“The harpsichord is lord of all the instruments in the world”.  Neapolitan composer Giovanni Maria Trabaci in 1615.

Until recently, just discernible from the road was a sign above the entrance to 2a Bradbourne Road giving the name of the building as “The Old Harpsichord Factory”.  Unbeknownst I suspect to most Sennockians, until 1982 this was home to a small family firm with an international reputation for the construction of harpsichords, and whose enthusiasm and instruments played a significant part in the revival of early music.  The story of John Feldberg’s workshop was brought to the Society’s attention by Emily Feldberg, one of his three daughters. John’s wife Ann died in March 2020, and given her mother’s connection with Sevenoaks and the Sevenoaks Society Emily kindly donated items from the family’s vast collection to the Society’s archives. This article is based on information and insights provided not only by Emily and her sisters, but also by skilled craftsmen who worked for the firm – Tim Constable, a master cabinet-maker who has a studio in Seal Chart, and Nick Martin, who still regulates and tunes instruments in Lincolnshire.     

A Passion for Harpsichords

John Feldberg’s love of the harpsichord (and for his future wife Ann) began at Cambridge University in the 1950’s. Ann, born in Sevenoaks, used to accompany John’s violin-playing on the piano, but both became convinced that the works of Handel, Corelli and above all Bach would be better rendered on a harpsichord, as they were originally played.  After leaving Cambridge and working for a piano-repair company in London, John moved with his new family to Germany to learn harpsichord making at the Neupert works in Bamberg.  Returning in December 1957 John and Ann rented premises in Sevenoaks’ London Road (formerly a furrier’s, near to Salmon’s printing works), converting it to a workshop.  As well as building instruments under licence according to Neupert specifications, John began developing his own designs and creating his own instruments. Working single-handedly, within two and a half years he had made two clavichords and three harpsichords.  The first, F1, a two-manual harpsichord (ie with two keyboards), was delivered on 6th December 1958 for the price of £357 to his friend and celebrated musician Peter Hurford.

  John_Feldberg_recital_Harpsichord.jpg

John Feldberg recital harpsichord F1   

After building his largest instrument, a concert model, he was joined by Peter Whale, a cabinet-maker who in Ann’s words “simply walked in, saying ‘I heard you needed some help’”.  Three months later on 6th May 1960 an article in The Times Educational Supplement featured John’s work: “Mr Feldberg builds instruments with the elegant simplicity of modern design and the perfection of tonal quality that every instrument maker seeks to achieve”. But the firm did indeed need help: just days after the article was published, and as one Feldberg instrument was starting its journey through the Panama Canal, John died suddenly in his workshop from an epileptic fit, aged just 30. He was working overnight to finish an instrument ready for a big exhibition. 

John_Feldberg_in_1958_working_on_the_case_of_harpsichord.jpg  John Feldberg in 1958 working on the case of harpsichord F2

Growth and Transition

With Ann somehow balancing looking after three children and running a business, Peter applied himself to mastering all aspects of harpsichord making, assisted for a time by a craftsman sent over by Herr Neupert. (“I don’t do much. I type with two fingers and test the finished harpsichords for two weeks before they go out”, said Ann modestly at the time. “We’re like Rolls Royce – we run them in first”). In 1965 the workshop and its five craftsmen moved to new premises - a former bakery in Bradbourne Road. 

Ann_outside_the_Bradbourne_Road_workshop_in_1975.jpg              Program.jpg

Ann outside the Bradbourne Road workshop in 1975

The small firm’s reputation and order book continued to grow. At its peak, the firm was producing 15 to 20 instruments a year, shipped all over the world, with customers having to wait for up to two years, the larger instruments taking up to a year to build. The concert models were frequently used by the BBC and at venues such as Wigmore Hall and the South Bank.  An innovation was the implementation of John’s idea and drawings for a harpsichord kit for use by schools, including Sevenoaks School – and 62 others.  It came with all the pieces and instructions so that a school with a good woodworking department could make their own instrument as an educational project bringing together music and craft skills.  

