William Dowd, 86; Crafted Harpsichords The Old-Fashioned Way

William Dowd, at the keyboard of one of his harpsichords in 1988. By the time of his retirement that year, his harpsichords were in 26 countries.
William Dowd, at the keyboard of one of his harpsichords in 1988. By the time of his retirement that year, his harpsichords were in 26 countries. (Family Photo)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

William Dowd, 86, who revived the 17th-century craft of harpsichord making, building hundreds of historically authentic instruments now used around the world, died of complications from an embolism Nov. 25 at Inova Cameron Glen Care Center. He lived in Reston.

Mr. Dowd and his childhood friend Frank Hubbard are widely credited with rescuing the harpsichord from piano-makers' crude "modernizations" in the first half of the 20th century, many of which Mr. Dowd said sounded "like a Junebug on a window screen."

After taking apart and examining instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries, they built some of the world's best classical harpsichords in terms of sound, physical beauty and the response of the instrument to the touch of a musician's fingers. They resized what had become an overly large and heavy instrument, using the proper woods and metals, and restored the original tuning.

Ralph Kirkpatrick, in the foreword to Hubbard's "Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making" (1965), said that the pair were "consummate craftsmen, second to none in skill, intelligence and experience, having accomplished the major revolution of this century in harpsichord making."

Mr. Dowd built more than 800 instruments, and by the time of his retirement in 1988, his harpsichords were in 26 countries. In the United States, they are in use at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, Independence Hall and City Tavern in Philadelphia and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Dowd harpsichords are probably in wider use by leading professional performers in North America and Europe than those of any other maker, music references say.

A harpsichord he built on commission in 1980 for a Chicago group, the Friends of Marc Chagall, features an original Chagall painting on the underside of its lid and now resides in a Chagall museum in Nice, France.

William Richmond Dowd was born in Newark to a mother who was a classical pianist and a father who was an amateur violist. Mr. Dowd grew up in Upper Montclair, N.J., and Westchester County, N.Y. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1940 and attended Harvard College until World War II interrupted his education. He served in the Coast Guard in the north Atlantic, patrolling for German submarines, and then later aboard destroyer escorts in the Atlantic and Pacific.

After the war, he graduated with a degree in English literature from Harvard. Interested in music but lacking the rigorous performance background necessary to become a professional musician, he became interested in harpsichords after seeing one at Harvard and hearing a few concerts.

"You see, one of the things that happened to us was we went to museums," he told Harold Haney for the quarterly magazine "The Harpsichord" in 1971. "When it was possible, we heard these instruments and found them beautiful. We felt the whole German school [of builders] . . . must have plugs in their ears. They were not making anything that was remotely like an antique harpsichord. We discovered a resonant, flowering sound which we liked. We, with the enthusiasm and rash brashness of the young, believed we knew how to bring back the authentic instrument upon which the early harpsichord music was all based."

Their goals included "reviving single-handed the whole baroque orchestra," Hubbard wrote. "I, it was decided, would deal with strings, Dowd with keyboards and winds in some unspecified way would take care of themselves."

Hubbard and Mr. Dowd apprenticed with baroque instrument makers in England and Detroit and in 1949, with money borrowed from their parents, formed a partnership in Boston. Over the next 10 years, they restored numerous antique harpsichords and built 25 keyboards. In 1959, the partners split. Hubbard died in 1976. Mr. Dowd's Boston shop stayed open until 1988. He also had a shop in Paris from 1972 through 1985.

In 1988, Mr. Dowd moved the contents of his workshop to Washington, where he worked on a harpsichord catalogue for the Smithsonian. He donated his papers to the American history museum .

Interested as much in archaeology, falconry, the Civil War and cooking Chinese, Italian and French food as he was in harpsichords, Mr. Dowd was really a Renaissance man, said his wife of 28 years, Pegram Epes Dowd.

"Men like that came back from [World War II], and they believed there was nothing they could not do," she said. "They really were risk takers. I think it was very heroic."

His marriages to Viola Johnson and Martha Farrar ended in divorce.

In addition to his wife, of Reston, survivors include three children from his second marriage, Emily Dowd Tronstad of Westport, Mass., Amanda Richmond Dowd of Cipieres, France, and William Norton Dowd of Seattle; and two granddaughters.

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