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Canadian Single Harpsichord "Althea" Gallery -- We are very proud of this design. We wanted to make an instrument that was practical for students, serious amateurs and working musicians, i.e., affordable, of manageable size, transportable in a standard van, stable in its tuning and mechanically trouble free, that was also a performance-quality instrument for solo and ensemble work at the highest professional level. We modestly think we have succeeded with this instrument.
    • Black Pearl, double strung, scheduled for delivery fall 2005/spring 2006 (Windsor, Ontario), photos of work in progress to come
    • Ivan, double-strung -- delivered June 2005 (Toronto), photos and sound samples to come.
    • Bragi for the Clarkstown South High School -- delivered January 2005 (West Nyack, NY )
    • Alzira -- single strung, will be available for long or short term rental sometime Fall 2006
    • Morphine, double-strung -- scheduled for Summer 2004 (Maine)
    • as yet unnamed for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra -- scheduled late 2005 (Baghdad)
    • Marie Antoinette, double strung, scheduled for delivery fall 2005 (Paris, Ontario)
    • Guy, double strung -- delivered May 2004 (Toronto), photos and sound samples
    • Stella, single strung -- delivered to Scarborough (Ontario) in June 2003, photos and sound samples
    • Black Jack, double strung -- delivered to Singapore in April 2003, photos and sound samples
    • Flemish style, double-strung -- delivered to Milwaukee in August 2001.
    • Italian style, double-strung -- delivered to Montreal in December 2001, photos and sound samples
    • Lirit, double-strung -- delivered to Indiana in May 2000
    • Althea "original", double strung, our flagship rental single, photos and sound samples


Den and Althea on the set of Kimberly Seldon's Design for Living, HGTV

Specifications: Our Canadian single is available in either a double-strung version, which we call Althea Major, or single-strung, that's Althea Minor. Both versions have a buff stop for added versatility. Compass is BB to d''' , 52 notes -- enough for most anything you can play. May be tuned to GG/BB short octave. A = 440 or 415 or can be made with a transposing keyboard without loss of any note. We discourage transposing unless you really, really need it, though, it makes for very fussy voicing and compromises key return. What we recommend instead is scaling your instrument so that it can be tuned up or down as required (takes about a week to stabilize) rather than shiftting the keyboard, which requires some compromises in the voicing and action. But if you absolutely need to transpose quickly, we will make you a transposing keyboard.

The basic instrument can be varied to look or sound however you like. We can make it sound more Italian, more French, more Flemish, brighter treble, stronger bass, whatever you prefer -- by the choice of materials, the way we shape and bar the soundboard, the position of the nut and bridge which, in turn, determines the sounding length of the string and the pluck-point, by the direction of pluck, the choice of string material and size and by how we voice the plectra. The overall "look" of the instrument is largely determined by the case finish, the keyboard woods, and style of the cheek.

The basic price includes your choice of most domestic hardwoods -- cherry, maple, oak, walnut, butternut, etc -- with a linseed oil finish, or poplar painted two colours, one inside, one out. We also have access to other woods which would be suitable for the case but more expensive, such as figured maples, English oak, wenge, mahogany and other African and Asian woods -- our supplier has a shipment of the most marvelous crotch mahogany from Africa and some huge Mediterranean olivewood boards that would make a beautiful harpsichord. The olive has a motley greenish-yellow figurethat looks like marble and a fine texture which takes a high polish. In theory, there is no reason not to have an ebony harpsichord, but we would have to charge lots more as it is hard to work (contains oils which make it difficult to glue) and also it is $80 Cdn/lb. We can use South American rainforest woods but prefer to avoid them for ecological and health reasons -- the dust of these wood is often irritating and even toxic..

A matching music desk and a pegged cedar stand, as shown, are included. We now include a matching lid as well, although the original Althea doesn't have one.

