Finding a Rare Antique Musical Instrument

Apr 15, 2015 | blog, Instrumentalists, Newberry Consort | 0 comments

In May 2005, after receiving a tip from a friend on what she saw and thought to be an “old” instrument in an antique/coin shop in Fairview Heights, Illinois, I went to investigate. What appeared was an instrument in very poor condition, unplayable with keys missing and numerous cracks in the soundboard. It had a case decoration in Italian Rococo and a lid painting that was dirty and yellowed but most pleasant in its composition.

The owners of the shop had no knowledge of the instrument’s providence much less that it was a polygonal Italian virginal. They were selling it as a piece of painted furniture so after some negotiations I took possession with a fairly low price. The instrument had lost its original makers signature but through Grant O’Brien’s research into “local units of measurement”, the instrument was identified as probably having been made in Florence, Italy. Its keyboard was a short octave C/E going to f3 which would date it to 16th century or early 17th century. Outlines of the keyboard scrolls were made and sent to Denzil Wraight, a specialist in early Italian keyboard instruments, who identified it as being within a 16th of an inch identical to other scrolls on instruments signed by Francesco Poggi, who died in Florence, Italy in 1634.

The polygonal shape, rose and keyboard scrolls are nearly identical to a signed 1588 Poggi instrument now housed in Bologna, Italy. This makes the instrument one of eighteen attributed to this maker, making him the builder with the most virginals extant from this period. Was Poggi a very prolific builder or were his instruments kept and cared for because of their value as exceptional musical instruments?

Underneath the soundboard on the right hand side was hand written Italian script which translates: It was purchased from the house Fontana di Scanzano and from Luciano Scopetani of Grosseto in 1859 then from the same it was restored in 1891.

An analytical report was done on the painting by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. It revealed that there was no painting underneath the current lid painting and that the elemental pigment in the paint was zinc white, which was only available after 1830. So it is likely that the current stand and state of decoration is from the 1891 restoration.

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Careful consideration was made whether to keep the instrument as an historical document in its current state of disrepair or to carefully restore it to playing condition and undoing a lot of poor workmanship that the instrument had received in its many repairs through 400 years. I decided that the instrument, being one of 18 and as a professional player that I wanted the instrument do what it was originally intended to do: make music.

Walter and Berta Burr of Hoosick New York agreed to a careful historically sensitive restoration. The original, single plank, cypress soundboard was shimmed and carefully reshaped to its original crown by a process of bracing and wetting the soundboard repeatedly over a three year period. New jacks were made, the keyboard leveled and tightened, and new Malcolm Rose brass and iron wire strings were strung. The decoration was tastefully cleaned and repaired. As a virginal plucks the strings more in the middle of the string length as compared a regular harpsichord, the instrument now has a strong and clear resonant sound with a rich sounding bass.

Believing firmly that the instrument should be seen and heard, not just sit in a collection that has limited exposure, I have over the last seven years that the instrument has been back in playing condition moved and performed on the instrument numerous times including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., Oberlin Music Conservatory in Ohio and many East Coast and Midwest venues.


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