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Handel's Harpsichord?

Any object that has links to a well-known personality is bound to be of special interest. One such case is the double-manual Ruckers harpsichord belonging to King Charles III (BMO-1628), which is on long-term loan to the National Trust, and is kept with the other keyboard instruments of the Benton Fletcher collection at Fenton House, London. A persistent tradition links this instrument with the composer George Frederic Handel; but did it really belong to him?

It was discovered in a derelict condition in 1883 in a storeroom at Windsor Castle, a Royal residence some 25 miles west of London, along with some old sedan chairs. From then on, its history is known: it has been restored several times since its discovery, and the history of its various eighteenth-century enlargements and alterations has been established.

The idea that it had belonged to Handel came originally from A. J. Hipkins , who announced its discovery in a letter to The Athenæum in September 1883. Hipkins assumed that it was the ‘large harpsichord’, mentioned in Handel’s will, which was left to his amanuensis Christopher Smith, along with a house organ, music books and £500 sterling. Smith, he said, presented it to King George III in gratitude for the granting of a pension.

For many years this account was widely accepted: for example, when Henry Tull restored the harpsichord in 1938 for Queen Elizabeth (the mother of the late Queen Elizabeth II), he displayed it in his music room at Ealing with a label unequivocally declaring it to be ‘Handel’s harpsichord’ .

More recently, doubts began to be expressed. Several problems with Hipkins’s account were noticed: firstly, he does not distinguish between Christopher Smith (1683–1763) and his son John Christopher Smith (1712–95). Both of these men had been friends and assistants of the composer in his blindness and old age, but it was the father who inherited the ‘large harpsichord’. On his death in 1763, it could have been inherited by his son, but it is not specifically mentioned in Christopher Smith’s will.

The younger Smith may have presented the harpsichord to George III, but the details of this are unclear and come from a possibly unreliable secondary source (the anonymous Anecdotes of George Frederick Handel and John Christopher Smith, published in London in 1799). And there are several other claimants to the title of ‘Handel’s Ruckers’, notably one now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (BMO-1573) and one in the Morris Steinert collection at Yale University (BMO-1563).

Such was the level of skepticism that until recently the BMO record roundly declared ‘the persistent legend that this harpsichord at one time belonged to Handel is without any firm foundation’.

The pendulum has swung, and it now seems that it probably did belong to Handel after all. Why this sudden change; what has made it possible? The answer is digitisation of the British Library's extensive collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers, so that they can easily be searched online for specific words or phrases, reducing a task which would have taken days or even months before to a matter of an hour or two.

Peter Holman has made use of this wonderful new resource, and presented his findings in two articles in the periodical Early Music in 2021. He has found several reports of King George III playing a harpsichord at Windsor, where he was living in retirement because of his mental illness (so memorably portrayed in Alan Bennet’s play The Madness of George III).

His son, Prince George, was appointed Prince Regent in 1811, taking over the King’s duties as sovereign. A report in the Ipswich Journal in January that year headed ‘A letter from Windsor’, stated that ‘the harpsichord on which his Majesty plays, formerly belonged to the great Handel, and is supposed to have been manufactured at Antwerp in the year 1612’. It was said to be in the king’s sitting room in the Blenheim Tower. Another report in the Examiner, also in 1811, mentioned that the King used ‘to shew it to his musical friends with much pleasure, and explain to them whom it belonged to, and that the keys were worn away by HANDEL’s fingers’.

This detail – the excessive wear on the keys – tends to confirm the link with Handel. Some 35 years earlier, it had been mentioned in Sir John Hawkins’s General History of the Science and Practice of Music (published 1776): Handel, he said, ‘had a favourite Rucker harpsichord, the keys whereof, by incessant practice, were hollowed like the bowl of a spoon’.

So the link between Handel, King George, and the instrument discovered at Windsor in 1883 now seems fairly secure. Yet doubts remain. Hipkins reports that the harpsichord when found did not have the heavily worn keys he was expecting to see: ‘Are the keys scooped out […] by the composer’s fingers? Alas, no! Like the one in South Kensington [BMO-1573], it has two modern sets.’ Why and when were these new keys installed? Could a subsequent royal owner have commissioned them? George, descending into his final madness, would hardly have been in a position to do so. 

How is it that a very similar Ruckers harpsichord was sold at Christie’s on 10 May 1819 as part of the effects of Queen Charlotte, and immediately bought by the Prince Regent and brought back into the Royal household? Is this the same harpsichord, or another one?

If only harpsichords could talk, as well as sing, all these puzzles could be resolved. As it is, we try to keep abreast of the latest knowledge in the ‘Provenance and Episodes’ section of each record in BMO.

