For some 200 years, the harpsichord was king. The Baroque composers J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti all wrote sonatas, suites and solo works for the instrument, a rich-sounding keyboard in which strings are plucked — not hammered — by a tiny piece of quill or leather called a plectrum.
But in music, as in fashion or art, tastes change. Technologies advance. And by the end of the 18th century, when revolutions were raging in France and America, the harpsichord was eclipsed by its gentle cousin, the fortepiano. Harpsichords went by the wayside, or worse. In France during the winter of 1816, many were burned for firewood.
Abandoned by most composers and musicians, the instrument never retook its place at the center of the musical universe. Yet in the 20th century, the harpsichord experienced a notable resurgence, with its tinkling keys featured in works by composers Benjamin Britten and György Ligeti, by Artie Shaw’s acclaimed jazz combo, and by the Beach Boys in “God Only Knows.”
At the fore of this antiquarian revival was Wolfgang Zuckermann, a German-born Jew who fled to the United States after Adolf Hitler came to power, worked as a child psychologist and piano technician and, in 1959, developed a build-it-yourself harpsichord kit that brought this once-obscure instrument into thousands of homes from North America to Australia.
“The kit was a revolution,” said Marc Ducornet, one of France’s leading keyboard makers. “Fifty percent of the harpsichord makers in the world,” he estimated, “began by building a Zuckermann kit.” While kits have become less popular in recent years, said another harpsichord maker, Carey Beebe of Sydney, “It’s really the Zuckermann kit that started us off. It’s why we’re here.”
Mr. Zuckermann turned from music to become an unlikely pied piper of the anticonsumerist and environmentalist movements, then retired to a quiet life as a book salesman in France. He was 96 when he died Oct. 31 at his home in Avignon, not far from the former Shakespeare Books, where he had long offered customers homemade scones and cream tea.
His death was confirmed by his friend and collaborator of six decades, Eric Britton, who said the cause was not immediately known.
Eclectic and fiercely independent, Mr. Zuckermann organized a rural Pennsylvania arts festival that featured works by composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. He briefly ran Caffe Cino, widely considered a birthplace of off-off-Broadway. And, largely driven by frustration with the Vietnam War, he went into self-imposed exile in Europe, where he helped organize Buy Nothing Day and wrote books highlighting the environmental ills of the automobile.
But he was best known for his DIY harpsichord kit, a product that was sometimes described as the “Model T” of modern harpsichords. In his book “A History of the Harpsichord,” musicologist Edward L. Kottick wrote that Mr. Zuckermann’s kit “spawned a unique movement whose heyday lasted for 20 years and helped fuel the instrument’s revival.”
Raised in a musical family, Mr. Zuckermann played the cello in a string quartet that included his father and two brothers. He said he preferred the sound of the piano over the jingling tones of the harpsichord, but he became fascinated with the latter while tuning keyboards in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s.
By then, musicians such as Sylvia Marlowe and Wanda Landowska had kicked off a harpsichord renaissance — leading some wealthy American listeners to buy modern metal-framed versions of the instrument for their homes. Mr. Zuckermann derisively dubbed these harpsichords “plucking pianos.”
“It irritated him to see that there were $10,000 instruments that were not making the sound that was associated with the real instruments themselves,” Britton said. So Mr. Zuckermann hired a woodworking partner, immersed himself in the instrument’s history and design, and began building harpsichords modeled after their 18th-century predecessors.
As one of the few harpsichord makers in New York, Mr. Zuckermann acquired clients that included the Metropolitan Opera, according to Britton, and built about a dozen instruments each year. His business took off only after it was all but wiped out by a fire in 1958, spurring news coverage that brought customers to his new shop on Christopher Street in the West Village.
Success bred discontent, as more harpsichord sales meant more tuning and repair jobs.
“Wolfgang was being called by all these people to help them fix their harpsichords, and he was interested in girls and tennis, the Village and music, in books and ideas and riding around town on his Lambretta. Life was finite,” said Britton. “So he decided he would make it so clients could repair and tune their own harpsichords, and the best way to do that would be if they could build them themselves.”
Mr. Zuckermann’s kit, considered the first of its kind, supplied key parts but required buyers to visit the hardware store for wood. Nicknamed the “five-foot Z-box” for its length, it “was not up to the level of the good modern harpsichords, a fact which Zuckermann himself readily acknowledged,” Kottick wrote in “The Harpsichord Owner’s Guide.”
What was important was that it was cheap — $150 at first, then rising to $308 by 1966, when the New York Times reported that the kits were available for “less than the cost of a big color television set” and could be assembled in 60 hours.
By Mr. Zuckerman’s count, he had sold about 10,000 kits by 1969, when he decided to sell his company to a friend, David Jacques Way, and move to England. Way moved the shop to Stonington, Conn., and oversaw its growth into one of the world’s largest harpsichord manufacturers.
Mr. Zuckermann’s departure coincided with the release of “The Modern Harpsichord,” a survey of European and American harpsichord makers, published by Way. It also followed a growing frustration with American society and politics.
According to “Caffe Cino,” a history of the venue by Wendell C. Stone, Mr. Zuckermann began to feel that the country was moving toward fascism, particularly after a 1968 incident in which he was arrested on a “morals charge,” after a child performed in a Caffe production that used an expletive.
His political views had also led him to establish the Sundance Festival of the Chamber Arts, which brought dance and music performances to Upper Black Eddy, Pa., in 1963. “He wanted to do this creative thing to write off the expenses from his taxes,” Britton said, “so the U.S. government would have less money for killing Vietnamese.”
Wolfgang Joachim Zuckermann was born in Berlin on Oct. 11, 1922. His mother sang and wrote songs, and his father ran a leather products business before taking the family to the United States in 1938.
Mr. Zuckermann served in Europe with the Army during World War II, and graduated in 1949 from Queens College in New York. His books included “The Mews of London” (1982), a preservation-minded guide to the city’s historic byways and converted stable homes, written with Barbara Rosen; “End of the Road” (1991), which highlighted environmental issues surrounding the automobile; and “Alice in Underland” (2000), a critique of consumerism.
With Britton, a political scientist, he was also a champion and organizer of Buy Nothing Day, typically held the day after Thanksgiving, and Car Free Day, which encourages mass transit, cycling and walking as alternatives to driving.
Mr. Zuckermann was married and divorced several times and has no immediate survivors. He had lived in France since about 1994, when he founded Shakespeare Books (now Camili Books & Tea) in Avignon. Into his 90s, the shop provided a perch for him to continue his political activism and write the occasional letter to the editor — including a typically witty, typically incisive 1997 note to the Times, regarding a column by Thomas L. Friedman.
“I used to consider myself a pacifist, but after reading Mr. Friedman’s McTheory that no two countries possessing McDonald’s restaurants would ever go to war against each other, I can’t help wishing that such countries would declare war against each other — and target their missiles exclusively on each other’s McDonald’s,” he wrote. “That way there would be one less, instead of one more, McDonald’s every three hours.”