British Columbia

Vancouver Early Music concert to feature harpsichords built in West Vancouver

Craig Tomlinson's harpsichords are based on models from the 17th and 18th centuries. Two of his instruments are being featured in an upcoming performance of Dido and Aeneas.

Two of Craig Tomlinson's harpsichords featured in upcoming opera

Craig Tomlinson building a harpsichord in his workshop in West Vancouver. (Supplied)

It was the 1960s, and the urban folk music revival was at its peak.

In Coquitlam, B.C., 16-year-old Craig Tomlinson was trying, without success, to get his hands on an Appalachian dulcimer — a fretted string instrument that had become popular again in folk music circles.

"You could just not buy them anywhere, so I thought, 'What the heck, I've got a picture of one, I'll build one," said Tomlinson.

Tomlinson went on to build many dulcimers. But after a while, making the four-stringed instruments was no longer a challenge, and he decided he needed a more difficult instrument to build.

A dulcimer. (Getty)

That instrument was the harpsichord — a type of keyboard that began to experience a revival in the early 1950s, thanks to a renewed appreciation for Baroque music.

Tomlinson has now been making harpsichords for well over forty years, and his instruments are used in concert halls around the world.

Two of Tomlinson's harpsichords will be be featured in Early Music Vancouver's performance of the Henry Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas, on July 30 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

Tomlinson said hearing his instruments being played by the professionals is his favourite part about making harpsichords.

"It's a neat feeling, sitting back and listening at the theatre — because it's out of my hands now," he said.

"It's a little like having your kid singing on stage for the first time, but you know it's going to be in pitch."

A French double manual harpsichord built by Craig Tomlinson. (Supplied)

He continues to build the instruments in a small workshop behind his West Vancouver home and models his creations after surviving harpsichords from the 17th and 18th centuries.

He travels to Europe to study the instruments in public and private collections.

"A lot of it is just observing, measuring," he said. "If you recreate using the original measurements you're going to get certainly a decent sound, but you're going to get something that's quite close to the original as well."

Period instruments are a family business

Tomlinson is not the only instrument maker in his family — his brother Grant Tomlinson is a world-renowned lute maker.

He traces their inspiration back to a family ski trip.

"We skied down to the bottom of an orchard and there was a violin maker in an old cabin, building these incredible violins. My brother and I looked at each other and thought, 'Hmm, there's something here.'"

Tomlinson's parents, who were trained by members of the Group of Seven, encouraged him and Grant in their instrument-making careers. They have also done the painting on some of Tomlinson's harpsichords.

A viriginal built by Craig Tomlinson, and painted by his mother, who was trained by members of the Group of Seven. A virginal is a smaller and simpler rectangular form of the harpsichord. (Supplied)

To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled: West Vancouver harpsichord maker

With files from Matthew Parsons


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