Harpsichord Heroics


with Byron Will, Harpsichord Maker and Byron Schenkman, Harpsichordist 

Harpsichordist Byron Schenkman will be performing in PBO’s concert, Leclair, Rameau, and the Age of Enlightenment on April 6, on a very special instrument created by Byron John Will. Below is the story of the beautiful instrument and how it came to grace our stage!

Byron Schenkman said of the concert, “As a harpsichordist I find French harpsichord music the most satisfying to play—this is the repertoire that really makes the most of the instrument’s rich sonority. 18th century French style harpsichords such as the one we’ll be using for this concert are especially delicious, with lots of variety of color and rich, resonant low notes.” He continued, “We’re lucky that Byron Will, one of the great harpsichord builders of our time, lives in the Portland area and is able to provide us with such a great instrument for this concert!”

18th century Paris was a bustling center of music creation, performance, and harpsichord making. There were no less than 80 harpsichord makers in Paris at the time of Rameau. Many composers could simply walk from their homes to the workshops and play the completed instruments from various makers. 
 
Arguably, the most famous family of builders was the Blanchet family. François-Etienne Blanchet carried on the traditions of his father Nicolas, building new instruments as well as rebuilding and enlarging Flemish harpsichords. As harpsichord maker to the king, his instruments were in high demand. François Couperin even owned a Blanchet harpsichord.
 
Regrettably, there are only four of François-Etienne Blanchet instruments left to us today. One harpsichord Byron Will has always been attracted to is a double manual (two keyboard) harpsichord Blanchet built in 1746 at the Versailles Chateau. It was restored in the late 1960s by Claude Mercier-Ythier. 
 
In 1986, after Will received a commission for a French harpsichord they chose to copy the 1746 Blanchet, with its clear singing and strong voice, and rich bass. They decided on a mid-18th century inspired black exterior and Chinese red interior, with gold bands with a  Louis XVI style stand, with turned, fluted legs.
 
However, in late 2017 Will received an email from his original client, stating he was moving his family to Washington and as the instrument needed some work done he decided to give it back to the maker saying Will  could keep the instrument or eventually find a good home for it. 

After recently completing a Flemish double harpsichord commission, Byron Will restrung his client’s Blanchet copy with a wire developed by Stephen Birkett, who is reproducing the wire used in the 18th century. The plucking material is sea gull and pelican.
 
Will said, “Having this wonderful gift in my home is a grand addition to my life-long study of French harpsichord music, and, additionally, for this harpsichord to be used in performances of this wonderful and elegant music.” 

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