Farewell Wolfgang

My photos shows Wolfgang Zuckermann who has died at the age of 96. During the second half of the twentieth century the harpsichord made the remarkable transition from almost extinct historical curiosity to concert hall staple; not just for early music, but also for new music from composers including John Cage, Elliott Carter and Maurice Ohana. Wolfgang Zuckermann's $150 harpsichord kits, which were launched in 1959, were a major factor in the rehabilitation of the harpsichord, and Zuckermann supplied instruments to John Cage and many other musicians from his workshop in Greenwich Village, New York.

The legendary 'Model T' harpsichord kit is Wolfgang Zuckermann's best known contribution to music history. But he had been making high quality finished instruments for a decade before entering the self-assembly market and his manufacturing business continues today under different ownership. In 1969 he published his influential book The Modern Harpsichord. This advocated a return to authentic specifications for contemporary instruments and rejected the 'romantic' approach pioneered by Landa Landowska and her Pleyel instruments.

Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann was born in Berlin in 1922, and after his family emigrated to America he became a US citizen in 1938. He saw action in the Second World War in the US Army, but in 1969 he sold his harpsichord business and left America because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. After a period in England he settled in France where he developed a successful second career as a social activist, early environmentalist and author. He was active drawing attention to the environmental impact of the internal combustion engine and was one of the team who created Buy Nothing Day, an international day of protest against consumerism. One of his famous quotes from decades ago was "It is no doubt ironic that the motorcar, superstar of the capitalist system, expects to live rent free."

As well as continuing his environmental and social activism Wolfgang Zuckermann founded the Librairie Shakespeare English language bookshop in the university district of Avignon, France in 1994. In 2012 he sold Librairie Shakespeare and the bookshop thrives today under its new owner Camille Vourc’h. The two later photos were taken in 2008 in Librairie Shakespeare on one of my frequent visits to Avignon. I first met Wolfgang years earlier while passing through the city en route to stay at the nearby Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux. In subsequent years I made it a point to drop in at his eclectically stocked bookshop, and a number of prized purchases from there now grace my library.

Wolfgang Zuckermann enjoyed a long and full life, and I am privileged to have known him. His contributions to music history and to environmentalism made him a legend in his own lifetime. But what made him particularly special to me was his principled stand against the US government's escalation of the Vietnam War. In 1969 there was no email, no Skype and no mobile phones, and cultures were far more insular. Permanently leaving his native America and his successful business for Europe on a point of ethical principle was truly courageous. How starkly it contrasts with the political dissidents who today do no more than air their principles in social media rants while staying firmly and comfortably put under a political regime they claim to despise.

Farewell Wolfgang, thank you for showing us how it should be done.

Wolfgang Zuckermann's funeral is on November 5th at the crematorium in Orange (84087)

My social media accounts are deleted. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


colin booth said…
I met Wally when he was first making kits, in a damp, cavernous ancient manor house in the South West of England.
He soon realised that conditions were in every respect (perhaps with the exception of atmosphere) better back in the States.
His contribution to the harpsichord field was huge, and the popularisation of kits was a fine democratisation of the instrument.

Thanks, Wally!

Yours, Colin Booth.
David Calhoun said…
Democratization, indeed. If I could I would share a cartoon which ridicules the neighbour "playing his harpsichord to his falcon." The curious idea of the "kit" brought the box and the idea into something like a cultural mainstream at just the right time. It also produced a flock of "builders" like me who, for our various reasons, found meaningful and productive work in Wally's metaphorical back yard. I should be below, leveling the keys on a 1988 double from the Stonington post-Way shop recovering from long neglect. We met only twice - once in the shop and once at the Brugge harpsichord races. Thank you, Wolfgang.
Unknown said…
Many thanks for a wonderful tribute. But he could not leave "his native America,” of course, since he was born in Germany.

Recent popular posts

Does it have integrity and relevance?

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Why new audiences are deaf to classical music

Classical music has many Buddhist tendencies

The paradox of the Dalai Lama

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Vonnegut gets his Dresden facts wrong

Nada Brahma - Sound is God

In the shadow of Chopin

I am not from east or west