A regular question we get from visitors is: why do we have a harpsichord maker?
Fair enough, so to introduce what hopefully will be regular and useful contributions to this site, I’ll answer this question and justify my existence here at the same time.
Take a quick look at our shop ads from the 18th century Virginia Gazette. Among them is one placed by Benjamin Bucktrout when he took over the shop from Anthony Hay in 1767. While the ad emphasizes the continuation of the cabinetmaking under new management, Bucktrout notes at its end that he could make and repair spinets and harpsichords.
It remains the only documented offer of this kind of work in Tidewater Virginia before the Revolution. Amazing, but there it is.
Did Bucktrout make any instruments? We have no way of fully knowing, since we lack all of the internal shop daybooks, ledgers and accounts. Isolated references to work performed by the shop over its 25-year operation survive in individual private and business accounts, but that is not nearly as good as having running, day by day accounts over the period.
We can say that it was not a frivolous offer. Among those isolated charges are Bucktrout’s making a packing case for shipping a harpsichord for Robert Carter III, one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, when Carter moved out of Williamsburg back to his estate on the Virginia Northern Neck in 1772. Even better are three recently discovered receipts written by Bucktrout, charging Williamsburg attorney St. George Tucker for spinet and harpsichord maintenance work. The two 1792 receipts detail the making and installing of 37 spinet tongues for jacks. These are the little pivot pieces that actually hold the plectra inside the instrument, as in these photos.
The third receipt, from 1799, records Bucktrout “unpacking & fixing up an Organized Harpsichord.” Suffice right now to say that this may have been an interesting combination of organ and harpsichord, not unheard of in the history of keyboard instruments. More on that perhaps in a later posting.
Granted, these receipts are some thirty years after Bucktrout’s ad about spinet work. But it all tells me that Bucktrout himself may have had some background in instrument work in England before he emigrated to Virginia. A cabinetmaker offering keyboard instrument work? It is not without precedent, that skills in one branch of woodworking opened the door to employment in another. Both of the leading 18th century London harpsichord makers, Burkat Shudi and Jacob Kirckmann, began their careers initially trained as joiner and cabinetmaker, respectively. Their skills led them to London where they found work in an established harpsichord shop where they learned a new trade on-the-job. They went on to professional and financial successes in their second careers.
In colonial Virginia, it paid to be a versatile tradesman and offer a variety of services. So while a cabinet shop offering spinet and harpsichord services might seem an odd combination at first thought (and indeed they normally were not connected like this, but practiced separately), history tells us that they may not have been as remote from each other as we previously thought.
So that is the history that makes my presence possible here in the Hay shop site. I have inherited the mantle of good work and artisanship from George Wilson and Marcus Hansen, my former masters who served Colonial Williamsburg for decades in the old Musical Instrument Makers Shop (anybody out there remember that place?) and in the development of our current spinet work. I hope my work proves worthy of their legacy.
Below is a picture of my current spinet, in the assembly stages. It is based on a 1726 spinet made by Cawton Aston, in Colonial Williamsburg’s collections. I’ll keep everyone updated as it comes together. I hope to share, as I can, the successes and pitfalls of the processes. I’ve already got a couple of ideas. See you all soon.