News Center

News from the Reed College public affairs office

A Five-Octave Finale

By Nisma Elias '12 on June 08, 2012 09:58 AM

Reed IMG_3251.JPGThe Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery was packed to the rafters last week as alumni from many eras came together in a hush of anticipation to witness a unique occasion--the unveiling of the French double harpsichord created by professor Nicholas Wheeler '55 [physics 1963-2010] over a span of 26 years, and showcased during Reunions '12: Reedfayre.

Nick became fascinated by the harpsichord (the distinguished ancestor of the piano) while playing at a concert his freshman year at Reed and resolved to build his own some day. He finally began work many years later, in August 1985, when he was A.A Knowlton Professor of Physics. While the bulk of the carpentry and metalwork were completed in the two years that followed, the venture languished for two decades when his teaching and other things took greater precedence. Nick was not able to put finishing touches on the instrument until after his retirement in 2010, after 47 years of service.

"This is a Reed instrument and its first public appearance. It's something I've fantasized about for 60 years," Nick remarked. Returning students and friends continued to ask over the years when and if the project would ever be finished. "It is a doubt which I confess, I sometimes shared: it gave me anxiety because I did not want to leave to my heirs the problem of figuring out how to dispose of a stringless box that looked like a harpsichord, but was unplayable." However friends, such as professor Kathleen Worley, [theatre 1985-] helped along the way by picking up some gold-dipped hardware and wood scrapers.

The case is painted a shade of plum, while the support trestle (and bench) are eggplant, "intended to make the instrument seem to sit like a flower at the top of an unobtrusive stem." Reversing the polarity of the traditional keyboard, the natural keys are made of black ebony, while the sharps and flats are made of white bone. A range of wood such as birch, poplar, plywood, maple, and ebony, some of which was salvaged from an old pipe organ in the Reed chapel, makes up the flesh of the harpsichord. The rosette, which serves no acoustic purpose but traditionally occupies a position the middle of the soundboard, is an intricate circumference crafted from six interwoven circles and carved from Swiss pear wood with ebony and ivory inlaid. The lustrous golden leaf on the name board was designed by Lee Littlewood '68, a student of the calligrapher Lloyd J. Reynolds [English and art 1929-69]

Bonnie Garrett, the recently retired director of the private music program, was the evening's harpsichordist. She taught the piano and harpsichord at Reed for over 30 years and also witnessed the humble beginnings of the instrument.

"When I heard Nick was building a double harpsichord (a harder task than just a single harpsichord), I wondered 'How is he doing this? While being at Reed and a full-time professor?' Then when I saw his tools and wood shavings in his office, I thought the physics department was a wonderful place."

Bonnie choose to awe the audience with pieces inspired by the instrument. She played three short scores by Francois Couperin, which introduced the audience to the colour and possibilities of the two keyboards. Four compositions of another famous harpsichordist, J.S. Bach, served to demonstrate the dynamics of the five-octave keyboards, followed by the textured and elegant opus of Jacques Duphly.

After thunderous applause, alumni gathered around the harpsichord to admire the instrument and ask questions of Nick and Bonnie. The harpsichord, which has now been transported to Nick's home, may be borrowed by the Portland Baroque Orchestra and the Portland Opera from time to time. Wherever it may go, Nick's symphony of dedication will certainly reverberate in the music it plays in the future.