Colorado College Bulletin
By MARK ARNEST
Musicology is widely regarded as a bloodless profession. Its practitioners are more likely to be found debating syncopations in Palestrina or arguing whether a particular note in a Josquin motet should be natural or flat than bending a soundboard or drilling a pin-block.
But Colorado College music professor Richard Agee practices musicology with hand tools as well as his mind. Last summer, he completed his sixth instrument: a 16th-century Italian harpsichord, constructed largely of authentic materials. It is -- for now, at least -- Agee’s masterpiece, a seven-foot-long marvel capped off with a painting by the college’s Marshall Kean on the inside of the lid. The whole enterprise took Agee and Kean about four years and more hours than Agee is willing to calculate.
Agee likes being a builder as well as a musician. “I enjoyed reading the instructions,” he says. “I’d try to imagine what I’d have to do to get to the next step.”
He started out with a kit from the Parisian company Zuckermann Harpsichords, but Agee, who had already built five instruments -- a Flemish harpsichord, a lute, a portative organ, a virginal, and an English spinet -- wasn’t content simply to follow directions.
For one thing, he wanted a rosette to decorate the interior. This he had to create out of five layers of calf parchment. “An X-acto knife wasn’t nearly hard enough,” he says. Even with a special knife that he continually resharpened, the pressure of cutting parchment left his hand numb.
Above all, he wanted a painted illustration on the lid. For this, he approached Kean. To make the pitch, “Richard took me, appropriately, to an Italian restaurant,” says Kean.
Kean says the idea took him by surprise: “I’d never heard of illustrating the lid of a harpsichord.”
Agee wanted “the harpsichord, my cats, and something naughty” painted on the lid. He didn’t want a copy of a historical painting, though, saying most surviving lid paintings aren’t very good.
As he researched his project, Kean would come to agree. “In many examples, the shape of the lid cut the illustration off,” he says. “We designed the illustration so the composition fits the shape.”
But first Kean needed a lid to paint, a project that took Agee two years.
Agee was trained as a pianist, but he fell in love with the harpsichord while he was in college in the mid-1970s. His early instruments helped finance his graduate work at Princeton. “My first harpsichord had a 17th-century form, but was made with modern materials,” he says. “It had plywood and plastic and all those bad things.”
For this harpsichord, Agee wanted to use as many period materials and building techniques as possible, such as calf parchment and square nails. It’s a classic Italian design: Early versions of it were made as far back as 1521, and Agee says similar instruments were being made as late as 1700. Some were still playable a century later. “Even Rossini was using instruments similar to this,” he says.
More than other harpsichord designs, this one embodies Pythagorean proportions, so that the string size and tension can remain the same from top to -- almost -- bottom. This gives the tone an evenness that’s difficult to achieve any other way.
The Pythagorean proportions also give the harpsichord its distinct shape, which Agee likens to a vampire coffin. The curve of the side is dramatic, “much more so than in northern instruments.” he says.
Just as distinct is the sound. The northern instruments have a sweet, singing sound, says Agee; this instrument “speaks.”
“The sound is very dry,” he says. “It's the perfect instrument for the continuo,” the accompaniment in instrumental ensembles.
Above all, Agee says, southern harpsichords have a tactile quality that the northern ones lack. “You can feel the resonance through the keyboard,” he says.
“This is great for 16th-and 17th-century music,” says Agee, who’s a 16th-century specialist.
Once Agee had completed the interior, Kean was ready to begin. Director of special projects in the advancement division, Kean arrived at CC in 1982, the same year as Agee. Agee went to Kean because of the latter’s skill in portraiture.
The harpsichord’s lid presented new challenges. Having built the instrument with authentic materials, Agee wanted Kean, as much as possible, to do the same with his illustration.
“I viewed this project right from the beginning as one of historic recreation,” says Kean.
However, he says it wasn’t feasible to use exact 17th-century materials because oil paints have changed. His search for something with comparable tone and luminosity led him to a type of acrylic paint called alkyds.
The paint’s translucence “made it great for the glazing effects that were popular in the 17th century,” says Kean. There were other difficulties, such as the tendency of the basswood lid to “soak up paint like a sponge.”
The ultimate design is a collaboration. Kean suggested a nude woman, representing the muse, for the naughty part. He came up with the instrument’s subtlest in-joke: The castle-like feature in the distance is the proposed Cornerstone Arts Center. And it was his idea that, to economize, Agee pose for all three male figures.
But the feline models were readily available, which meant Kean had to meet Agee’s cats, the sweet-tempered Lina -- and the famously aggressive and ill-tempered Chuck. “Richard said, ‘Don’t make any sudden moves,’” says Kean. All went well, though Kean says the unveiling party last August was accompanied by the sound of an enraged Chuck hurling himself against the door of the adjoining room.
The final painting, with the muse at one end, the musicians in the middle, and food and cats at the other, is almost a triptych. Agee’s three faces look straight at the viewer in the style of 17th-century portraits. Chuck eyes a bird with something more than academic interest.
The total cost -- not counting Agee’s labor -- was about $9,000. This may not sound like a bargain, but Agee has created a thing of beauty and an heirloom. Musical instruments are built to tell composers’ stories; a great instrument has its own story to tell.
Mark Arnest is a composer and pianist who writes on the arts for the Colorado Springs Gazette. When not attending other institutions in the 1970s, he would occasionally drop in at Colorado College, where he studied contemporary music with Carlton Gamer and sang in the chorus of several Colorado Opera Festival productions.
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