Bach’s harpsichords for Valletta Baroque Festival
Two specially commissioned harpsichords based on original J.S. Bach design for the Valletta Baroque Festival. Veronica Stivala tunes in to harpsichord maker BRUCE KENNEDY
Photo by Kevin Kiomall
Three stunning harpsichords stood proudly in American designer Bruce Kennedy’s workshop situated among the cypress trees in the Tuscan countryside. I wish I was actually in the sprawling workshop but a videocall with the talented and amicable Kennedy is certainly the next best thing.
Sources: Webwork.Amsterdam and Kennedy Harpsicords.com
One of these harpsichords, particularly an eye-catching red and black Mietke, was procured by Festivals Malta especially for the Valletta Baroque Festival. It recently joined its twin, bought some four years ago, allowing for an expansion of repertoire to works for two keyboard instruments.
Pictured: Valletta Baroque Festival Artistic Director, Kenneth Zammit Tabona (left) and Festivals Malta CEO, Annabelle Stivala (right). Photo by Kevin Kiomall
From the beginning of the festival in 2013, creator Kenneth Zammit Tabona had always dreamt of having a Kennedy but had to wait several years to justify the investment. He explains how “it was in fact thanks to Marco Mencoboni who also directs the Monteverdi Project [another of his creations] and who is a superb and inspired keyboard player that the connection with Bruce was made. We haven’t looked back.”
Kennedy is a maker of world-famous harpsichords known for their extraordinary sound, used for concerts in most prestigious concert halls and owned by prominent musicians and leading music institutions. He ranks among the top five of harpsichord builders in the world.
The history of contemporary harpsichord construction is very particular as harpsichord builders today had to learn from scratch – through trial and error – how to make the instrument after they stopped being produced entirely with the advent of the piano in the mid 1700s. “Once [the harpsichord] died people like me had to reinvent it,” explains Kennedy. He goes on to add how they “had examples of antiques to look at and study but, you can only copy so much.” He confides how there are so many aspects as to why instruments vibrates the way it does and which one learns with experience. “This,” he notes, “is a process you can only do at the beginning. You can’t communicate it to others. It’s a feeling.”
Photos by Kevin Kiomall
So while Kennedy outsources a good part of the construction of the various parts of the harpsichord, the building of the soundboard always remains entirely in his hands. Indeed, he points out, “if I was to put the soundboard in the hands of others it would sound different”. Making the soundboard is the most difficult aspect and Kennedy jokes that harpsichord makers reserve a certain envy for violin makers who only have four strings – as opposed to some 183 in the harpsichord – to contend with!
Kennedy runs a workshop – Kennedy Harpsichords SRL – and thanks to his team is able to produce a harpsichord a month. To date, they have produced an impressive 206 harpsichords.
The Mietke harpsichord, the one Festivals Malta has bought for the Valletta Baroque Festival, is ideal for the Bach repertoire. Kennedy’s workshop produces 25 different models, but the Mietke is the most popular. They have made it more than 100 times for various notable institutions. Bach probably contacted Mietke personally to commission some instruments, providing instructions for their construction. This harpsichord has a warm and intimate timbre well balanced between bass and treble (hence ideal for the delineation of voices in contrapuntal writing). It was Bach in fact who led Kennedy to creating harpsichords. Kennedy’s impulse to create his first harpsichord arose with a desire to have an appropriate instrument for his own use to play the music of J. S. Bach.
Kennedy Harpsichords SRL has harpsichords in most conservatories worldwide and Malta can consider itself lucky to be the owner of two of these gems. Audiences will therefore be blessed to be able to hear the new harpsicord during tomorrow's performance by the Monteverdi Project 'The Rediscovered Madrigals of the Mdina Archives' and during future editions of the Valletta Baroque Festival during various Ensemble concerts.
Indeed, Kennedy’s love for the harpsichord and its music led him some 15 years ago to found an Academy for the advanced study of the harpsichord that is called the Piccola Accademia di Montisi. The academy is not as small these days as it was originally conceived. It has hosted some 500 harpsichordists from 43 countries since it opened its doors. It is now affiliated with the Juilliard School in NYC, the Institute Francais at the Villa Medici in Rome, Cambridge University, the Utrecht Early Music festival. Zammit Tabona is hoping to create a Piccola Accademia master class in Malta next year so watch this space…
The Valletta Baroque Festival is produced by Festivals Malta in collaboration with Teatru Manoel and Visit Malta with performances between the 18 and 28 of January 2022. For tickets and for more information, visit www.vallettabaroquefestival.mt
Article written by Veronica Stivala. Videography and Photography by Kevin Kiomall.