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Il Cembalo di Partenope

The 500 year old instrument is one of the earliest harpsichords that has survived the trials of travel and time.

Catalina Vicens, 2016.

Original Instruments

In 2013, Catalina Vicens debuted her solo-recording career with her album of English virginal music called “Parthenia.”  For that program, she played 3 original 16th and 17th century instruments. Now in 2017, Vicens has a new release on the Carpe Diem label, this time playing on a roughly 500 year old Neapolitan harpsichord. This recording grew out of Vicens’ public première of the instrument during the International Conference of the Historical Keyboard Society of North America in 2014.


The 500 year old Renaissance instrument is one of the earliest harpsichords that has survived the trials of travel and time from its origins in Naples to its current housing at the National Music Museum of Vermillion, SD. Many instruments that live in museums are no longer playable, but this one was restored by John Koster, a curator and conservator at the National Music Museum. All things considered, the harpsichord needed only minimal adjustment to bring it up to snuff—namely, Koster removed a second 8’ stop that had been added on sometime in the seventeenth century, he restrung the instrument, and installed a new set of jacks.  In his estimation, these restorations bring the harpsichord close to its original condition.


It is still impossible to know exactly who made the instrument, or to be honest, exactly when, since Neapolitan harpsichord makers weren’t in the habit of signing or dating their work.  But, there is a very similar instrument to the one that Vicens’ plays on this recording. That instrument, housed at the Castello Sforzesco collection in Milan, underwent dendrochronological (tree-ring) analysis of its soundboard and was dated to circa 1525. The two twin instruments—the one in South Dakota and the one in Milan–are thought to have been built by the same maker at about the same time in Naples.

Early Keyboard Publications

Naturally, Vicens’ program centers on the music of Renaissance Italy, and even more specifically Naples, music from the same time and place as the harpsichord on which she performs. The Gagliarda Napolitana played on this recording was published in 1576 Antonio Valente’s ‘Intavolatura de Cimbalo’ (1576) the earliest collection of harpsichord music printed in Naples.   Vicens also plays several pieces from an even earlier Roman print, Andrea Antico’s Frottole Intabulate of 1517. This is the first keyboard music published in the whole of Italy and includes keyboard arrangements, or intabulations, of vocal works by Bartolomeo Tromboncino and Marchetto Cara.


In addition to the specialness of this historical instrument, and the beauty of the repertory, Catalina Vicens adds a literary element to her recording project by including a fanciful tale that she has written in her CD booklet. Titled Il Cembalo di Partenope (Partenope was a siren in Greek mythology, and subsequently the patroness of Naples) the drama begins as Catalina, exhausted from travel lays her head on the edge of the harpsichord and drifts into dreamland.  Some listeners will be delighted by this tale, while others may find Vicens’ music more compelling than her words.  In either case, the imaginative narrative provides a window into Vicens’  very personal engagement with her music and with the instrument on which she performs. The story, narrated by Vicens herself, is also available for download here as an audio book from Carpe Diem’s website. 

Janelle Davis

Janelle Davis is a violinist and performer with period instrument ensembles throughout the United States. She is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington where she specializes in early music.

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