"How Crows Helped Shape Early Music"
Intro by Doug Wigfield
I was watching LSU play Alabama on a Saturday night in November of 2015 when I received an e-mail from a Tom McGreevy in Oregon. He explained that he found my e-mail address on the internet when searching "crow hunting". He explained that he builds and refurbishes harpsichords and was having a hard time getting crow feathers. I e-mailed back right away inquiring ... what do crow feathers have to do with harpsichords? He e-mailed back a short, summary reply to my question: unlike a piano which plays a note when a hammer strikes a string; with a harpsichord a note is produced when the string is plucked and what plucked the string was a piece of crow quill.
Thus started an incredible cooperative journey to help Tom get some crow quills legally. I explained that I could not sell them to him but could give primaries to him as long as they were legally obtained as was certified by contact with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. He was ecstatic and asked how much he would have to pay. Knowing they couldn't be sold I asked that he write an article with accompanying illustrations / photos that we could share with members and visitors on the CROWBUSTERS website ... which he did.
We hope you enjoy the article; learning of an almost unbelievable use of a primary feather from the bird we all love and enjoy so much... the crow. A special thanks goes to Skip Woody, Bob Aronsohn and myself, Doug Wigfield for providing those feathers.
For about three hundred years, musical geniuses such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and countless others relied on on birds to help them write and perform their music. These birds included ravens, geese and most frequently of all: crows. With the advent of keyboard instruments (hundreds of years before the piano appeared), the harpsichord, clavichord and organ brought a new technology to music-making that created many new musical styles. Johann Sebastian Bach once commented on how simple it was to make music with the new keyboard instruments: “It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” One of the most popular of the new keyboard instruments, the harpsichord had its heyday during the Baroque era, approximately from 1600 - 1750. The earlier harpsichords appeared in the 1500’s and there were still a few of them around as late as 1800. And they were all over Europe: France, England, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands as well as their colonies, including America. Many people had them in their homes, and having a daughter who could play well was a mark of a family of distinction. A rich and varied repertoire of works for both solo harpsichord and for ensembles became available, centuries before the piano existed. So, how did crows help make this possible? Unlike the piano, which produces sound by striking stings with hammers, the harpsichord plucks the strings with a plectrum (like miniature guitar pick). Back then, the plectra were always made of some kind of bird quill, most commonly crow quill.
Sounds simple, right? Press down a key on the keyboard and a crow quill plucks the strings. OK, so I could end this article right here without any further explanation — but it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds at first. And, the harpsichord went through 300 years of evolution throughout many different countries. So, perhaps a bit more explanation is warranted.
(Figure 1. Harpsichord action)
In the harpsichord, a string is plucked by a mechanical device called a jack. The jacks are slips of wood which rest at the back end of the keys. The plectrum is inserted near the top of the jack, just below the string. Since the key is a lever, pressing down the front end of the key causes the back end to rise, lifting the jack so that plectrum plucks the string. The plectrum is mounted on a section of the jack called the tongue, which is actually hinged. The hinge allows the string to be plucked when the jack rises, but the tongue moves backward around the string as it comes back down, so the plectrum does not pluck a second time. A felt damper stops the string from vibrating once the key is released.
(Figure 2. Harpsichord jack)
Figure 3 below shows the sequence of events that takes place when a key is pressed and then released.
(Figure 3. Sequence of events)
As the harpsichord evolved it became more complex. Many harpsichords included two keyboards. Most harpsichords have two or three sets of strings, that is, there are three strings for each key on the keyboard. This allows them to change how they sound, much like different stops on an organ. A typical two-keyboard harpsichord will have a range of five octaves — 61 keys with three strings per key (also three jacks) for a total of 183 strings and 183 jacks. The keyboards can be used separately or coupled together to play either one, two or all three sets of strings at the same time.
(Figure 4. Double keyboard coupling mechanism)
For quills to be used to pluck the strings on the harpsichord there is quite a bit of preparation to make them work properly. Before being inserted into the jack, a suitable quill must be selected. When using crow quills, only the primary flight feathers are used. The barbs are then removed from the feathers, leaving only the bare shafts of the quills.
(Figure 5. Crow wing)
(Figure 6. Primary feathers)
(Figure 7. Barbs removed from quills)
Many harpsichord builders will soak the quills in oil for several months. This gives them a longer life when in use. Historically, olive oil was often used, but today other types of oils are also used, including Ballistol. Many harpsichord makers will simply paint the quill with oil once installed in the jack. Others don’t use any kind of oil treatment at all.
(Figure 8. Soaking the quills in Olive Oil)
Each method has its own passionate adherents. After soaking for a time, the quills are left to dry out for a few months. Then they are ready to go into the jacks.
Each quill must be carefully shaped with a sharp knife or scalpel to be inserted into the jack tongue. In Figure 9, you can see that what’s left protruding from the jack to pluck the string is very much smaller than the original quill. Once inserted into the jack, the quill has to be carefully shaved on the under side, so that the force with which it plucks the string matches (as closely as possible) the strength of all neighboring plectra. Lastly, the very tip of each plectrum is carefully tapered to allow it to quietly and easily slide over the string on the return when the key is released. The process of shaping and shaving the quill plectrum is called voicing.
(Figure 9. Jack with quill plectrum inserted)
(Figure 10. Close up of jack tongue pivot)
(Figure 11. Harpsichord being restored — with jacks removed)
To see a good demonstration of how the quill is inserted and voiced, please refer the linked video below by Andreas Gilger:
When the harpsichord was “rediscovered” by Wanda Landowska in the early twentieth century, little attention was payed to the historical instruments. The few piano manufacturers who decided to make harpsichords were eager to apply all the current modern technology to the instrument. Thus the modern harpsichords from the 1940s and 1950s bore little resemblance to their 18th century ancestors.
Starting in the 1970’s, the harpsichord experienced a great revival. But still the urge to apply modern technology to the instrument remained. Most significantly, Delrin, a plastic developed by Dupont Corporation, became the main stay for making harpsichord jacks and plectra. Very rarely did any harpsichord builder make wooden jacks and quill plectra. Instead they were mass-produced from plastic. Multiple adjustment screws were added, which made the jacks more complicated, but these days, many builders feel these extras are of dubious value. The past 20 years have seen a new philosophy, with a great number harpsichord makers and players deciding that they want to get the harpsichord back to its roots with more original materials. The desire for authentic materials includes not only the use of bird quill plectra and wooden jacks, but also a return to use of iron and brass strings made to the specifications of wire drawn in the 18th century, based on the metallurgy of the time. Hide glue, made from historical recipes, is used to assemble the instrument.
Nowadays, many harpsichord builders and players insist that the more authentic iron and brass wire used for the strings produces a much warmer sound, and sustains sound better than the modern high-tensile steel, which has been used for decades. Also, most harpsichordists feel that using bird quill transfers much more energy to the string with less effort. To hear some excellent examples of harpsichord music, here are just a few links to Youtube. If you search for harpsichord you can find millions of more examples. Note: the sound quality on these pieces is excellent. If you can, use high quality speakers.
And, finally if you haven’t had enough, check out a video of Kevin Fryer, harpsichord maker in San Francisco, and another at the Zuckermann harpsichord factory.
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