A musical revolution took place in the late eighteenth century, in which Mount Vernon played a little known, but remarkable role. As pianos were becoming the domestic keyboard instrument of choice, George Washington purchased a large, state-of-the-art harpsichord. Surprisingly, the instrument arrived years after he traded in Martha’s old spinet for a newly popular piano-forte, which arrived in time for young Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis to begin piano lessons with the celebrated composer Alexander Reinagle. Why was a fine harpsichord chosen as Mount Vernon’s principal keyboard instrument even after updating to a new piano?

Join an international roster of performers and historians as they explore and revive the music of Mount Vernon, and particularly its fascinating keyboard instruments. The inspiration for the symposium is Nelly's original two-manual harpsichord along with a newly made reproduction by John Watson, which brings to life a musical voice not heard in the Mansion for more than two centuries. Learn how harpsichords evolved with new expressive qualities designed to serve the changing music of the time and experience why a full-featured harpsichord deserved its place at Mount Vernon.


Dates and Time


$250 for the Entire Program-Lectures, Concerts, and Meals

The Keyboard in Washington’s America: Celebrating Mount Vernon’s Harpsichord and its Reproduction

Friday, August 2

All concerts and lectures will take place inside the Robert H. and Clarice Smith Auditorium.

6:15 pm

Welcome and Opening Night Concert Featuring Joyce Lindorff

Saturday, August 3

8:30 am


8:45 am

Mount Vernon Historical Background

Susan P. Schoelwer

9:30 am

Nelly’s Musical World through the Lens of her Piano, her Harpsichord, and her Music

Joyce Lindorff

10:15 am

Morning Break

10:30 am

Ladies at the Keyboard

In 1817 when Eleanor Parke Custis entertained her Christmas guests with music on the harpsichord no one commented on the anachronism, that such an outdated instrument might be inappropriate for a lady of wealth and status. Nowadays, the perception generally is that harpsichords went out of fashion thirty years earlier, replaced by the pianoforte. Some sources say that by 1800 even the finest harpsichord was unsaleable. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that well-made and serviceable instruments continued in use well into the nineteenth century in a musical environment where both types of keyboard were cherished, side by side. Eleanor (or ‘Nellie’) was by then a woman of mature years but she sang enchantingly ‘with the sprightliness of a girl of 18’.  We can perhaps now re-examine the persistence of older music, and the place of music as a principal recreation among educated women.   

Michael Cole, author and instrument maker, formerly keyboard conservator with the Bate Collection (University of Oxford), has many books and papers to his credit including The Pianoforte in the Classical Era (Oxford, 1998) widely regarded as the principal source on piano history, and numerous articles in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

11:15 am

Keyboard Instruments as Aspirational Goods in American Homes

Most keyboard instruments in late-18th-century American homes were aspirational goods indicative of elevated taste, wealth, and status; in a word, power. Associated with conspicuous consumption and good breeding, especially among young women, elegant harpsichords of various types, newfangled pianos, and chamber organs accomplished the complex task of social signaling visually as much as through music. Often they were a household’s most expensive, imposing piece of furniture. Around them, family and guests gathered for entertainment and spiritual refreshment, functions expressed in casework that complemented feminine fashions and disguised the effort of playing. These elite, sensitive instruments required special care and prominently displayed their makers’ names, distinguishing these refined “mechanics” from cabinetmakers. This talk explores the social functions of domestic keyboard instruments as reflected in their designs.

Laurence Libin, FRSA, is emeritus curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, honorary curator of Steinway & Sons, past president of the Organ Historical Society, and editor-in-chief of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. He lectures internationally and has taught in the graduate schools of Columbia and New York University. His honors include the Anthony Baines Memorial Prize of the Galpin Society and the Curt Sachs Award of the American Musical Instrument Society. 

