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Local craftsmen recreating sounds of 17th-century music

Last week Horticultural Hall was filled with antique noises. They hadn't been heard since the 17th century -- a mixed and breathy tootling, not loud, but constant and many voiced. Hundreds of people at the Boston Early Music Festival were blowing thoughtfully into sackbuts, oboes, cornetos, recorders, baroque flutes, shawns -- and setting harpsichords to vibrating.

As they pipe up again, people are realizing there was music before Beethoven. And as early music societies, consorts, and choirs blossom, exhibitors come from all over the United States, England, France, Germany, and even Japan -- because Boston is recognized as an early music center.

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The city boasts more harpsichord- makers per capita than Antwerp, Belgium, in its heyday as harpsichord center of the Renaissance world.

When the tootling died down on Massachusetts Avenue, 20 of the hundred or so exhibitors went back to their local workshops. Why so much looking back -- and listening back -- in Boston?

It all started when two English graduate students dropped out of Harvard. William Dowd and his old sailing buddy, Frank Hubbard, touched off a reverse revolution when they set out to get more closely involved in history -- to make harpsichords as they used to be made.

Mr. Dowd lights up when he remembers the first time he laid fingers on a harpsichord's narrow keys. It was at Harvard, and the harpsichord had been made by Arnold Dolmetsch at Boston's Chickering Piano Factory in the early 1900s. "I was thrilled by it," he says, holding his hands together and smiling down a bit greedily, as if upon his first keyboard.

At a harpsichord concert at the Museum of Fine Arts, he met Daniel Pinkham, now a professor at the New England Conservatory as well as a composer and theorist, who showed Dowd a harpsichord made by John Challis.

That was it. Dowd was off to Ypsilanti, Mich., to apprentice himself to Challis, whom he calls "the first full-time professional American harpsichord maker." Hubbard, meanwhile, repaired to Arnold Dolmetsch's shop in England. In the fall of 1949, Hubbard and Dowd pieced together what they had learned of the craft and began turning out harpsichords the 17th Century would be proud of in a seedy loft on Tremont Street. It was the beginning, says Dowd, of "the revolution in classical harpsichord making."

"I can't take credit for being a genius, just for being an opportunist," says Dowd. "It was a case of being in the right place at the right time." Martin Skowroneck made a beautiful harpsichord six years after Dowd and Hubbard, he points out, just as Clarence Chamberlain crossed the atlantic two weeks after Lindbergh.

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The comparison is justified. The harpsichord hadn't been heard from after 1800, when the piano was being developed. That instrument, with its volume and expressive lushness, appealed to romantic composers -- while the harpsichord, which plays every note at the same volume for the same duration because its strings are plucked rather than hammered, lost favor. Its quietness and subtlety were seen as limits.

So-called harpsichords, in fact, usually turned out to be modified pianos. But when music composed for a harpsichord is played on a piano, the sound is different. As Diane Hubbard put it as she showed me around the Frank Hubbard workshop she now runs, "When Mozart and Haydn are played on a modern piano, all that sound covers those crystal measures."

Curious about exactly what went into the old instruments, Frank Hubbard went back to Europe in the early 50s and began taking antique harpsichords apart, measuring every piece. He also pored over Antwerp city records of what was in the workshops of harpsichord makers at the time of their deaths, and read treatises in the Bibliotheque Nacionale in Paris. He came back, and "because of various pulls and tugs," says Dowd, they worked together only another year before Dowd left to start his own shop while Hubbard wrote "Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making," considered a classic.

"During 10 years we had made 25 instruments," says Dowd. But "it radicalized the early music world," he adds, because for the first time in a century, harpsichords were being made "in the classical style. They would be more or less recognized by an antique harpsichordist." And for the first time, composers like Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Handel and Haydn might recognize the sound they heard in their mind's ear when they wrote the music. Attendance at the early music festival shows that 20th century ears, too, are charmed by that authentically undynamic, gentle sound. It's not progress, it's retrogression," says Bill Dowd proudly.

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