The Recorder – A journey through the valley’s musical past: an Amherst native restores a viol built two centuries ago in a town below Quabbin Reservoir

Most people familiar with local history know the basics of the story: how Enfield and three other towns in the Swift River Valley were stripped and flooded in the late 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir.

Now a reminder of Enfield’s ghostly past has surfaced in the form of a 206-year-old viol built by resident Benjamin R. Harwood in 1816 – and with this ancient instrument some light shines on a musical tradition too. early New Zealand. England, of which relatively little is known.

To add yet another wrinkle to an unusual story, the viol was discovered stuck in the middle of the basement joists in an old house in Detroit, of all places. And now a native of the valley who is also an early music specialist, performer and educator is having the instrument restored, in hopes he can start playing it by next summer.

Loren Ludwig, 45, who grew up in Amherst and now lives in Baltimore, has been playing a variety of viols for years, a tradition he started as a teenager when he started performing at the Amherst Early Music Festival, which has been held for years in the summer. at Amherst College but this year staged in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Broadly speaking, viols are stringed instruments somewhat similar to cellos, violins, and violas, but all of which are held between a musician’s legs or on the lap and played upright like a cello. They also have different backs and an overall softer tone; they were particularly popular in Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque era before classical music moved to larger venues, in turn requiring a greater volume of cellos and violins.

But Ludwig says there’s a rich history of viols built in New England in the late 18th century and early parts of the 19th century and used in a variety of musical contexts, from church services to community dances to family reunions.

Finding one that came from a town that is now under water and was then hidden in the basement joists of a house over 600 miles away “kinda defies belief”, he said in a recent phone interview.

“It survived the ravages of time, weather, transportation,” Ludwig said. “And it’s in pretty good shape overall, although it needs a fair amount of repair.” The viol is now repaired by Sarah Peck, a violin and viol maker and restorer in Philadelphia.

A rare pearl

Ludwig, who graduated from Amherst Regional High School in 1995, has collected a number of restored viols over the past 10 years, including one made by a Northampton man, Myron Kidder, in the 19th century. But this particular instrument, a tenor viol, is quite rare: only 20 to 30 of them are known to exist in the United States, he says.

He first discovered the viol about a year ago through his relationship with Darcy Kuronen, for years curator of musical instruments at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Kuronen told him that he had been contacted by an owner in Detroit who had discovered an old instrument in his basement and was trying to find out its origins.

Ludwig made contact with the Detroit owner, and while visiting his brother in Ann Arbor, Michigan in March, he traveled to Detroit to examine the viol.

“As soon as I saw it, I got really excited,” he said. “It was exactly the panacea I was looking for.”

A label on the inside of the instrument stated that it had been built by Benjamin R. Harwood in 1816 in Enfield – but that was it, with no mention of where that town might have been.

But Ludwig, who did extensive musical research in online and physical archives, quickly found links between “Enfield” and “Benjamin R. Harwood” that pointed to the old town of Enfield, Massachusetts, which coincidentally has was incorporated in 1816 from parts of Belchertown and the ancient town of Greenwich – another of the villages which disappeared under the Quabbin.

“It became pretty obvious that was where the viol was built,” Ludwig said. “All the pieces started to fit together.”

Further research has determined that Benjamin R. Harwood (1794-1858) was one of eight children of Benjamin Harwood (1766-1852), who hosted the first Enfield Town meeting in 1816.

Ludwig, who studied the viola da gamba at Oberlin College and later earned a doctorate in critical and comparative musical studies at the University of Virginia, is still trying to figure out when the Harwood viola made its way to Michigan. In 1858 he was still in Massachusetts, as he discovered that a George E. Knowles of Leicester made a somewhat crude repair of the instrument that year; Knowles wrote his name and the date in pencil on the inside of the viol.

One of Ludwig’s goals is to restore the viol as close to its original state as possible. To do this, he and Peck attempt to find out what types of wood were used in its construction, in part by examining a few fragments of the instrument under high magnification.

Of particular interest to him is how the project sheds light on how viols were constructed in early New England, in a way that he says was “totally different from the way which they were made in Europe”.

New England viol makers “lived mostly in rural areas and lacked access to the tools, resources and traditions of European makers,” he said. “They were looking to solve problems in a new way…it really is a classic case of Yankee ingenuity.”

Additionally, he learns more about the type of music viols were used for in early New England and where they would have been played. He notes that in the 18th century they were introduced to church services to provide a basis for the singing of the psalms; the Harwood viol is said to have been played in the Enfield Congregational Church, built in 1787, he says.

But in the 19th century, viols were also used in community music performances, he says, in which classical instruments like viols were combined with violins played in a more folksy style to create what he calls a “tradition notated folk”, in which players both improvised and worked with earlier forms of sheet music.

“It’s a fascinating time and really a forgotten tradition,” said Ludwig, who has been studying this period of ensemble music for some time.

And although he has spent years hiking around Quabbin Reservoir in the past and knows the story of its creation, “I don’t know if I could have named any of the towns. who have disappeared below.” Digging into Enfield’s history this year “has been a great experience”, he said.

Earlier this summer, in fact, Ludwig toured the area and stopped by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, the Swift River Valley Historical Society in New Salem, and the Jones Library Special Collections in Amherst.

Now, to have acquired an instrument made so close to where he grew up, he said, “seems like such a wonderful moment in cultural and musical history.”

More information about Loren Ludwig and his work can be found at

Contact Steve Pfarrer at
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