By John Watson
Welcome to Keys, Hammers and Pipes, a new documentary blog — or “docublog” — about a remarkable musical instrument and its return after two centuries to its original home and to its musical voice. I’m John Watson, Colonial Williamsburg’s conservator of instruments and curator of musical instruments. Switching the conservator and curator hats from time to time, I’ll give you frequent updates about a project that is surely the largest and most fascinating ever to come to the instruments conservation lab.
Standing 9 feet tall and nearly 7 feet wide, this combination grand piano and pipe organ, or “organized piano,” as it was called in its day, might have been the largest and grandest domestic musical instrument in America when it arrived from London in 1799. With help from Colonial Williamsburg’s staff of conservators and historians, and perhaps with some help from you, we will try to solve a number of challenging puzzles.
In the opening few posts we’ll explore together who made the instrument and who first owned it. How did such a surprisingly grand instrument find its way to tidewater Virginia when it would have been equally at home in any of the treasure houses of England?
Where did the instrument spend the two centuries after it left Williamsburg, and how did it find its way back to Williamsburg in 2012?
We’ll continue to track down answers about the organized piano’s history as we go on to grapple with a whole different kind of question facing my co-workers and me. What is the instrument’s physical condition after nearly two centuries since its last major repair? Should it be restored to its former visual and musical beauty?
Three of the organ stop knobs project from the delicately carved stand.
Conventional restoration methods could transform the instrument to look brand new inside and out, but wouldn’t that deprive it of its historical skin and turn it into a mere copy of itself?
Since ancient times, philosophers have called this the paradox of restoration. You might have heard the old joke about the ax George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree, its head and handle now both replaced. Isn’t it just as absurd to replace parts of historic objects and consider them back to “original condition”?
How do museum conservators handle this paradox? What is “restorative conservation” and how does it differ from the common forms of restoration?
Plans to put the instrument back in playing condition are why those last questions are at the core of what this blog will explore. My 2010 book entitled “Artifacts in Use: The Paradox of Restoration and the Conservation of Organs” is a detailed study of the principles that will guide our work on the organized piano. This project will put to practical use the principles of restorative conservation as I outlined them in the book.
Join me for an adventure into conservation, restoration, and America’s musical past.
— John Watson
Read more about 18th-century music: