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Working in Harmony

Harpsichord makers tell the instrument’s story through craftsmanship

By Nicole Trifone


The wareroom of Hay’s Cabinetmaking Shop is filled with the impressive craftsmanship one would expect of cabinetmakers. Ornate chests, elegant desks and refined side chairs line the walls as examples of the products made in the shop.

Among the fine furniture is a small harpsichord — the first hint that this particular cabinetmaking shop employs two harpsichord makers, Ed Wright and Melanie Belongia.

The two specialties under one roof would have been an unusual combination in the 18th century — just as it would be today. But in Williamsburg, there is historical precedent.

In 1767, Benjamin Bucktrout, the cabinetmaker who rented the Nicholson Street shop from Anthony Hay, advertised his services to Hay’s former customers in the Virginia Gazette and added a nota bene at the end: “Spinets and harpsichords made and repaired.” Bucktrout’s training is unknown, but some cabinetmakers in the late 18th century did have musical-instrument experience.

“Once people get over seeing the unusual combination of harpsichord work and cabinetmaking all in one place, we have the advantage of being a bit of a novelty,” said Wright, a journeyman. “A lot of people have heard of harpsichords, but they don’t know how they work, never been exposed to them and never played one.”

Unfamiliarity with harpsichords in the 21st century is understandable. The instrument began to go out of fashion starting around the late 18th century as the pianoforte — the formal term for piano — rose in popularity. With strings that are struck rather than plucked, as with the harpsichord, the piano boasted a new sound and a greater dynamic range.

As part of an early music revival in recent years, talented instrument makers all over the world are reproducing harp-sichords. Colonial Williamsburg’s cabinetmaking shop, however, is the only one using strictly 18th-century tools and techniques.

Building a harpsichord requires all the traditional woodworking skills one would expect from a cabinetmaker: sawing, planing, bending and carving wood. But the builder also needs the mathematical skill to lay out the strings, the mechanical knowledge to create the plucking action and an understanding of what a musician would expect to feel and hear when the harpsichord is played.

“The skill level of those who built harpsichords in the 18th century is a lot more sophisticated than many people today give them credit for,” said Belongia, an apprentice. “People are surprised by the level of sophistication during colonial times.”

Each spinet, a smaller type of harpsichord and the only type produced in the shop, takes the harpsichord makers about 700 hours of labor. Harpsichord makers are working with a variety of materials, such as wood, quill, leather, fabric and bone. Their skills range from the type of large-scale woodworking that goes into building the case of the harpsichord to the finest mechanical work necessary to put together the nine pieces that make up the 4-inch jacks, which pluck the strings.

In Wright and Belongia’s workspace sits a nearly finished spinet. This one, like the one on display in the wareroom, follows the pattern of a 1726 Cawton Aston spinet in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection — one of three surviving instruments made by the English craftsman and the only one in the U.S.

Wright, who has worked as an instrument maker with Colonial Williamsburg since 1983, came to the job as a classical guitarist who loved history but had no woodworking experience. At the time, Colonial Williamsburg had a separate instrument making shop that focused on guitars and violins, but history did not justify such a site. The instrument makers dropped their other stringed work, revived harpsichord making and joined the cabinetmakers in 1988.

Wright took the job soon after graduating with a music degree from the University of North Carolina, thinking it would be temporary before moving on to grad-uate school. But Colonial Williamsburg became a different version of higher education for him.

He started as an interpreter in the shop but had the opportunity to build a couple of Baroque-style guitars in those early years. Under the guidance of retired journeyman instrument maker Marc Hansen, Wright’s formal apprenticeship began in 1988 when harpsichord making was revived. He became a journeyman in 1993 and has been overseeing the Historic Area’s harpsichord work since 2009.

“I do enjoy building these harpsichords, but I have loved telling stories since I was a kid,” Wright said. “Really and truly, a lot of what I love about working here is the interpretation.”

Now Wright is passing along his expertise on colonial-era techniques to Belongia, who has made and restored violins for nearly 25 years and is now an apprentice in the 18th-century trade of harpsichord making.

Belongia is a musician from a family of musicians and woodworkers. She vividly remembers one particularly eventful month from her childhood when her parents took her to a violin shop, a symphony performance and Colonial Williamsburg’s instrument making shop. Her campaign for her own violin began soon after. Her parents relented, and she immediately began taking apart her first violin on the car ride home — an early sign that the 8-year-old would grow up to make a living out of tinkering with instruments.

“I have a lot of relevant experience, but I’m interested in the historical ways of doing things,” Belongia said. “But beyond that, Ed is a phenomenal storyteller. If I could absorb even half of that talent for my interpretation, I’d be happy.”

Belongia, who completed the violin-making curriculum at the North Bennett Street School in Boston, started her apprenticeship in the Hay Shop about 10 months ago. As she learns the trade by working with Wright in the shop, Belongia is also spending time outside the shop researching the history of harpsichords.

Under Wright’s tutelage, Belongia has already had the opportunity to study several original harpsichords from the 18th century in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection and at other museums along the East Coast, taking note of tool marks that hint at how the builder put the instrument together and, perhaps more importantly, solved problems along the way. Historical documents such as invoices and advertisements provide insight into those who made, bought and played harpsichords.

“The apprenticeship offers the foundation and the know-how that you need physically and mechanically for this trade,” Wright said. “If I’ve done my job right in training her, she will have the basis to take the harpsichord-making trade into whatever direction she wants to take it.”

Ed Wright and Melanie Belongia use 18th-century drills as they build the jacks that pluck the strings of a spinet based on an original 1726 Cawton Aston. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Working Wood in the 18th Century

Jan. 16-19, 2020

  • As varied as the people who settled in the Southern backcountry, surviving furniture from the region reveals remarkable stories of cultural persistence and incorporation. Craftspeople and scholars from across The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation work alongside distinguished guest presenters — cabinetmaker Steve Latta, chairmaker Elia Bizzarri and scholar Daniel Ackermann — to explore this diverse legacy of fine craftsmanship. Learn more about the 22nd annual conference .