Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Music To My Ears: Wilton's Pianoforte

Accession #: 1903.5
Item: Pianoforte

Of all the furnishings in an elegant eighteenth century house that suggested the wealth, culture, and refinement of its inhabitants, none articulated status more clearly than the presence of a finely crafted harpsichord, clavichord, or piano forte. For most of this period however, the harpsichord and its variants, along with the flute and the fiddle, provided much of the musical entertainment for Virginia’s gentry. Far from being considered mere embellishment to gracious living music, and the dance, were an essential part of the colony’s social life, as reflected in diarist Philip Vickers Fithian’s famous observation that “Virginians are of genuine blood; they will dance or die.” That William Randolph III and his family shared this enthusiasm is suggested by the beguiling portrait of his daughter, Lucy Randolph Burwell, whom the artist captured playing a mandolin, and it may be imagined that a harpsichord would have found its way into Wilton sometime sooner rather than later. This is only conjecture, alas, as the earliest extant inventory of the Wilton’s furnishings was done in 1815, subsequent to the death of William III’s grandson, William IV. There, occupying pride of place as the most costly item in the house, was a harpsichord valued at a princely $200.

Interestingly, the harpsichord already represented old technology by this time, having been displaced by the more versatile pianoforte. Developed in Italy during the early eighteenth century the pianoforte, since abbreviated to piano in modern terminology, provided greater variation of tone and more volume than the harpsichord could offer. The musical terms “piano” and “forte” actually mean “quiet” and “loud.” By 1800 most English and American makers of keyboard instruments had abandoned harpsichords in favor of the pianoforte. Foremost among them was the London firm of “John Broadwood and Sons” which traced its lineage to a young Swiss immigrant, Burkat Shudi, who apprenticed himself to a maker of harpsichords in Soho in 1718. Later establishing his own workshop, Shudi achieved some reputation producing instruments for such notables as George Frideric Handel; Frederick, Prince of Wales; and King George II. In fact, the firm which he began has made instruments for every British monarch since. Little wonder that in 1765 when the child prodigy Mozart visited London, he performed upon a Shudi.

Produced in 1800 by “John Broadwood and Son, Makers to His Majesty and the Princesses,” it is a tribute to the cabinet builder’s art with its mahogany-veneered case, satinwood keyboard surround, and boxwood inscription cartouche identifying its origin. Featuring Chippendale type legs with beading, and Hepplewhite bolt brasses with a Hepplewhite brass to secure the top, it has long served as a principal adornment of Wilton’s magnificent parlor. Though missing a pedal, it is in otherwise excellent condition since its expert cleaning and refurbishment in 2002. As rare as it is beautiful, it is estimated that during the period of its manufacture there was only one grand piano produced for every twenty to thirty of the less costly square pianos, and that there are currently but fifteen Braodwood & Son grand pianos dating from between 1795-1805 in the United States. An enduring testimony to Mrs. Hugh McGuire’s esteem and affection for the Colonial Dames of Virginia and for Wilton, as well as to her own “discriminating taste,” it is in every way a fitting centerpiece for what has been termed one of America’s one hundred most beautiful rooms.

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