Ivory Towers, cont.

He had majored in psychology and minored in music and chemistry. Most of his music courses were music history. “I play,” he says uneasily, “but I wouldn’t want to make a living at it. I took organ lessons from Allan Birney,” he says more cheerfully. “My God, is he still there? [Yes, Birney is an artist-lecturer in the Music Department.] He bought my first harpsichord.”

Of his apprenticeship, Willard says: “Dowd underpaid you for two years.” At that point, the apprentice was on his own. “I sold my harpsichord to Allan and moved to France.” Though he had gotten straight D’s in French at Moravian, “to my amazement, I quickly learned to speak French!” He worked three years for Dowd at his Paris shop, building new harpsichords after famous models and restoring old ones in various states of decrepitude. “The awareness of harpsichords was going up very fast, so lots of ‘antiques’ came out of the woodwork. It’s amazing what you find in barns.”

A discussion with Willard about harpsichords is a lesson in applied science: the change in concert pitch over the years (“Bach heard all his music a third below where we hear it”) because of the difference in materials; the tensile strength of the strings, which exert 138,000 pounds of pressure per square inch on the harpsichord frame; and the greater force and volume possible when the Steinweg (now Steinway) piano makers introduced the cast-iron frame.

He also winds himself into a happy intellectual tangle describing connections between tuning systems, where the ratio of vibrations between pitches was noted by Pythagoras, and theology, which in the Renaissance and Baroque eras was much attuned to mystical relationships between thirds and the Trinity. “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” he says of Bach’s famous collection of keyboard preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys, “confirms Luther’s theology.”

Willard estimates that he’s probably made 600 harpsichords in his 35 years in the field. Moravian alumna Sally Fortino ’72, the niece of former music department chairman Richard Schantz, has one. There’s one in Peter Hall. “It’s a paradox, because the Moravians never used harpsichords,” says Willard. “But when J. Fred Wolle started the Bach Choir [in 1898], he knew he’d need a harpsichord for Bach, and there was no harpsichord in town.” Wolle had to settle for an early pianoforte by a local maker.

Willard’s current project is the restoration of a harpsichord made in 1658 for Queen Christina of Sweden. At the moment it’s legless, the body sitting on a pair of sawhorses in his workshop, but you can see how beautiful it was and will be. The gorgeously decorated case has pastoral scenes on every facet, including the long side that normally would go against the wall. This shows, Willard says, that the instrument originally was placed in the center of the royal salon, where all sides could be admired. So he knows something about interior decoration and royal etiquette as well.

He knows, it’s clear, everything about these instruments from the insides to the outsides, the tuning system, the repertory, the milieu in which they were played, the décor that framed them. But it’s also clear that the musical gift of these instruments is one of the aspects of lesser interest to their maker, who can see a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.

Page 3>>

Photo: John Kish IV