Workshop training and apprentices

Guild records – such as those of the various Livery Companies of the City of London, the Università di Por San Piero e dei Fabbricanti (Craftsman’s Guild) of Florence, and the Registres des jurandes et maîtrises des métiers de la ville de Paris – are an important source of information concerning the lives and working practices of keyboard instrument makers, especially the training of apprentices. They do, however, require careful interpretation and they do not provide the entire picture; the Paris registers record the date when makers became ‘masters’ at the conclusion rather than the commencement of their training.

The number of registered apprentices, for instance, gives only a rough estimate as to the size of a workshop. Stephen Keene (fl.1655–1712) and John Zumpe (1726–90) were both highly successful businessmen and ran busy workshops. Keene worked within the City of London, was an important member of the Joiners’ Company and registered as many as eight apprentices over a career spanning some 40 years. In contrast, Zumpe worked in the City of Westminster outside the guild system, and seems to have trained only one apprentice, James Laurence, whom he acquired on the cheap through St Martin’s Workhouse. Moreover, there is no concrete evidence that Jacob Kirkman (1710–92), Burkat Shudi (1702–73) or John Broadwood (1732–1812) registered any apprentices over their long and illustrious careers.

There is quite a lot of evidence to support the claim that makers often trained members of their extended family, but not all can be confirmed by archival records. Guild records do show that both Stephen Keene and John Hitchcock trained their nephews Edward Blunt and Thomas Young, and from the French National Archives we know that Robert Baudin (fl.1631–51) was apprenticed to four different masters, the first two (Jean Marcire and Claude Lesclan) being his uncles, who both died inconveniently early. The fact that Joseph Treyer (1731–88) succeeded to his uncle’s workshop suggests that he was also probably trained by Jean-Baptist Keiser (c1700–72), but no documentation for this has been uncovered. Jacopo Ramerini’s bequest of wood and workshop tools to his nephew Pietro Ramerini in 1674 similarly suggests a master-apprentice relationship that remains unconfirmed.

Since a maker’s workshop and family home often coincided during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was normal for apprentices to reside at the home of their masters. In 1626, Noël Alliamet (fl.1626–44) formally agreed to teach, feed and lodge Pierre Flament for six years, but it is from the 1787 Danish Census that we know Christian Ferdinand Speer (c1726–97) lived at 196 Lille Regnegade in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter, a servant, five journeymen and three apprentices. We only know from the inventory after the death of Pascal Taskin (1793) that two of his great nephews, Henry-Joseph and Lambert Taskin, were living with him, and this is the sole circumstantial evidence that they had just commenced their training.

Some apprenticeships were clearly disjointed, others failed completely, and a record of apprenticeship doesn’t confirm that an individual went on to establish their workshop. We know that Charles Trute (fl.1780–1807) acquired a parish apprentice through the Poor Law authorities of St Giles in the Fields in 1787, but whether he later accompanied Trute first to Jamaica and then to Philadelphia remains unanswered. Nevertheless, apprenticeship records can provide us with an otherwise unknown address and suggest links between family members. Partly due to the commonality of the name Haward, the ancestries of John, Charles and Thomas Haward are all uncertain, but the freedom records of all three provide evidence that they were the sons of John Haward, perhaps the progenitor of the family. The agreement by Alliamet to accept an apprentice in return for 40 livres of salted butter from Normandy also provides an insight into the mindset of historical makers: the bottom line is the provision of food.

Lyonnais harpsichord makers

of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Although principally known for its canuts or silk workers, who tended to be concentrated in the Croix-Rousse district (characterised by special covered passageways called traboules), the town of Lyon in southeast France was also home to several notable harpsichord makers. These include Gilbert Desruisseaux (1651–1703), Pierre Donzelague (1668–1747), Jospeh Le Tourneur (fl.1708–40), Joseph Collese (1717–76), and Jean François Franky (fl.1777–79).

Interestingly, most seem to have been outsiders. Desruisseaux was originally from Moulins, and moved to Lyon after completing his training in Paris with Michel Richard. Donzelague was from Aix-en-Provence, Joseph Le Tourneur was baptised in Beaune (some 150km north of Lyon) and Joseph Collesse was from the Brittany town of Rennes. Moreover, all were musicians. Donzelague’s move to Lyon has been pinpointed to his joining the Académie royal de Musique de Lyon on 27 October 1688 as a singer and ‘joueur de basse de violon continuo’, Collesse is called a facteur de clavessin et musicien in his record of marriage, and both Le Tourner and Desruisseaux combined the activities of organist with that of musical instrument maker. Perhaps the Académie des Beaux arts de Lyon was a magnet to musicians and musical instrument makers alike, and we know that the institution owned various instruments, including two harpsichords by Donzelague: one was kept in the library (online archive available, here) and one was kept in the concert hall (online archive available, here).

