8 May 2016

Interview - Peter Owen

From The Sunday Feature, 1:45 pm on 8 May 2016

Peter Owen interviewed by James Gardner 30 June 2015.
Edited and corrected by James Gardner and Peter Owen 5 May 2016.

Full transcript of an interview conducted for The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6.

A clavichord by Peter Owen.

A clavichord by Peter Owen. Photo: Peter Owen; used with permission

James Gardner: How did you first meet Tom Goff?

Peter Owen: I met him because a friend of my wife’s came to our house and saw that I was working on an instrument. And then quite out of the blue he phoned us up and said that Tom Goff’s craftsman, Cobby, had retired and Tom was needing a bit of help in his studio and suggested I go along. And so I just turned up at Pont Street and met him in his house.

Did you have any interest in making instruments at that time?

Yes I did. Interestingly enough a great friend of mine who was an amateur guitarist – he was a very gifted musician, and had a wonderful touch – suddenly bought a lute, at a time when lutes were quite rare. And this one came from South Africa. And I was learning the guitar at the time and I certainly couldn’t afford that instrument but I set about to make one. So my first introduction to musical instruments was to make a lute without any training at all. And I went on from there.

Tell me about your first impressions of Tom Goff and Pont Street.

It’s such a long time ago now, but you have to remember that I was a prop-maker at the National Theatre. Prop-makers are always in positions that to the ordinary person would seem strange and outrageous and we just take them in our stride. Somebody comes in and says “we’ve got to make a replica of Michelangelo’s David” and we immediately set about to do it. So when I was up in his studio I had very little experience of veneering – and a lot of the cases of his clavichords were veneered – but it was something that I accepted as just another discipline and that I would get the hang of it pretty quickly. But the most unusual thing about visiting Tom Goff in his workshop was that it was two rooms at the top of the house that I suppose traditionally might have been used for servants. They were sort of ordinary rooms kitted out with a few workbenches and some tools. And certainly on looking at you wouldn’t have thought that it was the hub of a workshop that really did produce some lovely instruments – harpsichords and clavichords. And as I said, it was five storeys up; no lift, and the staircase – the last bit of the staircase – was a typical attic staircase, and all these…well, a two-manual harpsichord, would have to be manhandled down. So it was an unusual place.

How did those harpsichords get in and out?

I never witnessed one, because when I went, the whole operation was winding down a bit. I think Tom had one or two orders that he was completing, but I think he was just working because he didn’t want to stop. But I think that he’d possibly come towards the end of his making career and so I didn’t see any of that.

What were your first impressions on meeting Tom?

A very self-effacing man, he was. He had a sort of inward confidence, but you certainly wouldn’t have picked him out as being a craftsman. He had a very plummy voice, so that you would sort of expect that he…I think he trained to be a lawyer, heading for the diplomatic service. I the normal course of events his career would have taken him to ambassadorial level. But he went sideways because of his love for music. So my first impressions would be that I wouldn’t have put him in the position that I first met him in.

Immediately he wanted you to start on £6 a day?


And what did that involve?

Well, up about 9 o’clock, and literally be given a task. What I was doing mainly was veneering the outside case of a given clavichord. There was no mass-production – each instrument was made, and then the next one was started. So as far as you were personally concerned, you were working on a single instrument at a time, and I would veneer. It was a fairly simple thing to do, and that would be my job for most of the day.  We’re talking about the early 70s here, that sort of period.

Was Cobby around or had he already gone?

No. I only met him twice. I met him once – he came to my home in Richbourne Terrace and I can’t for the life of me remember why he would have done. He’d retired, and he was the…I mean I’m not denigrating Tom, but he wasn’t formally trained in cabinet-making, whereas Cobby was a traditional cabinet-maker and you could say he was a craftsman. So I think Tom was very lucky to have got his services all the time. And then I met him shortly after Tom’s death, because in his will Tom left all his material – remaining bits of wood, tools, anything in the workshop – to Cobby. By then he probably didn’t have use for a lot of it, but I was interested in quite a lot of the wood. There was a lot of lime that I was interested in, and so I met him again to buy it from him.

You didn’t learn from Cobby – it was all from Tom?

No, no – I didn’t work at all with him.

