An Interview with Keith and Robert Hill

By · Photography Detail views of harpsichords by Keith Hill · Date 5/31/2018

“I like leather,” the famous harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková once said. Amid the harpsichord’s renaissance in the 20th century, a debate arose as to the materials that should be used for the plucking mechanism (plectra): leather or quill? While historically inspired instruments use quill or Delrin imitation, the material of choice for plectra in larger, piano-like harpsichords (the likes made by Pleyel or Neupert) is animal hide. These days, smaller, historically-inspired harpsichords have largely replaced their clunkier predecessors; finding a Neupert in New York City is actually much harder than a historical instrument. But what’s the difference, really? Harpsichordists have a way of alluding to “good” instruments without defining them. What separates a modern instrument from a historically-inspired one? What’s wrong with leather?

Via Skype from Paris, the harpsichordist Robert Hill told me that early 20th-century instruments “were constructed in the shadow of the black piano,” that is, fundamentally ahistorical. The Pleyel instruments played by Růžičková and Wanda Landowska were constructed to have the force and impact of a modern piano. Other models, such as the Neupert Bach Model, weighing two or three times what pre-industrial instruments did, were also based on the modern piano, featuring pedals and super-octave registers which would have been foreign to Bach and his contemporaries. Robert told me that these instruments are artifacts with their own historical context in the 20th century: “You can’t make any conclusions about instruments of the past, playing techniques or repertoire through playing such instruments.” He continued, “Instruments built in the likeness of pianos only perpetuate the concept of the harpsichord as a pre-piano, or an anti-piano. If we really want to get to the bottom of what the harpsichord was about, we have to remove it from the shadow of the piano completely.”

Wanda Landowska plays the first movement of Bach’s “Italian Concerto” BWV. 971 on a Pleyel harpsichord in 1936.

His brother Keith, a renowned harpsichord maker in his own right, was also on our Skype call, sitting in his kitchen in Nashville, Tennessee. He echoed his younger brother’s sentiments, making a case for the study of older instruments on their own terms. “What we often forget is that a harpsichord used to provide what televisions, radios, and stereo systems have provided in the last 70 years. They were a means of entertainment.” Keith pointed out that we have no reason to expect people’s standards for sound quality to be any different then as they are now; just as we might expect our computers and televisions to work at optimum levels, harpsichords were held to a high standard in their heyday. The problem is that the harpsichord largely died out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and unlike the violin or the piano, harpsichord makers don’t have a continuous instrument-making tradition to fall back on or trace. In particular, the French Revolution saw not only the execution of instrument makers, but the destruction of harpsichords as symbols of the aristocracy. It’s all too easy to forget the esteem in which harpsichord makers were held—they didn’t just build keyboard instruments, they also undertook other specialized engineering tasks. Ironically, in 1792, it was harpsichord maker and engineer Tobias Schmidt who was responsible for designing the guillotine. “Harpsichord makers knew exactly what they were doing in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly with regards to acoustics,” said Keith. “Finding out how they did what they did has been the project of my life.”

Around 1960, harpsichord makers started to look to the past, rather than to the pianos around them. “It was in these years that Martin Skowroneck and Dowd & Hubbard turned away from the Bach model, and started building something in the likeness of an instrument from the past,” according to Keith. “This was the turning point where instruments began to appear similar to the original harpsichords. But in sound they were like photographs compared to the real objects they were supposed to project.” For Robert, 1963 was a turning point from the performer’s perspective: “That was the year that Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt released a recording of the Bach Triple Harpsichord Concerto in D minor. For those of us who were hungry to know what Bach might have sounded like to Bach’s ears, this marked a new era.”

What if instruments, rather than written sources, are the true key to getting to the bottom of historical performance? “Working with instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries and trying to recreate them as accurately as possible is far more reliable than working with any written source. For instance, Jean Philippe Rameau’s treatise Méthode pour la Mécanique des Doigts has been used by all the great harpsichordists as a foundation for their technique, from Landowska to players today,” said Robert. “And yet, everybody plays in a completely different fashion, because you can only see in a written source what you yourself can already understand. It’s for this reason that ‘authenticity’ isn’t as much of a buzzword as it once was. Instead, authenticity has ironically become the act of sitting with an instrument and experimenting with its potential for expression.”

Jean Rondeau plays the Sarabande from Rameau’s Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de clavecin on an instrument by Keith Hill. 

