Obituary: Morton Gould, engineer who became a renowned maker of harpsichords

Died: July 12, 2021.

MORTON Gould’s parents realised their young son was different the day he almost blew up their home with gunpowder.

It wasn’t that the little boy was trying to destroy the family home in Edinburgh’s Liberton. He had an intense curiosity about how things worked. And on that particular day, his overly industrious fingers – and imagination – simply wanted to work out how explosives functioned.

His gunpowder experiments happened to take place next to a roaring fine. Thankfully, all he destroyed was the living room.

Morton Gould’s innate curiosity, however, was to see him excel in two very different areas.

He would go on to become a leading engineer, working for multinationals such as ICI, William Crawford & Co and Metal Box. He would also go on to build harpsichords, earning the soubriquet of “Glasgow’s Mr Harpsichord” from this newspaper’s music critic, Michael Tumelty. Indeed, Gould found himself the front-runner in a very lucrative niche market indeed.

How did the master craftsman move from a career in engineering to becoming one of the best harpsichord makers in the business? “Morton loved engineering,” says his son-in-law, Peter Scott. “He wanted to know how things worked. But music was his real passion.”

Morton Gould’s parents – his father was a clerk of court and his mother a legal secretary – brought up their children, Morton, Bryce and Ruth, to be captivated by music. His father was an organist and young Morton learned to play piano while at George Heriot’s School. Still in short trousers, he was awarded the Gold Medal.

But he didn’t envisage a future career as a professional pianist. “For some reason, Morton thought his hands were too small. This was, of course, nonsense” adds Peter.

At Edinburgh University Gould chose to study mechanical engineering, such was his need to understand component parts. And life and career fitted together neatly. In 1951, while working for ICI in Ardeer (an explosives plant, appropriately enough) he met the “the love of his life”, Janetta McDonald, at a church choir in Saltcoats.

It was instant harmony. Janetta was also a pianist who went on to become a well-known composer of Scottish music. And the marriage produced three daughters, Elaine, Valerie and Carol, all of them talented musicians in their own right. Elaine is a concert pianist, Valerie is a cellist in a chamber orchestra and Carol, also a concert pianist, and now an airline pilot.

Meantime, Gould’s career as a chief engineer progressed in different cities in England and Scotland over the next 20-plus years. But in 1975 a life-changing redundancy from a senior management position with Ross Plastics saw Gould re-evaluate his life.

“I’m scunnered”, he declared at the time, of working with big business. And so, he re-trained at Jordanhill College as a school music teacher. The simple plan was “to pay the mortgage” but the part of the Gould brain that loved to take apart, to build, was not made redundant at all.

His wife was a harpsichord player, a lover of baroque music, and when Gould noted the resurgence in popularity of the instrument, he decided to make one. And soon the master engineer’s harpsichords were in demand.

Gould sold harpsichords to individuals, he built them for colleges and conservatoires. He created his own fleet for hire. “He made quite a lot of money,” says his son-in-law. “He would charge £15,000 per instrument, and because they were so delicate, they needed regular re-tuning, which Morton carried out.”

One of Morton’s harpsichords was bought by the author and television presenter Magnus Magnusson, a childhood friend

He and Janetta were so passionate about the instrument that in 1990, with sponsorship from Glasgow Caledonian University, they masterminded a harpsichord festival as part of Glasgow’s Year of Culture. It was a massive success.

The Complete Harpsichord was staged at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, and featured no fewer than 28 antique or reproduction harpsichords. “Glasgow’s Mr Harpsichord, Morton Gould, will be there with his chisel and vice and cross-section of a harpsichord to show you how the machine is built”, observed this newspaper.

Two years later, Gould wound down the construction side of the harpsichord business and sold on the hiring and maintenance side. But still he loved to build, and as a hobby he turned his attention to making “huge” model aeroplanes.

Meantime, he and Janetta, having downsized to a flat in Renfrew, enjoyed their retirement years touring the world, visiting Russia, Egypt, Sicily, Iceland, Norway and the Arctic Circle,

But the music-mad Morton Gould – in later years he sang with the choir at Paisley Abbey – wasn’t allowed to play out the remainder of his life as he would have hoped.

By 2006, he was beginning to display the effects of dementia. The mind which was once as sharp and taut as piano wire was beginning to fail. “He couldn’t remember ever having built a harpsichord,” says Peter Scott, “although in his final years he could still play from memory snatches of the piano music learnt in his youth.”

Janetta Gould was still mentally alert but physically frail and the couple left their flat to live in the Newton House Care Home, where they celebrated their platinum wedding. But this teetotal, unassuming man “died quietly and peacefully in his sleep”.

Morton Gould wasn’t successful with his early gunpowder experiments. But he could take huge comfort from having exploded, as it were, the harpsichord onto the Scottish music scene. Today, his instruments are still in use across Scotland, in private homes and in world-class academic institutions.

“He was a giant in the world of early music,” said Peter. Yet, those who knew him will prefer to remember a man of modest stature, the devoted family man, the brilliant engineer and the outstanding musician who truly became “Glasgow’s Mr Harpsichord.”

Morton Gould, one of the last professional harpsichord makers in Scotland, is survived by his wife and daughters, one granddaughter and one great granddaughter.


The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992