Harpsichord by Antoine Vater, 1738

September 20th, 2012

During previous years, East Cork Early Music has been fortunate to feature some unique historical instruments – including a lute by Sixtus Rauwolf (Augsburg, c. 1590) which Jakob Lindberg played with Emma Kirkby in 2008.  This year, we are proud to feature an original French harpsichord by Antoine Vater, dating from 1738, which is the only historical harpsichord in Ireland that is in full playing order. [See the 2012 Festival page for details of this concert, with Tom Ó Drisceoil, harpsichord; Aoife O'Donovan, baroque flute; and Sophie Creaner, recorders.]

Born in Hanover to a family of harpsichord- and organ-builders, Antoine Vater moved to Paris in 1715 to practice his family’s profession. He quickly gathered a reputation as being one of the finest harpsichord-makers in France, and a number of well apprentices studied with him (including well-known maker Jean-Henri Hemsch).

Alongside his primary business of making harpsichords, Vater was also one of the Guardians of the Royal Harpsichords, charged with maintaining the large collection at Versailles, as well as acquiring new instruments. He moved to Rue du Temple in 1737, and the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann stayed here with Vater for the whole of 1738.

Three instruments by Antoine Vater are known to survive today: one (dated 1732) is at the Cité de la Musique in Paris, another (dated 1737) is in a private collection in England, and a third (dated 1738) is in Cork.

The 1738 instrument is owned by Pauline Mac Sweeney, harpsichord teacher at CIT Cork School of Music. It comprises two manuals (FF-e”’), with two 8′ registers and one 4′ register, and the design is very typical of French instruments of the first half of the eighteenth century.  Looking at the instrument, the influence that Vater had on his pupil, Hemsch, is quite obvious.

Discovered in a barn in Toulouse (where it was presumably stashed during the French Revolution), it was missing its jacks and stand, as well as most of the keys, and the soundboard had at some point been kicked in by a cow. The instrument was bought by harpsichord-maker Michael Thomas, who delicately restored it to full playing order. The string tension is low, to minimise stress on the soundboard, which gives the instrument a remarkably resonant and harmonious sound.

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