Chelveston 2018

Saturday April 7th

Thank you to all who came along and made this a great party.  I think we all had fun, and a chance to meet new friends and to chat to old ones.  Special thanks to Derek Adlam for entertaining us with fascinating tales of his time at the Colt Collection, Finchcocks, and Welbeck.  And thanks to Allie Cade for her presentation about amateur-built square pianos in America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  We had time for music as well, and thanks to those who played the clavichord, square piano, and spinet for us. 

Thanks also to those who brought instruments along,  not least to Olaf and Charlotte van Hees who brought two splendid (and quite heavy!) Dutch square pianos from Holland.  We assembled fourteen instruments in total - here's a picture of about half of them...

...and here's the other half.  Altogether there were six clavichords, one clavisimbalum, four spinets, and three square pianos.  

We are already planning Chelveston 2019, and the hall has been booked for Saturday April 13th.

Chelveston 2018 - The Instruments

Thanks to our Friends, we had a fine collection of instruments at the party.  Some of my favourites will be featured on this page over the next few weeks.

Haxby Square Piano 1787

 Most of our English square pianos were made in London, but there were a few notable exceptions.  Thomas Haxby was born in York, the second of seven children, and baptised on 15th October 1739.  Robert, his father,  was a carpenter, and it was most probably from him that his son learned the basic skills that were to serve him so well.

  There is no record of his education or of an apprenticeship, but in 1751, at the age of 21, he was appointed Clerk for the parish of St Michael-le-Belfry, and also as 'singing man' in York Minster.  It is here that we find the first evidence of his involvement with musical instruments, for in 1754, having repaired the bellows of the Minster organ, he was paid six guineas annually for tuning it.  

  He married Mary Eatwell in 1756, and shortly afterwards set up a music shop in Blake Street, selling a wide range of goods and services, but not apparently yet making instruments himself.  

  The first of his instruments that we know about , after repairing the organ in Leeds Parish church in 1760, is a new organ for St Mary's church Scarborough in 1762  His earliest known plucked stringed keyboard instrument is a spinet from 1764, and his first recorded harpsichord was dated 1772.  

  Like most of his contemporaries, he turned to piano-making in the last quarter of the eighteenth-century, and at least 20 instruments survive, dated from 1772 to 1794.  He died in 1796.


  His pianos are basically similar to the London instruments, but have a character of their own.  Certainly they are at least as good as the London pianos, and are beutifully-made and decorated.

  The example that came to Chelveston is dated 1787, and carries the number 209 in several places.  As well as being exceptionally pretty, it has a beautiful sound as we heard, and is a delight to play.

  Thanks to Peter and Mary Berg for bringing this fine instrument.  They also have a Haxby spinet, which came to Chelveston last year, and is the instrument used on one of the very few spinet recordings available (see the Friends Recordings page).

Spinet by John Player, c.1700, and 

Keyboard Compass and the 'Broken Octave'

The instrument that many of us call 'The English Spinet' was probably invented in Italy.  The earliest known examples of this beautiful and practical design were made by Giralomo Zenti in the second quarter of the seventeenth century, and it is known that he came to England in 1664 as 'the King's virginal maker', but he returned to Rome in the same year.  However, his design for a compact and practical musical instrument quickly found favour, and was adopted by several of the established English virginal-makers.  It seems likely that Charles Haward was one of the earliest makers, and his instruments receive favourable mention in Samuel Pepys' diary.  Undoubtedly Pepys bought a spinet from him.  However, one of the strongest links with the virginal makers is provided by John Player.  The contrast between John Player's rectangular virginals (example seen below, co-incidentally made in 1664) and the new wing-shaped spinets could hardly be greater.

We often speak of instruments being 'newly-discovered' but of course the generations who have cared for them knew that they were there all the time.  However, it is fair to say that the John Player spinet that came to Chelveston has been keeping a low profile for very many years.


It is not dated, but it was probably made at the end of the seventeenth century.  John Player was born about 1634 , the son of a shepherd Giles Player in Gloucestershire.  He came to London,and was apprenticed to Gabriel Townsend (another of the virginal-makers) for 7 years from 1650.  He was created a Freeman of the Joiners' Company in June 1658, and was Master of the Company from 1684 to 1688.  His end is uncertain, but he probably died or retired between 1705 and 1708.  


It has recently been expertly restored by Andy Durand,  and the transformation of the nameboard marquetry (although by no means the most challenging of the tasks involved) does offer a good 'before & after' comparison.

As well as the 1664 virginal (in the Cobbe Collection) at least ten of John Player's spinets have survived, most famously the example in the collection of the V&A museum, now in the care of the Horniman museum.  A beautiful replica of this one by our dearly-remembered  friend Robert Shaftoe was brought to Chelveston 2018 by Joy Shaftoe.  


Keyboard Compass and the 'Broken Octave'

The keyboards of the early English spinets changed considerably between 1680 and 1720.  One feature was the use of the 'Broken Octave'.  Because key-signatures with few sharps or flats were usual, and the notes in the bass were harmonic rather than melodic, there was little or no call for some of the lowest notes such as GG#, AA#  and C# and D#.  This meant that a keyboard with the useful bass note of GG could make use of the little-used C# and D# keys to play the notes AA and BB (or BBflat).  In the organ in particular, this offered a considerable saving in space and material for large pipes.  There was some saving of space on a keyboard instrument, but presumably also keyboard players expected this.  The result was a keyboard that appears to start on BB, but in fact plays GG.  This arrangement we call the 'short octave'

  Towards the end of the seventeenth century, music began to include lower 'accidentals' (probably Eflat at first) and so the lowest two sharp keys were required to play the notes we now expect.  However, probably because players were used to it, rather than expand the keyboard, the 'broken octave' was introduced.  At first the D# key was split to play BB (or BBflat) from the front part, and the chromatic note D# (= Eflat) from the back half.  At least one early Haward spinet is like this.  Then the C# also was split, to play AA from the front part, and C# from the back.  This required (as well as extra strings and jacks) some ingenious engineering of the keys themselves.  The picture below shows the broken octave arrangement (on a replica of a 1704 Blunt) with the C, C# and D keys removed.  I hope this makes it clearer!

This arrangement continued until about 1710 or shortly before, at which time the keyboard was made wider, and all notes played as we now expect them to play today.  At first, the GG# was omitted...

..but this was included by about 1715.  


  There were developments at the top end as well.   On the  c. 1700 Player which came to Chelveston, the top note is d'''.  But earlier spinets only went up to c''', as in the V&A spinet and its replica.  The original is believed to have been made c. 1685.  By about 1710, the top had reached at first e''', then f''' (as in the 'freelance' instrument above) and finally g'''. This remained the standard compass of the English spinet until near the end, when a few late examples have the FF -f''' compass to match the English harpsichords.


   Also until about 1715, the usual colour of the natural keys had been black (ebony) with ivory sharps.  But after this date the colours were usually reversed, with ivory naturals.  The special 'skunk-tail' sharps seen in the picture below were a feature of Hitchcock spinets, but also occasionally used by other makers.

We are already planning Chelveston 2019, and the hall has been booked for Saturday April 13th.

The papers presented at our 2017 Spinet Day are still available:

Harpsichords and Spinets shown at the In[...]
Adobe Acrobat document [1.2 MB]
The Spinets of the Hitchcock Dynasty - P[...]
Adobe Acrobat document [917.8 KB]
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© David Hackett