Thomas Goff harpsichord

THOMAS GOFF of Pont Street
Harpsichord Builder

When Thomas Goff started to make harpsichords in the early 1950s, awareness and knowledge of the traditional methods of designing and making keyboard instruments had scarcely begun, and Goff started working almost by himself. He had left a legal career at the Bar to learn harpsichord making from Herbert Lambert, who had added amateur harpsichord making to his profession of photography. Goff followed Lambert’s ideas fairly closely, basing his instruments loosely on Kirckman’s later work. He brought to it such modern knowledge and techniques as he felt to be appropriate, but did not do much research himself or make many experiments.

Thomas Goff was distantly related to the Royal Family and was obviously fairly well-off. He lived in a huge red-brick terrace house at 46 Pont Street, near fashionable Sloane Square in London, with his butler who resided in the basement. The high Edwardian rooms on the ground floor of the house were full of his harpsichords, which he rarely sold, though he hired them out for concerts. Above that, the middle floors were often let – Lord Waldegrave and his family lived there at one time.

And then, right at the top, in two floors of attics, for the Pont Street houses are somewhat Dutch in design, he had his workshop scattered over several rooms. One room for himself, one for his cabinet maker, Cobby, one for passing helpers or students, one for polishing, one for storage.

Cobby – he was always called by his surname – was a genuine salaried highly-skilled craftsman of great experience who worked with Goff for many years. He did all the cabinet making, always insisting on only the highest standards of work. He could distinguish a true right-angle, 90, from a corner of 89 or 91 with a touch of his finger and thumb. His instrument cases were always expertly made with great economy of time, effort and words.

Goff himself, though highly skilled as a cabinet-maker, generally concerned himself with the actions, stringing, tuning and voicing. He played very well, both technically and in the sense that he “felt” the music he was playing; the present writer still remembers with affection a magical performance by Thomas Goff of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy. Goff filled his house with musicians, many of whom came regularly to practice. He was not an adventurous maker, he made only three sorts of instrument - a large double-manual harpsichord with a metal frame, a small double-strung chromatic clavichord, and a very small single-strung chromatic clavichord. The decoration varied but not the instruments. Indeed he sought to maintain a high unvarying standard. And to do this he used, for example, a lot of metal templates in the construction. The smallest clavichords had a thin tone and few were made. The larger clavichords were very successful, sounded well and were made in some quantity; they had a pressure plate over the strings and a fairly thick piano-style soundboard barred straight across underneath. The harpsichords, made with pedals, were very complicated, all registers being capable of half as well as full engagement, but they produced relatively little volume for such large instruments.

One of London’s Great Events during the early 1960s was the “Thomas Goff Jamboree” held each year at the Royal Festival Hall. Four Goff harpsichords were lined up on the stage, with harpsichordists Thurston Dart, George Malcolm, Valda Aveling, Geoffrey Parsons and Simon Preston variously taking part. The harpsichordists had enormous fun, bobbing and nodding between themselves while orchestra and conductor struggled to keep pace with them. The repertoire always included Bach’s Concertos for 3 and 4 harpsichords, with perhaps the CPE Bach for 2 harpsichords.

George Malcolm’s Variations on a Theme of Mozart, also performed during these concerts, were composed especially for Thomas Goff’s instruments, to show some fascinating examples of modern stop-changing, including the use of the lute-stop (produced with a damping mechanism), quills, leathers, 8-foot and 4-foot tone. Thomas Goff’s instruments were equipped with anything from 2 to 7 foot-pedals for use in making quick registrations. Stops could also be “half drawn”, allowing subtle changes of volume.

The harpsichord used by Valda Aveling in her recording of Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas, illustrated above, was built by Thomas Goff in 1956 and is based on an instrument of Jacob Kirkman, made in London in 1777. The finish of the woodwork of this instrument is a reminder of the beauties lost to us with the introduction of mass production of most keyboard instruments. The case is veneered with burr walnut and inlaid with ebony and holly, and the keyboard is veneered with burr maple and inlaid with tulip wood and ebony. Great care and craftsmanship has gone into the construction of the instrument, as the richness and variety of tone illustrates. There are two keyboards, seven foot-pedals for registration changes, 4 strings to each note, and 5 Registers: 16’, 8’, and 4 on the lower keyboard; 8’ (leathered) and Lute Stop (quilled) on the upper, with a coupler for the two manuals. The pedals are so arranged that they can be set in a “half” position, which makes it possible to produce a soft effect on each stop.

CDs featuring Thomas Goff Harpsichords.
Click images for full details and music samples.

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas - Valda Aveling
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas
Valda Aveling
George Malcolm Goldberg Variations
Bach: Goldberg Variations
George Malcolm
George Malcolm Bach recital
Bach: Harpsichord Concertos
and solo pieces - George Malcolm

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