Although not himself a performer on keyboard instruments, Thomas Jefferson had a lifelong interest in their use and development. His purchase of harpsichords and pianos was prompted by his desire for the amusement and musical education of his wife and daughters. His interest went beyond mere ownership, however, and he kept himself informed of the latest improvements in musical instruments, much as he did with the improvements in scientific and mechanical instruments.
Jefferson made his first recorded purchase of a keyboard instrument in 1771. He had initially ordered a clavichord to be made in Hamburg,1 but he saw a fortepiano, was "charmed with it," and changed his order to a piano "worthy the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it."2 The lady was Martha Wayles Skelton, who became his wife in 1772.
In 1778, Jefferson showed an interest in acquiring Robert Carter's organ, but was unsuccessful in the attempt.3 In 1779, for unknown reasons, he sold the 1771 piano to a German prisoner-of-war living nearby: "Sold my Piano forte to Genl. Riedesel. He is to give me £100."4 Although no transaction is recorded, it is possible that Jefferson took the piano back when the Riedesels left the area, for in December 1780 Jacob Rubsamen noted "an Elegant Harpsicord Piano forte" at Monticello.5
While in Philadelphia in 1783, prior to his voyage to Europe, Jefferson paid three pounds for a clavichord, evidently for the use of his daughter Martha.6 Once settled 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.7 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 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 that allowed notes to be sustained much as does the sostenuto pedal of a piano.8 The harpsichord cost about 71 guineas and did not arrive in Paris until November 1787.9
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 he wanted for a room 24 feet square with an 18-foot ceiling.10 Burney replied that London had the best organ-makers, but Jefferson seems never to have bought an organ.11
In his remaining years 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,12 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.13
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 March 21 to a Harper of Philadelphia.14 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.15
His interest in keyboard improvements induced Jefferson to purchase another instrument in 1800, "partly for it's excellence & convenience, partly to assist a very ingenious, modest & poor young man, who ought to make a fortune by his invention."16 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" × 3' 6" × 15", small enough to be 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.17 The family was delighted with its sound, but the piano did not keep its tune well.18 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 Hawkins's shop sometime in 1801-02.19 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 that Hawkins was developing at the time, a claviole.20 This was a type of pianoforte with sustained notes. Hawkins appears never to have sent one.
No further purchases are recorded until 1825 when Martha Jefferson Randolph wrote to her daughter, Ellen Coolidge, about the purchase of a piano.21 Only a few months before his death, Jefferson wrote that "the Piano forte is also in place."22
10. Jefferson to Burney, July 10, 1786, in PTJ, 10:117-18. Transcription available at Founders Online.
11. Burney to Jefferson, January 20, 1787, in PTJ, 11:59. Transcription available at Founders Online.
12. Hopkinson to Jefferson, May 25, 1784, in PTJ, 7:285-86 (transcription available at Founders Online); Hopkinson to Jefferson, April 14, 1787, in PTJ, 11:289 (transcription available at Founders Online).
13. Jefferson to Hopkinson, December 23, 1786, in PTJ, 10:625-26. Transcription available at Founders Online. Transcriptions of additional letters in the Jefferson-Hopkinson correspondence are also available at Founders Online.