Last summer, exactly one year ago, I was in Berlin looking at a harpsichord in the Charlottenburg palace. It is a very famous instrument, at least in the harpsichord world.
If you didn’t know there was a ‘harpsichord world’, well there is, complete with Facebook discussion groups. The groups are well attended; many passionate followers of baroque music and antique instruments get online to exchange views, and sometimes involve themselves in arguments. I had recently turned to these discussion groups to ask if anyone had good detailed pictures of this particular instrument.
Me visiting the original harpsichord in Berlin
It is a beautiful black and gold harpsichord dated approximately 1702-1704. The gold chinoiserie decoration on the dark ground has dimmed with years of patina and the overall effect is extremely elegant.
Back in the studio in Florence I had been working on recreating the gold relief ornament on a present-day reproduction of this instrument, made by the sought-after harpsichord maker, Bruce Kennedy, for an accomplished young harpsichordist. It was good to take a break and come to Berlin to see the real thing, especially after having been studying photos of the decoration in minute detail.
I felt privileged because the Charlottenburg Palace was closed that day but the curator of collections and the head of the restoration department had invited me for a private viewing of the harpsichord and had even brought in some extra lighting to help me to examine it. I was of course looking only at the decoration, and this intimate visit introduced me first-hand to the work of Gérard Dagly (1657-1715), court decorator, master lacquerer and cabinet maker. His title was actually ‘Kunstkammermeister’, and as ‘Director of Ornaments’, Dagly was responsible for furniture and wall decorations in all the Berlin Palaces under queen Sophie Charlotte and King Frederick I of Prussia.
Gérard Dagly and his team were highly skilled cabinetmakers and decorators and during their time at Schloss Charlottenburg the taste for Oriental aesthetics was permeating the European courts. Chinese and Japanese lacquered cabinetry and fine porcelain were the pride of the royal collections. The Prussian court had been among the first in the world to collect oriental crafts. One fact I found interesting is that apparently segments of lacquerwork were sometimes taken from their original place and reworked onto European cabinets, creating some interesting modern cropping effects. We could say Dagly and team were observing these exciting aesthetics closely, then improvising on them. I like to put it this way because the appreciation and enjoyment of the original style is transmitted in Dagly’s own creations, notably several magnificently decorated cabinets which I was able to see up close.
There is a second harpsichord at the palace decorated by Dagly. It is clearly inspired by oriental porcelain decoration, finely painted with coloured chrysanthemum borders and oriental figures on a white ground. This white harpsichord is said to have belonged to queen Sophie Charlotte herself, who was a keen player and a true lover of music. She would play it surrounded by the palace orchestra during musical productions at court.
Before moving on I feel I must share with you, my fellow lovers of decoration, the porcelain room in the palace. I was taken through it on the way out, a special treat. This is a wondrous room, I believe the goal of its design was to display the most porcelain possible from the royal collection, from floor to ceiling, interlaced with gold and reflective surfaces, to allow for visitors to simply delight in it, (while perhaps also being impressed with the display of wealth and taste.) That goal has certainly been achieved, complete with hidden amusements and moving parts. The overall effect is very entertaining and speaks volumes of the enjoyment of ornament in general.
A picture from my frolic through the porcelain room
After being much distracted by the visual treasures of the palace, as I certainly was, we can now return to the purpose of my visit. You might be wondering why a reproduction of this black harpsichord had been commissioned.
It has to do with recreating an instrument that Bach himself may have used.
I must introduce you to the figure of Michael Mietke, court harpsichord and harp maker (1656-1719). He made this harpsichord, and the white one. The attribution is very close to certain. They were a team, he and Dagly, the court instrument maker and the court decorator. It is thought that Michael Mietke was the preferred harpsichord maker of J.S. Bach, and that Bach probably composed the 5th Brandenburg concerto on a similar instrument also made by Mietke. This is very important to lovers of baroque music who wish to understand what the music truly sounded like. This black instrument at Charlottenburg has been altered over the years but not as substantially as the white one, so it holds many clues as to what sounds were actually reaching the ears of Bach.
It becomes easy to understand why this harpsichord has been studied and reproduced many times. My initial searches on the internet brought up at least 5 or 6 recent copies. My inquiry to the Facebook groups turned up more, some of them very finely done. I am very grateful for the help I got from this community, by the way. I was sent brilliantly specific texts from a scholar in Poland, and photographs from harpsichord builders and musicians in Poland, Germany, and Holland.
I have included a short video below that shows the process of our reproduction of the decoration. My daughter and I worked on it for over two months. We applied traditional rabbit skin gesso, then sanded the surface. We dropped on more thickened gesso to create the relief work or ‘pastiglia’, applied bole, then water-gilded the areas in relief. The dark casein paint was applied to outline the shapes and create the background. We actually used a deep blue colour which then became black with the final layers of shellac polish. Further decorative techniques were employed on the gold: We applied shellac coloured with dragon’s blood pigment to some of the tree tops and roofs to make them take on a reddish colour; we applied gold size and then leaf to create tiny lines and detailed leaves; we used different colours of leaf such as red gold and lemon gold to make the surface details more interesting. Finally we applied fine details with brushstrokes of metallic paint before shellac polishing and waxing the whole instrument.
I do enjoy the world of harpsichords and how it has become a place where history, beauty and refinement are kept safe for us when we wish to be reminded.
Lest we forget, all the treasures from Charlottenburg that I have shared with you here only exist today because they’ve been lovingly restored. Time and again, after devastating destruction throughout the ages, whoever considered themselves the custodian of these treasures at the time made sure that they were restored to us:
The ceiling of the porcelain collection was destroyed by allied bombing during ww2 and has been rebuilt. During the historic 7 years war and in the subsequent periods of unrest the castles in Charlottenburg, Schönhausen and Friedrichsfelde were devastated by Cossacks, Saxon dragoons and lancers as well as Austrian and Hungarian hussars.
The harpsichord, which was in the concert room of Frederick the Great's 2nd apartment in the Charlottenburg Palace was badly damaged. At least that's what the palace steward said in his report at the time. The extent of the destruction is difficult to understand today, as Friedrich the Great probably had the damage repaired quickly.
There are doubts as to whether the lid and the stand of the harpsichord are original. I can attest to the fact that the style of decoration is slightly different. The elaborate hinges on the lid are probably the originals. On careful examination large patches can be seen on the harpsichord itself.
Could these philistines have taken an axe to the legs and lid when they needed firewood? It is hard to imagine such careless ruination.
Yet today all this damage and destruction have been forgotten, smoothed over and seamlessly restored. The harpsichord stands elegantly in the corner in the palace. Like James Bond, looking slick as ever, having just flicked the dust off his black jacket.
The Mietkes, the Margrave and Bach by Sheridan Germann
Rooms of Porcelain by Meredith Chilton available as a pdf here
Particular thanks to the Furniture Restoration Department at Schloss Charlottenburg for their help, their follow-up correspondence and translations.