By Gail McCarthy
A musician and a former boat-builder will bring to the stage the fruition of a project spanning nearly 25 years when they unveil a hand-made harpsichord built locally from the plans of a 1707 French instrument and a pile of parts.
Gloucester's Frances Conover Fitch and Greg Bover, of Gloucester's CB Fisk Inc. — which builds musical instruments — will present a free program to the community Tuesday night titled "A Thousand Sunday Mornings: The making of a harpsichord" at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.
At center stage with be the French double harpsichord — with two keyboards and three sets of strings — which was intended to be a faithful copy of an instrument built in Paris in 1707 by master builder Nicholas Dumont, one of the earliest harpsichords with a five octave range.
The title is a reference to the amount of time taken to complete the project in a few hours of work every Sunday when Bover could find the time amongst his other duties.
The couple is thrilled to share with the community this truly unique instrument, that in many respects is a work of art in its own right.
Bover built this instrument for his wife, an accomplished musician, who he met when she was in graduate school at New England Conservatory studying harpsichord and organ. Fitch has toured extensively in North America and Europe, and recorded for Swiss, German, Dutch, and French National Radio as well as for the BBC and NPR. She has presented solo recitals at the Smithsonian Institution, the American Church in Paris, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and has participated in major music festivals.
After meeting Fitch in the 1970s, Bover plotted a new direction in terms of his carpentry when he entered the world of making musical instruments. He began working for William Dowd, one of the major harpsichord makers at the time. He worked a year in his shop in Cambridge and then two years at his atelier in Paris while Fitch studied in Amsterdam with harpsichord virtuoso Gustav Leonhardt.
When they returned to the United States in 1978, Bover began work with C. B. Fisk, Inc. in Gloucester, building pipe organs, where he has worked ever since.
This saga in their life began in the late 1980s when their friend, Lynette Tsaing, closed her harpsichord shop and passed on to them the beginnings of a harpsichord as well as her detailed drawings.
"It was at once an overwhelmingly generous gift and a challenging project," said Bover.
Bover, in consultation with his friend Allan Winkler, a harpsichord builder for more than four decades, started from scratch, beginning with creating a new internal framing plan. But his work on the instrument would be interrupted continuously from the demands of his job, which require travel, as well as the demands of raising a son, a century-old house to restore and civic involvement.
"Every Christmas, some completed part would appear under the tree, a wrapped token of the glacial progress," said Bover.
The materials are varied: The case is made out of basswood. The sound board is made out of spruce. The keys are made out of pear wood, cow bone and ebony. The tuning hammer is made out of pear wood.
"Greg is as exceptional a craftsman as Frances is a performer — there is just a whole lot to love there," said Winkler. "The thing I find so impressive is that this was done in his 'spare time.' His job is very demanding, and it's so hard to pick something up that you put down a week or month earlier."
To complete the instrument, Bover called on the help of several friends: Bob Duffy of Indianapolis made all the jacks from cherry and holly, two stable species of wood. The work of two artists is also involved.
The oil painting on the lid is the work of Michael Tymon of Pennsylvania, a classmate of their son's at the Rhode Island School of Design. Tymon brought together influences from Fragonard, Watteau and others to create a unique country scene in the traditional style of French harpsichords of the period. The soundboard painting was done by their long-time friend Carole Bolsey of Kingston, a successful artist and teacher. There are images of plants, and birds and even sea shells.
The harpsichord, which dates back to around 1350, is often thought of as the forerunner to the piano, Bover explained. A piano strikes its strings with hammers; the harpsichord plucks the strings with tiny bits of bird quill attached to a thin slip of wood.
In the end, Bover says, all the skills of the instrument-maker are "for naught" without the performer.
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3445 or email@example.com.
If you go ...
What: "A Thousand Sunday mornings: The making of a harpsichord," a free community program
When: Tuesday, May 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center at 37 Main St. in Rockport
More information: For more information, visit www.rcmf.org.