couple of centuries the harpsichord grew bigger and more complicated, and it produced a darker and majestic sound.
“This was basically the harpsichord at the time of the French Revolution," he said. "And most of the surviving French harpsichords were burned because they represented the excesses of the aristocracy -- you know, the new fangled instrument was the piano. So, these guys were burned in piles and the piano took over.”
But in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was a rebirth of interest in the harpsichord in the classical world and in the world of pop music. Groups like the Beatles led the way.
And it was at this time that Self discovered the harpsichord when he was at Austin College studying baroque flute music.
“I had to have one of those. And there were two options. One, you could buy for a tremendous amount of money, or you could build a very cheap harpsichord kit. And my dad and I built one. It wasn’t very good. But it was usable,” Self said.
The harpsichord was hip, and someone wanted to buy Self’s first effort. And so he built another and another. He’s crafted over 100 since; getting better at it along the way.
Self also mastered another set of instruments. Those of the woodshop – the belt sander, jig saw and drill press.
The journey to becoming a harpsichord master craftsman demanded that the 72-year-old develop a number of sets of skills. He has to be a classical musician, a historian, a painter, a mechanic and a teacher.
“But for me the real joy is going to a concert and hearing it played,” he said.
Self says when one of his harpsichords are used in a performance – he feels like he’s the one on stage.
“My nerves are, ‘Will the tuning hold?’”
Tuning a harpsichord is a bear. It takes a lot of time and patience. Slowly and methodically each string is tested and adjusted. And harpsichords are very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.
“For many years, I took instruments to Houston for concerts of Houston early music. I would move into the church around three o'clock in the afternoon. It would be for a nice, very peaceful, perfect tuning. The performers would come in and rehearse a perfect rehearsal. Then around seven o'clock you'd hear this massive air conditioner came on, and the temperature would start to drop five degrees, 10 degrees, and then the stage lights clung come on. These big heat lamps on the instrument,” Self said.
And so the combination of the cold air and the heat lamps and the tuning just starts wandering off.
“And I'm sitting in the audience hearing octaves that are not in tune going, Oh, please, please. That’s the hardest part,” he said.
Right now we are in the twilight of the modern harpsichord revival. To meet that explosion of interest in the 1960 and 70’s Self and others reclaimed what was almost a lost art. And there is the question of who will carry the flame into the future. The problem is there’s no longer a major demand for new harpsichords.
“There is not as much ‘I would like to buy a harpsichord’ as I would like. [It’s] a lot of ‘Can you fix mine?’" he said.
What keeps Self going is his love for the music. And being able to have it enjoyed the way the old classical composers intended. That’s why when it’s baroque – Gerald Self can fix it.