25 · Harpsichord

Full Description

American, 20th century
By John Challis, New York, 1982

Compass: Five octaves and 3 notes: FF to g’’’.
Length 246.4 cm; width 104.1 cm; depth of case 15.5 cm; octave span 15.9 cm
Two manuals, with four choirs of strings
String scale: c’’ = 39.7 cm

The nameboard bears the painted inscription: ”JOHN CHALLIS”.  The case and lid are veneered with walnut and are mid-20th-century modern style, devoid of ornamentation except for the handsome brass strap hinges that connect the lid with the spine.  The instrument is supported by a trestle stand of walnut.  The tension of the strings is born by a cast metal frame, and the soundboard and bridge are also of metal. The soundboard has a single rose of metal filigree. The four choirs of strings (1x4”, 2x8”, 1x16”) are played by five sets of jacks (by using 3 ranks of jacks to play the two 8’ choirs, the manual coupler is avoided). The seven pedals (left to right): 1) activates the low- er-manual 16’ register; 2) activates the lower-manual 8’ register; 3) activates the lower-manual 4’ register; 4) activates the lower-manual buff stop (a strip of wood bearing tabs of felt that can be advanced against the strings near the front bridge to produce a muted, lute-like sound); 6) activates the upper-manual buff stop; 7) advances the upper manual register further than pedal number 2, so that the plectra pluck the strings with more of their length, thus producing a slightly louder sound. [in playing condition.]

The son of a jeweler in a small town in Michigan, John Challis (1908-1974) apprenticed to Arnold Dolmetsch in England for four years.  Returning to Michigan in 1930, Challis set up shop in Ypsilanti as the only harpsichord maker in the country.  He moved to Detroit in 1945, and later in the 1960s to New York City.  His many innovations and use of modern materials and technology resulted in a highly original approach to the design and production of harpsichords and clavichords.  His early instruments were wooden-framed, but in search of greater stability he came to employ a cast aluminum frame, and later an aluminum wrestplank, frame, and bridges. For other parts he even used Bakelite and nylon. As Challis himself put it, “I am not an antiquarian; my idea is simply to carry on the manufacturing of harpsichords where it left off when the instrument went out of popularity at the end of the 18th century.”   His instruments are notable for their durability and reliability.

Gift of Dr. William Frayer
Accession No. 4906.2011