A replica of a harpsichord owned by George Washington will be played in public for the first time at the Washington Winter Show this weekend.
The president’s instrument — made as the piano was eclipsing the harpsichord in popularity — was a marvel of technology for its time, says John Watson. A retired Colonial Williamsburg conservator, Watson spent thousands of hours hand-building the replica for Mount Vernon, which now owns both keyboard instruments.
“It’s quite charming,” Watson says of the instrument he copied. “It has a mellow tone compared to earlier harpsichords.”
While harpsichords traditionally have a tinny sound, Washington’s harpsichord likely sounded more like a plucked guitar. That’s because the instrument, which he purchased for his granddaughter in 1793, used soft leather to pluck the strings instead of stiff quills. It also featured a venetian blind-like overlay that allowed the player to gradually increase or decrease the volume. These innovations made this harpsichord an expressive instrument, well suited to the changing demands of classical music at the time.
“When Washington bought this harpsichord for his granddaughter, she already had a piano, so people wonder: Why would you go back to having an old-fashioned instrument when you already have the new thing? I think when you hear the replica, you’ll understand why this was the favorite instrument in the Washington household,” Watson says.
Temple University music professor Joyce Lindorff will play period music on the replica during the antiques and arts show, which is held at American University’s Katzen Art Center. Then it will move to Mount Vernon, where it will take the place of the original harpsichord, which has long been unplayable.
“They needed to put it in a more stable museum environment,” Watson says. “Now they have an instrument they can actually play.”
Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW; Fri. & Sat., noon-3 p.m., $25.