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A Silent Masterpiece

This is a story about a mysterious antique musical instrument silenced by the ravages of time, and the master craftsman who is reproducing it.

I travel quite often to France as a ‘soundboard painter’ to the Atelier Marc Ducornet. I decorate the soundboards of some of the harpsichords made in the atelier before they are strung, commissioned by clients who wish to add this traditional extra adornment to their instruments.

I have been travelling to the Atelier for over a decade, first to their location within the city of Paris and now, since their move, to their location near Conflans, north west of Paris. I have been able to observe this group of artisans over the years and have had many opportunities to appreciate their fine woodworking skills. It bears mention that the crew has not changed much, most of them having been with Marc since the beginning. They work with extreme precision and care.

A single harpsichord typically is made from various fine woods, carefully chosen for their pre-eminent qualities of strength, beauty or resonance for the construction of different parts of the instrument. The soundboard wood is certainly chosen for its resonating qualities and is best made from well-seasoned straight grained fir, preferably harvested with the waning moon. There are legends of soundboard woods from particular forests that, in the hands of a master craftsman, can give an instrument a magical voice.

On my latest trip I learned that Emmanuel, the Atelier’s ‘maître-ouvrier’, has retired. That is to say, he has officially retired, and so comes to the workshop less often, still overseeing the craftsmanship and sharing his knowledge with the younger members of the team.

Emmanuel is a quiet, self effacing man, always ready with a smile. At 16 years of age he joined the federation of ‘les Compagnons du Tour de France’ to learn his trade. This program, still in existence today in France, allows young men and women to receive vocational training while living and working in various locations all around the country for about 4 years, spending a few months at a time at each location. During the day he worked learning his trade in specialised woodworking companies and in the evening he was housed with his fellow apprentices in the federation’s lodgings, supervised by a house mother. They had night school lessons on everything from art history to civil education. He became a master cabinet maker and went to work with Marc Ducornet making harpsichords. He worked with Marc from the age of about 20 years old to the age of 60. They have constructed harpsichords for the finest musicians and concert halls the world over, from Versailles to Shanghai.

I love to hear the story of Emmanuel’s education and to think of this federation that provides a practical education to youth in France. Ideally it is an education that fosters craftwork, in a spirit of companionship and exchange. The federation has a long history with roots in medieval trade brotherhoods. It is a network of private enterprise, individual masters, educational facilities and housing, and as such it requires great collaboration between diverse people united in the idea of sharing knowledge. I feel that it is a wonderful alternative to the standard school systems around today. I would love to see this model of education maintained and developed further as an option for young people everywhere. Coming to maturity through working to acquire a skill, within a broader educational environment that combines study and travel experience sounds just about perfect to me. Granted not everyone is the same, but we must admit that the academic path is not for all.

Emmanuel has more time now to work on his pet project. He is making a harpsichord for himself. His masterwork, if you please. He is slowly constructing a harpsichord based on an historical model in the museum of music in Paris. He does not yet know what this instrument will sound like, but we are all eager to find out.

The idea started about seven years ago when he saw an alluring harpsichord in the museum’s storage facility. He was intrigued by this beautifully decorated, but no longer playable instrument, listed as being made by an anonymous maker in Lyon in the 17th century. He thought he would like to reproduce it. This desire was further sparked by the coincidence that a friend of his, an astrophysicist and harpsichord ‘amateur’, was also interested in reproducing the instrument. This friend was in contact with the museum and was able to share with Emmanuel detailed technical drawings of the antique harpsichord.

Emmanuel has been working on his instrument for the past 7 years, slowly moving ahead during quiet moments at the shop. We should now witness an acceleration in his progress because of his newly retired status. He has finished the structure but not the mechanics. The case and the keyboards are exquisite, the keys perfectly balanced for the weight of a musician’s hand and embellished with hand carving on the ends. The intricately layered parchment rose is inlaid in the soundboard and Emmanuel has traced it with delicate hand painted borders observed from the original. The case is made of walnut, simply finished with animal glue and wax only, so that the wood does not darken. The next steps are to make and install the mechanics and voice the instrument. Half of the work is still ahead of him, he says. One day this instrument will sing.

I wonder what this master work will sound like. I like to imagine hearing a song that has been silenced for over three centuries. Perhaps it will be played by some incredible musicians or perhaps it will sit in the living room of Emmanuel’s home. It is simple in appearance, compared to the elaborately decorated original, not calling attention to itself, much like its maker. I wonder if future generations will realise the tremendous quality of this instrument, product of a lifetime of carefully honed skills.

Links for your interest:

To view the original harpsichord in the museum

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You’ve written an eloquent and elegant tribute to Emmanuel, to the atelier, to the Compagnons and to artisans in general. Having been a friend of the atelier for over 30 years, it was very moving to read.

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