Keith added that the true science of historical performance can only really take place when the instruments are either original, or as close to the original as possible. He recalled a conversation with the legendary harpsichordist Leonhardt, asking him what the difference was between his attempts to reconstruct old instruments and the old instruments themselves. “He told me that old instruments have a crisper sound, not just in their touch, but in how they resonate.” But Leonhardt made a legendary performance a work of Froberger on the Aarhus Ruckers (one of the most famous period instruments left available to us), though it was incorrectly strung in hard steel and loaded up with leather plectra. “And still, this instrument sounds ravishing,” Keith said. “It’s honestly the finest recording Leonhardt made.”

Leonhard plays Froberg’s Toccata No. 12 in A Minor on the Aarhus Ruckers, with leather plectra. 

It was from here that Keith said he stopped focusing on the plectra themselves and looked at the bigger picture. “I had spent the better part of 10 years working on quilling and plucking mechanisms, but I soon started focusing on acoustics,” he said. “I researched how historical soundboards were tuned to expose certain resonances; I started considering the differences between Italian, French and German harpsichords in linguistic terms, thinking about how the sounds from these instruments reflected the languages of their native regions. Consonants and vowels became ictus and decay,” he told me. “Even 35 years ago, I was standing under a particularly high pressure showerhead at the YMCA, and I started to hear overtones, not in the shower, but in my skull….Resonances in our bodies and in our instruments are no different.”

Keith’s instruments have a certain reputation in the harpsichord world (apart from their price tags). They’re known for having an especially deep touch, and a sound which constantly engages a performer, encouraging the exploration of harmonic sustenance and sonority by holding down the fingers for as long as possible. His instruments are also varied: it’s possible to chart the evolution of his life’s research into the history of the instrument and his obsession with evoking the sound world of the 18th century. His instruments are also highly sought. In 2015, Pierre Hantaï flew from Paris to Oberlin, Ohio to try out and purchase one of Keith’s harpsichords, a copy of an instrument by Christian Zell. After an afternoon with the instrument, Hantaï said he felt as if it “had been built for him.”

I asked Keith if there is an end in sight for his research into the harpsichord. He replied, “No, as my starting point is always to embrace my own incompetence. For a long time, I thought my instruments sucked because I was comparing them with the great-sounding instruments from 18th-century Europe. I’ve always wanted my instruments to sound as good as the original instruments, to get to the truth of how these instruments were built. I feel obliged to see the truth, and not to look at my instruments with rose-tinted spectacles.”

Elisabeth Chojnacka plays Ligeti’s “Hungarian Rock” on a modern-style harpsichord. 

Robert added, “For the performer there is not an endpoint either, if the instrument is engaging. It’s no secret that harpsichords are notoriously uncompliant and unforgiving instruments. It truly is difficult to create nuance and dynamics. But that shouldn’t deter us from tempering the instruments down just to suit our inhibitions. Players all too often tend to have no faith that a harpsichord can be truly dynamic. When you start fooling around, you start to notice that the instrument exhibits behaviors that you could never see in a modern instrument like a piano.”

Both Robert and Keith argue that trends in the construction of harpsichords can have a stultifying effect on musicianship at the instrument. “Harpsichordists lose faith all too quickly in the dynamic capacity of their instrument,” Robert said. I asked if this was because of a lack of quality instruments; without missing a beat, the two brothers answered in unison: “Yes.” Robert continued, “Look, the harpsichord is hard to play. One often gets the sensation that you’re being put off from what you ‘want’ to do. This is where the harpsichord is so different from other instruments: the better the instrument is, the more you have to overcome that sensation, and work with it.”

Overcoming the expectations of the wider musical world takes commitment. “I decided to ruin my career early on,” Keith said. “I knew that if I built just what people wanted, I would never grow. After about 1970, Martin Skowroneck had landed on a successful way of doing things and never deviated from it, only focusing on how to make them physically more stable. I was constantly criticized for the craftsmanship of my instruments, because I was focused on the sound. One forgets that many of the great harpsichords by Ruckers are rather crudely put together. It was the materials and the science of enhancing the sound that mattered to Ruckers, not the cosmetics.”

Robert Hill plays the first movement of the “Italian Concerto” on an instrument by his brother Keith. 

“I think one of the best analogies I’ve heard about this was in a TED Talk given by Paula Sher,” Robert said. “She spoke of the difference between seriousness and solemnity. As soon as you start replicating yourself, you become solemn, not serious. This is the musician’s problem always, and not just at the harpsichord or in historical performance.”

“Indeed, the tendency to clone yourself comes up far too often,” Keith added. “It’s why, since I first started building harpsichords, I noticed repeatedly that the first instrument a maker builds, not the most recent one, is usually the best sounding. After all, how are you supposed to reproduce beginner’s luck?” When asked if either of them still had Keith’s first instrument, they both laughed. Keith smiled and said, “I burned it.” ¶