Hand-crafted harpsichord now enriching college music department

Doug Brothers, a physics professor at Benedictine College in Atchison since 1968, assembled a harpsichord made of birch wood from a kit. It boasts 17 coats of varnish. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JD BENNING

by Olivia Martin
olivia.martin@theleaven.org

ATCHISON — Thousands.

That’s how many pieces Doug Brothers assembled in the basement of his home in 1972 to make a full-sized, functioning harpsichord.

And it took about six months to complete.

But beyond being an intricate, handcrafted instrument, the harpsichord is a gift and a sign of lasting love.

In 2017, Brothers, a physics professor at Benedictine College in Atchison since 1968, and his wife, Betsy, donated the harpsichord to the music department at Benedictine College.

And it has become even more precious since Betsy’s passing in February.

Where it began

But why a harpsichord?

That’s easy, assured Brothers. It all started with a love of music and a love of his wife.

“I liked harpsichord music,” he said. “I stayed in a private home during graduate school [and] I bought harpsichord records and I played them until my landlady . . . asked me to stop!”

Luckily, he met Betsy, a fellow music-lover; she didn’t mind the tinny- sounding instrument.

So, later, when they were married, Brothers offered to put his woodworking skills to the test. 

“My wife played the piano,” he said, “[so] I asked her if she would play the [harpsichord] if I built it.”

She took him up on it, and Brothers went to work.

Assembled from a kit, the harpsichord is made of birch wood and boasts 17 coats of varnish — it’s as smooth as glass.

Indeed, it is a piece of woodworking mastery.

Eventually, however, the harpsichord was played less and less. So, Brothers and Betsy decided to offer it to Benedictine’s music department.

A continuing gift

For Ruth Krusmark, recently retired chair of Benedictine’s music department, the donation was welcome on a couple of levels.

“On one level, it’s very nice to have an instrument that predates the piano,” said Krusmark.

“The harpsichord is basically the father of the piano,” she continued, “so it’s great for our students to be able to rehearse and perform on [it]. . . because we [are] able to do Bach cantatas and other early works that are more appropriate to the harpsichord.” 

On another level, the gift was made even more meaningful by the givers themselves.

“It has more than symbolic value,” said Abbot Barnabas Senecal, OSB. “[And] it’s better than any plaque on the wall; it’s something people will see as generations pass.

“There’s a memory built around it.”

Krusmark agreed.

“It was just great to have a donation from [Brothers],” she said. “At one point, he told me he and Betsy never had children, but [the harpsichord] was like his child, [something] he built from scratch.”

As for Brothers, knowing the harpsichord is being put to good use is a comfort, especially as he grieves his wife.

“Her death has affected me tremendously,” he said. “[But] it’s been a great thing to give [the harpsichord] to the school and see that it’s being used.”

And he continues to find support from Benedictine alumni and colleagues and friends from his wife’s parish of St. Francis de Sales in Lansing.

“I’m very blessed by the connections I have through the parish, even though it’s not mine,” said Brothers. “I was raised without a faith . . . [but] I’m starting to see that I need it.”

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