Robert Hicks Harpsichords

Information on the instruments I build


Maintenance-general principles and specific techniques
Completed  Instruments

At the center of my harpsichord making are two different designs from the eighteenth-century French tradition. Although similar in size, these designs and the choices of materials result in timbres that are virtually at opposite ends of the French category. One, after Benoist Stehlin 1760, has a sweet soft-edged sound, and the other, after Taskin 1769, has the typical Taskin sound, sharp-edged, focused, and commanding. Both are rich and full-blooded, but the Stehlin is perhaps a music room instrument and the Taskin a concert-recital instrument. By different choices of materials, each of these sounds could be shifted towards each other.

And I have explored other eighteenth-century designs - I can offer a grand ravalement version of the Boston Museum Couchet-Blanchet-Taskin, and an FF-f3 version of their Hemsch. Each of these - and for that matter, each of all the designs I'm familiar with - has its own unique character. I seek to understand those characters, and to produce instruments that come of that understanding.

All the materials used in my instruments are fine quality and are chosen for their tonal character, and the designs used in case construction, string lay-out, and action parts are historically informed. The cases are built of solid basswood, with mortised and dovetailed framing. Wooden jacks are standard, with classically designed keyboards.

All my instruments have a finish in oil-based earth-pigment paint, with soundboard decoration and appropriate gilding. A natural-wood, turned-leg stand with matching music desk are standard. A strong padded cover is included.

I have been building and researching harpsichords since 1980. Working in a one-man shop allows me to respect the individuality of each instrument and of the source of its design. Frequent visits to museum collections in this country and abroad provide me with renewed knowledge and remind me of what harpsichords are supposed to sound like.

The antique instruments, whether still viable and playing or not, describe designs which are efficient. If a maker does not seek to impose his own ideas, and will build an instrument well and allow the soundboard its freedom, then the action needn't be forced and still a maximum amount of sound will emerge. I make instruments that are comfortably playable while producing a rich, full sound: I ask them to speak.

With its large soundboard area, light stringing with less downbearing, and light dampening (including open strings in "off" positions), the French 18th-century instrument was developed to meet requirements of composers and players for a sound which was both colorful and profound. It took the better part of a century to achieve this, starting around 1660 when the new music threw French harpsichord-making into turmoil and when Flemish designs were enlisted for emancipation from the Italianate, until perhaps 1760, when the last Flemish influences were finally superseded and the full French harpsichord could emerge en gloire. These are designs which were developed gradually and with hindsight - designs which address a hundred years of music.

I also offer a single-manual Portuguese instrument based on a 1780 original at the University of South Dakota, by Joze Calisto. In the summer of 2001 I spent time measuring this instrument and producing a working drawing, having had my attention caught by a unique combination of Italian and Northern traits. Narrow-wasted, with two eights on a single manual and strung in brass, it has a high French or English bridge and very sparse, Northern, ribbing. The bridge is set well away from the bentside, out in open soundboard area, and providing very long after-lengths to the strings: with the simple ribbing the result is an unconstrained instrument with a long after-ring. At the same time, the Italianate qualities provide a strong attack. This is a remarkably versatile design, in a sense a successful combination of the late Baroque quest for an orchestral sound and the early Baroque interest in clarity.

Harpsichords are virtually living and breathing creatures. They are larger than most stringed instruments and under more tension, while being lighter-framed than pianos (some of the antiques are surprisingly light). They are vulnerable to extremes. My instruments have been frequently remarked on for their stability, but some basic climate control, a few simple adjustments as the seasons change, and regular attention to habitual matters like tuning, are required to keep any instrument in top condition. When I deliver an instrument I always include maintenance lessons. I try to keep up on the lives and activities of my instruments in order to assure that they go on producing the music they were made for, on stage and off. Short of an owner's abuse or neglect, my harpsichords are under guaranty. And the rewards of proper care are exponential.

Harpsichords are among the human artifacts that somehow radiate a grace and dignity of their own. Handsome and pleasing to look at, they suddenly become alive as musical instruments, when the fine materials, proportions, decoration form the appropriate ambiance for the music. I invite those who are interested to visit my small house and shop, and to bring music with them.

I go on building new instruments, working on other instruments, continuing my research. I feel that if I'm to learn my work it is necessary to always move beyond what I've done, to always keep up on my homework, to ask further questions. I know that a good maker does not simply replicate the work of the shop where he apprenticed, nor does he replicate his own work. I suspect that the driving force behind a great instrument is a curiosity, an engaged perplexity which keeps a maker learning throughout his career. .

Warranty: Robert Hicks harpsichords are warranteed for materials and workmanship. If the maintenance directions are followed (see MAINTENANCE), particularly with respect to the relative humidity, your harpsichord will stay in fine and playable condition. Damage which occurs will be repaired by the maker. If, on inspection by the maker, it is determined that the damage was caused by the maker's neglect, it will be repaired at no charge (incidental fees such as shipping may perhaps be charged). If the maker determines that the damage resulted from the owner's neglect, the repair will be billed. Unauthorized work done by a technician or other maker may invalidate this warranty.

French double, anonymous 1667, short-octave GG/BB bass to c3, strung in brass. Built 2011.

Double-manual after Mietke, GG-d3, transposing, in brass.  Built 2013. These two instruments are very close in their musical designs.
Michael Mietke visited Paris in his career, and seems to have studied the established tradition rather than the new ravalement experiments.


Robert Hicks Harpsichords
314 Hall Road, Lincoln, Vermont. 05443
802 453 3996... robert@hicksharpsichords.com