Tom Goff would have a book in which all the measurements and the principles behind, let’s say, a double-strung clavichord, would be entered – that’s stressing all the measurements and the lengths of the strings, the thickness of the strings. This would all be written in sort of an ordinary notebook and as I was working for him I made a copy of it, which I’ve still got to this day. It’s a terribly moth-eaten old thing, but that’s how…I mean the way I make my clavichords, the general structure and the general technical part of the musical instrument is true Goff. But I changed the cases, because I couldn’t bring myself to veneer them as if they were 18th century furniture. It wasn’t my style at all, so I changed that, and my instruments are completely unique to how I feel.

You mentioned that you would start around 9am and work until lunch. Tell me about the lunch arrangements.

Well, the lunch arrangements were very unique to that situation. We would go down from the fifth storey down to the ground floor where there was a fairly large dining room with a large table, and he would sit at the end of the table and I would sit next to him. And we were served a lunch – sometimes by his butler, who had white gloves on. We would be served meals in exactly the same way, I mean the food was presented to you on your right and you took your portion, put it on to your plate, and the next would come along. It was a very oddly formal upper-class performance, which was at odds with what we were doing upstairs.

In an email you mentioned that at the time you were a committed Socialist – and Goff may not have been. How did that go?

Well, like a lot of people they might have political leanings, but I wouldn’t say that Thomas Goff was on the right, at all. He was very softly spoken, and I got the impression that due to his upbringing he respected other peoples’ positions, and we used to have very interesting discussions. And I was all for what I understood as fairness, and equal society. He was a quiet, well-mannered, confident man. It was just a pleasure to talk to him.

After the food, what would happen then?

After the food… I think he must have been in his seventies then. And I’ve discovered something that he must have known at that time. I’m 74 now, and still working – but fairly recently I’ve discovered the siesta. That is, after you have lunch you go up to your bed, lie down and have a ‘power nap’. You don’t sleep the whole afternoon, but you sleep for about half an hour. And when you get older it actually becomes essential and you begin to look forward to it, and I’m sure he did. But anyway, what happened was that he went up to have a rest and I... I was only there for 18 months, one day a week – but every time I was working there, one day a week, after lunch I would sit at a particular two-manual harpsichord in his front drawing-room and play it.

That sort of harpsichord has got 8’ choirs of strings, 4’ choirs and 16’ choirs. Those are sets of strings. If you dispose the instrument to play a 4’ fully hitched, because there are half-hitches – you can put the pedals down half way so that you just tickle the strings. You put the 4’ on full hitch and you put the 16’ on half-hitch – the sound that makes is almost bell-like. If you’re near the instrument, try it!

Did you ever hear him play?

Yes, I did. He wasn’t a competent musician, and he was very free with his timing and would pause when things were difficult so that he could play them. So he wasn’t a natural player. But I think he enjoyed playing, the same as me. Since then, I’ve developed a style of playing, and I’ve learned to read music, but I would never play in front of anybody. I think he played for his own pleasure and he got enjoyment out of it. I never heard him play a harpsichord, but he used to play his clavichords. It’s the natural thing for a maker to do with an instrument you’ve just finished. I think he would say “I think it’s got this quality” and he would sit down and demonstrate it. Well, I find I do the same.

You mentioned that underneath your conversations you sensed a sadness in him.  Could you talk a little bit about that?

Sometimes extremely upper-class people – some – have a sort of reticence. They’ve got a tremendous foundation that supports a confidence. So they don’t have to shout. You find a lot of people like that. But I sort of suspected that there was a sadness in certain aspects of his life that he was beginning to have difficulty with. And I only say that now – I mean it wasn’t something I dwelt on when I was with him. But I say that now only in the knowledge that he did commit suicide.

What were the circumstances of his death?

Well, it was completely out of the blue. I knew that his craftsman had retired, his butler was about to retire, and he was a man in this large house, being responsible for this large house. I wasn’t expecting it. I turned up on the Thursday as usual, and learned that in the morning he went and slid off the roof at the top. I was completely shocked. I mean I wasn’t expecting anything like that at all. But obviously…to me it was a great sadness. This was somebody who had produced, by his work, a lot of pleasure for an enormous amount of people. And to have rejected – I mean, suicides reject the world and reject the society – is a very sad thing.

