Ivory Towers

By Judith Green

Pianos haven’t had ivory keys since the ’70s,
at least, when an international treaty banned the use of ivory in an attempt to curtail ivory poaching and the slaughter of elephants.

But ivory is still a part of the instruments made by Willard Martin ’64 and restored by Richard Groman ’78, two men whose musical passions are worlds apart yet oddly connected.

In personality, too, they couldn’t be more different—yet an hour in their company leaves you with the same feeling, that comets and pinwheels are whizzing through your brain from the amount of knowledge that just pours out when they talk.

Willard Martin, an internationally known maker of harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments, lives in a deconsecrated Russian Orthodox church in South Bethlehem. His home since 1980, it’s part living quarters, part workshop, part harpsichord showroom: a gigantic magpie’s nest of personal effects, books, crafts, assorted furniture, and ongoing projects. A terrarium with a turtle sits on a tabletop; under it (the table, not the turtle) is a 400-pound bell with an encrusted bronze finish from the church’s original carillon. On a trampoline in the middle of the room is a copy of the Kabbalah (medieval Jewish mystical writings) and a new translation of the musical and astronomical theories of Johannes Kepler, along with gadgets, pencils, a basket of telephone cords, and a fiber-optic decorative object that looks like the kind of bouquet a robot would give to his robotess.

In other words, if you put out your hand in any direction, who knows what it might close on? Nothing dangerous, but lots of things, each more fascinating than the next.

An interview with Willard is a journey through history, philosophy, music, craftsmanship, theology, and the natural sciences. I ask a question about ivory keys. “If you’re interested in ivory, let me show you something,” he says and pulls an elongated shoebox from an upper shelf in his workshop. Inside is a splendid flute of rosewood with ivory stanchions and an ivory coupler in the center where the two halves of the flute are joined. The barrel is at least 2 inches in diameter; clearly, this is a low-pitched instrument. It’s a modern copy of a much earlier flute, made by a Russian instrument-maker with marital problems. (Don’t go there.) As for the ivory, it has a strange sheen and a slightly yellowish cast, like buttermilk. “Do you know that there are tons of ivory lying around the world, free for the taking?” he asks. “Yup. Mastodon ivory. Only problem is, it’s all frozen in glaciers.” This flute has mastodon ivory. Hence its special delicate color and finish, for ivory is nothing more than the same cellulose-based stuff of human hair and nails, just compressed a zillionfold to become hard as marble.

All that from one question, answered in three minutes.
The grandson of Moravian missionaries to the Caribbean, Willard graduated from Moravian at an escalation point in the Vietnam War and had but one career goal in mind: dodging the draft. He and a friend, Deirdre Kehs [McKosky] ’70, had motorcycles, and Willard wanted to meet Deirdre’s cousin Charles Fisk, a well-known organ-builder. “We thought nothing of getting on our motorcycles on the first day of March and visiting him in Gloucester, Massachusetts.” Deirdre thought he made harpsichords, too, but she was wrong, and Fisk told him: “Go visit my old friend from Harvard, Bill Dowd.” Now, William Dowd is the most famous maker of harpsichords from the beginning of the early-music renaissance. “He hired me, sight unseen, because Charlie Fisk sent me,” says Willard. “I went to work the day after Commencement.”

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Photo: John Kish IV