One and a half millennia after the life of Bethlehem’s great radical native son, European composers produced some of their most extraordinary works in his adulation. Bethlehem, among other Palestinian locales, indelibly appears in such sacred works; and the harpsichord is a near-constant in the period’s music, sacred and secular alike. With the return to informed, or “authentic” performance practice over the past half century, harpsichords have enjoyed a revival.
But not in Palestine. Yet music from that remarkable era of European creativity is kept quite alive in Palestine, making the rarity of that essential ingredient all the more conspicuous. To be sure, the Al Kamandjati music conservatory in Ramallah has a harpsichord, but the challenges of maintaining and moving it have limited its use.
And so a few years ago, Bethlehem’s Amwaj Choir and Palestine Philharmonie began a European search for a suitable harpsichord. This was no small challenge — locating an excellent but affordable instrument was only the beginning. The harpsichord then had to be brought to Palestine and expertly restored.
The first challenge — the search — ended with a fine harpsichord based on an Italian Bach-era model, made in the mid-twentieth century. Unlike violins, harpsichords from the Baroque period are rare, and not always functional even when they’ve survived. Most in active use today are like this one: relatively modern, created with a balance between authenticity where it matters, and newer materials or production techniques where it makes the instrument more viable or more stable. In this respect harpsichords are no different than most other instruments.
The Roberto Cimetta Foundation enabled the purchasing of the harpsichord with its “Tamteen” fund, awarded “to support the strengthening and sustainability of organisations and artists collectives from the Arab world”.
The next challenge was the big one. Al Kamandjati offered its Belgian connections to negotiate the logistical and diplomatic obstacles to getting the large, fragile instrument safely to Palestine and through the apartheid Wall. And so the harpsichord’s odyssey began in October 2017, when it was loaded into an Al Kamandjati container in Belgium.
When word came two months later that Ramallah was waiting to have “authorization” from Israel, it appeared that the process was at least in motion. But subsequent messages were contradictory, and a year later — in October 2018 — Al Kamandjati, which needed some assurance from Israel that it would not block the container at the end of the sea journey, reported that the harpsichord was still in Belgium.
The journey ended a half year later. At the end of March 2019, the container finally reached port (along with a hefty invoice for Israeli customs), and in July the harpsichord was brought to Bethlehem, its new home.
As long as Israel keeps Palestine under siege, entrance and exit are at the mercy of Israeli whims. Although hand-carried instruments generally enter and exit without problem, the risk of abusive Israeli “security” has taught many musicians not to risk bringing expensive instruments. The most bizarre Israeli “security” technique for musicians who crossed to Palestine I am aware of happening separately to two violinists. Upon reaching Ben-Gurion airport to leave, their instruments and cases were repeatedly x-rayed and dabbed for explosives. So far, fine — neither that, nor the extensive interrogation, were surprising. But then they were given an ultimatum: you can leave with your violin, and you can leave with your violin case — but you cannot leave with the violin inside the case. Security precaution. One must go in luggage, and one must go with you. So, their (empty) case sailed away on the luggage belt, while their violin and bow(s) remained naked in their hands, then naked through security and x-ray, and naked in their embrace for the four or five hour flight to their European destinations. (Their luck improved onboard: in both cases the flight attendants took pity and did not make them put the bare instruments overhead or under the seat.)
My worst case pales by comparison, but was still punitive enough for me to get the message: after learning that I had been teaching on the wrong side of the apartheid Wall, security took my violin out of my hands and put it naked on the belt through the x-ray, not once, but a handful of times, with no case, no pad, permitted. Security precaution.
But the harpsichord, despite its saga, was now in Bethlehem, unscathed and ready to be restored. For that task, Amwaj Choir Director Mathilde Vittu turned to Chilean harpsichord expert Edgardo Campos-Seguel, a former music analysis student of Dr. Vittu in France. Performer and restorer of both harpsichords and pianos, he arrived in mid-October carrying new, portable legs for the harpsichord he had fashioned before leaving Chile.