Although only 6' long and 31" wide, this instrument has volume enough for a medium-sized concert hall such as The George Weston Recital Hall, (1,036 seats), where Althea has appeared frequently. If your instrument will be used in smaller spaces or for home/studio use we could voice a double-strung more quietly, or you might prefer the single-strung version -- less tuning! Weighs about 80 pounds, can be easily handled by two people, by one strong person or one smart one (with a dolly!).

We have a supply of wood that has been salvaged from the bottom of Georgian Bay (part of Lake Huron). This wood was cut 200 or more years ago when all the areas accessible from the Great Lakes were being logged out. The logs were corralled and floated en masse to sawmills and loading ports. These particular logs sank to the bottom (more dense than the usual log?) and have been under water for approx. two centuries. Some of the logs are marked "For the King"! Because they were so deep in the water, 40+ feet, the light did not penetrate and they did not rot. However, aging progressed (slowly) and in some logs petrifaction (replacement of cell walls by minerals) has started. This salvaged wood is amazingly beautiful. For instance, when oak ages it turns a beautiful silver grey. In these logs the colour is all the way through. This means that anything made of this wood has the same aged silver look everywhere regardless of how it has been cut, carved or turned.

Althea, original -- Our basic Canadian Single case style is natural wood with a simple linseed oil finish. The original Althea [right] is in a "regular" cherry that is now (six years later) turning quite dark red. Althea's keyboard is chechen naturals and beech sharps with cherry arcades, her case is cherry outside with basswood interior construction and bottom. The music desk is cherry and slides completely out of the way for tuning and register access. The sliding feature is also handy for those of us who wear bifocals. Her cheek is a plain diagonal cut as might have been used on German or Austrian instruments of the late 18th century (compare to the fortepiano after Stein), yours can be any pattern you like. We can use just about any hardwood for the case, or if you prefer it to be painted we would make the case of poplar, which is hard, smooth, and takes paint well.

Althea is designed in the Italian style as the ideal ensemble and continuo harpsichord -- small, sturdy, stable and strung in brass for a clear, bright sound that can be heard through an ensemble, choir or chorus, even a large one. The overall shape is modeled on a slightly smaller anonymous Italian instrument in the University of Michigan's Stearns Collection. Her sturdy case construction is similar to that of the instruments of the English Restoration makers such as Keene, Haworth and Player, as are her diagonal soundboard flitches. She is a fine solo instrument and particularly suited to any of the Italian, English, German and earlier French repertoire.She is a trooper in the continuo section but can sparkle in the spotlight, too, as a soloist or featured instrument -- she does quite a nice Brandenberg V. Excellent with singers, she is a regular with the Canadian Opera Company for continuo and recitative.

Althea at work

Althea is a very professional harpsichord and one of our busiest rental instruments. She has performed many times with the Canadian Opera Company and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, to name but a few, and has been recorded and broadcast many times for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

[right] Harpsichord on life support? No, it's our Althea, in the pit of the Hummingbird Centre for the Canadian Opera Company's April 2003 production of Handel's Julius Caesar. She's been there many times for performances and recordings, but her 'tall stand' and extra-large music desk with attached pencil tray were so new when this photo was taken that they hadn't even been oiled. We made them especially for Maestro Ken Montgomery, who conducts while standing at the harpsichord (a fine old tradition, we'd like to see more of that!). For more information about her and her busy career, see her Rental page.

Here are some sound samples -- we think the our Canadian Single is spectacular with Louis Couperin and CPE Bach (CPE Bach.mp3) , but she is equally at home with modern works (Miyagi .mp3). The harpsichordist is the amazing Professor Tatiana Zenaishvili of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory with flutist Susan Kutertan, recorded at a concert she gave here in Toronto for Claviers Baroques in June 2000.

