For the first time in nine years, on 7 June, we will be able to hear and see a master project on the harpsichord. Liselotte Sels will provide the musical spectacle, and the Vleeshuis Museum will create the enchanting setting. Does this mean the harpsichord programme is threatened with extinction? On the contrary, according to principal study teacher Korneel Bernolet: "the remonte started years ago. Next year I am starting a full harpsichord class."
Several centuries ago, Antwerp was the home of harpsichord production. The instruments made there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were exported all over the world. Partly because of this connection with Antwerp, the Vleeshuis has the second largest collection of Flemish harpsichords in the world. This is a unique asset for the harpsichord programme at the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp. And yet, for some years there was none. Not due to a lack of interest from students, but because there was no principal study teacher. Korneel Bernolet finally took up the challenge himself, having previously been the last harpsichordist to graduate from the Conservatoire. Five years after he took over the helm, the course is growing and flourishing, with now the first Master's student leaving the Conservatoire.
The revival of our interest in ancient music and therefore also in ancient instruments actually began in the 1970s. Only, for the harpsichord this is not so obvious. Harpsichord building had ended centuries ago and most of those instruments were no longer playable. The introduction of home-built kits for enthusiasts did not do justice to the reputation of the instrument: the sound was anything but great. But as interest grew, so did the craft, and nowadays the nail-buckets, as Bernolet calls them, have made room for well-made and therefore good-sounding instruments. Nevertheless, the authentic harpsichords continue to appeal to the imagination, especially when they have been properly restored.
Thanks to the Vleeshuis, students can study an perform on a unique piece dating back to 1747. "Not for every day," Bernolet adds: "The advanced age of the instrument means that it is no longer suitable for studying for seven or eight hours a day. But of course we have other solutions for that within the Conservatoire. Today, together with the Vleeshuis, we have seven harpsichords available to students. If it is necessary to play something more extraordinary, for example for a master's thesis, there is of course only one place, the Vleeshuis. And the one instrument from 1747.
After the master's degree
The fact that harpsichord studies are on the rise is also evident when we ask what awaits students after their studies: "Teaching is certainly an option. There are many academies in Flanders that offer the harpsichord as an instrument of choice. However, it is not an obvious choice: "Although there is still music being written for the harpsichord today, we base ourselves very much on the repertoire from the time of the harpsichord, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. You can see that as a limitation, but for us it is an enrichment. There is still so much to discover and explore about the pieces and techniques of that time."
There is no one left to recount it and of course there are no recordings either, so basically it is study and interpretation to find out what the composer ever intended. This will also be a major challenge for future masters. A follow-up trajectory as a researcher at the Conservatoire is a very valid option.
And then, of course, there is concertising. The harpsichord tradition may be rather European, but in America, Australia and Asia, too, interest in early European music is growing. Although actually performing there is not always easy. Bernolet: "I remember being invited to South Korea about eight years ago. After two months of research, I found that there were only four harpsichords in the whole country. So the choice was limited, of course. But if I were to go there again now, it would probably not be a problem.
Liselotte Sels' Master's thesis
Anyone who would like to see Liselotte Sels at work can do so via livestream. Anyone interested in the programme: the artistic entrance exams are open. The pianists and organists at the Conservatoire also have the opportunity to take harpsichord as an optional subject. In this way we are continuing the Antwerp tradition and spreading it to the rest of the world.