Washington’s harpsichord to sound in Williamsburg

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A harpsichord purchased by George Washington for his granddaughter Nelly will by on display at at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. (Courtesy George Washington’s Mount Vernon)
A harpsichord purchased by George Washington for his granddaughter Nelly will be on display at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. (Courtesy George Washington’s Mount Vernon)

In the spring of 1777, shortly after his troops defeated the British at the Battle of Sag Harbor, General George Washington issued an order from the Continental Army encampment in Middlebrook, New Jersey.

“The music of the army being in general very bad,” he wrote. “It is expected that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it or they will be reduced and their extraordinary pay taken from them.”

“Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music,” he concluded. “Every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

Even in the midst of the Revolutionary War, George Washington could not suppress his love for music. Although he did not play an instrument, music held a significant place in Washington’s public and private life. His wife, Martha, her two children, and her four grandchildren all studied music.

In 1793, Washington purchased a harpsichord for his step granddaughter, 14-year-old Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, who he and Martha raised as their own. Shipped from England, 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.

As an adult, Nelly’s brother recalled listening to his sister practice the harpsichord for four or five hours a day. “The poor girl would play and cry and cry and play for long hours under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things,” he recalled.  

Now, according to a news release from Colonial Williamsburg, the instrument that once provided the soundtrack to Washington’s presidency and life at Mount Vernon will be on display at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Next month, Nelly’s harpsichord will be one of three new additions to the museum’s exhibit “Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700-1830.” The two other recently conserved instruments are the world’s only surviving organized upright grand piano, thought to be the largest domestic musical instrument in America when it arrived in Williamsburg from London in 1799, and the more common square piano, which outnumbered grand pianos fifty to one during the period, according to the release.

As its title suggests, “Changing Keys” traces the evolution of keyboard instruments and features 28 eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century organs, harpsichords and pianos. Since opening in November 2012, the exhibit has attracted nearly three-quarters of a million visitors, the release stated.

John Watson, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s conservator emeritus of instruments and associate curator emeritus of musical instruments, served the dual role of preparing the instruments for exhibition and preserving them for history.

“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 in the release. “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.”

The new exhibition opens Sept. 3 and will remain on view through Dec. 31, 2017.

The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.  For more program information call (757) 220-7724.