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May/June 2018: Research: Unlocking the Keys to a Musical Mystery


It has taken more than a year of painstakingly detailed work for Conservator John Watson to get closer to his goal of re-creating a piece of history. The Associate Curator of Musical Instruments for Colonial Williamsburg is fashioning a replica of a harpsichord George Washington purchased in 1793 for his teenage step-granddaughter Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Curtis. Unlike the original, the reproduction will be playable, giving music historians a chance to hear its unique sound.

"The Washington family harpsichord was extremely special," said Temple University Music Professor Dr. Joyce Zankel Lindorff. "It was one of the fanciest instruments ever made."

Lindorff and Watson say the historic harpsichord combined elements from both a classical harpsichord and the newly emerging piano, which made it a complex instrument. They showed a documentary film crew from J.W. Pepper why the instrument has required months of study and hundreds of measurements and photos before it could be reproduced. J.W. Pepper President & CEO Glenn Burtch says his company wanted to create a short film about the work because it is a significant project for all music lovers.

"I hope people will learn something from our film, and it will reinforce the importance of music to our society," Burtch said. "One thing I didn't know before we created the film is that the harpsichord was meant to be played in a small room for family and friends rather than a theater. Therefore, the harpsichord played an important role in bringing people together."

Historians say these types of gatherings were common at Mount Vernon, and Nelly played the harpsichord for guests on a regular basis. Her performances would have allowed listeners to hear sounds that were not possible to create with older harpsichords. Watson says the Washington family instrument was built using materials that allowed a musician to alter the volume of notes, enabling a musician to replicate piano techniques like the crescendo.

"If we can just reconstruct the musical world of Mount Vernon right at that time, we can have an understanding we've never had before of what was it like to have a harpsichord and a piano at that time sounding side by side," Watson said. "In many respects Mount Vernon in the 1790s is like a keyhole glimpse of a moment in music history that we don't know very much about."

Once completed, the replica will be brought to Mount Vernon 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. Much of the music owned and played by Nelly also is available in the rare book library at Mount Vernon. Lindorff, who teaches keyboard studies, is among the musical experts who are eager to see the reproduction completed and placed in the historical home.

"I can't wait to play the replica harpsichord," Lindorff said. "We're in a very exciting moment."

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