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July 25, 2016

Washington’s Harpsichord Joins Popular Art Museums Exhibit


Since its opening in November 2012, nearly three-quarters of a million visitors have enjoyed Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700-1830 at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. The exhibition features twenty-eight eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century organs, harpsichords and pianos from its world-class collection (many never previously exhibited), seven working action models that trace major developments in the harpsichord and early piano and audio recordings of several of the instruments. On September 3, 2016, Changing Keys will add three important and recently conserved keyboard instruments: two “organized pianos” (as they were called in the period to describe pianos in which ranks of organ pipes are also playable from the same keyboard); one of which is the only surviving organized upright grand piano and at nine-feet tall and seven-feet wide was thought to be the largest and most complex domestic musical instrument in America when it arrived in Williamsburg from London in 1799. Also to be incorporated into the exhibition and on loan from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, is the harpsichord that the first president ordered for his step-granddaughter, which she played at his plantation home. The exhibition will remain on view through December 31, 2017.

“Changing Keys has proven to be one of the most popular exhibitions presently on view at the Art Museums,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “Our guests are drawn by the beauty of the instruments, the ability to hear the music they produced, and the exploration of evolving musical technology in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The addition of three large and highly important keyboards to this already impressive assembly will only add to the appeal.”

The types of instruments shown in Changing Keys—harpsichords, spinets, pianos (square, upright and grand) and organs—were daily fixtures in the social life of eighteen-century Virginia where Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry and other future founders of the new nation were among the representatives in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia then, was one of America’s principal cultural centers, and music and dance were considered necessities. The second-known public performance on a piano in America took place there in 1771 at Raleigh Tavern. As its title suggests, Changing Keys traces the evolution of keyboard instruments until the advent of iron framing, which would launch the technological transformations that produced the modern piano. The transition from harpsichord to piano and the accompanying shift in taste during the period is featured, as well as the beginnings of the American musical instrument industry that eventually broke England’s monopoly on their manufacture. The title also refers to the way individual instruments were changed over their long history of use.

The three featured keyboards to be added into Changing Keys in September are each exceptional examples. The organized upright grand piano has completed three years of restorative conservation in the Colonial Williamsburg conservation labs and is now playable for the first time since the mid-1800s. Made in 1799 in London, the instrument combines a grand piano standing vertically with a six-stop organ of 265 pipes, all playable from a single keyboard. By comparison, the other organized square piano to be installed is the smaller and more “ordinary” type that was occasionally advertised by makers and dealers in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries. The piano portion (made c. 1801 by William Rolfe of London) is the common type of piano in a period when square pianos outnumbered grand pianos fifty to one. In 1803, while the instrument was still brand new, John Sellers, an instrument maker in Germantown, Pennsylvania, “organized” the piano, adding two stops of organ pipes. This visually attractive example has gilded façade pipes, green silk panels and a floral-painted nameboard.

The Mount Vernon harpsichord to be featured in Changing Keys was acquired in 1793 by George Washington for his step grand-daughter, fourteen-year-old Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis, who he and Martha raised as their own. The instrument 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. According to multiple accounts, young Nelly practiced harpsichord four or five hours every day under the eye of her disciplinarian grandmother. Even without its association with George Washington, however, the instrument is remarkable in important ways. Made during the final years before pianos finally replaced harpsichords as the stringed keyboard of choice, the instrument is remarkably well preserved. It also shows how sophisticated the largest harpsichords had become by the end of the instrument’s heyday: the Mount Vernon example’s many gadgets for changing the sound were efforts to keep up with changing tastes.

As unique as are the instruments in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collection, so too is the role of the man who organized Changing Keys. John Watson is both the Foundation’s conservator emeritus of instruments and mechanical arts and associate curator emeritus of musical instruments, which is an unusual dual role in museum circles. As Watson describes it, curators and conservators have different points of view that usually require negotiation to keep checks and balances on how objects and works of art are treated and presented in museums. When working for three years to restore the largest and most complex domestic keyboard instrument in America in the 1800s (the organized upright grand piano mentioned above), he negotiated these two points of view in his own head.

“As a conservator, my first responsibility was to preserve the physical object as a historical document. That would argue against restoration, which can destroy evidence,” Watson said. “As a curator, however, I want museum visitors to see and experience the instrument for the bold visual and musical statement it once was. The solution was a strongly conservation-minded approach to restoration, which finds sometimes novel ways to restore while also preserving vulnerable evidence.”

Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700-1830 is made possible in part through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas F. Strange of Easley, South Carolina, and Dordy and Charlie Freeman of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Restorative conservation of the organized upright grand piano was generously supported by descendants of the first Williamsburg owner in memory of N. Beverely Tucker, Jr.

Keyboard instruments exemplify numerous art forms, and Changing Keys offers visitors an extraordinary opportunity to see and learn about all of these beautiful objects from their acoustical, structural and mechanical engineering and decorative arts aspects. With the addition of the three newly conserved, exceptional keyboards, music and decorative arts enthusiasts alike have renewed reason to come to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and enjoy Changing Keys again or to discover it for the first time.

About The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670–1830. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours from March 18, 2016, to January 2, 2017, 10:00 a.m. to-7:00 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.

About The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation preserves, restores and operates Virginia’s 18th-century capital of Williamsburg. Innovative and interactive experiences highlight the relevance of the American Revolution to contemporary life and the importance of an informed, active citizenry. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 500 restored or reconstructed original buildings, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center managed by Trilogy Spa, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives.

Media Contact:
Joe Straw