Saturday, December 9, 2023

One man wants to listen to George Washington’s harpsichord, so he’s making a replica

John Watson stands beside the case of his replica harpsichord inside his shop. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

An unassuming shed sits behind John Watson’s home in Skipwith Farms. A narrow sidewalk sneaks between two trees on its way to the shed’s only striking feature, its bright red doorway.

Inside, the hand tools Watson uses in the making of musical instruments hang from the walls, and his woodwork is stored on shelves. Overhead and out of sight, a hoist holds more of Watson’s work.

On a work desk in the center of the shed sits a keyboard and an eight-foot wooden case that will one day be a part of a working replica of an 18th-century harpsichord.

“This is a pretty capable shop,” Watson said. “This is my 33rd instrument.”

Watson was Colonial Williamsburg’s associate curator emeritus of musical instruments and said he’s built three instruments — a piano, a spinet and another harpsichord — for the Revolutionary City.

Now he’s creating a replica of an English Harpsichord that belonged to George Washington from scratch.

The original still belongs to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

Washington originally purchased the harpsichord for his step-granddaughter Nelly in 1793. The harpsichord has remained on display to this day, but because of its age it is unplayable.

Watson said a goal of the project is to hear what the instrument once sounded like as its melodies carried through Washington’s home.

George Washington’s original harpsichord. (Courtesy photo/George Washington’s Mount Vernon)

Rather than restore the harpsichord, Watson found it prudent to study the original, and design and construct a replica from the ground up.

“Nothing damages an antique more than restoration,” Watson said. “You’re replacing a bunch of original parts. It’s not original any more… The antique is too valuable to restore.”

Watson began his work on this project in 2016. While he’s retired, he said he has been working full-time in his shop since the autumn, and hopes to complete the harpsichord by the fall of this year.

His strategy has been to make many of the small parts first, which he can then store away in the many shelves and drawers that line his shop.

For example, he’s built the wooden jacks, which he called the “mechanical heart” of the harpsichord — they hold the plectra, which are thin strands of leather that pluck the strings when a key is pressed. Watson has made 260 jacks, which took several months of work. They are currently banded together in a plastic bin, awaiting the construction of the rest of the instrument.

He’s also completed the keyboard, as well as the music desk, which sits above the keyboard and holds a book of music for the harpsichordist to read.

Modern and 18th century tools hang side-by-side in John Watson's shop. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Modern and 18th century tools hang side-by-side in John Watson’s shop. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Dozens of tools from multiple centuries have been used to give the instrument the look and feel of the original harpsichord, including planers to shave the wood to the proper thickness and scratch beaders to carve it into shape.

Every tool leaves its own footprint, and Watson said he’s been able to study the original and discern which tools were used by its creators.

“When I’m done with this harpsichord, if you look very very closely at every surface, you probably won’t find any modern tool marks, because I’m using the [modern] machines only to rough things down to shape, but then I’m using [older] hand methods to finish them off,” Watson said.

The original harpsichord was not unique solely because of the founding father who owned it, but also because of innovations that were built into its design.

In the late 18th century, Watson said, fewer harpsichords were being produced, and pianos were becoming more popular.

What piqued Watson’s interest was that Mount Vernon already had a piano when Washington bought the harpsichord.

“That’s kind of backwards,” Watson said. “If you already have the new thing, why go back to the old thing?”

His hypothesis is that historians count out the harpsichord too soon, and that it remained an instrument whose designs were constantly evolving to remain modern.

“Really, it was not about competing with the piano, but keeping up with changing tastes in the music itself, making an instrument that was capable of playing the music,” Watson said.

John Watson's shop. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
John Watson’s shop. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Music of the period required instruments to be able to handle crescendos and decrescendos — or changes in volume.

A pianist can make a note louder by striking the key harder, but most 18th-century harpsichords only produced music at one volume.

However, Washington’s late-English style Harpsichord offered musicians much more control over their melodies.

Watson is making his replica with leather plectrum, which was considered to give harpsichordists some degree of input over the volume of their music.

Watson said the Mount Vernon harpsichord is the only surviving example from the period made with exclusively leather plectrum.

Washington’s harpsichord also featured a Venetian swell, or a “lid under a lid,” which Watson said allowed the musician to press a pedal and open doors similar to Venetian blinds. When the doors open, the music sounds louder.

Another pedal, called a mechanical stop, was an innovation that provided even more control over the music. Most stops were hand-operated and required the harpsichordist to take their hands off the keyboard.

The machine stops in Washington’s harpsichord allowed several stops to be used at once without interruption, which in turn allowed the harpsichord to handle both roles in a concerto — both as a solo instrument and the orchestra.

Watson doesn’t play any instruments himself, but said he hopes to one day hear what Washington’s harpsichord once sounded like through the replica he’s creating.

“What would happen if we put this, with all of its 1790s innovations, on stage with a piano of the same period?” Watson asked. “How would they compare? Nobody’s really made that comparison.”


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