The 1964 catalogue illustrates the range of instruments produced at the time: thirteen models - the Neupert-Feldberg harpsichords and spinets alongside the John Feldberg harpsichords and clavichords. In John’s words, written in 1960, the aim was “to carry on the musical tradition of the best historical instruments, while working to overcome their technical imperfections”.  It was these defects, he said, that had led to its eclipse in the 18thC: pitch instability, high background noise, and the continual need for recutting and voicing the quills used for plucking. Modern techniques and materials (such as replacing raven’s tail feathers with nylon or plastic “quills”) could help reduce these faults, and instruments could be “tropicalised” to withstand changes in temperature and humidity. Harpsichords do need more tuning and regulating than a piano, and Peter Whale often went to tune the instrument  at its place of use. The early models were heavy, requiring two or three people to lift and manoeuvre them – a challenging task in venues with no lifts!

Lowering_an_instrument_from_the_old_workshop.jpg Lowering an instrument from the old workshop

The range and construction methods continued to evolve as the workshop developed and adapted to changes in customer requirements. The concert and recital versions were joined by lighter instruments – reworking and adding to John’s original designs, with an increasing emphasis in these Feldberg Whale instruments on learning from historical methods.  The production of Neupert instruments ceased around 1971.    

Origins

The term “harpsichord” may denote either the whole family of similar plucked-keyboard instruments, including virginals and spinets, or, more specifically, the narrow grand piano-shaped model, with a roughly triangular case accommodating long bass strings at the left and short treble strings at the right.  The design and construction of the harpsichord have varied considerably in its evolution over the centuries in different countries. But in general it is characterised by four main components: a group of strings, each string having a single pitch; a plectrum held in a jack to activate the strings by plucking and then damping, and so producing its distinctive “clipped” timbre; one or two keyboards (“manuals”) to control the plectrum; and a resonating chamber. The cases housing the mechanisms are often exquisite works in themselves, featuring inlays, paintings, and other fine surface decorations. Ann herself painted the soundboard of Emily’s instrument with Kentish wildflowers. For others, such as the Flemish muselar and virginals, local artists used distinctive Flemish designs.

A_Neupert-Feldberg_Spinet_Silbermann.jpgA Neupert-Feldberg Spinet, “Silbermann”

The instrument’s precise origins are obscure, but what we know today as a harpsichord seems to have evolved in the early 1400s in Flanders. The earliest complete harpsichords still preserved come from Italy, the oldest being dated to 1521. The oldest surviving harpsichord built in England is by the Fleming Lodewijk Theeuwes from 1579, in the V & A  Museum.  Italian instruments were lightweight with low string tension. A different approach was taken in the Netherlands later that century, notably by the Ruckers family. Their instruments used a heavier construction, produced a more powerful and distinctive tone and some for the first time had two keyboards, enabling transposition of pitch. These Flemish instruments initially served as the model for rapid harpsichord construction in other nations but over time and between countries, makers and craftsmen, different configurations emerged.  

Since the strings are plucked, rather than hit with a hammer as in a piano, its rich, distinctive sound creates an immediate association with the baroque era of music. Almost every baroque composer wrote for the harpsichord, as either a solo or an accompanying instrument. Demand for the harpsichord remained steady until the 18th century, but by the early 19th century it had been almost completely replaced by the fortepiano and then by the modern piano. As one web-site puts it: “The precision and clarity of the baroque had been replaced by mush and bombast”.

However in 1886 the arrival of French musician Arnold Dolmetsch in England heralded the beginnings of a resurgence. He was encouraged by William Morris, George Bernard Shaw and others, and his work and concerts sparked a growing interest in historical instruments. He made a number of harpsichords based on English instruments of the late 1700s, lacking however, it is said, the original’s sonority. In the mid-20th century  builders such as Dolmetsch apprentices Frank Hubbard and William Dowd in the USA sought to re-establish the ways of the Baroque period. Many modern “revival-style” instruments however, in the search for stability, showed very clearly the influence of the piano, and although increasingly popular these improved and updated models varied widely from the instrument that Bach would have known and loved.

