I once helped to restore a two-manual Kirkman harpsichord from the 1770s. The exciting part of the work involved taking off the old and damaged bottom and extricating a total of 5 kg of assorted iron parts from the instrument’s interior. These included, for instance, a T-beam that an earlier restorer had attached between spine and cheek, parallel to the belly rail, in a misguided attempt to stabilize the sagging structure of the instrument.
Less exiting and rather messy was the removal of a thick layer of not original shellac from the soundboard. How do you scoop puddles of temporarily dissolved, but rapidly drying varnish out of a harpsichord? The head of operations, as I will call him, decided upon clean wood shavings, soaked in spirits and used as some sort of shove-aroundable blotter. This method was successful: after a lot of soaking and rubbing, most of the glossy soundboard seal was gone.
It is very difficult, almost impossible, to make secure statements about the changes of an instrument’s sound before and after a restoration, other than the most obvious ones. The differences have to be described intuitively, and more often than not they deal not with measurables but with the niceness of various aspects of the sound, projection, absolute loudness, or balance. However, even though the introduction of intuition in sound research hurts the orderly minds of the measuring professionals, it is, in fact, a valuable tool for the practical assessment of an instrument’s sound properties. Why indeed wouldn’t it be sufficient? A musician reacts to the sound of her or his instrument in intuitive ways as well, and so do audiences.
Intuitively speaking, then, stripping the Kirkman soundboard of its glossy glory opened up the sound of the instrument considerably, while it got rid of its previous, querulous, almost nasal component (I know that some people find all harpsichords querulous and nasal, but if you read on you’ll find that this is quite beside the point here).
The same constrained and nagging edge to the sound can be found in most harpsichords with a heavily varnished soundboard. Cracks can occasionally be found in those soundboards as well, just as frequently as in some not-varnished ones. In other words, there seems to be no reason whatsoever, except perhaps the prevention of wine, liqueur, or coffee stains, to varnish a harpsichord soundboard at all. Why would anyone want to invest time, skill, and materials in an action that adds no protection at all but compromises the sound of an instrument, and otherwise merely adds glossiness?
I have no answer to that. And even if one could argue that my interpretation of a sound as ‘querulous’, ‘nasal’, ‘constrained’, and ‘nagging’ is personal, malicious even, I have a mind to defend my taste in this matter. Consider, for example, the polyphonic passages in imitation of choir singing, that can be encountered throughout the early English and Flemish keyboard repertoire, and even in some of Frescobaldi’s toccatas. Even a small, one-manual Flemish instrument with an 8′-4′ disposition has, if it is good, a vocal quality beyond its slight squeakiness. The sound has, or ought to have, a carrying potential that the harpsichordist can explore in order to arrive at a touch that, at the very least, suggests a vocal sound, and thus brings the original intent of such passages across. Some really fabulous harpsichords enable the player to achieve dramatically more than even that.
This much-needed potential of a good harpsichord is the very thing that a layer of varnish will cover, bury and ruin. No matter how hard you try, how well you link your melodies, how tightly knit your polyphony emerges out of your fingers – the sound produced will not be suggestive of anything much else than of a box with strings operated by a bunch of keys and jacks. This is the image we already had before we – players and makers alike – became professionals. Its perpetuation cannot be anyone’s serious ambition.
If I now have terribly hurt the feelings of all those who have spent their lives varnishing harpsichord soundboards, most of whom, I am sure, are kind, respectable, and hard-working people, I am truly sorry. Nevertheless, please do reconsider: harpsichords can do so much more than squawk, and most harpsichordists are hard-working and kind people too. Give them both a chance.