Building the Replica Harpsichord
For over two and a half years John Watson, Conservator of Early Keyboard Instruments, worked to create a replica of Nelly Custis's 1793 Longman & Broderip 2-Manual Harpsichord.
Harpsichords date back to the mid-16th century, long before the piano. By the time of George Washington’s birth there were two such keyboard instruments at times called harpsichord and were popular among the upper class in colonial America. While both created sound by plucking strings, the smaller and less expensive version, known as a spinet, first appears at Mount Vernon in 1761 for the use of young Martha "Patsy" Parke Custis, presumably under the tutelage of Martha Washington. Along with instruction in French, dancing and needlework, music lessons were a necessary part of education for the wealthiest children in colonial America.
But the true harpsichord, sometimes called grand harpsichord, was the complete fashion statement of the colonial elite. Unlike the single manual, single-strung spinet, it was considerably larger and had two manuals and three sets of strings, plus also extra features like the machine stop and Venetian louvers—accessories required for the new harpsichord Washington ordered for young Nelly Custis.
Now, at Mount Vernon reside two very lovely, and essentially identical harpsichords, one old and one new, constructed some 225 years apart. Only the newer one can be heard, however. The older harpsichord was delivered first to the presidential house in Philadelphia in 1793, where young Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis practiced and played and sang for family and official guests. At the end of Washington’s second term as president, along with the other household furnishings, Nelly’s Longman & Broderip “grand” harpsichord first arrived at Mount Vernon in 1797. There it resounded in the little music room through the passing of Nelly’s step-grandfather and through the first years of her marriage to Lawrence Lewis in early 1799. The Lewis’s moved in 1802 to Woodlawn a few miles away, taking this instrument with them. In 1839, and it is unclear by then just how playable this instrument was, it went to Arlington. Nelly died in 1852. In 1859 the harpsichord became the first family item to be returned to Mount Vernon after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) was formed and purchased the mansion and estate.
In 2015, this harpsichord not having been in playable condition for approximately 150 years, the MVLA wisely came upon a plan to move this handsome instrument from the Mansion, have it carefully examined and measured, commission an exact copy to be built (one that could be played!), and retire Nelly’s now “old” harpsichord.
Dr. Joyce Lindorff, Professor of Keyboard Studies at Temple University and residential fellow at the Fred W. Smith Library class of 2018-19, explain the amazing features of Nelly’s “New” Harpsichord.
Learn more about Nelly Custis, who played the original harpsichord more than anyone.
Dr. David Hildebrand, Director Emeritus of the Colonial Music Institute and residential fellow at the Fred W. Smith Library 2016-17 and 2020-21, demonstrate the spinet in the New Room in the Mansion.