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The American Musical Instrument Society


The Curt Sachs Award 2005

Grant O'Brien

Grant O’BrienGrant O’Brien, the foremost authority on the harpsichords of the Ruckers family and a leading specialist in the history of early keyboard instruments in general, was born on June 12, 1940, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He studied at the University of Alberta, from which he received the degrees of B.Sc. (Hons.) in physics in 1962 and M.Sc. in nuclear physics in 1966, with a thesis on the 2-2-0 positron decay state in Promethium 146. From 1964 to 1971 he was a Physics Instructor at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton, interrupted in 1966-1968 for a time in Edinburgh, Scotland, as Physics master at Fettes College, where one of his students was Tony Blair. In 1971 he returned permanently to Edinburgh and worked for several years as a self-employed harpsichord maker and restorer.

In 1974 O’Brien became Assistant Curator of the Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments at the University of Edinburgh and served as its Curator/Director from 1983 until his retirement in 2004. He received the degree of Ph.D. in organology from the University of Edinburgh in 1983. For the book based on his thesis, Ruckers:  A Harpsichord and Virginal Building Tradition, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1990, the American Musical Instrument Society awarded O’Brien the 1993 Nicholas Bessaraboff Prize. From 1988, O’Brien was a member of the Music Faculty of the University of Edinburgh, where he taught the history of keyboard instruments and fostered much impressive research by his students. He also conducted annual courses in Italy on harpsichord making and restoration. In 1996 the Ateneo di Brescia named him Honorary Fellow and Socio Corrispondente for his work on the sixteenth-century Brescian virginal and harpsichord builder Gianfrancesco Antegnati.  Further recognition came in 2000, when the Galpin Society awarded him its Anthony Baines Memorial Prize.

In addition to his curatorial and educational activities, O’Brien has served extensively as a consultant to public and private collections of musical instruments from the United Kingdom to Italy, Scandinavia, and South America. A leading voice for the preservation of historical instruments, he has done much restoration work, but only when this has not contravened the goal of conservation. He has also made outstanding new harpsichords and virginals in the Flemish and Italian styles. After publication of his book on the Ruckers, early Italian keyboard instruments became O’Brien’s principal research interest, with particular reference to the local units of measurement used in their design and construction.  He frequently presents his findings in papers read at conferences and articles published in the leading journals. A list of his publications follows, and much further information about O’Brien and his past and current activities can be found on his personal website,

O’Brien’s scientific background is always evident in his research, which is invariably carefully conceived and meticulously executed and presented. He has stated that “One of my main objectives in my career as an organologist has been to put the ‘-ology’ into organology, and therefore to make it a truly scientific field of study with its own methodology, precise terminology, inductive processes and logical conclusions.” Grant O’Brien has fulfilled these goals in exemplary fashion and will surely continue to make fundamentally important contributions to our field.

John Koster, Chair
The Curt Sachs Award Committee

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