The Parish of Saint Matthew: The Episcopal Church of Pacific Palisades


The Phillips Bitting Memorial Harpsichord

Phillips Bitting Memorial HarpsichordShortly after the death of William Faulkner Bitting in October 1995, a fund was established to suitably memorialize Will through philanthropic gifts to Saint Matthew’s and other institutions and organizations close to his heart.

Will’s life-long love for and involvement in the arts (painting, poetry and music), and his association with Saint Matthew’s since infancy, led to a desire on the part of his family and close friends to remember him with a permanent expression of their love which would recall many aspects of Will’s artistic personality. For centuries, one way of combining several art forms has been in the building of finely crafted and decorated keyboard instruments, particularly harpsichords.

The harpsichord (Opus 73) by one of America’s premier builders, John Phillips of Berkeley, brings together many aspects of Will Bitting’s personality: painting – in the form of beautiful lid and soundboard decorations (including representation of mementos from Will’s life and work); poetry – in a scroll and writer’s quill on the soundboard containing the name “William Faulkner Bitting”; and, of course, music – with a superbly crafted two-manual harpsichord in the tradition of the fine Parisian Franco-Flemish instruments of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

John Phillips is internationally recognized for his extraordinary instruments which are routinely placed in university music departments, churches, private residences and museums such as the Smithsonian.

After much thought, prayer and consultation with John Phillips, it was decided that the church would commission a two-manual Ruckers-Taskin instrument from the Phillips shop.

Describing the Ruckers-Taskin instruments, the New Grove Dictionary says, “they acquired a caressing quality unknown in the instruments of other builders. In Taskin’s instruments, the treble became even sweeter and more caressing, the bass even more sonorous and velvety, and (especially with the addition of the peau de buffle register) there are more subtly different tone-colours, each of great beauty, than in the instruments of any other maker. In a sense, this extraordinary beauty of sound can present problems to the performer, since the instrument frequently seems to call attention to itself rather than to act primarily as a vehicle for the projection of music; these are magnificent harpsichords.”

From the beginning, the thought was to incorporate some of Will’s art into the decorations – no small matter, considering the abstract nature of Will’s painting. How could it be integrated into an instrument built on 18th century French models?

Janine Johnson, Phillips’ co-builder , chose a traditional approach to the lid and soundboard painting but integrated personal aspects of Will and Will’s art into it. The lid painting, for example, features what looks like beautiful but typical chinoiserie. On closer examination, however, one discovers all manner of bizarre insects, embryonic creatures and even a small portrait of Will. The soundboard painting likewise uses a typical floral approach, but many of the flowers have a story to tell, related personally to Will. In addition, Johnson added Will’s dog and cat, along with some fanciful bluebells whose buds are actually miniature representations of Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” one of Will’s favorite paintings.


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