Keyboard Instruments

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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A Kirchmann harpsichord at Monticello
A Kirchmann harpsichord at Monticello

Although not himself a performer on keyboard instruments,[1] Thomas Jefferson had a lifelong interest in their use and development. His actual purchases of harpsichords and pianos were prompted mainly by his desire for the amusement and musical education of his wife and daugthers. His interest went beyond mere ownership, however, and he kept himself informed of the latest improvements in musical instruments much as he did of those in scientific and mechanical instruments.

Jefferson made his first recorded purchase in 1771. He had initially ordered a clavichord to be made in Hamburg, but he saw a fortepiano, was "charmed by it" and changed his order to a piano "worthy of acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it..."[2] The lady was Martha Wayles Skelton, who became his wife in 1772.

In 1773, he showed an interest in acquiring Robert Carter's organ, but was unsuccessful in the attempt. In 1779, for unknown reasons, he sold the 1771 piano to a German prisoner-of-war living nearby: "Sold my pianoforte to Gen. Riedesel. He is to give me 100.",[3] Although no transaction is recorded, it it possible that Jefferson took the piano back when the Riedesels left the area, for in December, 1790 Jacob Rubsamen notes "an elegant Harpsichord Pianoforte" at Monticello.

While in Philadelphia in 1783, prior to his voyage to Europe, Jefferson paid 3 pounds for a clavichord evidently for the use of his daughter Martha. Once having arrived in France, he was bent on obtaining for Martha the best possible keyboard instrument, but was unable to choose between the virtues of the harpsichord and the pianoforte until 1786. In the meantime a pianoforte was hired (January 8, 1785) at the rate of 12 livres per month. In England in the spring of 1786, Jefferson made the acquaintance of the noted musician, Charles Burney. When he finally decided in favor of a harpsichord, he wrote John Paradise in London (May 25, 1786) to request Burney to oversee the purchase. The harpsichord was to be made by the shop of Jacob Kirchmann (Kirkman) of solid mahogany, without inlay, and with a double set of keys. After its manufacture, Adam Walker was to equip it with a Celestini stop, a device which allowed notes to be sustained much as does the sostenuto pedal of a piano. The harpsichord cost about 71 guineas and did not arrive in Paris until November of 1787.

While in the process of purchasing one of the best available harpsichords, Jefferson inquired of Burney in July 1786 about the best place to purchase an organ, which we wanted for a room 24 feet square with an 18 foot ceiling. Burney replied that London had the best organmakers, but Jefferson seems never to have actually bought one.

In the remaining years of his stay in Paris, Jefferson carried on a detailed correspondence about keyboard instruments with the American musician, Francis Hopkinson. Hopkinson wrote of his latest improvements on the quilling of the harpsichord or of applying keys to the harmonica while Jefferson responded with descriptions of the latest keyboard developments in Europe. One he was much taken with was the foot-bass invented by Krumfoltz.

There is no record of any further purchases until 1798 when Jefferson bought a harpsichord for his second daughter, Maria. The first payment of $40 was made on 21 March to a Harper of Philadelphia. This instrument was apparently not quite as good as Martha's, because of the lack of the Celestini stop, and was deemed most suitable for playing in small rooms.[4]

His interest in keyboard improvements induced Jefferson to purchase another instrument in 1800, "partly for its excellence & convenience, partly to assist a very ingenious, modest & poor young man, who ought to make a fortune by his invention."[5] This was the so-called "portable grand" invented by John Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia. It was a forte-piano in which the strings were perpendicular to the keys, allowing the case to measure just 3' 4" x 3' 6" x 15", and thus portable. Through the months of January to May 1800, Jefferson paid a total of $264.00 for the instrument, evidently the 5 1/2 octave model. The family was delighted with its sound, but the piano did not keep its tune well. For this reason, when Maria was given her choice of the harpsichord of 1798 and the piano, she decided on the former and the piano was returned to Hakwins' shop sometime in 1801-2. Jefferson did not despair of having the ideal new instrument, because he hoped that Hawkins might send him in return for the piano one of the instruments which Hawkins was developing at the time, a claviole. This was a type of pianoforte with sustained notes. Hawkins appears never to have sient one.

No further purchases are recorded until 1825 when Martha Jefferson Randolph wrote to her daughter, Ellen Coolidge, about the purchase of a piano [6] Only a few months before his death, Jefferson wrote that "the pianoforte is also in place."


  1. This article is based on Helen Cripe, Research Report, Undated.
  2. Jefferson to Thomas Adams, June 1, 1771.
  3. MB, 1:478.
  4. Jefferson to Mary Jefferson Eppes, June 6, 1798. PTJ, 30:390.
  5. Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, February 11, 1800. PTJ, 31:365.
  6. Martha Jefferson Randolph to Ellen Coolidge, August 2, 1825.

Further Sources