12:30 pm

Lunch-Mount Vernon Inn

1:45 pm

Popular songs at Mount Vernon and America

Julianne Baird

2:30 pm

The Harpsichord in Early America: Musical Context

An overview of music in 18th- and early 19th-century America, this presentation underscores the importance of primary sources.  Beyond imported music publications and manuscript music, these also include church records, estate inventories, newspapers and iconography.  Evidence of many types of music emerges, from sacred psalms and hymns to traditional ballads, marches and dance tunes, to songs of the parlor and theater, of protest and patriotism. Early American musical practice varied by social class, gender, geography and also over time. Martha, Patsy, Jacky and Nelly lived in a rarefied world of private lessons and fine elite instruments -- things unavailable to the poor and enslaved who learned by ear and played on cheap fiddles, homemade flutes, banjos and drums.  Unlike the south, music in New England and the middle colonies/states focused more upon church music.  Throughout the land things changed quickly after the Revolution as home-grown amateur musicians gave way to immigrant professionals like Nelly's teacher Alexander Reinagle. This presentation concludes with two musical examples: "A Toast" by Francis Hopkinson, composed for Washington in 1778, and an anonymous "Yankee Doodle" parody celebrating the 1781 Yorktown surrender.

David Hildebrand is a musicologist and performer of early American music.  He has authored a book on music in Maryland, as well as articles and reviews, and he has appeared on commercial and public television as well as NPR.  Producer of seven sound recordings, David also consults and lectures widely and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory.  His Ph.D. is from Catholic University and he was a research fellow at Mount Vernon, 2016-17.

3:15 pm

Afternoon Break

3:30 pm

Reproducing the Mount Vernon Harpsichord: Did We Solve the Paradox?

An old musical instrument has two voices. The obvious one is the musical voice that can be revived through restoration, replacing parts too decayed to work.  The other “voice” is its documentary content, historical evidence that can be read through forensic examination of the same evidence that is threatened by restoration. What if both rival objectives are as important as they are in the Mount Vernon harpsichord? We attempted a solution to the paradox by making a reproduction. What riddles did the original instrument pose during the replication process, and what secrets did it reveal? How close can we come to an exact copy? With the replica now done, the examinations and the revelations begin anew. What will be revealed in the playing and the hearing?

John R. Watson is an independent conservator and maker of early keyboard instruments. He retired in 2016 from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where he served as conservator of instruments and curator of musical instruments. His most recent book Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700-1830, is a descriptive catalog detailing thirty-eight examples mostly in the CWF collection. His 2018 reconstruction of the Mount Vernon harpsichord is his 33rd reproduction keyboard instrument.

4:15 pm

Thomas Culliford: Master Maker of Harpsichords, Spinets and Pianos

During the late eighteenth century, many keyboard instrument makers worked in London, amongst whom were the partnership of Culliford, Rolfe and Barrow. Despite uncertain times, Thomas Culliford (the maternal great-grandfather of Charles Dickens), William Rolfe (a respected piano maker) and Charles Barrow (Charles Dickens’ maternal grandfather, who – having embezzled money from the Navy Pay Office – fled English law to the Isle of Man) made stringed keyboard instruments that incorporated the latest innovations in design. In some instances, the firm’s instruments travelled many miles to nourish music lovers in far distant lands. This presentation provides an encounter with Thomas Culliford’s life and work, and offers glimpses of life in Georgian England and London’s late eighteenth-century piano industry.

Historical keyboard specialist Geoffrey Lancaster has appeared to acclaim with the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, Cologne Gürzenich, Ensemble 415, Concerto Copenhagen, Tafelmusik, La Cetra Barockorchester Basel, and every major Australian orchestra. Author of The First Fleet Piano: A Musician’s View and Culliford, Rolfe & Barrow: A Tale of Ten Pianos, Dr Lancaster is Professor at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, where he teaches fortepiano and researches rare keyboard instruments.

5:00 pm

Reception and Dinner-Mount Vernon Inn

7:30 pm

Saturday Evening Closing Concert

Julianne Baird Featuring Joyce Lindorf, and Shelby Yamin

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