Whether a maker worked in isolation or ran a busy workshop with multiple hands is always difficult to establish. However, Joseph Le Tourneur may have trained with his father Étienne Le Tourneur (c1676–1727), who was both an organist and organ builder, and there is a possibility that Donzelague worked in Lyon with his father François Donzelague (fl.1668–1709). A record of burial dated 18 February 1709, for one François Donzelague in the church of Saint-Pierre and Saint-Saturnin in Lyon, suggests that François did not remain in Aix-en-Provence as most writers suggest, but joined his son in Lyon. Although no occupation is recorded, the age of François is given as 75, which also fits with the known facts about this maker, and Pierre is named as his son.

From extensive searches in the Lyon archives, we now know that Joseph Le Tourneur and Joseph Collese married two sisters, Jeanne and Madeleine Argoud, and were thus brothers-in-law. Joseph Le Tourneur was one of the witnesses at Collesse’s marriage on 9 October 1730 (archive available online, here), and it is tempting to suggest that Le Tourneur and Collesse worked together. Moreover, a harpsichord left unfinished at the time of Collesse’s death in 1776 (BMO-293) was completed in 1777 by Jean François Franky. Franky’s family history has yet to be established, but he is recorded as a witness for two marriages in the church of Saint-Nizier on 11 July 1779. In both cases, he signed his name ‘Je Frankÿ’ and is described as a faiseur de Clavessin, thereby confirming his activities as a harpsichord maker. Research is ongoing to establish whether Collesse suceeded to Le Tourneur’s workshop, if Franky was the successor to Joseph Collesse, and whether either of these two had links with Christian Kroll (fl.1770–74) or Pierre Kettenhoven (fl.1772–78), two makers of probable German heritage active in Lyon in the 1770s.

Three Harpsichord Makers and their Links to Scientists

The design and construction methods used by historical stringed keyboard instruments has been the focus of multiple writers, especially since the 1960s, but the possible connections between historical makers, scientists and mathematicians has perhaps been under-explored.

There is, of course, the well-known connection between Jacob Kirkman (1710–92) and the Cambridge mathematician and astronomer Robert Smith (1689–1768), whose work on acoustics is contained in two important publications: Harmonics, or The Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749, title page on left); and A Postscript […] upon the changeable harpsichord (1762). Importantly, Smith commissioned Kirkman to make him a ‘changeable harpsichord’ with the compass GG to e3, and the possibility of playing in 14 different tonalities. The following two examples are perhaps less well-known.

The Dutch harpsichord maker Jan Dirckszoon Tegelbergh (1578–1650), for instance, may have had links to the early modern scientist Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637). Much fascinating information concerning Tegelbergh has been unearthed by Cock Rijerkerk and published on the website, and from this work we know that as well as being a harpsichord maker in Dordrecht, Dirckszoon was also a clock maker, a carillonneur and supplier of gunpowder. Although Tegelbergh is not mentioned by name, Beeckman noted in his journal (available online), for February 1628, that he had received information on tuning from ‘De clavercynmaker ende clockstelder hier te Dort’. In the volume Knowledge and Culture in the Early Dutch Republic: Isaac Beeckman in Context (Amsterdam, 2022, p.337), Albert Clement suggests that the harpsichord maker in question was Jan Tegelbergh.

There is also a possible link between John Player (c1636–1707) and the important mathematician Euclid Speidell (fl.1662–1702), who wrote a book called Logarithmotechnia, or the Making of Numbers called Logarithms (available online) Moreover, in his pamphlet The Triangular Quadrant (London, 1662), John Brown recommended Speidell as a mathematics tutor, and directed his readers to the latter’s ‘Chamber at a Virginal Makers house in Thread-needle Street, and at the Kings head near Broadstreet end.’ Although Stephen Keene (fl.1655–1712) is known to have had premises in the same street from at least 1671, he only became a Freeman of the Joiners’ Company in November 1662, and thus the unnamed virginal maker is more likely to have been John Player. Whether or not Player made use of Speidell’s mathematical expertise in the design of his instruments is of course pure speculation, but it makes for a good story.

When one is not enough:

Evidence for the ownership of multiple harpsichords

Although there are only a handful of account books detailing the names of clients and the types of instruments they purchased, there is some evidence that royal families and institutions often acquired keyboard instruments in large numbers.

We know from an inventory made in 1700 of Ferdinando de’ Medici’s instrument collection in Florence, for example, that he owned 17 cembali, 15 spinette and two sordini, some of them antique instruments. The French royal family was similarly well supplied: the Inventaire Général des Effets appartenants au Roi existans dans les Magasins des Menus Plaisirs de Sa Majesté (1770) catalogues 25 stringed keyboard instruments, mainly by members of the Ruckers family, but also by Bourdet, Vater and Blanchet (archival source online).

