Wednesday, 23 January 2019
DAVID EVANS, who has died aged 82, was a renowned British harpsichord maker who made a highly significant contribution in the revival of this historical keyboard instrument.
He was first captivated by the sound of the harpsichord as a nine-year-old listening to a BBC radio broadcast.
The impact of this experience was so great that he devoted the rest of his life to the music, sound and, most importantly, the making of harpsichords based on the methods of great makers of the past.
David was born in Wooler, Northumberland, into a musical family. His early years living among rural craftsmen in Northumberland gave him his first insights into the traditional, pre-industrial craft skills he used in his harpsichord making.
From the age of 12, he boarded at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire, where a performance on recorder and harpsichord by Carl Dolmetsch and Joseph Saxby in 1951 began his lifelong passion for early music.
He learned to fly Tiger Moths at school and subsequently joined the Hull University Air Squadron while studying zoology (he found comparative anatomy and laboratory skills transfer remarkably well to studying and copying historic instruments).
This was followed by national service in the Royal Air Force, including flying and teaching.
It was a few years later, when stationed in the Midlands, that David met the cabinet maker Denis Rawlings in Leamington Spa and began his apprenticeship working with wood and built his first harpsichords in the cellar of a rented house.
After the RAF, he worked in education and was headteacher at Monks Eleigh Primary School and Tudor Road Primary School in Sudbury, both Suffolk.
He was awarded the MBE in 1986 for his services to education and his pioneering work at the Cambridge Institute of Education on the teaching of science to young children through play. In tandem with his distinguished career in education, David continued to make harpsichords in his free time.
He quickly recognised that the prevailing methods of constructing harpsichords based on commercial piano building, while highly skilled, produced lacklustre instruments with a poor sound that were unrewarding to play. He therefore set out on his own path to study the best-preserved surviving instruments in the minutest detail.
In the process, he became the nexus of a remarkable group of likeminded players and makers in Britain and eventually from all over the world.
His French double-manual harpsichord after Taskin, completed in 1985, marked his arrival as a mature maker. It took seven years of painstaking research and part-time making to produce and was widely acclaimed.
John Barnes, the then curator of the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, described it as “uncannily like the original”, which he had recently restored, and David was particularly pleased with it.
In 1987 he moved to a small but meticulously organised workshop behind the Bohun Gallery in Henley where he worked full-time as a maker until his advancing ill-health last year. There he built a range of instruments which dazzled players and audiences alike for their exquisite craftmanship and sumptuous sound.
These include a copy of the earliest surviving harpsichord (a late- 15th-century upright harpsichord now in the Royal College of Music Museum in London), several early Italian and French models and English and Flemish virginals as well as individual commissions, including the Eisenach Thuringian harpsichord associated with Johann Sebastian Bach.
His instruments are used by leading performers, opera companies, festivals and enthusiasts in Britain, Switzerland, Germany, America, Australia and France and can be heard on numerous recordings.
His Henley workshop has been an international pilgrimage place over the last 30 years and through his wide correspondence and numerous instruments, David has inspired and encouraged at least two generations of harpsichordists and makers.
His work has significantly refined the art of historical instrument making and fundamentally changed the way we play and hear pre-Classical music today.
David, who died of myelodysplastic syndrome, is survived by his second wife Patricia Jordan Evans, whom he married in 1991, and his son Owen, and grandchildren Tommy and Claudia. He was predeceased by his son Philip.
14 January 2019
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