A BMO Microblog for new discoveries, recent entries, and user tips (scroll down)

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.