There is some evidence, too, that theatres required multiple harpsichords. In 1738, Giuseppe Calandra (1668–1748) signed a six-year contract with the Royal Theatre in Turin to supply and tune two harpsichords for orchestral use, plus a harpsichord or spinet for each of the (principal) singers. Also, Stephen Heming (fl.1685–1715), whose premises were ideally situated in Playhouse Yard, Drury Lane, supplied the Theatre Royal in London with one harpsichord for Italian opera productions, but two harpsichords for English plays with ‘musical entertainment’. Moreover, Heming supplied all the principal singers at the Theatre Royal with a practice spinet. Perhaps the largest number of harpsichords supplied to a theatre is the nine provided by Giuseppe La Manna (fl.1787–97) in 1787 for the Santa Cecilia Theatre in Palermo, and it is likely that some of these, too, were used by the singers for warming up or practice purposes.

Musical training colleges could also be equipped with large numbers of keyboard instruments, as documented by Charles Burney’s visit in the early 1770s to the Conservatorio of St Onofrio, one of three such institutions in Naples at the time. The number of harpsichords, as well as the practice arrangements, were reported in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine (August 1771, pp.501–2) a few months later:

Wednesday, Oct. 31. This morning, I went with young Oliver, an English student, to his Conservatorio of St. Onofrio, and visited all the rooms where the boys practise, sleep, and eat. On the first flight of stairs was a trumpeter, screaming upon his instrument till he was ready to burst; on the second was a French horn, bellowing in the same manner. In the common practising room there was a Dutch concert, consisting of seven or eight harpsichords, more than as many violins, and several voices, all perfoming different things, and in different keys: other boys were writing in the same room; but it being holiday time, many were absent who usually study and practise in this room […] The beds, which are in the same room, serve for seats to the harpsichords and other instruments. 

Unfortunately, we don’t know whether the harpsichords supplied to the various theatres were at a special ‘theatre pitch’, and historical performance practitioners have yet to pick up on the seating arrangements adopted by the young musicians in Naples. There is, however, no doubting the prestige and financial security provided by the acquisition of such important contracts for supplying and maintaining instruments as those outlined above.

Lotteries and Raffles

Insurance records, newspaper advertisements, court proceedings and parish registers are perhaps the most important sources of information concerning the lives of historical keyboard instrument makers.

The register of prizewinners of an early seventeenth-century lottery held in Haarlem is a more obscure source, but provides us with the only known documentation concerning one Artus Gereyn, a clavecimbelmaker who lived next door to the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. Several other harpsichord and clavichord makers seem to have occasionally made use of lotteries and raffles, too, perhaps as much as a means of self-promotion as for fund raising.

In 1622, Cornelis Hartung organsied a lottery in Utrecht, the prizes for which included two claviorgans, an English harpsichord, two mother-and-child virginals, and a combined harpsichord and virginal. Moreover, the best evidence for the types of instruments made by the Copenhagen instrument maker and horologist Magnus Christensen, is provided by a list of them in the Adresseavisen (May 1764), which were the prizes for Christensen’s illegal private lottery. In addition to a musical clock and a double-manual harpsichord, there are seven unfretted clavichords, and a Clavicembalo di Gambo, perhaps a type of gut-strung clavichord with pedals. 

The best nugget of information we have concerning the early eighteenth-century English harpsichord maker Thomas Hancock is with regards a raffle of one of his instruments. While the ancestry and workshop training of Hancock remain a mystery, in part due to the commonality of his name, the notice in the Daily Post (17 December 1730) provides us with an address for him near Lincoln’s Inn Fields:

This is to give Notice, To all Masters and Lovers of Musick, THAT on Thursday the 23d of this Instant December, there will be an exceeding well-toned Harpsichord raffled for at the Half-Moon Tavern in Castle-yard, Holbourn (sic.). There are to be 25 subscribers at 2 Guinea (sic.) each. The Subscriptions are taken in at Daniel’s Coffee-house in Fleet-street, and at the Bar of the Half-Moon Tavern aforesaid. The Instrument will be there two Days before the Time, or may be seen at Mr. Hancock’s, Harpsichord-maker, in Queen-street by Lincoln’s-Inn Fields, by any Master of Musick.
N.B. This is to be advertised once more before the Time it is to be raffled for. If there is not the full Subscription the Money will be returned that Night.

Whether Artus Gereyn collected his winnings, Magnus Christensen was prosecuted for his illegal lottery, or if indeed Mr Hancock obtained a full subscription for his raffle and was thus able to dispose of his harpsichord in this way, are all unknowns.

Worth a Thousand Words

Did you know there are over 3800 photographs in BMO? You have probably seen the photo viewer for looking closer at the photos of a particular instrument, but have you discovered the powerful photo search tools? The screenshot is how results are shown using the 'Search > Photo' feature (click ‘Photos’ in the ‘Search’ menu). This example gives a scrolling birds-eye view of all photos from a specified collection. You can also search by maker, type, place of origin, or other criteria. From there you can either open the details page for a selected instrument or open the photo viewer to look closer at its photos.

A second useful photo feature is shown in the lower left. On the Advanced Search form, click the checkbox labeled, ‘Only return results with photos’ (at the bottom of the form). The search results are similar to any other advanced search, but returns only examples with photos and shows each found instrument with a thumbnail photo. From there, you can open the instrument's details page and see more photos if they exist.

