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Habit of Perfection

An Obituary - Tribute to Frank Hubbard
February, 1976

By Michael Steinberg (from the Boston Globe)

Once, Frank Hubbard was carrying a violin by the 17th Century Austrian builder, Jakob Stainer, down the narrow stairs in the barn where he built his harpsichords, when he lost his footing. He managed, though, to contrive his fall so that he landed under the beautiful and precious instrument. It cost him a broken collarbone.

Portrait by Jon Corbino of Frank Hubbard at age 6
Portrait of Frank Hubbard, age 6 by Jon Corbino

He cared that much about instruments, and the ones he built show it. For his book, "Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making", itself so characteristic a Hubbard combination of the scholarly and the entertaining, the urbane and the committed, he chose an epigraph from T.S. Eliot:

"I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all,
I shall tell you all."

For, at the end of the 18th Century, the harpsichord had been driven out by the fortepiano and it had to be resurrected in our own time. Piano manufacturers undertook the first attempts at resuscitation. Those early 20th Century Playels gave Wanda Landowska something to play on, and it was she who persuaded the world that the harpsichord was worth reviving; still, those instruments have little to do with real harpsichords in construction, sound and appearance. The real revolution, the true resurrection began right there in the 1940, in the modest workshop of two Harvard graduate students in English, Frank Hubbard and William Dowd.

Hubbard and Dowd, now PhD dropouts, went to separate apprenticeships in instrument-building - Hubbard's took him to the Dolmetsch family in England - before opening a shop together. In 1958 each took his own road, Dowd to a large shop in Cambridge, Hubbard to a smaller one that found quarters on the Lyman estate in Waltham.

Hubbard and Dowd at work
Frank Hubbard and William Dowd working on the Hubbard & Dowd #1,
a Ruckers single manual harpsichord, in 1950.

The Hubbard shop was a benevolent autocracy. For most of its years, it was populated by one superb professional cabinet-maker and a succession of young men and women of varying degrees of competence. Most of them were refugees from academe. Many were gifted and are now in shops of their own, building fine harpsichords, clavichords, lutes, bows, and fortepianos. Frank lived in the gardener's cottage to the estate with his wife, Diane, and their young daughters, Polly and Julie. In a way, house and shop were one another's extended families. Part of this always-swirling household were an elegant cat called Jacqueline and an elegant pony, Alexis. The most revered of the Hubbard pets was a grizzled dachshund, now departed, named for the great 17th Century organ-builder, Arp Schnitger.

Frank ran this world with conviction, authority, and a mixed record of patience and terrifying explosions in dealing with others' failures to equal his own standards of exactness. The workday had spaces for consulting the Oxford English Dictionary or Diderot's "Encyclopedie," for research and discussion of genera of conifers, or for the flying of kites, but only if it was Frank who initiated such an excursion: woe to the worker who took-off on his own. Yet he encouraged growth, and artistic and professional independence, and he was a born and great teacher with extraordinary empathy for the process of learning. "When you had completely misconceived something," one of his former workers recalls, "the hardest thing he would say was, 'Now, if I were you . . .'"

He was a man of exemplary courtesy. No matter how rotten he felt or how cross he was at being interrupted, his response on the telephone to "how are you?" was invariably "Very well indeed, thank you" (with a slight crescendo and fremata on the "deed"). We played sonatas occasionally, he on the violin, myself on the piano. While he always accompanied his own performance with quiet but intense "damns," we never reached the end of a movement without his at one offering me some outrageously undeserved compliment. When my mistakes were too blatant for even his ignoring, he would always point out that the piano part had "so many more notes."

Like the harpsichord, he really skipped the 19th Century, disliking its colonial politics, industrial revolution, morals and most of its music. He was a man and gentleman of the 18th and 20th Centuries, forward-looking in his political views (uncomfortably so for some of his associates at Harvard and in the army), conversant with and welcoming of modern technology when it served his needs and met his standards (Hubbard harpsichords use plastic for some of the parts made, in the old days, of wood, quill or leather). He took pleasure, as well, in that peculiarly contemporary notion of the do-it-yourself kit and, largely in response to the growth of that part of his work, he eventually took a partner, Lawrence Erdmann, who did much to promote 20th Century efficiency in the barn at Waltham.

One had only to listen to his courtly English - and he spoke it with the same poise and savor with which he wrote it - to sense how profoundly he was in tune with the past. Like an 18th Century man, he believed that it was possible completely to occupy a given world: he seemed to know everything, the name for every object and every process, the history of things and of ideas, to know flowers, turbines, French poetry, the manufacture of pins, theology, delicate points of English usage, the unionization of trades. He was warmly Anglophile and Francophile and always seemed to disapprove of most things German and Italian (not inflexibly: once, hearing "Die schoene Muellerin," he expressed gratified surprise at how agreeable, "almost civilized," German verse could sound when set to music by Schubert). He knew who he was and he was unrattled by fashion: his hair was as trim in 1969 as it had been in 1949, his spectacles were never wire-rimmed, and he remained faithful to his bow ties and tweedy jackets.

It seemed, too, as though he could do everything. His command of techniques was virtuosic and comprehensive. His skill served his astonishing scientific and historical knowledge, and also a perfection of taste rarely met with. Every action was informed by the sense of what is enough. Whether it was a matter of the proper number of strokes of the plane or passes of the polishing cloth, the drops to add before a color became overbalanced in one direction or another, he unfailingly knew when to stop. The sound of his instruments, so clear, so splendid, so subtly flavorful, is matched by the nobility and grace of their proportions, textures, and colors.

Frank Hubbard shortly before his death.Frank Hubbard died on February the 25th (1976). He lives in his instruments and in his pupils. Given the popularity of the harpsichord today, he has made a difference to the musical experience of thousands who do not know his name. Earlier, I said that Frank was a great teacher, and I mean that in a sense other than the obvious. Such a teacher shows by example that what he does is worth the doing. Looking back now over the years in which I watched Frank cultivate "the habit of perfection," I understand that I never knew another man whose life and work so clearly showed why it was worth working to have it right.

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