Harpsichord Bass
Harpsichord treble

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Reproduction of George Washington's 1793

Longman & Broderip 2-Manual Harpsichord

Mount Vernon Harpsichord Mount Vernon Harpsichord

Photos by Jason Copes, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Subsequent conservation included removing the added diagonal brace from the stand and replacing the original casters.



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Project Essentials

Client and owner of the original instrument:

George Washington's Mount Vernon (visit website)

Objective:

(1) Make a thorough examination of the 1793 original producing comprehensive drawings and notes about its design and evidence of construction methods.
(2) Make a working replica of the instrument.

Status & Timeline

• Phase 1 (completed): Examination, documentation, and minor stabilization conservation of the original instrument. This was completed by August 2016 by John Watson in the Instruments Conservation Lab at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF). The instrument went on temporary exhibit in CWF's Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum on completion of that phase.
• Phase 2 (in progress): Reproduction of the harpsichord (see acknowledgements for project staffing). Work began in early 2017 and is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018.

Project Partners

• Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for exhibiting the original harpsichord, assistance with analysis, and continuing cooperation with the replication process.

Acknowledgements

• The project was made possible with funding from the Life Guard Society of Historic Mount Vernon. Other donors include The Stella Boyle Smith Trust, The Brown Foundation, Inc., Deborah McManus, J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc., Dr. J. Phillip London and Dr. Jennifer Burkhart London, James and Pamela Penny, Rose M. Gunthorpe, and Heather Karen Hunt.
• Project Staff: John Watson, project conservator and principle harpsichord maker; Kevin Clancy, blacksmith; John (Jay) Gamble, fabrication assistant. Website design and photography by John Watson except where noted. Additional photography by Jay Gamble and Linda Baumgarten.
• Mount Vernon staff, especially Dr. Susan Schoelwer, Senior Curator; Carol Cadou, Senior VP Historic Preservation & Collections; Jesse MacLeod, Associate Curator;
• Research collaborators: Joyce Lindorff, Steven Mallory, David Hildebrand.
• Special thanks to instrument makers Tom & Barbara Wolf for providing soundboard & pin block material & consulting.

Introductory Blog and Video (20 min.) - courtesy J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc.



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About the Original Instrument

In 1793, George Washington acquired a large harpsichord for his step grand-daughter, fourteen-year-old Eleanor Parke Custis (“Nelly”) who he and Martha raised as their own. Nelly had already been provided a square piano and had received piano lessons from the celebrated composer and performer Alexander Reinagle. Of the several musical instruments that graced Mount Vernon, none was more grand or impressive than the imposing two-manual harpsichord.

The instrument had been ordered from Longman & Broderip, the largest firm of music merchants in London. It arrived at the executive mansion in Philadelphia around the midpoint of George Washington’s presidency and moved with the family when they returned to Mount Vernon.

The harpsichord is remarkable for its musical gadgetry, and shows the lingering importance of harpsichords during a time when the piano was rapidly ascending as the dominant stringed keyboard instrument. Washington’s harpsichord was eventually moved to Arlington House, the home of Nelly’s younger brother. His daughter, who inherited Arlington along with the harpsichord, married Robert E. Lee and eventually saw to the instrument’s return to Mount Vernon where it remained until its temporary loan for the Changing Keys exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg.

The instrument shows how sophisticated the largest harpsichords had become at the culmination of their eighteenth century heyday. Built at a time when the piano was already overtaking the harpsichord as the most popular stringed keyboard instrument, the Mount Vernon example’s many gadgets for changing the sound were efforts to keep up with changing tastes. Hand stops control three sets of strings (two at normal pitch and one an octave higher) and a pedal gives the ability to change several stops at once. A buff stop makes a softer sound as if plucking the strings of a guitar, while another stop plucks the strings very near the ends to create a more nasal tone. A second pedal operates a “Venetian swell.” Pressing it opens a set of louvers like Venetian blinds, enabling the player to crescendo or decrescendo; a feat more naturally achievable on a piano. Indeed, the desire to create variations of volume would find its full expression in the piano, and by the end of the 1790s, harpsichords would no longer be produced in any quantity until their popularity surged once again in the twentieth century.

For More Information

  • Many excellent photos and details about the original 1793 harpsichord can be found in the Digital Collections on the website of George Washington's Mount Vernon.
  • See also the entry in Mount Vernon's online encyclopedia about George Washington and Music.
  • A detailed history of music in the Washington household was written by Judith S. Britt in 1984. Nothing more agreeable: music in George Washington's family. Mount Vernon, Va: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union.

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Photo Galleries — Project Phases

In-depth Examination and Documentation

While the original Mount Vernon harpsichord was entrusted to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) Department of Conservation, and in the final six weeks of my employment there, I examined the Mount Vernon harpsichord, disassembling it as much as reasonably possible without breaking glue seams. With valuable assistance from my conservation colleagues at CWF I identified materials, measured all components, and studied evidence of the original construction. Internal clues included pencil markings, scribe lines, tool marks, glue runs, and signs of wear and early use. While making the reproduction, I have made dozens of follow-up visits to the harpsichord to re-examine details as questions arise.