Try both of these photo-search methods to view all photographs for a selected maker,  collection, or year of construction, or whatever combination of filters you choose. Some collections are especially well represented because their administrators know the benefits of having their collection on everyone's radar. They have made their online catalog photos freely sharable or have given us permission to extend the reach of their museum by including their photos in the database. Try, for example, either photo search method and enter in the collection field 'MIMEd' or 'Smithsonian' or 'Sigal' or 'SIMPK'. 

Where photos are lacking, and you have some you are free to share, open the instrument's details page and 'Click to Upload Images'. The upload process offers an easy online method that collects photo credits and optional captions. A BMO orientation video tells how to submit information and photos (the photo demo starts at the 4-minute point).

Photos add a wealth of visual information to the new online edition of ‘Boalch’. For identifying and correcting duplicate entries, photos are the ultimate tool, and for describing great amounts of detail about style, decoration, and construction, they provide what words cannot. 

Some photos in BMO are glamour shots, but since even poor photos can reveal critical evidence, we include some photos that are old, faded, or black and white . Some were taken during close examination of construction details or during repairs. Such photos show interiors with soundboards removed, internal inscriptions, and mechanical or decorative minutiae. 

The makers of harpsichords and clavichords never limited their artistic message to our ears. Every instrument takes its place in the decorative arts. It expresses the rich visual aesthetic of the time and place of its origin or gives testimony to the culture of the artisans in whose hands it was re-made. If you benefit from these photo resources, please also share your own photos for the benefit of your early keyboard colleagues.

Women in the harpsichord and clavichord trade

The role of women in the harpsichord and clavichord trade has been largely ignored until recently. There are a number of reasons for this.

Keyboard instrument narratives have traditionally relied upon extant instruments and their inscriptions, which typically refer to the patriarchal head of the workshop, and there are no known historical harpsichords or clavichords inscribed with a woman’s name.

Working within a male-dominated society, widows, such as Jane Harris (fl.1782–95) and Mary Shudi (fl.1774–97), who can be shown to have maintained harpsichord-making workshops, appear to have preferred to continue using their late partner’s name as a brand name. Also, roles such as maintaining workshop accounts and tuning ledgers, known to have been undertaken by Barbara Broadwood (1749–76), as well as the demonstration of instruments, are difficult to establish due to the lack of primary sources. Moreover, these important elements of musical-instrument making workshops as businesses remain underexplored.

Archives themselves are gender biased: rate books recording the name of the responsible taxpayer sometimes continue to list the male head of the household several years after their death; as disenfranchised members of society, women are entirely absent from eighteenth-century poll books; and baptismal registers always name the father first. Since workshop and family home generally coincided for musical instrument makers, it would be surprising if women did not play a role in family businesses. What that role was is not always easy to establish, but the following list provides a starting point for further investigations. Each name is linked to the relevant biography:

For more about the role of women in the broader musical instrument industry, see historian Jayme Kurland's website, InstrumentalWomen.

Harpsichord Makers and the French Revolution

Making a living from the sale of objects affordable only by the very wealthiest in society, it is not surprising that some musical instrument makers suffered significantly during the French Revolution, particularly those who were politically active. As shown by Adelson et al (The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 2015, pp.49–51), for instance, Sébastien Erard was denounced to the Revolutionary authorities in early September 1793 and the Erard premises raided by the police. Others were less fortunate.

During the early 1790s the brothers Gottfried Ludwig (Louis) and Jean-Frédéric Edelmann (harpsichord maker and composer respectively) were members of the Société des Amis de la Constitution (Club de jacobins) in Strasbourg, and Jean-Frédéric’s testimony contributed to the execution of a member of the second estate, a nobleman, in 1793. The following year, the two brothers were themselves accused of being traitors to the Revolution and guillotined on 17 July 1794. Details of the Tribunal proceedings were published in the press the following week:

Gazette nationale ou Le Moniteur universel (23 July 1794, p.1250, column 3): F. Edelmann, âgé de 45 ans, musicien à Strasbourg; L. Edermann (sic), âgé de 31 ans, fabricant d’instrumens;

Convicted of being declared enemies of the people; of conspiring within the Republic; of maintaining secret relations with enemies of the State; of imprisoning citizens; of wearing a white cockade [a symbol of the Ancien Régime]; of forming secret sects; of writing counter-Revolutionary texts; of aiding émigrés; of opposing recruitment; of plotting with the conspirator Schneider; of arousing fear; of bearing arms against the Republic, etc., etc., have been condemned to death.

Adam Seintzel, a previously unknown harpsichord maker of German heritage, probably suffered the same fate. According to a notice in the Mercure Universel (26 April 1794), Seintzel was accused of taking part in a poster campaign, a treasonable offence during the Reign of Terror, and was likely executed.

