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A Pedal Harpsichord for Bach's Birthday

View of a pedal harpsichord in a gallery surrounded by an assortment of stringed instruments

John Challis (American, 1907–1974). Pedal harpsichord, 1967. Wood, metal, various materials, Overall: 113 x 139.7 x 301 cm (44 1/2 x 55 x 118 1/2 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Murtogh D. Guinness Bequest, 2003 (2003.377a, b)

March 21 is celebrated around the world as the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most influential and important composers in music history. To honor this extraordinary composer, I am pleased to share this recording from the Department of Musical Instruments archives featuring Anthony Newman playing Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor on a pedal harpsichord by John Challis.

Johann Sebastian Bach (German, 1685–1750). Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582

The pedal harpsichord certainly existed at the time of Bach, yet no known historic example survives with its original keyboard intact. Like pedal clavichords and pedal pianos, including the grand piano attributed to Johann Schmidt in The Met collection, the pedal harpsichord was probably used by an organist as a practice instrument. The Weimar court organist J.C. Vogler (1697–1763), a pupil of Bach, is known to have owned a pedal harpsichord. The organ works of Bach, including this Passacaglia and Fugue, are appropriate to the harpsichord and were probably sometimes performed on such instruments in the early 18th century.

In 1960, the organist E. Power Biggs approached the American harpsichord maker John Challis and engaged him to build a pedal harpsichord. After years of experimentation and research, Challis constructed such an instrument for the famed performer, who recorded an entire album of Bach's music on the instrument. Challis later made a second instrument for the Canadian organist Gordon Jeffery; this instrument was completed in 1967 and acquired by The Met in 2003.


Related Links
Of Note: "Celebrating J.S. Bach's Birthday on a Gilded Age Piano" (March 21, 2016)

MetLiveArts Blog: "Returning a Museum Treasure to the Limelight for Bach's Goldberg Variations" (November 18, 2014)

Of Note: "Happy Birthday, Johann Sebastian" (March 21, 2014)

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