HARWOOD TENOR VIOL RESTORATION
This blog (started 6/5/2022) documents my ongoing efforts to restore a New England tenor viol built in 1816 in Enfield, MA.
Beginning in the late 18th century, New England artisans began building what they called “viols,” stringed instruments that were initially intended to accompany psalmody but were also used in a broad range of community music making. During the following half century New England viols were built in various sizes, from the “double basses” produced by Abraham Prescott (NH) to the diminutive alto-sized instruments similar to modern violas but likely played vertically, resting on the knees. Here is a video documenting how these instrument were played (the video starts with me playing a tenor of roughly the same size as the Harwood instrument).
In 1816 the little hamlet in western Massachusetts called Enfield was incorporated out of parts of the towns of Greenwich and Belchertown in what was then Hampshire Country. That same year Benjamin R. Harwood (1794 – 1858), one of eight children of Benjamin Harwood (1766 – 1852), who moderated the first Enfield town meeting in 1816, signed his name to the label on a New England tenor viol constructed in the newly minted town.
A couple surviving books document the rich musical lives of Enfield’s residents during the first half of the 19th century. They include Francis Underwood’s sprawling Quabbin: The Story of a Small Town (1893) and The hundredth anniversary of Enfield, Massachusetts (1816), which begins with a long poem narrating Enfield’s history by one Carrie Warren Harwood, who can only be related to Benjamin R.! I am also looking forward to spending some time in the various archives and libraries in Massachusetts that hold relevant materials. But I will have to return to these accounts in a future installment–they’re too fun and interesting to be briefly summarized here.
BTW, a fictionalized Enfield, MA is the setting of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, a book that’s been a favorite of mine since college, and my mom now lives just off of Enfield Rd. in Belchertown, MA, which used to run into Enfield center, before the town was destroyed.
For Enfield, MA no longer exists. The site of the former town now sits at the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir, created in 1939 to supply Boston with water. Haunting pictures survive documenting the “end of Endfield” and the current ruins, some 40 feet beneath the surface of Quabbin Reservoir.
But what of the Harwood tenor viol? It must have left MA sometime during the 19th century and been taken to Michigan, where it was discovered years ago in an old house in Detroit tucked up between the joists in the basement by the current owners. One part of the story I’d like to uncover is how and when the instrument made its way from MA to MI. The tenor was still in MA in 1858, because pencilled inside the instrument is “George E. Knowles, Leicester, MA, May 1858.” Knowles, apparently, repaired the instrument at that time (the lower bouts were evidently damaged and repaired with cloth strips and a small section of the top was coarsely replaced with a piece of pine).
The Harwood tenor is now in a shop in Philadelphia where master restorer Sarah Peck is supervising my restoration work. In May of 2022 we removed the top and are strategizing how to reconstruct the ribs, the most damaged part of the instrument.
Like most New England viols, the ribs are glued into channels in the top and back of the instrument. This was a useful expedient for makers who didn’t have molds to work from, but it makes repairing these instruments difficult. You first need to remove the ribs from the grooves, a slow process that can end up damaging the rib itself or the groove from which its being removed. I’ll add a closeup of that process when we begin it in earnest. Sharp-eyed viewers will see the linings added to the lower bouts during the 1858 repair. The tenor was originally constructed with no linings, but with the ribs inset into the top and back.
In order to source replacement wood for the rib repair, I needed to identify what the surviving ribs are made of (the history of the instrument and a visual inspection would suggest some sort of Maple, of course). A bit of DIY micrography suggests unfigured Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) or its subspecies Black Maple (Acer saccharum ssp. nigrum). Since we could only take teeny samples from the surviving bits of the instrument (I sampled the top, back, ribs, neck, and one surviving original peg), micrographic identification must happen at pretty high magnification levels…I’m entirely new to micrographic wood identification (as well as using a microscope), so these various conclusions may shift.
The micrograph of the rib, above, shows the cross-sectional surface of a tiny sample Sarah scraped off a fragment of the rib. It may be too small a sample for a definitive identification. However, since it was very common for makers to use the same material for the back and ribs of a given instrument, the larger sample from the back, below, appears to be comprised of the same kind of wood and is large enough to offer an ID.
I will continue this narration and post more pictures as the project proceeds…