Ironically, another maker, Tobias Schmidt (fl.1788–1822), may have been a co-inventor of the guillotine, or at least the first person to make a working prototype of the guillotine, while Pascal Taskin (1723–93), previously Instrument Maker to Louis XVI and Keeper of the King’s Instruments, seems to have embraced the new order. As shown by documents transcribed by Closson (‘Pascal Taskin’, Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, 1911, pp.234–67), within days of the convocation of the Estates General, Taskin was writing letters to Jean-Philippe de Limbourg and Thomas Joseph Jehin (called l’abbé Jehin), both of Theux, his hometown, expressing anticlerical views, and in July 1790 was elected to represent the Marquessate of Franchimont at the National Assembly. More archives are probably available online that could add to our knowledge, but it is interesting to note that in the same year that Taskin took his seat as a parliamentarian he invented a special instrument for Anne-Aimée Armand: the Armandine, a gut-strung harp-psaltery. A unique example preserved at the Musée de la musique (inv. no. E355) has a soundboard painting, perhaps inspired by La Fontane’s ‘Le renard et les poulets d’Inde’, depicting a fox about to lunge at a chicken and a peacock. Whether, in this instance, the peacock symbolises royalty and the fox cleverness and adaptability, is a matter of debate.

Happy first birthday, BMO!

Charles Mould wrote in the preface to the 1995 print edition of ‘Boalch’ that the internet would soon be the better medium for free public access to the database. It took a while, but Boalch-Mould Online (BMO) finally went public as a free, interactive, public resource one year ago, on September 1, 2022.

As had each of the print editions, the new online version is a qualitative and quantitative leap forward. The original 1840 cutoff is now pushed to 1925 to encompass the historic first generation of the early keyboard revival, like historic #1 in the Dolmetsch-Chickering  production pictured here. Instruments by unknown makers, some with great historical significance, had also been excluded from all three print editions, but now are being entered as time permits.

Now also included are features that could not have been imagined when Donald Boalch began his work in the middle of the last century. BMO is a truly dynamic and cooperative enterprise in which all of its users are partners, creating a resource that is as accurate and up to date as we all make it.

Information searches that would have taken days in the print versions, can be completed in an instant. Maker biographies, often with links to related online sources, are continually updated and expanded by editor Lance Whitehead and are a click away from each instrument. BMO is becominga portal to resources throughout the internet.

Chances are very good that there are interactive features and research tools built into BMO that you have not yet discovered. Many are shown in the introductory videos, but others are waiting to be discovered. Try casting a wide net when running searches, sort on the columns, and scroll to the data you need. And let us know where we are getting it right and what can be better.

A Harpsichord of Considerable Note

A recent harpsichord restoration puts a dazzling spotlight on a remarkable harpsichord. Instruments continually reveal new insights about their origins as the tools and discipline of scholarship evolve and ‘forensic’ science expands the ability to see and interpret physical evidence. Our harpsichord (BMO-1617) known by some as ‘The Golden Harpsichord’ appeared in the 1956 edition of ‘Boalch’ (B1) as the work of ‘Hans Ruckers the Younger, otherwise Jean ’. By the third edition (B3, 1974) the instrument was reported to be ‘probably of French origin’ by an unknown maker. Grant O’Brien’s 2004 article in Early Keyboard Journal put the instrument under the proverbial microscope. Convincing physical evidence indicated a ‘Flemish’ origin yet decidedly and most surprisingly not from a member of the dominant Ruckers dynasty. The spectacular painted decoration and gilding continue to drive the efforts of art historians to identify what were clearly artists of the highest order.

Under Grant O'Brien's informed direction, the recent conservation demonstrated a more current, collaborative approach. While restoration used to be the province of instrument makers alone, more current ‘restorative conservation’ approaches involve a collaboration among instrument makers, specialist conservators, and other specialists, bringing to bear a broad range of scientific, artistic, craft, and musical expertise. 

Read about the instrument, its 1750 Ravalement by Francois Blanchet, its episodic provenance, and its past and recent restorations in its BMO entry, which includes many excellent photographs, links to a multi-media interactive brochure by the current owner and David McGuinness’ YouTube recital on the instrument. Stay tuned as research continues toward the precise attribution of the original instrument and its accomplished decorators.

Portfolio careers and multi-handedness

Few harpsichord makers appear to have been able to make a living solely from musical instrument making. Some, such as Robert Falkener and Longman & Broderip, combined harpsichord making with music publishing, and there is evidence that makers occasionally let rooms to supplement their income. Mary Shudi (the widow of Joshua Shudi), for example, placed a notice in the Public Advertiser (16 January 1775) confirming her intention of continuing her late husband’s harpsichord making business at 16 Berwick Street, St James Piccadilly, as well as offering a ‘genteel First Floor to lett (sic), with other Conveniences’. The large number of properties owned and let by various members of the Kirkman family probably added significantly to their flourishing harpsichord and piano making business. George Downing, who worked as a harpsichord maker during the 1760s and early 1770s, later concentrated on tuning and the sale of second-hand harpsichords, particularly those by Kirkman. Moreover, he invented a type of lamp, known as a ‘Chamber Lanthorn’, and in c1790 opened a warehouse at 5 New Street, Covent Garden, with a patent Lamp Shop on the ground floor and harpsichord showroom on the first floor (see notice in the World, 8 November 1790).

