Penn State alumnus Charles Metz will return to Centre County for two performances next week. A proficient musician and scholar of historical performance, he’ll not be arriving alone. Rather, he’ll have in tow a delicate instrument that is the highlight of his appearances.
Enveloped by a very special case, on wheels and filled with protective padding, is a small instrument that most will easily admit they’ve never seen in person. With no legs, no top and a box-like configuration, it’s a bit familiar — like a piano, but with quite a few differences. To anyone with an interest in Elizabethan culture and history, it’s easy to see that the instrument Metz totes to his performances is a virginal.
Virginals are most similar to harpsichords, a keyboard instrument that reached its height of popularity in Renaissance and baroque periods.
Virginals are most similar to harpsichords, a keyboard instrument that reached its height of popularity in the Renaissance and baroque periods. According to Metz’s sister, Susan Metz McCartney, “there are maybe three of these instruments in existence that are actually playable, and the rest of them are all in museums.”
Metz’s ownership of the instrument was a pure stroke of luck, when it was discovered for sale in a suburb of St. Louis.
“A friend of his said, ‘There’s an old instrument in this antique shop, I think you should go look at it,’ ” Metz McCartney said. “And he did and discovered it was a virginal, an Italian virginal, and he said it was not playable. He debated on whether to purchase or not, but he did go ahead and purchase it.”
From there, Metz took the virginal to Walter and Berta Burr, a husband-and-wife team and owners of Walter Burr Harpsichord Makers, based out of Hoosick, N.Y.
“Walter builds them and Berta paints them,” Metz McCartney said. “So they said they could restore the instrument, which they did.” The Smithsonian Chamber Music Society later called the restoration “from a musical point of view, entirely successful” and the painted decoration “beautifully conserved.”
How did a centuries-old Italian instrument make it all the way to an antique shop in St. Louis? Much of it is still a mystery. However, Metz used his expertise to shine some light on a few of the details.
“The instrument, my brother thinks, was built around 1590,” Metz McCartney said. “He knows the name of the builder, (Francesco Poggi), and it was built in Florence, Italy. Every city-state in Italy had its own unit of measure, so by measuring carefully the different parts of the instrument, he could determine the location of what province or city-state it was built in, so that’s why he knows it was built in Florence.”
On the inside of the instrument, Metz found that it had been rehabbed in the late 1800s.
“There were notes from an Italian person that said they had fixed up the instrument and he thinks, guesses, that was when the case was made and the painting was put on it,” Metz McCartney said.
Now, Metz travels regionally, giving early music concerts, primarily in the St. Louis and Chicago areas. Many of the attendees, according to Metz McCartney, are young music students, but also many individuals who consider their tastes in music to be more refined and sophisticated.
“It’s Elizabethan ... so this would’ve been something that Elizabeth I would’ve listened to,” Metz McCartney said.
For those who are looking to embrace their Elizabethan side and partake in an afternoon filled with the historic sounds Elizabeth I would’ve enjoyed, Metz will be performing both at the Palmer Art Museum and also at Foxdale Concert Hall.
IF YOU GO
- What: Charles Metz
- When: 12:10 p.m. April 19
- Where: Palmer Museum of Art, University Park
- Info: palmermuseum.psu .edu
IF YOU GO
- What: Charles Metz
- When: 3 p.m. April 20
- Where: Foxdale Village, 500 E. Marylyn Ave., State College
- Info: www.foxdalevillage .org