The world’s oldest active harpsichord?

The Swiss-based Chilean virtuoso Catalina Vicens has run a successful crowdfunding campaign to enable her to release a recording on a 16th-harpsichord at the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, South Dakota.

The instrument is claimed to be the oldest of its kind still in play. But is it?

Harpsi-friends, help us out, please.

Meantime, enjoy Catalina.

catalina vicens

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  • I contributed to Catalina’s campaign. I don’t have the expertise to determine whether this instrument is the oldest playing harpsichord in captivity, but I try to pay close attention to what is going on in the harpsichord world, and I’ve not heard anyone say anything to the contrary. Catalina is held in very high esteem, and we eagerly await her recording.

  • Regardless of whether or not it is actually the oldest playable harpsichord is irrelevant considering it is certainly among the oldest. The National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota is a fine institution and I would trust their authority on the dating of the instrument. Given that, we can trust the instrument is from the 16th century. In my book, any instrument from nearly 500 years ago that is still playable is worth preserving via video and audio recordings.

  • The anonymous Neapolitan harpsichord which Catalina Vincens uses on this recording is indeed thought to be the oldest playable instrument of its kind. Prof. John Koster, the conservator and curator of keyboard instruments at the National Music Museum, which owns this harpsichord, situates it between 1513 and 1533. (see the video above) This makes it a contemporary of the 1521 Jerome of Bologna harpsichord now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. However the latter is not playable; moreover it was altered later on, in line with changing musical style. The NMM’s harpsichord, on the other hand, is in original condition, as close to “mint” as any instrument that old can possibly be. The harpsichord only came to light in 2009, when the NMM purchased it privately from an owner in Argentina. I know nothing about when it might have crossed the ocean, but it must have stood unused for centuries–perhaps an ornament in the house of some great family from colonial times? Surely this is another fortunate instance of benign neglect, to which more than one landmark instrument owes its preservation.

    [The oldest extant harpsichord is a small clavicytherium (upright harpsichord) in the collection of the Royal College of Music. It dates to c.1480 and is thought to have been made in southern Germany, possibly in Ulm. It is the oldest stringed keyboard instrument of any kind that has survived. However, it is missing its strings and a number of keys.]

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