The story of a French survivor and its progeny
The original, 18th-century Nicholas Dumont harpsichord, upon which this gorgeous modern reproduction is based, is a survivor. It was made in 1707 for a wealthy French family whose records indicate that it had been housed at the Château du Touvet in Isère, France, between 1719 and the beginning of the French Revolution some 82 years later. To protect it from discovery and possible demolition as a symbol of the French upper class, the original harpsichord was hidden away in the château’s granary where it remained forgotten for more than 250 years until its rediscovery in the early 1970s. Today, the Dumont instrument is acknowledged to be the earliest surviving 18th-century French double-manual harpsichord.
The NMM’s Dumont progeny was made in 1992 by Tom and Barbara Wolf (The Plains, Virginia) who, among others, had the opportunity to study and measure the 1707 Dumont after its discovery and move into an American private collection (it is a five-octave harpsichord: FF-f3, 2 x 8’, 1 x 4’, with a buff stop). As a modern convenience, a transposing mechanism was built into the reproduction that allows it to be set at one of three different pitch levels (A=392, 415, or 440 Hz).
Harpsichordist Gordon Collins commissioned the instrument for his own use and premiered it in 1998 at a live concert held at the Library of Congress. It remained in Collins’ home, periodically maintained by the Wolfs, until Collins’ generous donation to the NMM in 2017 (NMM 15059). The museum plans to feature this instrument, as musically appropriate, for performances in its new Janet Wanzek Performance Hall.
The intricate soundboard and case paintings are the result of four years of painstakingly dedicated effort by the renowned Boston artist and scholar, Sheridan Germann. Collins requested that the color scheme, keywell and exterior borders of the case be adapted from the 1733 François-Etienne Blanchet harpsichord currently preserved in the Château du Thoiry, France. The overall composition of the case decor is taken from that instrument as well, but birds painted on the sides of the Blanchet have been replaced with baskets of flowers, cameos of Muses (Terpsichore, Euterpe, and Erato, from front to back), the god Apollo, and a cluster of instruments at the far end. Germann has observed that in France, one sometimes encounters mythological lid paintings, as is hinted at here by a bucolic waterfall and river scene interspersed with ancient ruins, statues, a bridge, and a few young couples. The soundboard itself abounds with traditional flowers, birds, blue borders, and an exuberant wreath of flowers around the gilded rosette. An additional line of single blossoms extends around the entire inner surface of the case and over the jackrail.
Originally published in the National Music Museum Newsletter Volume 45, Number 1 – Winter 2021