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Harp Hero

Endangered instruments tug one musician's heartstrings

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The harp that Win Landman gently laid out on MacArthur’s kitchen table that bitter night turned out to be the only one of its kind known to exist. (Over time, a few more would turn up.) Though scarred by neglect, the 18-inch-high instrument was nevertheless an exquisite artifact. Its four-sided sound box had been fashioned of unpainted willow. No one could say exactly how or when this treasure had come to be discarded. It had lain silent for at least 50 years.

At the same time that MacArthur was devoting her considerable energies to saving an instrument disappearing from the American musical landscape, treasures in other parts of the world were also beginning to face extinction. As various as Siberian shamanic frame drums or the Central-Asian dotâr, some are hundreds of years old. "Certain sounds," laments Gage Averill, an ethnomusicologist and chair of the music department at New York University, "cannot be replaced."

Each of these instruments has need of a savior. The harp unearthed in that Vermont barn garnered two—MacArthur and her husband, John. As a professor of physics at Marlboro College as well as an accomplished amateur carpenter, John MacArthur was uniquely suited to take on the task of restoring the instrument.

"A lot of pieces were missing," he recalls. "There were just enough left so you could figure out the shape of what they were." John painstakingly traced the remnants of the sound box in order to cut out templates and re-create various structural elements.

Completion of the framing led to another challenge: configuring the strings and determining how to tune the instrument. Sitting at his battered wooden desk, John set down a series of equations, working from a formula for calculating the relationship between tension in the strings and pitch. "You had to invent a way to tune it," he explains, "because there was no way to tell how it was originally done."

Within a few weeks, John was able to present his wife with an instrument restored to life: reconstructed, polished, strung and tuned. When she sat down to pluck the strings, the sounds that floated into the room were akin to bells: delicate, clear and soaring.

Music has bound the MacArthurs together since they met as students at the University of Chicago in 1946. When John played guitar for a dormitory sing-along, he heard an extraordinary voice rising from the crowd and waded through the throng to find Margaret. They married the following year.

The couple moved to Vermont in 1948, when John accepted his faculty appointment. Over the years, the post-and-beam farmhouse in which they raised five children has filled with music and the instruments that make it: a Pennsylvania Dutch zither, an early 20th-century dulcimer, a fiddle hand-hewn from a log.

A Farm Boy’s Lament

 

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