SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A harpsichord that entertained the elites of Italy in the mid-1500s has been restored by a South Dakota museum and will soon bring its sound to 21st-century ears.
The National Music Museum in Vermilion, which acquired the instrument in 2009, worked with Chilean-born musician Catalina Vicens, who specializes in historical keyboards and percussion instruments, to produce the harpsichord’s first full-length recording.
The crowd-funded project resulted in a 20-track disc of compositions that Vicens said would have been performed in Naples when the instrument was in its youth.
“It’s kind of magical because it is an extraordinarily old instrument, and the restoration that was needed was not extreme, so we can see the instrument’s stage is very close to the stage it was 500 years ago,” said Vicens, who lives in Switzerland and spearheaded the effort.
Harpsichords were popular for centuries until overtaken by the piano, which they resemble. Museum officials believe the Neapolitan harpsichord that Vicens played was built in 1530, or just 38 years after Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the New World.
The museum purchased it from its previous owner in Argentina six years ago for an undisclosed amount. An in-house conservator minimally restored it, including cleaning it and installing a new set of jacks – the pieces that pluck the strings – to make it what the museum believes is the oldest known playable harpsichord.
Vicens raised more than $13,000 toward the cost of the recording project, including travel to and from South Dakota, professional engineering, as well as the booklet design and printing of the CD, which will be released in January on Carpe Diem Records distributed by Naxos.
All tracks will also be available on iTunes that same month, and the CD will be on sale at the museum. People who contributed to the campaign will have early access to the music.
“It’s a long process, lots of revisions,” said the 31-year-old Vicens. “It’s not music that everyone listens to every day, so it’s important to put the work in front of everyone. We want it to go into a wider market so the booklet is going to be in English, in German and in French.”
Museum director Cleveland Johnson said the recording is the equivalent of a “sound document” that will allow the facility to share a piece of its vast collections with the public, which often wants to hear the instruments on display.
“The instrument is something that you could only look at until now, but very soon we’ll have 60 or 70 minutes of glorious Italian music from the period that the instrument was created,” Johnson said.
“So, this CD will basically be a time machine that takes you to 16th century Naples, and that’s something that not even Hollywood can do.”