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.

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Dates and Time


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

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?


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.


Welcome and Opening Night Concert
Performance by:  Joyce Lindorff

Saturday, August 3




Striking the Right Note: George Washington Performs the Presidency
Presented by: Susan P. Schoelwer

In 1789, shortly after his inauguration as president, George Washington traded in the family’s twenty-five-year-old spinet for a new pianoforte from New York instrument maker Thomas Dodds; four years later, he acquired a harpsichord from London dealer Longman & Broderip. In strictly musical terms, this progression is surprising – it reverses the expected trajectory from the familiar but old-fashioned harpsichord to the emerging and more expressive piano. The political imperatives of the new nation provide valuable historical context for understanding this choice:  as America’s first head of state, Washington was carefully performing an unprecedented role, endeavoring to create a distinctive republican identity while simultaneously asserting the new country’s claims to be taken seriously by foreign powers. In keyboards as in housing, tablewares, and personal attire, his early acquisitions of local goods asserted cultural independence, but the limitations of infant American manufactories prompted a turn to more sophisticated imports, better conveying the dignity and ceremony appropriate to the office of the presidency and the aspirations of the nation.


Nelly’s Musical World through the Lens of her Piano, her Harpsichord, and her Music
Presented by: Joyce Lindorff

What role did music play in the home of George and Martha Washington? Who were the performers and listeners? What instruments were in use? And what can be learned from the harpsichord that arrived in 1793—one of the most elaborate keyboard instruments ever designed? What was the music-making role of granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis (Nelly), growing up the Washington household? How representative or influential of their era were the music, instruments, and performers? The current Mount Vernon project surrounding George Washington’s Longman and Broderip harpsichord has offered answers to these questions and more. The historically meticulous reproduction by John Watson, along with a Dodds & Claus piano that was recently acquired by Mount Vernon and restored by Watson, serve as as tangible counterparts to the scores and manuscripts owned by the Washington family. Together these instruments and archived records document Nelly Custis’s education, technique, fingering, repertoire, practicing and performing life. Her musical world, focused as it was on the keyboard instruments in George Washington’s parlor, illuminates aspects of family, entertainment and gender roles central to early American culture. 


Morning Break


Ladies at the Keyboard
Presented by: Michael Cole

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 ‘Nelly’) 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.   


Keyboard Instruments as Aspirational Goods in American Homes
Presented by: Laurence Libin

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.


Lunch-Mount Vernon Inn


Popular Songs at Mount Vernon and America
Presented by: Julianne Baird

The part of Custis’ music collection which deals with Italian singing is housed at Harvard and, yields insights into her vocal training, which began at age 17 in Fall of 1796.  Her private tutor was the Philadelphia-based immigrant Filippo Trisobio, one of only a few Italians in a city with a population of 50,000.   In 1795 in London Trisobio had published a vocal treatise: “La Scuola del Canto,” which specialized in the teaching of ornamentation, and it is clear that Nellie was taught from this book and owned a copy.  In this lecture-recital some of Trisobio’s solfegii  (printed in his book) will be examined,  along with his ornamentations of popular English songs such as Arne’s ‘Water Parted from the Sea.’ In addition, his piano extravaganza “The Clock of Lombardy, or The surrender of Milan to General Buonaparte” (which Trisobio hoped would be saleable to consumers of Battle Pieces such as Kotzwara’s ubiquitous “Celebrated Battle of Prague”) will be explored.


The Harpsichord in Early America: Musical Context
Presented by: David Hildebrand

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.


Afternoon Break


Reproducing the Mount Vernon Harpsichord: Did We Solve the Paradox?
Presented by: John R. Watson

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?


Thomas Culliford: Master Maker of Harpsichords, Spinets and Pianos
Presented by: Geoffrey Lancaster

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.


Reception and Dinner-Mount Vernon Inn


Saturday Evening Closing Concert
Performance by: Julianne Baird, featuring Joyce Lindorf, and Shelby Yamin


Julianne Baird

Julianne Baird

Julianne Baird, soprano, with over 130 solo CD’s to her credit, is one of the world’s most recorded sopranos. She is a Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University and maintains a busy concert and recording schedule. Her book, Introduction to the Art of Singing (Cambridge University Press), is used by singers and professional schools internationally. In popular demand as a visiting artist she conducts Master Classes at Yale, Oberlin Conservatory, Juilliard, and Stony Brook.  The New York Times hailed her as a “national artistic treasure,” a “well-nigh peerless performer in the repertory of the baroque,” and praised her musicianship that “engenders singing of extreme expressive beauty.”

Michael Cole

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

David Hildebrand

David Hildebrand

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.

Geoffrey Lancaster

Geoffrey Lancaster

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.

Laurence Libin

Laurence Libin

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. 

Joyce Lindorff

Joyce Lindorff

As a 2018-19 Research Fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Joyce Lindorff has been researching music from the archives and performing Nelly Custis’s repertoire on the reproduction instrument. She has concertized widely in the US, Europe, Russia, and Asia. Her playing has garnered awards from the Pro Musicis Foundation (France) and National Endowment for the Arts (US), and praise from The New York Times as “brilliant music, brilliantly played,” and “one of the most appealing recitals of the season.” Her recordings can be heard on the Titanic, Centaur, CRI, Serenus, Digitech, BCM&D, Affetto and Paladino labels. Lindorff is Professor of Keyboard Studies at Temple University.

Susan P. Schoelwer

Susan P. Schoelwer

Susan P. Schoelwer is the Executive Director for Historic Preservation and Collections and Robert H. Smith Senior Curator at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Since coming to Mount Vernon in 2010, she has directed the refurnishing and reinterpretation of Mansion rooms and creation of museum exhibitions, including the current, award-winning special exhibition, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. She initiated the project to reproduce Nelly Custis’s 1793 harpsichord and has written and lectured extensively on the Washingtons and Mount Vernon, American art and decorative arts, needlework, and women’s history.

John R. Watson

John R. Watson

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.

Shelby Yamin

Shelby Yamin

Originally from New York, historical violin virtuoso Shelby Yamin holds a Bachelor of Music Degree from the Manhattan School of Music, an Artist Diploma from the San Francisco Academy Orchestra, and both Master’s degree and Professional Studies certificate in Baroque violin from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

As a soloist, Shelby has performed most recently at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and served as concertmaster and soloist at both the Oregon Bach Festival’s Berwick Academy and Tafelmusik’s Winter Institute in Toronto. Her  piano trio, Capitoline, was awarded first prizes at the Virtuoso e Bel Canto chamber music competition and the Barbara Fritz Competition.Shelby is the recipient of a grant from the Juilliard School to record composer Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen’s Opus 5 violin duets, with a release scheduled for 2020. She is a member of the Monterey and Santa Barbara Symphonies and is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Historical Performance at The Juilliard School.

How the Harpsichord Was Made and Played

Nelly’s New Harpsichord

This replica of the original instrument belonging to Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis was recently completed after two years of intensive work by John Watson.

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