Keys to the Past: Building Harpsichords and Feeling History in the Postwar United States

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This dissertation traces the range of popular forms and practices associated with the harpsichord in the twentieth century in the United States, focusing on the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It draws on archives of period correspondence, sound recordings, and news clippings, as well as on my interviews with harpsichord builders and performers and on fieldwork I conducted at a prominent American harpsichord company during 2008. I argue that the harpsichord enabled practices and discourses through which the white middle class could critique the post-World War II United States, and that the material aspects of the harpsichord--its sound, its wooden materials and its construction methods--provided a gauge by which to measure how far the postwar everyday had veered from what was imagined to be an "authentic" human existence.

I focus the dissertation around the influence of a particular narrative associated with the harpsichord: that of the aristocratic, delicate instrument decimated by the Industrial Revolution. I first chart the ways that this narrative circulated in academic histories and popular media during the twentieth century, and how it was linked to perceptions of the harpsichord's physical "shortcomings." Focusing on its career in 1940s-60s popular music recordings, I then show how the stereotype of its "tragically disadvantaged" sound shaped acoustic and discursive constructions of that sound. I continue by demonstrating the classed critiques surrounding the instrument's commodification as a "do-it-yourself" kit--an affordable product that seemed to contradict the instrument's history as an elite, custom-made object. Lastly, I show how the harpsichord's story articulated with the biographies and sentiments of specific people, particularly those affiliated with the shop of Massachusetts harpsichord builder Frank Hubbard in late 1960s and early 1970s. Ultimately, I argue that the Movement's ideal of "historical authenticity," along with the post-World War II mass appeal of period instruments and period performance practice, emerged out of time and place-specific meanings, and through multiple social and commodity networks.






Wood, Jessica (2010). Keys to the Past: Building Harpsichords and Feeling History in the Postwar United States. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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