Althea, Italian style -- Completed in December 2001, this Italianate instrument is made from a batch of very light-coloured cherry that our wood supplier had gotten in. It turned a lovely pale red-gold when oiled that made us think of pink champagne. The owner, a recorder player, wanted a harpsichord for musical gatherings at his home in Montreal. Since his recorders and flute are at baroque pitch we altered the scaling to string his instrument at A=415. He chose a cheek scroll patterned after this 1553 Italian instrument by Pisaurensis: 1553 Pisaurensis, cheek detail
Together with the boxwood naturals, cherry sharps and pale case, it gives this Canadian single a very Italian look. We delivered the instrument playing, but the owner did much of the final sanding and oiling of the outer case himself. With the money he saved he had us make an matching lid, but hadn't installed it when this photo was taken. There is also a matching music desk, of course, and our regulation pegged cedar stand. The owner is happy to talk about his instrument, you can e-mail him.

Althea, Flemish style -- this painted Canadian single was delivered to Milwaukee in August 2001. The cheeks are traditional Flemish square ends. We painted it in the style of the famous Flemish builders, the Ruckers family, in red faux marbre with traditional patterned papers inside the case and lid and in the keywell. The owner chose a reverse keyboard (below), ebony naturals with bone-capped blackwood sharps. The nameboard is cherry.

The music desk (not shown) is in traditional oak, the stand is our regulation pegged cedar.

This one's so pretty that it made The Milk Paint Company's site!

Lirit, turn-of-the-century American style
delivered in May of 2002 -- This is Lirit, an Althea-type in cherry. We spent quite a while finding the right design for the cheek. The owner chose this graceful scroll from a host of examples and drawings. Although not a copy of anything, it is reminiscent of the flowing curves and organic shapes that characterize American furniture design of the early Industrial Age. The owner originally wanted us to stain the cherry to match her furniture, which is dark red mahogany and rosewood from the late 19th century, but this cherry was so dark and so pretty that we talked her out of it -- cherry tends to blotch unpleasantly when stained.

[below] Here is Lirit in her new home in Indiana. The keytops are bird's-eye maple for the naturals and cherry for the sharps. The cheeks are layered for strength, we layered up cherry/maple/cherry for contrast. We used another 'sandwiched' piece at the back of the nameboard and also for the propstick.

More about Lirit

Lirit's keywell shows her pretty bird's-eye maple naturals and her cherry sharps, and the graceful cheek scroll

Another little detail -- this is the register shift lever, hand-carved by Dawn in a pattern complimentary to the cheek scrolls.

Black Jack -- an Althea-type for The Chinese High School in Singapore, delivered April 2003. They asked for a cherry case and ebony keyboard with cherry sharps. We found the most beautiful cherry (we keep saying that!), this had a wild ripple grain like marble. We used another piece of 30 year old cherry for the sharps, it had been given to us by a retiring cabinetmaker who asked us to use it for something special. They liked the 'turn of the century' style cheek scrolls on Lirit so we designed a cheek scroll for them that had the same flavour but a little more masculine. The big challenge was to make a harpsichord that will be stable in Singapore's 80%+ humidity -- but we had a headstart, ebony jacks!

[below] The orchestra director sent us this photo of Black Jack on stage with the string orchestra and this report::

>Btw, our school orchestra obtained a gold award in the competition last
>month and I think, Black Jack was part of the factor. In fact we were the
>only group "daring" enough to try baroque works. All the others depended on
>"lush and rich" sound, which gets really boring after sometime. Ok, so I'm a
>little biased towards early music.:)

Here are some exerpts from their recent performance of J S Bach's Sixth Brandenberg Concerto with Black Jack, a largish bit from the second movement (2.2 MB) and a small bit from beginning of the third movement (about 400 KB).

Black Jack was about ready to be packed up in this photo. We'd taken the jack rail off to show off the ebony jacks.

The register shift levers are unique, too. They are carved from African blackwood and look like dragon bones.

