Jan H. Albarda
Harpsichord Builder and Architect
Published, EAC Communiqué, April 1985
lose to the centre of Elora, in a century stone house by the river, the harpsichord is developing as a contemporary instrument. In his simple basement workroom, with the most elementary tools, Jan Albarda works to improve the instrument without violating its musical characteristics. In building 89 harpsichords, 10 or 12 clavichords, and numerous spinets and virginals, Jan Albarda has incorporated many modifications and innovations. He has even built a new instrument, the Cembalo Marina, a harpsichord with sympathetic strings. He recently finished the fourth pedal harpsichord of his own design, and soon he will construct a harpsichord capable of dynamic shading, with loud and soft accents. His goal is to develop, rather than repeat, the traditions of the old masters: “The creative mind should contain the experience of the past, the contemporary insights and the inspiring ideal of the future”, he says.
Undoubtedly his original professions of architect and engineer, which he practised for 25 years, have enabled Jan Albarda to realize new potential in these ancient instruments of the Baroque era. But he has always been close to music. “I had wonderful parents,” he says. “When I was young in Holland my parents took me to concerts and galleries. From the age of seven, I heard the St. Matthew’s Passion every year at Easter, and we always had singing and instrument playing in our home.” Somehow in those youthful days he had a feeling he would one day come to North America. He hoped to continually compare the old and new cultures. But it was not until after the war, in 1951, that Jan Albarda came to Canada with his wife Elske and their two children; it would be another 11 years before he built his first harpsichord for their daughter Karen.
A second harpsichord was undertaken for a neighbour, then Jan endeavored to design an instrument himself. No literature was available on the exacting craft of harpsichord building, and at that time there was but one other builder in Canada, and only a few in the United States. But Jan says: “By making 10 instruments to his own design a maker will gain more insight than by making 100 replicas”. From this time, 1962, he went on to adapt the harpsichord to modern music, modern visual tastes and materials, and to this continent: “In a climate where nature is a constant threat to the products of human hands, very special construction and materials are necessary.”
The beautiful music room of their home on Princess Street, Elora, where Elske teaches piano and music theory, contains three instruments of Jan’s unique design. The ebony natural keys and the ivory sharp keys contrast with the warm, glowing woods of the frames. Under the lids, fine wire strings shine against maple. They appear spare and elegant and exceedingly light. On the nameboard is written ALBARDA, and the year of building in Roman numerals. Variations of these instruments have been sent to customers across North America and Europe. Jan packs and ships them himself from the chilly, low-beamed basement, his workroom since coming to Elora in 1975.
Jan has written eloquently of the history and development of the harpsichord in his book “Wood, Wire and Quill”, now in its second edition. It was conceived as a manual for the layman, and presents with great clarity not only the history of the instrument, with many illustrations, but also a description and evaluation of a most important period in Western music. This book has brought letters of response from all over the world.
— by Beverley Cairns, April 1985
“The greatest tradition”, says Jan, “is the tradition of being contemporary.”
IN MEMORIAM – November 1993
The first issue of the Elora Arts Council’s ‘Communiqué’, published in the spring of 1985, presented the Profile of Jan Albarda, Harpsichord Builder, Architect and Engineer. His death on September 4, 1993, was a unique loss to our artistic community. Jan had worked with some of the great architects of Europe before coming to Canada in 1951. During the 18 years he lived in Elora he was primarily a builder of harpsichords. With great simplicity Jan produced instruments of remarkable innovation and beauty. He applied the highest standards to all areas of creativity.
Jan succeeded in completing his 100th harpsichord in 1989. In the same year he also patented his design for a new jack for the harpsichord, which would allow the individual keys of this instrument to produce a volume of tone from loud to soft, as in a piano. During the 450 years of its evolution builders of the harpsichord had never overcome its limitations of terraced dynamics. No instrument has yet been built incorporating Jan Albarda’s revolutionary innovation.
A framed photograph of Jan’s Cembalo Marina has been donated to the Elora Centre For The Arts. Jan is affectionately remembered, along with his wife Elske, through the establishment of the Albarda Lounge at the Centre and the donation of the RÖSLER grand piano to the Centre by their daughter Karen and son Hans.
Jan’s early work as an architect in Holland is being rediscovered and reevaluated by the architectural community at this time, and one of several books he wrote on the subject is due to be published in Holland.