Travel Blog

13 Jul

Meet Vancouver’s premiere harpsichord maker


As part of its 2015 Summer Festival, Early Music Vancouver is presenting their version of English opera Dido and Aeneas.

The July 30 concert marks the 45-year-old company’s first ever presentation of Henry Purcell’s iconic baroque masterpiece. Based on Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, the work is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest operas of all time. Its most famous piece is the aria Dido’s Lament, which is featured in many modern recordings, and adaptions for TV and film scores.

Adding to the uniqueness of the concert, the performance will feature a special, handmade harpsichord. The harpsichord features a painting on its lid of the final scene from Dido and Aeneas. The painting is by Columbian artist Marco Tulio, while the instrument itself was made by Vancouver craftsman Craig Tomlinson. We talked to Tomlinson about his work, including this one-of-a-kind piece.

Q: The bio on your website says that you began building and playing during high school years in the late ‘60s. Does that mean guitars and banjos, that kind of thing?

A: Actually, the instrument that started it all off was the Appalachian Dulcimer. Its a 4-string folk instrument with roots in France and northern Europe. It evolved into the shape we see today in the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States. For a time, it was a very popular instrument and in the 1960s, when I started building, it was impossible to buy one in Vancouver so I decided to build one.

The first one took over a year as the learning curve was straight up but as I built more and more I became very efficient at building them until it took less that one week to complete one. At that point I began searching for larger projects.

Q: You started out building from kits. What was it like moving from kits to building from scratch?

A: To learn about the building of harpsichords, an instrument that was completely foreign to me, I started assembling kits for harpsichord students around the Vancouver area. Kits were available from two companies, both based on the East Coast of the United States. It was actually a very good way to learn about the various types of harpsichords and to have a hands-on introduction to some of the building processes.

After assembling about 10 of these kits, I began to really question some of the methods and materials that were needed and provided. Again, I was looking at more efficient methods and better quality materials. At this point, I began working with two important builders in North America. One was the draftsman for one of the most important collections of harpsichords in Europe. He had a vast collection of the information that was needed to build the instruments from scratch. The other was one the best builders in the U.S. located in San Francisco. From him I learned the importance and the methods of making precise keyboards and action parts. I came away with a knowledge of how to make an instrument that sounds great and works perfectly.

Q: You do a lot of research, going to European museums etc. Has your research taken you anywhere really strange, like a weird abandoned church or the catacombs under Paris?

A: Actually and unfortunately, no. Anything too weird would probably not be a great location for extending the life of a priceless instrument. I’m thinking either a castle with no roof or the catacombs under Paris would not have a very even temperature or humidity attached to it.

There were a few bombed-out instruments that had to be completely rebuilt from ruins following the World War II. Some of those instruments are now in a wonderful condition. I did have in my possession for about two months, one of the final harpsichords by Bartolomeo Cristofori, built in the Uffiizi in Florence in the very early 1700s, just before he invented the piano. It was a wonderful instrument that is now in Amsterdam. Most of the museums and collections that I have visited worldwide over the years are extremely careful of how the instruments are stored and treated.

Craig Tomlinson.

Craig Tomlinson.

Q: These instruments are very expensive – you have Italian harpsichords for sale at $27k. Is it mostly professional musicians buying these instruments, or do you get the occasional rich rock star or Internet instant-billionaire for a customer?

A: I have had a few rock stars but no Internet billionaires yet. The instruments are priced between $19,000 and $90,000 but they are completely hand-built from top to bottom and worth every penny of it. They are one-of-a-kind instruments and among the best sounding in the world today.

Q. Are collectors of these kinds of instruments, er, eccentric?

A: Yes and no. Harpsichords are in fact just a very expressive tool used to play a very specific type of music. In the right hands, there is nothing that can equal its distinctive sound. For the music of Bach or Scarlatti or a dozen other great composers, there is nothing that compares to playing the music on the instrument it was written for. So mostly the collectors are musicians wanting to replicate the touch and sounds of these instruments to get the best experience that they can. On the other hand, I do have a few of these musicians who own five or six of my instruments who arguably could be considered a tad eccentric.

Q: You must do lots of custom-builds. Any strange requests, either for a really obscure instrument, or for adding unique ornamentation or inscription to something?

A: I do a lot of custom builds but I have always been able to steer my customers in the right direction both musically and decoratively. I work within the four main schools of harpsichord building; French, Italian, German and Flemish. All of the schools have very different and distinctive sounds, shapes and decorations that one must adhere to. I very much like to work within the boundaries of each of the styles. I will however allow the occasional tidbit to surface. As an example, within the decoration of 17th-century Flemish virginals and harpsichords, Latin mottos were inscribed on the lid. Mottos commonly included religious themes such as MUSICA DONUM DEI (MUSIC IS THE GIFT OF GOD) or something philosophical such as ARS NON HABET INIMICUM NISI IGORNATEM (ART HAS NO ENEMY EXCEPT IGNORANCE). I once did inscribe TRIBBLUS ISTE MORTUUS JACOBE EST (JIM, THIS TRIBBLE’S DEAD) referring to an early Star Trek episode. No one has ever picked up on this in concert.

Q: What can you tell us about the harpsichord being used in Early Music Vancouver’s upcoming production of Dido and Aenas?

A: The instruments being used (yes, there are two of them) are enhanced copies of an instrument that was built in Paris in 1769. I measured and photographed the instrument in Edinburgh in 1987. They were both built using mostly European woods and they sound very close to the original instrument. One was built in 2003 and the other in 2013. The later instrument has a lid painting by the fabulous Columbian artist, Marco Tullio, depicting the final scene of Dido and Aenas so it is a very fitting instrument to have on this stage. It was common practise to conduct or direct from the harpsichord and that is what is happening in this production.

Early Music Vancouver: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 at 7:30 p.m.
Chan Shun Concert Hall at Chan Centre
Pre-Concert Talk: Thursday, July 30, 2015 at 6:45 p.m.
Royal Bank Cinema at Chan Centre
Address: Chan Centre for the Performing Arts
University of British Columbia
6265 Crescent Road
Ticket prices: from $17.50
Box office: or 604-822-2697


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