Making the Jacks

The jacks are the mechanical heart of the harpsichord. They hold the pieces of leather that pluck the strings, and of all the hundreds of parts in a harpsichord, they demand the highest level of precision and workmanship to work reliably. There are 244 jacks in the instrument, each consisting of only two main parts: a jack body of pearwood and a tongue of holly wood. There is also a hand-formed staple of tinned brass and a spring of boar's bristle. Each jack requires many steps to make.


Making the Keyboards

The keyboards are the "user interface" for the musician. This harpsichord has two keyboards of the standard late eighteenth-century compass of five octaves FF-f3. The keys rest on a keyframe and are guided by tinned brass pins. The limewood for these key levers was imported from England. It is slightly denser than basswood, which is the more common wood used for keyboards in America. The original keyboard has ivory naturals, and we have substituted bone. The sharps are solid ebony.


Bending the Bentside

The harpsichord's curved side is called the bentside. It is a hefty, 13 inch wide plank of 3/4-inch thick oak. The curved half was boiled for 45 minutes in a 55-gallon drum and bent over a shaped form and the bentside left to dry for a month. Photos and a video in this album show the process. Jay Gamble assisted during the preparation and bending process.


Parts I

Various parts are made including—in this group—the tuning pin block, the music desk, and the trestle stand.


Making the Case

The cases of virtually all late eighteenth-century English harpsichords are made of solid oak, then covered with decorative and sometimes figured veneers. Here we cut dovetails into the oak sides, veneer any interior surfaces, and assemble the case with glue. Structural framing inside prepares the case to withstand thousands of pounds of string tension.


