Harpsichords Brought to Life at Zuckermann's Stonington Workshop

Jun 5, 2014

"We'll talk for an hour about how to make a piece of wood. We're not the computer generated machines of the new era."
Will Plouffe

The little seaside town of Stonington has a storied reputation when it comes to one historic instrument. For the last 40 years, it's been a center of harpsichord production.

Long before there were pianos, there were harpsichords. This keyboard instrument originated in the 15th century, and saw the end of its first heyday in the 18th century. JS Bach, Francois Couperin, and Domenico Scarlatti were some of its greatest devotees, before it it fell out of fashion, and the piano took center stage. Yet in the second half of the 20th century, the seemingly obsolete harpsichord made an extraordinary comeback.

Zuckermann Harpsichords International in Stonington is the largest harpsichord workshop in the United States. Its owner, Richard Auber, showed me around. "Every single, solitary wooden part that goes into the harpsichord is made in this room," he said. "I've got this core group of four woodworkers right here in this room that make the parts of the harpsichords. They tend to make a lot of noise doing what they're doing, which makes it impossible for the musical action people to do their job. Even though it's a 10,000-square-foot building, if you're trying to tune, you want to put a bullet in your head."

The team solves that noise issue by working in shifts. The woodworkers have the place to themselves in the morning, before the musicians and finishers come in the afternoon.

Will Plouffe was making keyboard parts the day I visited. Plouffe went to art school, but seven years ago, he took a detour into woodworking at Zuckermann, and never left. "I really wanted to do something where I could use my hands and learn something," he said. "This place -- every single day, I learn. We'll talk for an hour about how to make a piece of wood. We're not the computer generated machines of the new era -- we have to use our hands and brains."

The structure of a harpsichord comes together at the hand of Stuart McCormack.
Credit Shana Sureck / WNPR
Harpsichords aren't tuned like the modern piano. The tuning system is the authentic baroque method, where not every key sounds the same.

Like a piano, the harpsichord has strings that are played with keys, but the mechanism for making the sound is completely different. While a piano has hammers that strike the strings when a key is pressed, the harpsichord has a plectrum which plucks the string.

This company was started 50 years ago by the German-born, U.S.-based Wolfgang Zuckermann. Originally an amateur musician, he became interested in harpsichords and started building them in his New York workshop. Zuckermann soon had more orders than he could cope with, and told some of his clients that if they didn't want to wait, he could send them the parts, and they could assemble the instrument themselves.

"He quickly realized that there was more money, frankly, in doing that," Auber said, "than incurring the labor expenses, and the headaches, in dealing with the backlog of orders that he couldn't fulfill. The harpsichord kit was born. Thousands of those were sold all over the world." 

That original, simple kit, which was only distantly related to the antique harpsichords of the 18th century, became known as the Z-box. "It was so successful," Auber said, "it actually contributed to the early music revival certainly around this country, [and] even around the world."

In the late 1960s, Zuckermann sold the company to instrument builder David Way, who made two fundamental changes. He moved the workshop to Stonington, and he began reproducing historically accurate instruments based on antiques, something that had a growing demand from the burgeoning early music scene. The company reached the peak of its reputation at this period, as Way made instruments for some of the top players in the world, including Trevor Pinnock.

Way died suddenly in 1994, and Auber took over the company. In recent years, he's expanded his team. "To really test drive the instrument," he said, "you've got to have someone that plays at a professional level. The solution that I hit upon, ultimately, was just always to have a young and upcoming harpsichordist on staff."

The harpsichord is a temperamental beast, and it needs at least an hour of tuning for every event. Harpsichords aren't tuned like the modern piano, however. The tuning system is the authentic baroque method, where not every key sounds the same. To modern ears, some sound out of tune. 

Aymeric Dupre la Tour tunes a harpsichord.
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR
Elena Zamolodchikova tries out the instrument before a concert.
Credit Harriet Jones / WNPR

"Actually, the composers of the baroque, they used these," Aymeric Dupre la Tour said, demonstrating on the instrument. He is the first appointed artist-in-residence at Zuckermann, and I met him as he prepared for a concert in Stonington. "That would be a painful chord," he said, "so it would be actually a desired effect. They used these chords that are not well in tune to express painful feelings." 

Dupre la Tour has been joined at Zuckermann by Russian-born Elena Zamolodchikova, currently finishing her doctorate in harpsichord at Stony Brook University. "I knew Zuckermann long before I came here," Zamolodchikova said, "and I didn't expect, to be honest with you, to be able to come and work at the factory that I knew from long time ago."

Richard Auber said it's difficult to say how many finished instruments the shop produces in any given year. It still makes kits for enthusiasts to build themselves, and supports repairs on all of the instruments that Zuckermann has made over 50 years of production. "None of us get rich making harpsichords, as you can well imagine," he said. "But for the people that do need and want a harpsichord, I want to be able to give them something that really and truly is a work of art from beginning to end."

Listen below to music from the story: J.S. Bach, Little Prelude in F Major, BWV 927, played by Peter Watchorn on a German two-manual harpsichord by Zuckermann. Recording available on Musica Omnia

Also in the story: J.S. Bach, Concerto in b minor after Torelli, BWV 979, played by Elena Zamolodchikova on a German two-manual harpsichord by Zuckermann.