Three hundred years ago, the harpsichord was the most popular keyboard instrument in Europe and during the evenings, in the homes of the well-heeled, listening to young ladies play and sing along to it was a favoured pastime.

Overtaken in popularity by the piano, the harpsichord is not often heard today; it's even more unusual to hear it played with compositions straight from an original 1697 music book and rarer still that the book, the only known copy in the world, lives right here in Auckland.

But those attending Auckland Libraries heritage concerts — and it was standing room only — took a musical journey back in time to learn about a taonga in the Central Library's Sir George Grey Special Collections.

Harpischordist Peter Watts and soprano Katharine Watts performed music from The Harpischord Master, an early music tutor book. While Auckland Libraries runs an annual heritage concert series, senior music librarian Marilyn Portman says it's looking more at its own collections for inspiration — and there's not a lot more inspiring than The Harpischord Master.


How it came to be in New Zealand is a mystery but in 1977, Robert Petre, a University of Auckland music student working part-time in special collections, stumbled across the historical gold. Petre recalls finding the small 17th century book in the music section of the collection where it had, more or less, languished since it was donated by a Mr Claude Purchas on March 24, 1937.

Its original owner, its journey to New Zealand and why Mr Purchas donated it to the library are unknown. One theory is that Mr Purchas' father, a church minister with an interest in music, brought it with him when he arrived here in the 1840s.

Intrigued, Petre wrote to various academics, music libraries and archives and, in a discovery that excited musicologists around the world, learned The Harpsichord Master in Auckland was the world's only surviving copy. It also contained two otherwise unknown Purcell compositions.

Petre looks aghast when asked if was ever tempted to take it home and play directly from it but acknowledges feeling a "special attachment" to the book.

"In a sense it does feel like 'my book', but I would never take it out of the library. It needs to be properly protected and stored," says Petre, who compiled a new edition in 1980.

Purcell's widow, Frances, likely sold the naming rights to those publishing music instructional manuals featuring "pop songs" of the day. The Harpsichord Master was one of a whole series of such books.

Like Petre, Peter and Katharine Watts say it provides an insight into how music was taught and learned as well as the somewhat bawdy nature of some of the song lyrics. Does it tell us anything about how the instrument was played 300 years ago? It shows keyboard playing techniques were quite different to those used for the modern piano.

"One's fingers are in a very different place, you almost spider-walk up the keyboard," says Peter Watts.


The free heritage concert series continues in September and October.