CENTREVILLE, Del. - Something about harpsichords invites their owners and champions to regard them as living creatures.
Certainly, the exceedingly rare specimens being played at Brandywine Baroque's Dumont Concerts series today and tomorrow have maneuvered through the centuries, quirks intact, heroically cheating the formidable odds posed by some of Western civilization's greatest calamities.
One Brandywine instrument is among only 14 Iberian harpsichords to skirt the Spanish Civil War, not to mention the nearby Lisbon earthquake. The French Revolution destroyed 99 percent of that country's harpsichords, yet one now resides at the Barns at Flintwood here where Brandywine concerts are held.
The newest addition to artistic director Karen Flint's collection - a 1635 Antwerp instrument from the Ruckers firm, which surfaced in a Paris furniture auction in 1997 and went for a fire-sale price (less than $100,000) - bounced back with little post-restoration trauma.
"A violin left dormant for 10 years will take a couple months before it sounds like anything. And it will object - loudly. Harpsichords [usually] do the same thing . . . but this one woke up instantly," said harpsichord builder John Phillips, who restored the instrument. "It was like Rip van Winkle. One yawn and off it went!"
No explanation as to why: "I guess it was ready to."
Such characterization of wood, strings and the bird quills that pluck them is in keeping with the psychology of performers. Violinists say their instrument is the voice of their soul; harpsichordists see the instruments as collaborators and teachers. "The instrument plays the music, not the player," emphasizes eminent harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, who performs tonight's concert.
"An instrument can tell you something fundamental about the tempo that allows the music to speak eloquently. . . . [Composers] Johann Jakob Froberger or Girolamo Frescobaldi . . . sound boring on a late-18th-century harpsichord. But when played on a 17th-century instrument, tuned according to the principles of the period, they suddenly jump into musical life as passionate, profound, expressive music," Moroney added in an e-mail interview.
Such discoveries keep harpsichordists increasingly busy - as do reams of once-dismissed music that comes out of hiding. This year's Dumont Concerts feature pieces from the Borel Manuscript, stashed away for years by pianist Alfred Cortot and now seen as a trove - 110 French harpsichord pieces from the seldom-aired period between 1650 and 1670, most of which haven't survived in any other form. Among the significant discoveries are works by Jean-Henry d'Anglebert. So high-profile recordings of that composer's complete harpsichord works, made only a few years ago, are no longer complete.
Few musical instruments have had such a perceptual journey from the essential to the trivial and back - thanks to, and in spite of, a relatively recent artistic dead end: Wanda Landowska (1879-1959). She became the first modern superstar harpsichordist, and though she is still idolized as one of the great musicians of her day, her harpsichord was a modern hybrid that inflated a salon instrument into something easily heard in large, modern halls. Detractors compared its sound to running a fork across a bird cage, or skeletons copulating on a tin roof.
Near the end of her life, even Landowska saw the need to meet the instrument on its own terms. Such activities gathered steam in England, home of many harpsichords surviving from the instrument's heyday. In contrast to the one-instrument-suits-everything attitude of past generations, Moroney, Flint and Adam Pearl (the three performers in the Dumont Concerts) will change harpsichords in mid-concert to accommodate the music at hand.
It's a small world - as it should be. Making harpsichords became a reclaimed trade in Boston and Berkeley, Calif., where Phillips' workshop offers reproductions of instruments (your choice of French, Flemish, etc.) priced around $35,000 with a four-year waiting period. The Dumont Concerts, held in climate-controlled circumstances, have only 90-some seats.
Moroney, professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley, happily makes the trip: The concerts have a special aura, if only because the instruments convey an authority that prompts both audiences and performers to meet them more than halfway. "With modern instruments, if we don't especially like something about the instrument, we can . . . request a change in some aspects. . . . With the antiques," he explained, "you simply have to be more humble and say, 'OK, so this is what it is - accept it.' "
It's the least you can do for instruments that, given their fragility, often hid for centuries in order to make it into ours. A symbol of upper-class France, the 1707 Dumont harpsichord was spared from revolutionary destruction thanks to a granary outside Grenoble, where it was found in the early 1970s. The 1730-ish Spanish instrument in Flint's collection was discovered in a Salamanca-area convent that was too poor to afford an organ. During the years that the 1630s Ruckers was in and out of storage, nobody tampered with the all-important sound board, which is why this instrument has particular authority.
"It really is a voice from another era. Even with new strings, it's the old wood," Phillips said. "These harpsichords are remarkably supple in terms of what you can do with them. Some say the instrument can mechanically make only one volume. But as you play them, you can create the illusion of huge dynamics. These are illusion machines."
Flint sat down at the instrument on a recent morning, creating expansive effects by sounding the notes of a chord individually. It's here that you're reminded that modesty of means is unfairly confused with triviality of expression, that brevity has little to do with importance. Given all these instruments have to impart, no wonder harpsichords seem to be living things.
"No question about it," says Phillips. "There's a joke that you should never anthropomorphize your harpsichord. It upsets them."
Hear David Patrick Stearns with more Brandywine Baroque interviews on WRTI's "Creatively Speaking" at