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Harpsichord Maker Brings 18th Century To Today

March 17, 1987

CLAREMONT, Va. (AP) _ Down an isolated country road, in a lot filled with a ramshackle frame house and dogs and cats, harpsichord maker Peter Redstone lives like an 18th- century craftsman.

He is one of 119 harpsichord makers in the country, but he considers himself the most in tune with the popular parlor instrument of the Colonial era.

″I think I’m probably one of the most authentic of all,″ Redstone said in his English accent. ″My instruments are still held together by wrought-iron nails.″

″One maker in Boston refers to me as president of the ‘earlier-than-thou’ society,″ he said with a grin.

Redstone has built harpsichords and lived simply since abandoning a career as an engineer for RCA Corp. 17 years ago.

″He’s an anachronism,″ said Thomas M. Marshall, a music teacher and harpsichord player for Colonial Williamsburg, across the James River. ″He thinks like an 18th-century person.″

″I think he’s absolutely phenomenal,″ Marshall said. ″He knows the old sound better than anybody I’ve ever met.″

Marshall said Redstone’s handcrafted harpsichords reproduce the 18th- century sound of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti better than mass-produced instruments.

″Harpsichords inspired the composers, not the modern piano. When a person plays on a modern piano, he’s playing notes only,″ Marshall said.

Redstone, 50, says his first encounter with a harpsichord came when he was 3 years old in his native Great Britain. While his family stayed in the country with a wealthy woman to avoid Nazi bombing raids, he began taking apart the harpsichord in her parlor.

At 15 in music class, he heard the harpsichord played on a Handel recording by Polish musician Wanda Landowska.

″It was like hitting me on the head,″ he said. ″I went to the teacher and said ’Where can I find out about harpsichords because I want one.‴

Redstone managed to put together a clavichord with parts of a reed organ, electric heating wire and brass fishing wire. ″And it worked,″ he said.

A clavichord, like a modern piano, produces sounds by striking strings. In a harpsichord, the strings are plucked. The keyboards of the three instruments are virtually indentical, however.

Redstone made and restored a few harpsichords while serving in the Army, working as a television repairman and coming to the United States to work for RCA Corp. in Indianapolis in 1967.

When he was laid off in 1970, he left the structured, corporate life he hated and turned to harpsichord making full-time in southern Indiana.

Two years later, he settled in rural Surry County and works part-time restoring musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg.

″I love it here. I find it much more compatible with my personal lifestyle,″ he said. ″I find people much more pro-English than they are in Indiana.″

Redstone has built 32 harpsichords, working on two or three at a time and taking up to a year to finish each one.

″The demand for my instruments is such that I’m losing orders because I can’t fulfill them,″ he said. Customers wait 18 months or more for their order and pay from $7,500 to $18,000 depending on the design.

One of his greatest frustrations is customers who don’t play his harpsichords.

″They buy the expensive ones and they put them in the parlor and they never touch them again,″ he said. ″It’s very difficult to get an instrument into the hands of someone who’s going to do some good with it.″

Redstone said he would like a business partner to keep track of his finances while he concentrates on making harpsicords. An apprentice would help too, he said, but it’s difficult to find someone willing to train for nothing.

Instead, he gets occasional help from his son and and son-in-law and relies on a power saw in his temperature- and humidity-controlled workshop.

″The power saw is merely to take the place of unpaid apprentices,″ he said.

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