Collections Pick: The “Dolmetsch” Clavichord

NMC’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions delves into some of his favourite items in the NMC Collection. The  “Dolmetsch” Clavichord is this week’s pick. Photo credit: Don Kennedy.

By Jesse Moffatt

I first had the pleasure of hearing an 18th century clavichord in a small recital hall during a trip to Switzerland with our now President and CEO Andrew Mosker in 2004. It sounded like a harpsichord but had the dynamics of playing loud or soft like a piano. The clavichord, as I witnessed, also has the ability to produce vibrato when finger pressure on the key is varied, It’s a simple, very quiet and sweet sounding instrument.

Years later, I would be fortunate enough to acquire a similar instrument for the National Music Centre (NMC) and restore it to playable condition, the  “Dolmetsch” Clavichord. If you’re not familiar with the Renaissance and Baroque period instrument, the clavichord is a predecessor instrument to the piano. The instrument uses small brass “tangents” to strike the strings instead of felt hammers you find in modern pianos. The true importance of the clavichord in our collection lies in the individual who built it, not necessarily the instrument itself.

Our Clavichord was built by Arnold Dolmetsch (1858 – 1940), a performer, instrument maker and scholar who was responsible for bringing instruments and music from the 1600s to the 1800s, which were on the brink of obscurity, back to life. Dolmetsch pioneered the popular authenticist movement that supported a return to the creation of historically accurate instruments, basing design principles and materials of construction on those historical models and writings.

His efforts inspired generations of artists and builders who are dedicated to a similar methodology, including myself.  The “living” musical instrument collection at NMC has a methodology that is much the same. Like Dolmetsch, we believe that the past informs the future and that music, and the tools used to create music in the past, have a place in music today. It is our responsibility to share our collections, our facility, and our expertise for the preservation and creation of music. We believe, like Dolmetsch, it is possible to use history to create history.

The “Dolmetsch” Clavichord is currently on display in the Unplugged gallery, it is available for artists to use for the creation of new music, and you can learn more about it here.