Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Colonial Willamsburg has video on musical instrument making -- all by hand

In my survey of Colonial Willamsburg culture, I found that it was out-of-stock on one video about the music of the era, but it does have a video (but not a DVD) “The Musical Instrument Maker of Williamsburg: A Tribute to Eighteenth Century Workmanship,” produced and directed (in 1997) by Gene Bjerk, with craftsmen and apprentices “Mr. Wilson”, Marcus Hansen, Larry Bowers, and Colin Collingsworth. I had to order this directly from Colonial Williamsburg, as I did not find it on Amazon. (The link is here.

From a personal perspective, the video is interesting in that it forms a contrast to what we often depict today as the technology associated with music: computers, midis, various composition manuscript software packages, and web and P2P tools associated with music. Here, for 53 minutes, you see tedious craftsmanship with wood, strings, ivory, wire, and various hand tools. The instrument makers focus on a spinet (it appeared to have only 49 keys) and a violin. The background music seemed to consist of Bach, Telemann, and maybe a little early Haydn.

The spinet should be compared to the harpsichord and clavichord, but the pianoforte was already in existence then. The video, in fact, shows us how spinet strings are plucked (and how with only one register pad unwanted overtones can sound). Plucking does not allow for the wide dynamic range expected of the piano. But the piano was already coming into use during the time of Williamsburg. But the first composer to really use its expressive potential was probably Beethoven. Bach concertos are often played on harpsichords, although they “work” (as Glenn Gould proved) on pianos. Yet, harpsichord-like instruments had their heydays, and reached a climax in passages like the famous cadenza in the first movement of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto.

The early part of the video talks a lot about the wood selection, and spinet-making was as much furniture-making as instrument-making. Mechanical joints, often hidden in the back, are shown. For violins, wood selection (curly wood from maple trees) is particularly critical. As the video progresses, music-related issues are presented.

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