It all began six years ago, down in Spartanburg, S.C., when George Lucktenberg drove a lawnmower over a cliff and didn't die.
It wasn't a very big cliff, only a six-foot drop. But it was a big lawnmower, the kind with a driver's seat, a steering wheel and enormous blades that can cut you to hamburger. It landed next to George, not on top of him, but when he pulled himself together and looked up, he saw those blades spinning a few inches away from his nose.
His eyes look up to heaven as he talks about the episode. "Ever since then," he says, "I keep looking up and asking, 'What was that you had in mind for me to do?' "
What he did was initiate SEHKS, the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society, shortly thereafter.
The Sixth Annual Conclave of SEHKS went into high gear last night with a concert at the Library of Congress. Despite its modest, regional name, the event is attracting participants from Europe and Australia.
Between now and Monday morning, about 200 harpsichord players, makers, teachers, scholars and enthusiasts will be running from the Library to the Smithsonian to Mount Vernon College, not to mention the renovated firehouse on M Street NW, where Tom and Barbara Wolf have their home and harpsichord factory. George contemplates all this frenzied but harmonious activity and shakes his head in wonder: God and lawnmowers move in mysterious ways.
"I started this thing as a lark six years ago -- just for fun. Then people began to get serious about it. I sent out a note to all my harpsichord friends in the Southeast: 'How would you like to come to a no-budget harpsichord happening?' I expected perhaps 30 percent of them to show up, but 90 percent of them came, 60 to 75 people. So I said, 'Well, we all need one more thing to pay dues to, so let's get it started.' "
Behind his trim, graying beard and gentle southern accent (modified from that of Ohio where he was born), Lucktenberg does not look like a harpsichord player. In his mid-fifties, square-built and muscular, he looks like he could be a truck driver, which in fact he is -- roaring around the Southeast in a battered old van like thousands of other good old boys. The difference is that his van roars around to college campuses, museums, libraries, concert halls and historic buildings. And it carries a harpsichord in the back.
"I haven't owned a car for 30 years," he says. "When you become a harpsichordist, you buy a truck, because you have to carry the instrument around."
He drives vans more carefully than lawnmowers. This one, bought in 1975, now has 175,000 miles on it. "People tell me, 'You ought to turn that in and get a used van,' " he says. "I tell them, 'Man, I already got a good used van.'
He also has a bad back, an occupational hazard of harpsichordists, who have to load and unload their 160-pound instruments from vans as well as handle their own tuning and repairs.
"When I get paid for a performance," he says, "I tell them, 'The concert is free. You're just paying me for driving this truck, unloading it, fixing the instrument and tuning it.' "
Lucktenberg's luck is also shown in the incident of the Alie'nor Foundation. This mysterious organization's name is the name of Eleanor of Aquitaine in its medieval spelling, for reasons that Lucktenberg does not understand. Nor can he explain why the foundation wants to encourage new compositions for the harpsichord -- an instrument that presumably died, in terms of new repertoire, two centuries ago.
"They called me up and said, 'You have a society, how would you like to sponsor a competition?' " he says. "I didn't go looking for it; it came to me." So now he is the president of the Alie'nor Harpsichord Composition Awards, which will give prizes totaling nearly $9,000 to composers this year.
"We hope to build a modern repertoire for this instrument," he says. "It may not be able to compete with the best that we have from the past, but if we can get every significant living composer to write just one piece for harpsichord, we will have it. We should know whether this effort has succeeded by the end of the century. In any case, it's worth a try."
It's more complicated than it may seem at first. There is quite a bit of 20th-century harpsichord music, composed by artists as eminent as Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Francis Poulenc and Virgil Thomson in the first half of this century, usually with Wanda Landowska in mind. But as Lucktenberg explains it, that repertoire is mostly unplayable on the majority of harpsichords in use today. It was written for the "20th-century harpsichord," he explains, a curious hybrid instrument developed for Landowska's use and produced in quantity for those who wanted to follow her example, but now out of favor.
"It had lots of pedals and 16-foot stops [for deep bass sound]," Lucktenberg explains. "There were a few instruments like that in the 18th century, but it was quite different from the classic, mid-18th-century concert grand, which had no pedals, only hand stops and usually no stops bigger than eight feet."
After a half-century of the 20th-century harpsichord, the taste of players and audiences began to turn to what Lucktenberg calls the "modern" instrument, essentially a copy of the classic 18th-century model. Curiously, people think of the harpsichord as a dead instrument and the piano as a living one. But Lucktenberg (who plays both, plus clavichord and fortepiano) says that just the opposite is true:
"The piano hasn't changed since 1880, while the harpsichord has been rapidly and drastically evolving. It has been a very exciting field since I became involved in my teens."
The change in tastes began around 1960, under the leadership of Kenneth Gilbert, who will give a recital tomorrow night at the Smithsonian, and Gustav Leonhardt, who works in Europe. The modern harpsichord is now favored by most players and audiences for its greater authenticity in performing old music.
The SEHKS Conclave also features a competition for harpsichord performers with prizes totaling $7,750 -- "the largest harpsichord contest, in terms of prize money, in the Western Hemisphere," according to Lucktenberg. Finals of both the composition and performance competitions will be held Sunday. An awards ceremony is planned Sunday night at Mount Vernon College, headquarters of the Conclave.
What else do people do at a harpsichord conclave? They examine the fine collection of instruments at the Smithsonian. They attend concerts of new and old harpsichord music (and some of them complain about the new stuff). They hear papers on esoteric subjects such as Beethoven's fingerings and Alessandro Scarlatti's cantatas, and they flock to the exhibits at Mount Vernon College, which are open to the public without registration.
But the most important thing they do, probably, is commune with one another. "In a place like Boston, harpsichordists can talk to one another any time," Lucktenberg says, "but the Southeast is a huge area and every player in it is all alone. After a while down there, you get to feel that you're the only harpsichordist in the world."
That must be the situation in the Midwest, as well, where a sister organization, the Midwestern Historical Keyboard Society, has been founded, modeled on SEHKS. So far, these are the only regional organizations for harpsichord players in the United States, though there are metropolitan clubs in a few cities like Boston where harpsichords abound. Lucktenberg welcomes the existence of the midwestern group as evidence that SEHKS must be doing something right -- also because it shares the expenses of the society's scholarly publication, "The Early Keyboard Journal."
Will there be national and international harpsichord societies some day, modeled on the group meeting this week in Washington? Lucktenberg shrugs off such questions. That would be pleasant, he says, but it is not essential. SEHKS is here to stay, and that is enough for him.