John_marking_out_a_stringing_plan_for_an_instruments_soundboard_1959.jpg John marking out a stringing plan for an instrument’s soundboard, 1959

John believed that harpsichord design faced a dilemma. On the one hand attempts at historical reproduction “often possess all the authentic disadvantages that led to its downfall”.   On the other hand, “modern instruments designed to compete with the orchestras of today bear little resemblance to a harpsichord”.  Either extreme, he said, could once again cause its disappearance. Although his designs arose from “the conception of the harpsichord as a present-day instrument, and not as a period treasure”, nevertheless the meticulous attention to detail and consideration of the means of original construction “allowed its brilliance and clarity to penetrate”.   “Above all it must be a harpsichord, and not an emasculated version of the piano”.

The Quest for Authenticity

The innovative work in Early Music by musicians such as Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow (the Early Music Consort, founded in 1967) was a further force in shifting attention back to 17th and 18th century instruments.  A turning-point for the workshop came in 1971 after a commission from harpsichordist Jane Clarke, the wife of the composer Stephen Dodgson, to make a replica of a French 18thC Goujon double-manual harpsichord in the Paris Conservatorie Museum.  Ann and Peter were now convinced that the only way to achieve the instrument’s true resonant tone was to switch from the tradition “box” method of construction to building copies of original French, Flemish, Italian and English instruments.  From thereon, despite the emotional wrench of moving away from John’s designs, John Feldberg instruments were meticulously researched reproductions, replicating early materials and techniques to produce as authentic a result as possible in sound, touch and construction. Tim Constable had joined Feldberg’s in 1968 after a five-year apprenticeship at the Dolmetsch workshop in Haslemere, and speaks of the pleasures in using traditional woods such as lime, walnut, service and pear, and the challenges of working with bird quill and hogs’ bristle. The different harpsichords match different styles of playing and repertoire, so for instance when Kenneth Gilbert did a recital at the Purcell room on a Goujon he played largely Couperin - French  music on a French instrument.  Harpsichords of this type using historically informed building practices now dominate.

The_Feldberg-Whale_Grey_Goujon_copy_from_1971.jpg  The Feldberg-Whale “Grey” Goujon copy from 1971

Modern music written for the instrument, until then largely for playing on “updated” versions of originals, had to adapt accordingly. The early work of composer Sarah Rodgers, such as Earth Forms (1986), was influenced by playing on instruments in Feldberg’s workshop as a schoolchild in Sevenoaks.   

  The fully working single manual Feldberg-Whale harpsichord in solid brown oak, made by Tim Constable as a copy of the 1622 John Hasard in Knole House. (The original is unplayable since it lacks any mechanism).

Although John had reservations about attempts to produce “historical” instruments, as Rachel Feldberg says, her father was always innovative and interested in new ways of doing things so it seems entirely appropriate that the instruments should evolve over time. (An interesting question is “To what extent does the sound of the modern instrument replicate the original?” Beautifully preserved instruments do still exist, but there is no way of telling how much they have altered since their prime. Added to which the challenge of the builder of copies is to somehow identify and reproduce the individuality of each historic instrument).

The Legacy

Never a “factory”, the workshop flourished for over 20 years, employing a number of talented harpsichord makers and apprentices including at various times Peter Whales’ son Jeremy, Malcom Fisk, Hugh Craig, Ken Haydn, Derek Adlam, Tim Constable, Brian Dodd, Malcom Rose, Christopher Jones and Nick Martin, making to order harpsichords, clavichords, spinets, virginals and one muselar.  Before it closed, three men and one apprentice were making about eight instruments a year, each craftsman making one from beginning to end.  By 1980 Feldberg’s had produced 272 instruments, sold to customers all over the world and played by famed musicians including Raymond Leppard, George Malcolm, Kenneth Gilbert, Trevor Pinnock, and Peter Hurford. (Emily remembers Christopher Hogwood visiting their workshop and playing the instruments when a Skinners’ school-boy. She subsequently received lessons from him, and listened spell-bound as he performed with David Munrow at Sevenoaks School during Sevenoaks Music Festival and the Feldberg Concert series initiated by John). 

 

This article from the Sevenoaks News of 18th October 1972 shows Ann, Peter Whale, and, bottom, Tim Constable balancing a keyboard. Each instrument was signed by its maker.

