For pianist and conductor Eugene Albulescu
, touring with chamber orchestras and performing pieces written for harpsichord present logistical challenges. He requires an instrument that can travel easily with him on tours. Albulescu found the answer in the shop of an internationally renowned harpsichord maker on Bethlehem’s South Side.
The harpsichord is central to music of the Baroque era in music. Albulescu, associate professor of music and R.J. Ulrich Endowed Chair in Orchestral Studies, examines the Baroque period, when the “continuo” practice was in its heyday. With Baroque scores, the harpsichordist played not only what was written, but he would also add elements to the music.
“It’s kind of like an early version of jazz notation,” he says. “The keyboardist would play more than was written. [The other musicians] would match the style, but the harpsichord player had the most freedom in many ways because his part was the only one that was not fully written. It was hinted at. He was the one who glued the ensemble together.”
In searching for an instrument, Albulescu came across Willard Martin, who has built some 600 harpsichords over his career. Martin knew of a harpsichord illustration that appears in a book by Marin Mersenne, L’Harmonie Universelle
(1637), a diagram with excellent dimensions and detail. He used the illustration to create a blueprint for overall dimensions, calling it a Mersenne. From these drawings, Albulescu set out to build a harpsichord, with help from Martin. Funded in part by Lehigh’s Gipson Institute, the instrument took two years to build.
“The amazing thing about this instrument is it’s just 50 pounds, so with a proper cover, you can check it in as luggage when you fly,” he says.
Albulescu showcased his harpsichord at an orchestra performance last February, performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6
“It has a very big sound, so we had to put the lid down,” says Albulescu, who is also music director of the Lehigh University Philharmonic
There are two ways to play a harpsichord, flap open or closed. It is often played flap closed, but Albulescu needed the flap up to accommodate sheet music. Because of travel demands, he decided to paint only the lid’s bottom and engaged the talents of his wife, Linda Ganus, orchestra coordinator and flute faculty, who is also an artist. Ganus painted a depiction of Orpheus taming the animals, as Orphic themes are often found in harpsichords of that era. She painted the scene so the vanishing point accommodates the lid and each section is an individual work of art that compliments the other.
“In my field, it’s very useful to understand the technology, and what I love about working at Lehigh is our tradition of finding out how things work. It inspires your art or your skill or your craft,” Albulescu says. “This harpsichord is from an era where you had to understand how it worked. I find building the instrument the ultimate in being in touch with the technology because you have to understand every aspect of it, from moving parts to the combination of wood and metal. It changes your perspective on how to make music on it.”