fb-pixel Skip to main content

WASHINGTON — For some 200 years, the harpsichord was king. The Baroque composers J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti all wrote sonatas, suites and solo works for the instrument, a rich-sounding keyboard in which strings are plucked — not hammered — by a tiny piece of quill or leather called a plectrum.

But in music, tastes change. Technologies advance. And by the end of the 18th century, when revolutions were raging in France and America, the harpsichord was eclipsed by its gentle cousin, the fortepiano. Harpsichords went by the wayside, or worse. In France during the winter of 1816, many were burned for firewood.


Abandoned by most composers and musicians, the instrument never retook its place at the center of the musical universe. Yet in the 20th century, the harpsichord experienced a notable resurgence, with its tinkling keys featured in works by composers Benjamin Britten and György Ligeti, by Artie Shaw’s acclaimed jazz combo, and by the Beach Boys in ‘‘God Only Knows.’’

At the fore of this antiquarian revival was Wolfgang Zuckermann, a German-born Jew who fled to the US after Adolf Hitler came to power, worked as a child psychologist and piano technician and, in 1959, developed a build-it-yourself harpsichord kit that brought this once-obscure instrument into thousands of homes from North America to Australia.

‘‘The kit was a revolution,’’ said Marc Ducornet, one of France’s leading keyboard makers. ‘‘Fifty percent of the harpsichord makers in the world,’’ he estimated, ‘‘began by building a Zuckermann kit.’’ While kits have become less popular in recent years, said another harpsichord maker, Carey Beebe of Sydney, ‘‘It’s really the Zuckermann kit that started us off. It’s why we’re here.’’

Mr. Zuckermann turned from music to become an unlikely pied piper of the anticonsumerist and environmentalist movements, then retired to a quiet life as a book salesman in France. He was 96 when he died Oct. 31 at his home in Avignon, not far from the former Shakespeare Books, where he had long offered customers homemade scones and cream tea.


Eclectic and fiercely independent, Mr. Zuckermann organized a rural Pennsylvania arts festival that featured works by composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He briefly ran Caffe Cino, widely considered a birthplace of off-off-Broadway. And, largely driven by frustration with the Vietnam War, he went into self-imposed exile in Europe, where he helped organize Buy Nothing Day and wrote books highlighting the environmental ills of the automobile.

But he was best known for his DIY harpsichord kit, a product that was sometimes described as the ‘‘Model T’’ of modern harpsichords. In his book ‘‘A History of the Harpsichord,’’ musicologist Edward L. Kottick wrote that Zuckermann’s kit ‘‘spawned a unique movement whose heyday lasted for 20 years and helped fuel the instrument’s revival.’’

Mr. Zuckerman became fascinated with harpsichords while tuning keyboards in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s.

By then, musicians such as Sylvia Marlowe and Wanda Landowska had kicked off a harpsichord renaissance, leading some wealthy American listeners to buy modern metal-framed versions of the instrument. Mr. Zuckermann derisively dubbed these harpsichords ‘‘plucking pianos.’’

‘‘It irritated him to see that there were $10,000 instruments that were not making the sound that was associated with the real instruments themselves,’’ said Eric Britton, a collaborator. So Mr. Zuckermann hired a woodworking partner and began building harpsichords modeled after their 18th-century predecessors.


His business took off after it was all but wiped out by a fire in 1958, spurring news coverage that brought customers to his new shop on Christopher Street in the West Village.

Success bred discontent, as more harpsichord sales meant more tuning and repair jobs.

‘‘Wolfgang was being called by all these people to help them fix their harpsichords, and he was interested in girls and tennis, the Village and music, in books and ideas and riding around town on his Lambretta. Life was finite,’’ said Britton. ‘‘So he decided he would make it so clients could repair and tune their own harpsichords, and the best way to do that would be if they could build them themselves.’’

What was important about Mr. Zuckermann’s kit was that it was cheap — $150 at first, then rising to $308 by 1966.

By Mr. Zuckerman’s count, he had sold about 10,000 kits by 1969, when he decided to sell his company to a friend, David Jacques Way, and move to England. Way moved the shop to Stonington, Conn,, and oversaw its growth into one of the world’s largest harpsichord manufacturers.