Other examples of portfolio careers include the organ builder and harpsichord maker Artus Geerdinghs (1564–1624), who held the post of ‘beyerman’ or bell ringer of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam from 1595, and Lorenzo Gusnasco da Pavia (fl.1494–1517), who combined the work of organ builder, stringed keyboard instrument maker, and art agent. William Barton took time out from his main job as keeper of the White Lyon Tavern in Gracechurch Street to patent his design for metal plectra, which he argued improved the tone of harpsichords and were more durable than traditional crow or raven quills. Perhaps the most extreme example, however, is that of Thomas Griffin: barber, peruke maker, keyboard instrument maker and professor of music. Evidence that he made harpsichords and spinets is provided by the accounts of Thomas Green, as well as a newspaper reference concerning ‘A fine toned Harpsichord by Mr. Griffin’ in the Public Advertiser (31 March 1757). Griffin’s term as professor of music at Gresham College was summarised in the London Evening Post (21–23 January 1772) in somewhat unflattering terms: 

THOMAS GRIFFIN, whose original profession was that of a barber and peruke-maker, which he followed for many years in London. He afterwards commenced organ-builder, which profession he followed till he was elected Music Professor in Gresham college, in the month of January 1763. He was shamefully illiterate, and understood as little of the science of Music, as he did of organ-building, which was a stolen trade; and the miserable monuments he has left behind are notorious proof of his want of skill in that profession.

As today, being a jack-of-all-trades ran the risk of being the master of none.

Surviving Instruments by Type and Region

Boalch-Mould Online allows statistical analyses that would have been nearly impossible in the print editions. We searched the database for surviving instruments of each type from various regions and plotted the results on this graph. The findings show the percent of instruments of that type from that region: The first bar showing, for example, that 39% of the surviving harpsichords were made in the United Kingdom.

For purposes of this analysis, region names are based on modern borders; 'harpsichords' include all plucking instruments; and only instruments up to 1840 are included (eliminating 'revival' instruments, which tend to ignore historical style preferences). 

The chart raises some interesting observations, the most dramatic perhaps being the contrast between the UK—which produced the greater number of surviving harpsichords and very few clavichords—while Germany and Austria, produced the most clavichords and relatively few harpsichords. The contrast is surprising considering how many instrument makers working in England were themselves of German heritage. Clearly makers knew it was good business to build the type of instrument dictated by the local market.

Eighteenth-century London was well positioned to be a prolific producer of harpsichords, because of increasing prosperity there resulting from the ongoing industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class. This provided a ready market, both for elaborate harpsichords and for the ubiquitous bentside spinet. In France, undoubtedly many more harpsichords were produced than have survived; the comparatively small number in the chart reflects the destruction of many harpsichords during revolutionary period (1789–99).

Antwerp (in modern-day Belgium) has pride of place in harpsichord history, yet not a single clavichord survives that is definitely known to be from there. The comparatively large numbers of Scandinavian clavichords, on the other hand, reflect the great popularity of a regional type influenced by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. It stood up well to the climate, and was especially suited to the repertoire of the time. So, whereas in England, a minor gentry family might have a spinet, later exchanging it for a small square piano, in Sweden the clavichord was just the most practical domestic instrument available, and in Germany, the clavichord was valued for its 'Innigkeit' and expressive possibilities; .

Finally, it should be noted that the print editions excluded instruments by unknown makers, and BMO is only in the early stages adding them. Some regions such as Spain and Portugal might become more significant in a future re-assessment. 

 Test your own theories in the database. From the Advanced Search menu, enter a city or country in the 'Where made' box. 

Public Houses and Taverns

Public houses and taverns occasionally feature in the lives of harpsichord makers working in London: as places of abode, of work and sometimes of recreation. 

William Rock (c1744–1800), for example, combined the role of vintner with that of harpsichord maker, and ran the ‘Horseshoe and Magpye’ on Bridge Street, St Margaret Westminster, during the period c1754–65. Thus, three anonymous newspaper notices concerning the sale, tuning and repair of harpsichords at this venue in the early 1760s probably all refer to Rock. 

The organ and harpsichord maker John Crang (1717–74) seems to have mostly lived in public houses: an advert in the Daily Gazetteer (16 August 1740) refers readers to the ‘Elephant and Castle’ without Temple Bar, and he subsequently had premises at the ‘White Lion’ in Wych Street, St Clement Danes (from c1750 onwards). 

