Since July of 2016 John Watson, Conservator of Early Keyboard Instruments, has been working to create a replica of Nelly Custis's 1793 Longman & Broderip 2-Manual Harpsichord.
In 1793, George Washington acquired a large harpsichord for his step-granddaughter, 14-year-old Eleanor Parke Custis. Of the several musical instruments that graced Mount Vernon, none was more grand or impressive than this harpsichord.
The instrument was ordered from Longman & Broderip, the largest firm of music merchants in London. It arrived at the executive mansion in Philadelphia around the midpoint of 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 becoming the dominant stringed keyboard instrument. This harpsichord’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. 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. 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.
Where has it been?
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 recent temporary loan for the Changing Keys exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg.
There are two objectives for this project:
- Make a thorough examination of the 1793 original harpsichord producing comprehensive drawings and notes about its design and evidence of construction methods.
- Make a working replica of the instrument.