Instruments were hired out to numerous orchestras and venues, amongst them Glyndebourne, the Royal Festival Hall, and Abbey Road recording studios. The theme-tune to the 1970 BBC TV series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, with a soundtrack by Munrow, was played on a Feldberg. Emily and Rachel recall with fondness and gratitude the excitement of the workshop, its extreme diversity of skills and activities from receiving raw wood to very fine tuning and everything in between, and the intense joy of discovering early music - and being part of it. A particular thrill and source of pride was accompanying Ann to the workshop’s stand at the Bruges International Harpsichord Exhibition.

An_elegant_1973_copy_of_an_original_Flemish_Dulken.jpg An elegant 1973 copy of an original Flemish Dulken

The order books were testament to both the dedication to renaissance and baroque music and the quality of the instruments. But even though Goujons were selling at £4,500 by the end, the business side was always a worry: the passion for perfection took precedence over the pursuit of profit. “It is the fascination of aiming at perfection”, said Ann, “not just for its own sake but for the music that will result”.  But in 1980 she felt the time had come to take the difficult decision to close the business, and Chris and Tim left. However she was persuaded to carry on with a smaller team to allow the seventeen year-old Nick Martin, who had joined in September 1978, to complete his apprenticeship under Peter Whale.  John Feldberg (Harpsichords) finally closed in February 1982.

With Peter only three years from retirement, and Nick not yet four years into making instruments, the two decided to rent the workshop and formed the partnership of Whale and Martin. Orders continued to come in, although reducing in numbers, and these were supplemented by diversifying into making bespoke furniture. During 1984 the workshop had a visit from Brian Johnston for a recording of Radio 4’s “Down Your Way”. Peter retired in 1986, and with Ann moving to Somerset and having decided to sell up, three years later harpsichord making in Sevenoaks ceased. The remaining instruments were transported to Ann’s new home and in March 1989 Nick relocated the business to Spalding where he continued to make harpsichords for ten more years. Tim Constable makes beautiful furniture in his workshop at Chart Farm, whilst his wife Angela paints exquisite botanical pictures.

 The_keyboard_of_the_grey_Goujon_showing_the_painted_soundboard.jpg The keyboard of the grey Goujon showing the painted soundboard

To the family’s knowledge most if not all Feldberg harpsichords survive and many are still played in concert halls, private collections, schools and universities. (An example is the F3 donated to Southampton University, one of the earliest John made to his own design). Refurbished instruments can still be found for sale.   The Feldberg archives are held by York University, where its MA Music provides the opportunity for students to work with historical instruments such as harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano. As Nick says, although the life of the workshop was just a brief period in harpsichord history, nevertheless John Feldberg’s involvement in the early music scene came at a time when it was expanding rapidly, and there were few harpsichords or harpsichord makers to be found. His contribution was an immensely valuable one, and his vision, enthusiasm, creativity and skill inspired those who followed.

Moreover the story of the John Feldberg Harpsichord Workshop marks a significant, albeit little-known, period in the artistic and cultural history of Sevenoaks.

Coda

Avant-garde composers such as György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis (described by one critic as one of the most inventive writers for the harpsichord since Domenico Scarlatti) radically redefined the harpsichord's function and playing. Philip Glass’ 2002 Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra uses a contemporary chamber orchestra to accompany the instrument so as to approach the work in a modern idiom. But the instrument has also been widely used in popular music: in the 1960s the harpsichord featured in "baroque pop", experiments in instrumentation by groups including the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and the Doors and Grateful Dead in the USA. On the Stones’ 1966 track “Lady Jane” Brian Jones used both a harpsichord and dulcimer. The Beachboys’ classic “God Only Knows” and the Stranglers’ 1982 “Golden Brown” are both contenders for the best baroque pop song using the instrument. A second pop resurgence occurred in hip-hop, sampled in works of Eminem, Cypress HillOutkast and others.  But should you prefer classical music to rap, for a fitting tribute to the workshop’s legacy listen to Peter Mole playing 'Italian Ground' by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) on a Feldberg virginal made in 1975 - a close copy of the oldest surviving English virginal dating from c 1570. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dptBNSWtp1k

Keith Wade, November 2021

My grateful thanks are due to Emily and Rachel Feldberg, Tim Constable and Nick Martin, for their recollections,  images and advice.

Additional Sources

Modern Harpsichord Makers, by John Paul

The Modern Harpsichord, by WJ Zuckermann

The Harpsichord Magazine, November – January 1969/70