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Peter Tkach

Harpsichord Maker

An Interview With Peter Tkach

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An Interview With Peter Tkach

 

By BETH LOEBER ELSWICK

Putting thumb tacks into the hammers of an old upright piano may seem to be the act of a desperate college student, but for Peter Tkach, then a senior conducting student at St. Olaf College, it was an accurate reflection of his tenacious quest for an authentic continuo sound, a drive that would eventually lead him to pursue a second career.

Following in his father's footsteps, Peter Tkach began his professional career as a choral director. His grandparents came to the United States from the Ukraine region. His father, also Peter Tkach, was a nationally known arranger and editor of Russian liturgical, choral music.

Peter grew up in the Minneapolis area and attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He directed the Viking Male Chorus his senior year and was graduated in 1957 with the Bachelor of Music Degree. Receiving a graduate assistantship in 1959 from Washington University, Tkach moved to St. Louis where he directed the women's chorus, men's glee club, and madrigal singers. He received the Master's Degree in 1962. According to Peter, "Perhaps the most important thing that happened to me at Washington U. was that I met and married my wife, Andrea, who now does the soundboard painting and other fine decorating on our instruments." The next year was spent studying music in Europe. Receiving a Fulbright scholarship, Peter studied German at the Goethe Institute in Blaubeuren, conducting at the Music Conservatory in Detmold, and church music and conducting with Wilhelm Ehmann at the Westphalian Church Music School in Herford. Tkach recalls, "Andrea and I bought a car and had a marvelous year studying and traveling around Europe." Certainly this experience piqued his interest in the music of the German baroque period, and whetted his taste for authentic performance practices and sounds.

Returning to St. Louis, Peter continued his studies at Concordia Seminary where he earned the Master of Arts in Religion Degree, specializing in church music, under the tutelage of Robert Bergt. Subsequently, he received the DMA degree in choral conducting at the University of Texas in Austin, Tkach recalls, "under the fine guidance of Morris Beachy." In addition to his avid scholarship, Tkach's credentials include twenty years of the practical application of his craft, conducting choirs in colleges, high schools, and churches. Particularly noteworthy positions were Texas Lutheran College in Seguin, Texas, and Webster University in St. Louis.

His harpsichord building began in 1965. Tkach recollects, "Because of my interest in early music, especially the music of the German baroque period, I realized what an advantage it would be to have a harpsichord of my own for more authentic performance."

He bought a kit and worked for months. Says Tkach, "It was the perfect accompaniment to the choirs I was directing. I made a lot of harpsichords for those choirs including the ones for Webster Hills Methodist and Kirkwood Presbyterian Churches."

During the 1970's, he held positions at St. John's College in Kansas and also Webster University. He continued to build from kits. Tkach maintains, "For a number of years my two careers dovetailed or perhaps, they mortised and tenoned. I was generally making a harpsichord during the moonlight time while teaching in the sunlight."

Peter's craftsmanship and study culminated in an expertise beyond the "hobby and kit" stage. When parts from a kit did not quite fit, he began to modify the kits. In addition, he apprenticed with the Martin Ott Pipe Organ Company in St. Louis in order to learn and improve the skills needed for early keyboard construction. He sent for and received designs for original instruments from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D. C., and the Russell Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. As he refined his woodworking skills, his wife Andrea began researching cabinet designs. She studied the soundboard and case decorating of early French, Flemish, and Italian instruments. Using egg tempera, she learned how to paint rose garlands, soundboard flowers, and border designs to re-create the artistic styles of the early instruments. Since a common feature of the soundboard design was the inclusion of a Latin motto, Tkach even found a classics professor at Washington University who would cleverly create Latin mottos from English sayings.

Tkach is now working on his 79th instrument. Although he employs modern construction techniques and tools in order to do the work, the case design and framing, soundboard wood and bracing, and key and jack action use the historical precedents. The registers and guides are made from pearwood, and the wooden jacks are imported from Europe. He prefers the Flemish and French designs over the Italian and English instruments, a reflection, he feels, of his apprenticeship with the Martin Ott Company. Peter describes the fulfillment from the dual nature of his career in this way, "To me, harpsichord making is a truly rewarding and enviable profession. If one accepts the challenge of doing all the work himself, he needs proficiency in cabinetry and woodworking skills, in the many decorating skills needed, and in musicality so that a musically viable instrument (not just a well-built or beautiful one) results. So the hand, the eye, and the ear all take equal part. This relates symbolically very strongly to what I do as a conductor: the hand, the eye, and the ear all take part, but the conductor, just as the instrument maker, is a mute participant as he creates the musical voice."

In addition. Peter Tkach feels fortunate that he came to harpsichord making with the background and training of a musician. He insists, "The ability to hear with a trained ear is the most important quality needed in dealing with and judging the quality of the illusive tone of harpsichords. A good voicing job requires first a good ear and second a good touch. No amount of carpentry or decorating skill can replace the musicality needed in the final product."

Besides conducting and building harpsichords. Peter is a conscientious educator, helping those who purchase one of his instruments learn to tune and do simple harpsichord maintenance. "Although there may have been a Harpsichord Tuner's Guild in the 18th century," says Tkach, "I don't know of one today. So I spend time with people who purchase my instruments, either in person or on the phone, so they can learn to do their own work."

Of the instruments that he has built thus far, his favorite ones can be found at Evangel College in Springfield, MO, Culver-Stockton College in Canton, MO, Southeast Missouri State University, Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis, and at Lincointon, North Carolina, the instrument used by the Carolina Baroque Ensemble. A highlight in his output was the performance of Bach's Concerto No. 2 in C Major BWV 1064 for Three Cembali played on three of his instruments at Southeast Missouri State University as part of their Bach Tercentenary Celebration.

Like the choral masterwork which stands the test of time, the well-built instrument is a tangible, audible reflection of its maker. For Tkach, this less transitory, less ephemeral quality of harpsichord making is very appealing. He says, "In addition to the many challenges in making a good instrument and in judging whether it is good, harpsichord making gives me an opportunity to provide an authentic voice -- albeit a more passive one than when I am directing -- to the making of music, especially the early music which has been my main interest. In about the same amount of time it used to take me to create a full concert (which was over and gone forever in one or two hours), I can now create a creator of music which, with proper care and handling will still be sounding many years hence. It is a uniquely satisfying thing to do."

© 2001 Peter Tkach
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  Article © 1992 The American Guild of Organists, used with permission.