Here’s a tip: If you want a good harpsichord, build it yourself
When keyboard artist Peter Biro performs, he plays a harpsichord he made himself.
He knows he's not the only musician who's done that, but he also knows it's pretty unusual.
A long-time Westsider and retired School District 11 elementary teacher, Biro has actually built or co-built eight of the long, intricately designed instruments.
Biro nixed the idea that such fine-carpentry musical pursuits might be a previously unrevealed path to riches. “Poverty is the necessity of invention; that's how I became a harpsichord maker,” he recalled, then quipped, “But it just solidified my poverty.”
This reality hasn't stopped him completely. Biro has two more harpsichords under construction (plus a forte piano)… but after that he's thinking of switching to carpentry products that are more profitable, such as kitchen cutting boards. Seriously.
Part of the problem is the harpsichord's obscurity. This is not too surprising, considering that its heyday was ending around the time of the French Revolution in 1789. In fact, the Revolution itself sped up the European instrument's decline, Biro pointed out as a historical side note. Harpsichords were seen as a symbol of the upper class, so Robespierre and his followers destroyed them wherever they were found. Meanwhile, the new (at that time) piano - with easier maintenance, less frequent need for tuning, a capacity for greater sound manipulation and the perception of being a “people's” instrument - received just the opposite treatment. Its popularity continues to this day, although the harpsichord has appeared in some 20th century music, including songs by the Beatles, Yardbirds and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Biro said.
Another financial downside for harpsichords is that they are not cheap to make, nor - with hundreds of pieces and exacting measurements - can they be constructed quickly. Biro can attest to that, having nearly sliced off the tip of a finger with a band saw during one of his instrument-creation efforts.
But all that aside, “nothing sounds like a harpsichord,” he said, admiringly. His goal of finding the ultimate that its soaring string combinations can attain is what's led him to make one after another over the years, including trial-and-error with types of wood, string lengths and soundboards.
He was never trained in cabinet work or instrument manufacturing. “I learned how to operate power tools,” he said. After that, “I got my courage up, along with a slight fit of insanity.”
After building six from scratch (including two with his woodworking, also musically inclined uncle, Dezso Ujlaky), Biro decided to invest in expensive kits from the Zuckermann Harpischords International company of Connecticut. These turned into the two harpsichords he most recently completed. “I believed there were things I could learn, and I was right,” he said. Now, after absorbing that knowledge, he's trying to inject it into two more non-kit versions. These are now under construction in his workshop.
At least there's an audience for his favorite instrument. Biro is the regular organist and harpsichordist for St. Mary's Anglican Catholic Church in Denver, and he also gets hired for harpsichord recitals up to seven times a year in the area, including two to three at St. Mary's, he said. An upcoming recital, accompanied by baroque flute player Nancy Andrew, will be Sept. 22 in Denver.
When Biro travels to such shows, performance arrangements must include hauling the harpsichord to and from his house. The one he now plays is his most recent Zuckermann, which he describes as an “accurate reproduction of an original Flemish instrument of 1642.”
Born in Connecticut, Biro moved with his family to Colorado Springs in 1969. He went on to graduate, as a performing arts major, from the UCLA School of Fine Arts in Southern California in 1981. It was there that he had his harpsichord epiphany. To that point, his focus had been on the organ, because it was more complex than the piano. But a room at UCLA had a harpsichord, and once he heard it he was hooked. After finishing organ practice, “I'd go back there to play it,” he recalled.
He returned to the Springs after college. He's since performed around the western United States and in Europe.
From 1990 to 2010, he taught fourth and fifth grade as well as music in grades K-5 at two District 11 elementaries. Sometimes he'd bring the harpsichord to school - “the kids got to hear me play,” Biro smiled.
A big difference between the harpsichord (as well as the organ) and the piano is that it doesn't matter how hard or soft the keys are pressed; also, the musician must “take as much care lifting up as going down,” Biro explained.
The interaction of numerous moving parts requires constant attention. “The harpsichord is more work, than the piano, period,” he observed.
But he offers no complaints about what it takes to build one. After all, he said, such work is a lot easier now than when the first of them were being made - the earliest known date is 1397, with the actual name “harpsichord” not used until 1514. In those times, there were, for example, no power tools, sandpaper or screws and nails were even hard to find. And yet, “with all the great strides we've made, the early harpsichords were not crude - they were as nice as they are now,” Biro said.
The following (taken from a website on harpsichords) speaks to the complexity of the instrument as well as its changes over 500 years: “Within the harpsichord, the back of the key is attached not to a hammer but to a vertical jack that has a vertical slot containing a swinging tongue. The tongue grips a plectrum [like a miniature guitar pick]. As the player's finger strikes the key, the jack rises, and the plectrum lifts up and plucks the string. As it falls back past the string, the swinging tongue moves to pass the string without touching it and producing a sound. A lightweight spring pushes the tongue back to its original position so the plectrum is ready to pluck the string with the next stroke of that key. In the first 500 years or so of the harpsichord's history, the plectrum was a quill from the wing of a raven or crow; later plectrums were made of leather or plastic.”
Westside Pioneer article