"Stella" -- We made this instrument in cherry for a lady who had rented various instruments from us on a long-term basis for the past three years. She eventually decided that she wanted her own Canadian single. Since it will be a home instrument and doesn't need concert-hall volume she has decided that she only needs a single manual -- besides, she hates tuning. She wasn't sure what sort of keyboard she wanted so we made two, one in spalted maple with blackwood sharps (to die for!), the other in ebony with cherry sharps. She chose the spalted maple -- isn't it stunning?

Morrison Audio recently used Stella for some recordings they made to demonstrate their speakers and pre-amps, which are famous for their flat response. Here is a track from those sessions, Den playing Giles Farnaby's "A Toy" from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book -- recorded direct to CD and totally unedited. Even on my computer's not-so-hot speakers Stella's voice comes through clear and musical. The tone is full and warm throughout the compass and the effortless resonance of the bass is remarkable for a harpsichord that's just over 6 feet long -- or for any harpsichord.

"Marie Antoinette" -- We are working on another Canadian single which the owner will use for a gigging baroque ensemble which sometimes performs in period costume. He has opted for a French-style painted case and fancy stand, blue with traditional gold bands, the inside in cream and yellow with more gold, carving in the keywell and the inside of the lid, reverse keyboard in ebony and bone and a fancy French-style soundboard painting -- "elegant excess" is what it says on his order -- and a rich French sound. We can do that, watch this space!

Guy -- Delivered April 2004.

A gentleman in Toronto asked us to build him an Althea-type in cherry with an ebony and bone keyboard. He prefers the baroque pitch so we will be scaling this one the same as the Althea Italian-style that went to Montreal. This gentleman is a harpsichord builder from 'way back and we are honoured that he has asked us to make an instrument for him.

Named Guy, this Canadian Single is a false inner-outer, an Italian fashion in which a sturdy harpsichord has trim pieces inside to mimic a light-weight instrument sitting in a sturdy outer case. Guy has a cherry outer case with thin pieces of bird's-eye maple running around the soundboard. Delicate mouldings, cheek pieces in a Pisaurensis style and matching bird'e-eye around the keywell complete the inner-outer illusion.

Sound samples recorded by the owner in the fall of 2004 and posted here with his permission:

  • Wm Byrd (1543-1623) Rowland
  • Thomas Morley (1557-1602) Go from My Window


Ivan -- Another gentleman, also from Toronto, has asked us for a harpsichord. We have known him for some time, we helped him sell his Chickering piano last year. He says he is not in a rush, so we are making up parts of his harpsichord as we go along, this will make building his harpsichord very fast when we turn our full attention to it. It will be in cherry, and will share a room with his lovely cherry Sheraton tables which we had the privilege of restoring last summer. Instead of the usual Althea pegged cedar stand we will make an apron stand to agree with the tables. He's decided to name the harpsichord Ivan, after his cat.

Morphine -- our newest commission is from a lady in Maine. She has specified Flemish style decoration, like the one that went to Milwaukee, but in a royal purple faux marble. Our paint supplier, the Old Fashioned Milk Company doesn't make a purple, so we will be mixing our own milk paint the very old-fashioned way, with lime, milk and ground purple cobalt. Scheduled for delivery late winter/early spring 2004. We aren't working on her full time yet, but whenever we have a time-consuming setup we make the part for her, too. Here is Morphine's bentside being laminated, we did it at the same time we laminated Guy's, Ivan's and the one for Iraq.
. Harpsichord For Iraq -- We are pleased to be building a new Canadian Single harpsichord for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and the School of Music and Ballet in Baghdad, Iraq to replace the one that was destroyed in April 2003. We are communicating with the director, Dr. Hashim Sharaf, to find out what they want and if there is a name they would like. We don't know whether it will be a natural finish wood or painted. Den thinks all harpsichords should be cherry, Dawn is thinking she'd like to paint it in traditional dark green and red like Muguette, only a single-manual, of course. We are posting the progress report for this one publicly so that the people of Iraq, the donors and anyone interested can see the what's going on.
Black Pearl  






Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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last updated May 9, 2008