Harpsichords are finicky creatures. Unlike pianos, they do not keep their pitch for any practical length of time, and to complicate matters further, tuning convention is not constant among the musical worlds they serve. The two instruments’ mechanisms are opposite: whereas pianos set their strings vibrating by hitting them, harpsichords’ more complicated mechanism plucks the strings. Campos-Seguel worked intensely for the first few days reworking and adjusting the instrument in collaboration with Aref Sayed, Palestinian instrument maker in Beit Sahour, in preparation for its re-christening — or, in Palestine, one might say its “resurrection”.
He and others involved with the coming concerts reached Bethlehem amidst a flurry of late-October Israeli Defense Force activity along the apartheid Wall, by Rachel’s Tomb and Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel. Rachel’s Tomb lies on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, but Israel routed its Wall to the east of the site to include it, and an accompanying vast swath of Palestine, in its post-Oslo land theft. It was never clear what the soldiers were doing, as they were neither putting down anti-apartheid protests by young Palestinians on nearby Hebron Road, nor pulling them out of their beds at four in the morning — the IDF’s favored occupations in Bethlehem — but they were absent from the one hidden spot where a crack through the monstrously thick Wall allowed a peep-hole to the Tomb area.
The musicians’ arrival also coincided with the semi-annual ritual when, as parts of the world adjust their clocks an hour fore or aft, the West Bank spends anywhere from a few days to two weeks in longitudinal limbo. One wakes up to discover that one’s computer and phones may have decided to go forward or back an hour, but that the West Bank is of a different mind (or vice-versa), and one is grateful for the simple watch that at least lets you know what time it is in relation to the day before. It was déjà vu to the days when I would set off to work in one time zone, and reach the Conservatory in another.
And so when I arrived at the Walled Off Hotel on a Saturday evening, the 26th of October, to hear Campos-Seguel improvise on the hotel piano, we were suddenly informed that the Hotel, though on the Palestinian side of the Green Line and the apartheid Wall, was on Israeli time … and therefore was already closing its large lobby with its restaurant, bar, and piano. But the longitudinal dissonance had realigned by Sunday evening, when he performed a series of diverse improvisations on Chilean poetry on the hotel piano — which was, thanks to him, now in tune.
The newly-arrived musicians visited the hotel’s Wall Museum. Whatever reservations one might have about the Museum (I do have quibbles), the Museum proved its value, educating visitors not just about the history of the Wall, but its devastating impact on the human beings it segregates.
The iconic event came the next day, when the restored harpsichord, at the hands of Campos-Seguel, gave its premiere performance at Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts & Culture. The program included works by Frescobaldi, Preston, Byrd, Couperin, concluding with the Chaccone from the Bach d minor unaccompanied violin sonata — performed not from a transcription, but from an urtext edition of the violin part itself.
The recital was followed by a master class with Campos-Seguel and Dar al-Kalima students, at which the anatomy of the harpsichord proved as much as a source of fascination as keyboard technique and performance practice.
The last day of October brought the culmination of the week-long harpsichord christening: a concert at the Peace Center in Manger Square by the Church of the Nativity, entitled Italiano, il linguaggio della musica (Italian, the language of music), the “Italian” association befitting the harpsichord’s general model. The concert was produced by the Consul General of Italy in partnership with the mayor of Bethlehem, and featured Bethlehem and Hebron’s Amwaj Choir, harpsichordist Edgardo Campos-Seguel, ‘cellist Fabienne Van Eck, tenor Jamil Freij, and pianist Lucie Tronche, conducted by Adelaide Stroesser-Bernier and Mathilde Vittu. It was timed to coincide with the 19th Edition of the Week of the Italian Language in the World.
Palestine’s eclectic musical world spans Arabic and European traditions and beyond, from centuries past through to the present. High quality instruments associated with the European tradition have however been in short supply, a handicap traceable in large part, directly and indirectly, to the seven-decade Israeli siege of Palestine. The arrival, restoration, and active use of a fine harpsichord in Bethlehem is reason to celebrate.