It is well known that taverns, such as the ‘Crown and Anchor’ on the Strand, were used as concert venues, but there is also evidence that they were occasionally used as sale rooms: a notice in the Daily Post (17 December 1730) advertised that one of Thomas Hancock’s harpsichords was to be raffled at the ‘Half-Moon Tavern’. Importantly, the instrument could be viewed at Hancock’s premises in Queen Street, and it is possible that the raffle was a means of easing a cash flow crisis. 

Finally, circumstantial evidence that members of Kirkman’s workforce may occasionally have enjoyed a drink at ‘The Fountain’ in Broad Street, Carnaby Market, premises that apparently doubled as a Masonic Lodge, is provided by the inquest into the death of Peter Thom in 1795. According to the landlord, Thom and his friends used to meet at his house on a Saturday night and on the night in question, having decided that it was too late to obtain entry to his lodgings, Thom had decided to sleep in the Tap Room. He was found dead on the Sunday morning by a servant girl, who had opened a window in response to one of Thom’s friends who had come looking for him. The coroner concluded that Thom had died of natural causes.

Living and working arrangements in the Shudi and Kirkman households

It is easy to assume that family members of harpsichord-making dynasties all lived and worked in the same premises, particularly if instruments survive with more than one name attached. However, this was not necessarily the case. While the firm of Shudi & Broadwood made harpsichords until at least 1791 inscribed with both their names, for instance, there is new evidence to show that from at least the time of his marriage in 1779, Burkat Shudi the younger resided not at 33 Great Pulteney Street, St James Piccadilly, where his brother-in-law John Broadwood lived, but in Park Court, St Margaret Westminster.

Similarly, while there are 60 harpsichords inscribed with the names of both Jacob and Abraham Kirkman (uncle and nephew), the two lived separate lives and may even have run separate workshops. During the period 1760–70, Abraham Kirkman is recorded as a rate payer for premises in Great Pulteney Street, while Jacob Kirkman paid the local taxes on premises in Broad Street. Subsequently, they lived next door to each other: Abraham at 18, and Jacob at 19 Broad Street. Moreover, there is only one insurance policy in the name of both Jacob and Abraham Kirkman (1772), and while Jacob insured a complex of workshops, warehouses and sawpits in Castle Lane, Southwark in 1779, it was Abraham who insured the workshops at 19 Broad Street in 1780 and 1781, suggesting that the two worked at different locations from the late 1770s onwards. 

Other recent finds concerning the Shudi family include the identification of Burkat Shudi the elder’s 12 children, circumstantial evidence that he may have got his soundboard wood direct from Switzerland, and a newspaper notice suggesting that Joshua Shudi suffered from tuberculosis. Local tax records for all London-based makers are gradually being entered into the database.

John Wilbrook: Tabel's Man

Relatively little is known about the harpsichord maker John
Wilbrook, a German émigré who worked in London during the 1720s and 30s. Recent archival discoveries, however, suggest that he may have succeeded to the workshop of Herman Tabel in Oxendon Street, St Martin in the Fields. This helps make sense of the inscription on the underside of the soundboard of the 1730 Wilbrook harpsichord (BMO-2052): Johannes Wilbrook Londoni Fecit, Tabels man

Only two instruments survive from Wilbrook’s workshop, but newspaper evidence suggests that he may have been one of only a handful of makers who built clavichords in London during the Georgian period. Who continued Wilbrook’s workshop is also a tantalising question. 

  To view both Willbrook entries in BMO, search any part of his name in Menu > Search > Advanced > Maker. To see Willbrook's full biography, click the biography button - 

A 1682 Rectangular Virginal by Salodiensis/Salodij

User Staas Bruinsma alerted us of this virginal, now entered as BMO-2231. With its untouched patina intact and its musical function restored, the instrument comes from the collection of Prof. Dr. R. Ewerhart, sold at auction by Galerie Moenius in Wassenach, Germany. The BMO entry includes links to the online auction catalog entry with background about how the instrument was discovered in a northern Italian henhouse. 

  To see the BMO entry, click the photo at the left and check out the YouTube video demonstration by Els Biesemans and the auction entry in the links dropdown at the top of the BMO Details Page.

Schmahl Family Clavichords

Three generations of the Schmahl family were prominent clavichord makers for around thirty years at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. They made both fretted and unfretted instruments: Christoph Friedrich Schmahl (1739–1814), in particular, made fretted clavichords with a full five-octave compass, a comparatively rare type. Schmahl family clavichords have a distinctive and elegant style of keylever carving, in a ‘spoon’ pattern; finding this on an unsigned clavichord is one of the pointers which may lead to a Schmahl attribution.

At least 22 clavichords signed by, or attributed to, members of the Schmahl family are known to exist today. 14 were listed in the third edition of ‘Boalch’; it has now been possible to trace five more and add them to the BMO database, and also to improve and update the existing entries. Work continues to establish the facts about several others.

  To view the Schmahl clavichord entries in BMO, search the name in Menu > Search > Advanced > Maker.