Keyboards enriched colonial lifestyle

Even before they opened Colonial Williamsburg's first exhibition buildings, the pioneering stewards of the Historic Area recognized the importance of music in recreating the look, sound and feel of 18th-century life in an Anglo-American setting.

Two years before dedicating the Raleigh Tavern in 1932, they purchased an early 1800s grand piano for use in the restored town — and early on they identified the ballroom of the reconstructed Governor's Palace as a prime place to demonstrate the indispensable role music played in colonial culture.

During the nearly 85 years that followed, however, the foundation's persistent study and pursuit of the keyboard instruments that made up such a prominent part of the colonial capital's musical landscape has taken place largely in secret.

Though some individual examples have been unveiled in the galleries of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in the past, most of the rare works in a collection that has long ranked among the nation's best haven't been seen by the public before — or at least not until the opening late last November of a landmark show that was a dozen years in the making.

"Our collection of keyboard instruments has always been strong — and over time it's become one of the most important in the country, with spectacular examples focusing on the history and development of these instruments in England and America," says John R. Watson, conservator and curator of musical instruments at Colonial Williamsburg.

"When you put them altogether you have a rich history. But it's one that has never been told. Most of these instruments are little known because they have not been on exhibit before."

Made up of 29 examples laid out across two large galleries, "Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America, 1700-1830" showcases about two-thirds of the foundation's collection as well as three works lent by other institutions. Two other instruments from the collection can be found in nearby galleries.

Taken all together, they illustrate a period when Williamsburg played host to America's second known public performance on a piano — and when both the royal governor and influential councilor Robert Carter left records of having pianos in their homes.

So pervasive was the role music played in the daily lives of Virginia's middle-class and elite, for example, that Thomas Jefferson purchased, rented or attempted to purchase nearly a dozen different keyboard instruments during his lifetime.

"From every house a constant tuting may be listned to upon one instrument or another," wrote wealthy merchant planter Landon Carter after a 1771 visit to Williamsburg.

"Whilst the Vocal dogs will no doubt compleat the howl."

Despite its passion for music, the colony's interest in keyboard instruments changed substantially over time, with the focus moving from the spinet and harpsichord to the square piano — and then the grand piano — over a period of about 130 years.

But as Watson explains, that long journey in taste and fashion was anything but linear or simple.

Though the sound produced by London instrument-maker Stephen Keene's diminutive 1700 spinet was restricted to one string for each note, the instrument was capable of producing a sweet tone in a stylish, relatively affordable and compact piece of furniture, making it ideal for playing music in a domestic setting.

It also was a favored instrument of famed English composer Henry Purcell.

"The spinet came to England from France with the restoration of Charles II — and that gave the new instrument a royal endorsement," Watson says.

"So it was fashion — and a change in tone — that made it the instrument of choice for a long time."

The harpsichord had its fair share of fans, too, many of them attracted by the richer, more complex sound of its 3-string notes and its lower cost.

With the influx of talented German instrument-makers who transformed London into the world's pre-eminent producer of keyboard instruments during the 1700s, its popularity only grew, making it a darling in the homes of Anglo-America's rapidly growing gentry class and an increasingly stylish performer among the royals.

Just as the harpsichord was overtaking the spinet in importance, however, German immigrant John Zumpe introduced the first square piano, taking the London music scene by storm with an instrument that was not only simpler and cheaper to produce but also far more expressive.

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