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Q & A

 The Mount Vernon harpsichord arrived at a time when pianos were rapidly replacing them as the domestic keyboard instrument of choice. People often assume that harpsichord makers were in a desperate struggle to survive the relentlessly growing popularity of pianos. The first problem with that theory is that harpsichord makers were perfectly capable to make whichever instrument the market demanded and most made both types.
 Instead of a competition between instrument types, it seems more likely that the makers of both types were evolving their designs to serve the changing musical tastes of the period. For harpsichords, that meant the addition of pedals, machine stops, and venetian swells. The Mount Vernon example is unusual and perhaps unique for the period, employing leather plectra for all four registers. Leather was thought to be more touch sensitive than conventional bird-quill plectra. All of these affects enabled this harpsichord to change its volume more gradually than harpsichords are normally capable of. The reason pianos eventually eclipsed harpsichords was simply that they—pianos—could deliver continual nuances of volume without the expensive gadgetry on which the Mount Vernon harpsichord relied.
 This provocative question is the compelling reason why we are so eager to hear the (reconstructed) Mount Vernon harpsichord, especially alongside a square piano of the same era. It is tempting to think the transition to piano was a toggle switch rendering the old harpsichord obsolete as soon as a piano became available. Not so at Mount Vernon.
 This particular 1790s household is remarkably well documented. We have Nelly's music books, we know much about her famed piano teachers, we have documentary evidence of her square piano by Dodds of New York, and we have the actual harpsichord that superseded it. Yes, mention of the piano disappeared from family papers after 1796 while references to the harpsichord continued until 1825. Our phenomenal opportunity is to resurrect a vignette in musical history that actually existed and illuminates a little-understood transitional period.
 There may also have been non-musical influences arguing for the choice of a harpsichord. It could have been a serendipitous chance for a good price, or a subjective preference for the harpsichord sound on the part of G.W. or his young charge, or the favoring of fossilized forms in auspicious and formal settings (think tuxedos and long dresses for weddings and Greek columns for the most imposing civic architecture).
 There is no evidence the Mount Vernon harpsichord remained playable after 1825 when Nelly reported its last known use by her own children. Could the instrument be restored to playing condition today? Of course it could and its excellent state of preservation would make such a project relatively easy to undertake. But more would be lost than gained. The harpsichord is one of the best preserved examples of its type in the world. The leather plectra (the pickers that pluck the strings), many of the strings, and even the cloth dampers are original. These parts would be the first to go in a restoration, yet they are exceptionally rare survivals and of great interest to keyboard historians.
 The materials required for the reproduction such as wood, leather cloth, and various metals, and the human touch that shapes them each vary too much to make an absolutely identical copy. It is possible, however, to make an instrument that varies from the original only as much as any two examples from the same workshop would differ. We can hope that if the original makers were to see our reproduction, they would agree it looks, sounds, and feels like one of theirs. But there are some necessary compromises. We are using bone instead of ivory for the keys. Few can tell the difference even up close. We might get the precise colors of the now-faded marquetry slightly wrong since we can only guess what the original colors were. One of the most important determinants of the instrument's sound are the leather plectra but we cannot know how similar our leather is to theirs or how they voiced the instrument. We are using the same species of wood for the all-important soundboard, and will contour its thickness very like the original, but in all of these details we must rely on our best educated guess and intuition to reconstruct the musical ideal they worked to achieve.
 An early theory pointed to L&B's biggest (though not their only) supplier. Thomas Culliford & Co. had a major contract to supply spinets, harpsichords, and pianos exclusively through L&B. Absent any other evidence, Culliford would be the most likely candidate.
 Then a 1996 refinishing of the exterior of the harpsichord turned up an informal pencil inscription inside on the bottom boards. It read, "Hamilton Harpsichord...". Was Hamilton the maker? It is highly unlikely that any maker skilled enough to create this complex instrument would leave no other documentary evidence of being a harpsichord maker at that time. Instead, Hamilton could have been the music merchant by that name who was in London, perhaps acting as a middle-man.
 The most compelling evidence for the harpsichord's actual maker comes from another inscription. This one is on a key lever and says only "Gray." It was common for journeymen in keyboard workshops to add their own name on the component in which they had a major hand. Our own recent research revealed that Gray worked for Culliford where he signed at least one other L&B harpsichord, an 1785 example that is also informally signed "Culliford & Co."
 The habit of over-simplifying history may have tamed an otherwise impossibly complex past, but our knowledge of this period is now solid enough to comprehend it in a more nuanced way. In the history of keyboard musical instruments, the big news in the late 18th century has been the emergence of the piano. Hence attention has focused primarily on the developing piano since—it was believed—the harpsichord was a fossil of an earlier era.
 That over-simplified belief eclipsed a fascinating story about the harpsichord of the 1780s and '90s, which continued to evolve to suit the new musical tastes. We might have gotten interested in late 18th-century English harpsichords sooner were it not for two other factors.
 First was the popular belief during the Early Music revival that England was a second-rate musical culture, lacking the full roster of native-born celebrity composers found in continental countries. This was due to attitudes within eighteenth-century British culture that music-making was a worthy pastime as long as it was only a passtime and not a career: For any young man aspiring to be a productive member of the gentry, too much skill in music was a warning sign that too much time had been spent with diversions and not enough time being "industrious." For more about that, see Music and image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England (Richard Leppert, Cambridge University Press, 1988) A rarely noticed byproduct of that bias was that British Society was optimized for the high-volume manufacturing of exquisite musical instruments for marketing worldwide.
 The second accident of musical history that caused blindness to late 18th-century English harpsichords was their use of pedals for changing stops, swell mechanisms, and occasionally, leather plectra. These elements made harpsichords of this historical tradition guilty by association as they were also characteristics of the now-discredited early-to-mid 20th-century "revival" harpsichords. In the early decades of the revival, harpsichords were often fitted with stop-changing pedals and hard leather plectra not to accurately copy period examples but to give the basic historical harpsichord the "benefit" of a century or so of technology they missed out on. We are ready now to revisit the pre-revival English harpsichord to see how these late 18th-century technologies were used to add expressive possibilities for the then-current music.
 That the makers of this harpsichord clearly thought leather would be an improvement is the most interesting question of all. Our strong hypothesis is that it was yet another way the late pre-revival harpsichords adapted to the musical taste of the day. That taste demanded more variation and nuance of volume. If leather was more touch-sensitive than quill, it would explain its use. Until we get to explore the possibilities on the reproduction, we can rely on a period source. In its entry on the French maker Pascal Taskin, Diderot's Encyclopedia (1768) praised the use of soft leather plectra for allowing the player to control volume by how hard or soft the keys are pressed. Just how touch-sensitive leather plectra can be compared to quill, and just how soft the original leather is an interesting part of our current research.

 We are in the early stages of exploring the sound and playing characteristics of the leather plectra in the Mount Vernon harpsichord. Although the original plectra survive intact, it is impossible to fully know its type, tanning process, softness, and musical effect. Here is what we do know so far: The leather is in two layers: a thin layer over a much thicker layer. In that respect, the Mount Vernon plectra are consistent with two other surviving harpsichords that still had original, 2-ply leather at the time John Barnes wrote about them in the 2001 Galpin Society Journal. Both of those harpsichords, however, had only one register voiced in leather. Mount Vernon is the only known period example with leather plectra throughout.
  Whether the now very old and weakened Mount Vernon leather was similar or much softer than that typically used in revival harpsichords is not yet certain, but it seems most likely it was softer. John Barnes called the leather in the other known examples "buff" which implies a soft to very soft leather. The thinner top layer of leather would have a major impact on the musical affect. This research will be ongoing, but will have to rely on a little intuition and much testing of variety of leathers in a process known as "applied research" or "experimental archaeology".

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© 2018 by John R. Watson
All images © 2018 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. All rights Reserved