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Tufts University Talk

Phi Beta Kappa Society
Delta Chapter of Massachusetts
Tufts University
May 3, 1972

On the occasion of the initiation into the Society of the Classes of 1972 and 1973

Guest Orator: Frank T. Hubbard

[Edited by B.J. Fine]

(Frank Hubbard's talk at this session apparently formed the basis of a later talk, circa 1973, at the University of Indiana. A few interesting segments concerning his education as a historian of the harpsichord did not appear in the Indiana talk and are presented here. Ed.)

(Referring to the years in which he and William Dowd first started making harpsichords . . . .)

These were the hungry years when Dowd and I starved in our garret turning out at the most two or three instruments a year. (We really had not learned our trade thoroughly enough in our two years apprenticeship.) For several years I was tied to the workbench, unable to do much about academic research, but finally in 1956 I applied for and received a bouquet of fellowships that made it possible to return to Europe for two years. The first year I lived in Paris pretty much buried in the Bibliothéque Nationale. Then, for the first time, I realized how ill equipped I was by education to carry out my plan. I had a smattering of French, less German, no Italian. My Spanish was limited to the obscenities I had learned in the Army. Latin I had forgotten since school. Any graduate of a European Lycée or Gymnasium would have been infinitely better equipped than I. Even my nodding acquaintance with European history was inadequate.

My project was to write a history of harpsichord making. For that, the first task was to construct a bibliography. There were no whole books on the subject, ancient or modern. The literature consisted of scattered references in works as diverse as memoirs and theoretical treatises, technical encyclopedias, personal correspondence, and manuscript inventories. I had not nearly enough knowledge of the past to enable me to guess where material might be found. Boalch's little bibliography was a start of course, without which I might never have gotten a foothold. Day after day I leafed through the thick tomes, finding here a sentence, there a paragraph, copying them all into notebooks. In the midst of these researches, I was fortunate enough to meet a French scholar, Pierre Hardouin, historian of the organ, who initiated me into the mysteries of the Minutier Central. There I was taught to deal with tens of thousands of brown paper parcels tied up with string which contained every document ever filed by the various notaries of France, all arranged chronologically by notarial offices. There was no catalogue. The registers of the notaries were cursory and overwhelming in bulk. I won't burden you with the details of the partial solution to this dilemma. As usual it involved work and dust, but slowly and painfully produced a collection of pertinent documents.

Along with this effort to amass documentary sources, I had, of course, to examine, measure, and assess as many antique instruments as I could find. I constructed a list of all the public collections I could gain intelligence of and a few of the more extensive private ones. In a series of trips that took me all over western Europe I became acquainted with about five hundred old instruments.

The second year of my fellowship I spent in Brussels writing the book I had planned. I found that this did not involve the same sort of imaginative entry into the past demanded of the harpsichord maker. Here, my task was chiefly to order my data, physical or documentary in origin. Comparisons had to be drawn, differences reconciled, surmises attempted and the whole expressed in readable English. Yet it was quite possible to carry out these functions in the role of an impartial 20th century observer. It was only when I had returned to this country and once again began to make instruments that I had to bring an historical imagination to bear on the information I had obtained. . . .


. . . . I suppose that my purpose in troubling you with all these details of my life and work is to make two points. The first, which I think I have sufficiently belabored, is to define and exemplify the particular quality of my perception of the past. The second has to do with what seems to me to be truly relevant in education. As you have seen, my education failed me because it had not put me in possession of the basic skills and reservoirs of information I required to do what I eventually set out to do. That I succeeded at all was because to some degree I managed to do then what I should have done years earlier.

Few young people can say absolutely how they will spend their lives nor define exactly which skills and funds of knowledge they will require. The most relevant education, in a sense, is that which provides the greatest flexibility - which permits one to pursue interests as they naturally arise with a minimum of handicaps. I do not feel that many of us in America are receiving such an education.

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