In February, we celebrate past presidents and their contributions to our national identity. The legacies of our past leaders are played out in history books and written into law, but who each individual was as a person can often be lost in their great deeds. Luckily, there are pieces of presidential personality still in our possession today that allow us to better understand who these men were, not only through what they did, but also through what they valued.
Last year, Pepper had the honor of introducing to our customers a unique piece of American history – the Washington family harpsichord. A treasured piece of the Washington estate, the instrument once regaled statesmen and diplomats who came to visit President Washington at Mount Vernon. Washington himself did not play the instrument, but he dearly loved music and so encouraged his step-granddaughter Nelly to learn to play it and often employed her as entertainment for his guests.
“No living person had ever heard what must have been a beautiful sound when Nelly’s harpsichord echoed through the rooms of Mount Vernon.” – John Watson, Curator Emeritus
Sadly, over time the historic harpsichord fell into disrepair. However, John Watson, Curator Emeritus of Musical Instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, led an effort to create a working replica. By painstakingly studying the original instrument, Watson was able to create a reproduction which could be played to demonstrate the sound and qualities of the instrument without risking any damage to the original. After roughly 3,500 hours, John’s work, as well as the work of a number of others including the blacksmith who made the iron parts, the brass founder who cast many of the brass parts, and John’s assistant Jay Gamble, the effort has truly paid off.
“The magnificent 1793 harpsichord at Mount Vernon never stopped revealing its secrets as I worked,” says Watson. “Looking ever closer at the physical evidence on its old surfaces, it showed new details every day that told me how to make each part, and why it needed to be made exactly this way.”
“No living person had ever heard what must have been a beautiful sound when Nelly’s harpsichord echoed through the rooms of Mount Vernon,” Watson continues. “The revelations now continue as skilled players explore the expressive potential of this magnificent instrument.”
The harpsichord replica was unveiled at the Washington Antiques Show at American University, January 11–13, 2019. The event included a performance and discussion by harpsichord expert Dr. Joyce Lindorff, who demonstrated the capabilities of the replica instrument. The complete set of leather plectra on the keys allows for a wide degree of touch sensitivity, so that the player can deploy a greater degree of dynamic contrast than is normally associated with harpsichord performance. The effect is enhanced by the machine stop and Venetian swells.
The replica has been returned to the Washington family home and placed where the original harpsichord once stood. The original instrument is on the grounds, but it is located in a separate climate-controlled museum. The event kicked off a full year of celebration at Mount Vernon, leading the organization to dub 2019 “the year of music.” Musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra performed chamber music at Mount Vernon in February, there will be a harpsichord symposium in August, and a performance on the harpsichord at the Kennedy Center.
Check back for more updates on the Washington harpsichord here at Cued In and visit Mount Vernon’s website for more information on the “year of music.”