By John Watson
I first heard the rumors in 1988. A large “organized piano” which purported to have been in Virginia since 1799 had resurfaced. It was offered to the Colonial Williamsburg collection shortly before my arrival at that time. Due to the instrument’s large size, its condition and its unknown past, the instrument was thought unsuitable for our collection at the time.
By the time I had a chance to visit the Richmond shop where the organized piano had been offered for sale, the instrument and the shop had vanished.
Some years later while working on her master’s thesis, Sarah Glosson made another discovery. An 1806 inventory of Shirley Plantation (35 miles from Williamsburg), listed an organized harpsichord. The significance of that historical tidbit would become clear only later.
An even more surprising piece of local musical history came to light some years later, again involving a combination keyboard instrument. While picking through some archives on microfilm, Colonial Williamsburg researcher James Hollins discovered this tantalizing document:
Dated May 27, 1799, and written by Williamsburg cabinet maker Benjamin Bucktrout, it was a receipt acknowledging payment for setting up an organized harpsichord. The proud owner of the new instrument was St. George Tucker, a prominent judge and educator whose house still stands on Palace Green.
Although organized harpsichords had existed in England since the 1500s, the thought that two could appear here in Virginia, especially so long after pianos had eclipsed harpsichords in popularity, seemed almost impossible.
My determination to find the organized piano—last seen in the 1980s—had grown very strong when an unexpected break finally came. Retired Metropolitan Museum curator Laurence Libin forwarded to me an email from William Van Pelt bearing the news. The subject line captured my full attention: “Organized Piano in Richmond.” The email went on to say the instrument was in urgent need of a home. The object of my search was being handed over on the proverbial silver platter.
Two historical documents mentioned organized harpsichords, one at Judge Tucker’ house in 1799 and the other listed in the Shirley inventory of 1806. There was also now an actual organized upright grand piano also dated 1799.
It didn’t take long to connect the dots. The most plausible explanation was that these three unimaginably rare and unexpected musical instruments were one and the same.
At a time when the great majority of pianos were square pianos, the outline of the upright grand piano was more similar to the familiar harpsichord shape than a typical piano’s. The gallery of photos below show why the term harpsichord could have been used for a grand piano at a time when square pianos were the norm.
In the next posting, we’ll talk about the organized piano’s return to Williamsburg.