He slid off roof of the house in which – more or less – he’d been living since he was 4…

Well, I mean he’d been there all his life. I don’t know how true it is, but there was a statistic bandied about in the 70s and 80s, that the average stay of a Briton in a home in England was about two-and-a-half years, because of the nature of work. If you’re out of a job you’ve got to go and find one. But to have somebody like him live the whole of his life in a single house like that…he must have not known anything else. It was his world. They were church properties in Pont Street, leasehold – still are, I believe. And his mother took the first lease out on this house in Pont Street at the end of the 1800s. And there’s one other aspect that I think quite a lot of people who knew Tom…I think he’d had a nasty experience in the [first world] war, and for a short time was buried. Whether that had any lasting effect on him at all…he certainly never spoke about it. I only heard about this later, and I don’t know anything about the circumstances.

What do you most value about your time with Tom Goff?

Well, I could talk for hours on my feeling of what I call the Early Music Mafia. Since Tom Goff there’s been a lot of scholarship done on early instruments, and I think it’s got to a ridiculous extent, so that if you want to make any way in the world, as a maker of early music instruments, you have to demonstrate that you are making facsimile copies. And I can understand that idea if you’re making a violin, or if you’re making a lute because there’s no variety of style that can be. But when you’re making a harpsichord or a clavichord, as long as – far as I’m concerned – as long as you’re true to the mechanics of the instrument, why should you have to make the case look as though it came out of the 16th, 17th or 18th century? That’s my point. But Goff made his clavichords with the influence of players at the time. For example, for a double-strung-clavichord, a single string used to be taken from the tuning peg to the place where it was hitched at the other end of the instrument, go round another peg and come back as the double string to a new tuning point. And when one of those double strings broke, they both broke. And so under the influence of Violet Gordon Woodhouse or famous players – Valda Aveling and those people – suggested wouldn’t it be a good idea if each string had its own attachment so that if it broke, you’d still have one string left to play. And he changed things like that. And as far as the feel of the instrument is concerned, if you understand and study Bach, contrapuntal music, as far as I’m concerned, has to have an instrument that has the ability to sustain a note for as long as the player wishes it to be sustained. And Thomas Goff’s instruments do that beautifully. Whereas a lot of the historic reproduction and historic instruments don’t. And so it’s very difficult to sustain a five-voice fugue and keep the voices going. But I just fell in love with his concept of a clavichord, and I hope I’ve been reproducing it.

Do you think that’s why Thurston Dart chose a Goff clavichord?

Well I’m not being unfair to say that he would have had very little choice. Because the clavichord is still a rare instrument. If anybody is ever introduced to the instrument by somebody who is enthusiastic, it will be demonstrated as ‘the most expressive of all keyboard instruments’ for the simple reason that it is possible to sharpen a note as you’re playing it. Well, some people say “what’s the point of that?”. And the point of that is: that facility is afforded to string players, violin players. They tune their strings in a proportional relationship to each other, but they have to hit the pitch with their fingers on the fingerboard. Well if I tell you that you can split a tone into 100 units, and you can demonstrate to anybody without any training at all that if you take one unit off the 99 divisions of that tone they will hear a difference. But the tone won’t be ‘out of tune’. It’ll have a different character. And if you can add that to the playing, it gives an enormous expressive quality because if you ask a simple question, “what is a musical instrument”? It’s a tool for expressing music. And lastly, as anybody knows, if you were given the trick question “what is the most expressive musical instrument you’re ever likely to hear?”…the answer is obvious. It’s the human voice, Because of its ability to change anything at any time mid-noise whereas most instruments have difficulty in doing that.

And the clavichord gets nicely close, so that if you listen to Thurston Dart playing, certainly the French Suites, you can hear the different voices. Unlike a piano, where it’s a piano sound and you have to put a lot of effort in to be able to conquer it so that you can make it do what you want it to, if you hear a clavichord played by a competent musician, all the parts of the instrument sound as though they’re coming from different instruments, not the same instrument. And that’s what I love about it.

Do you have any other reflections on your time with Tom Goff?

As I said earlier, this writer friend of my wife Noël’s – she’s an antiques journalist – came to visit at a time when I was making an Italian harpsichord. And that was his connection to his knowledge of Tom. I think if I hadn’t met Tom Goff I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be making clavichords today. So for such a small part of my life – only 18 months of it – he had such an incredible influence on what I’ve done ever since. I do make clavichords, but I’m also a furniture designer/maker. And in both disciplines I’m completely self-taught. A lot of people think I’m a little bit eccentric, but that’s the way it is.

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