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Michael Thomas (Clavichord, Harpsichord)

Born: November 1, 1922 - Cambridge, England
Died: 1997

The English clavichordist and harpsichordist, Michael Thomas, received piano lessons from his musical mother, leading, in his formative years to playing the organ, study at the Guildhall School of Music, and lessons with Paul Hamburger, Dorothy Swainson and Mary Potts. From these roots sprang his lifelong devotion to the clavichord, and though he was no mean performer on the harpsichord, it was his clavichord recitals and recordings which marked him as a most sensitive master of the instrument. He loved to play in public.

Michael Thomas was a pioneer in his instrument building, believing that the instruments of the classical period should be his exemplars rather than the heavily built harpsichords of the early revivalist makers. Accordingly, the sound of his instruments was authentic and beautiful. The secret of his success lay in his extensive knowledge of soundboard construction and design. For many years he probably knew more about soundboards than any other maker. Nevertheless, he was always generous in imparting the 'trade secrets' to others, and it was this knowledge, and his flair for teaching, which made him so successful in the setting up in the early 1970's of a course in early stringed keyboard instruments at the London College of Furniture. This has proved so popular that is has now developed into a three-year honours degree course, providing the fundamental training for many present-day makers.

During this time the Thomas family, wife June and children Andrew, Alison and Catherine, lived with the instrument collection at Hurley Manor in Berkshire, where those with a genuine interest in early music were always welcome. A similar informal atmosphere existed at the Harpsichord Centre in Chiltern Street, London, where old and new instruments jostled each other for space, all marked with his endearing, but luckily non-Hoover-proof, trademark of a pile of cigarette ash at the ends of the keywell. Michael Thomas' knowledge of harpsichord design owed much to his flair for close study of the old instruments, which he bought and sold.

Over the years his collection varied in size and quality, although it was centred on a small nucleus of instruments, which he kept for his own use. His generosity in lending these instruments was well known. In 1991 a number of his instruments were acquired by the Bate Collection at Oxford University, thereby enhancing their keyboard collection, so that it now contains superb examples of all the main schools of building. Michael had hoped to use the collection for teaching at Oxford, but the distance of the instruments from his then home at Château Saussines in France made this infeasible. At Saussines with his partner Pauline MacSweeney and sons Eoin and Alex, he still maintained an interesting collection of instruments in a delightful setting, where, as always, visitors were welcomed by a reformed Michael, who, much to everyone's surprise, had renounced smoking.

Source: Obituary in Early Music (August 1997, Author: Charles Mould)
Contributed by
Peter Smalley, Salisbury (November 2009)

Michael Thomas: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

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Last update: żNovember 6, 2009 ż14:42:18