Playing the Reproduction
Dr. Joyce Lindorff was one of the first to play this reproduction of Nelly Parke Custis’s harpsichord.
Mount Vernon is open over the holiday weekend. We look forward to seeing you!
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.
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:
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. The harpsichord was examined and disassembled as much as reasonably possible without breaking glue seams. Materials were identified, all components measured, and the original construction was studied. Internal clues included pencil markings, scribe lines, tool marks, glue runs, and signs of wear and early use.
The jacks are the mechanical heart of the harpsichord. They hold the pieces of leather that pluck the strings and 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.
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 keys, whereas we have substituted bone. The sharps are solid ebony.
The harpsichord's curved side is called the bentside. It is a hefty, 13 inch wide plank of 3/4-inch thick oak. The end to be curved 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.
A variety of the pieces were constructed including the tuning pin block, the music desk, and the trestle stand.
The cases of virtually all late 18th century English harpsichords are made of solid oak, then covered with decorative and sometimes figured veneers. Dovetails were cut into the oak sides, any interior surfaces veneered, and the case assembled with glue. Structural framing inside prepared the case to withstand thousands of pounds of string tension.
While the instrument could be restored to playing condition today 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.
An early theory pointed to Longman & Broderip’s biggest (though not their only) supplier. Thomas Culliford & Co. had a major contract to supply spinets, harpsichords, and pianos exclusively through Longman & Broderip.
However, 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 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. Recent research revealed that Gray worked for Culliford where he signed at least one other Longman & Broderip harpsichord, an 1785 example that is also informally signed "Culliford & Co."
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. Additionally, 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 the original 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. In all of these details we must rely on our best educated guess and intuition to reconstruct the musical ideal they worked to achieve.
The project was made possible with funding from The Life Guard Society of Historic Mount Vernon, The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Stella Boyle Smith Trust, Deborah McManus, Mr. and Mrs. James D. Penny, J.W. Pepper & Son, Inc. and Heather Karen Hunt