The Exeter Bulletin — Winter 2010
Charles Wilson '50
January 15, 2010
Holding the Keys to Music History
Charles Wilson '50 collects history. The lives of queens, composers and musicians intertwine not only in his research, but also in his Pennsylvania home. Nine English keyboard instruments—spinets, harpsichords and pianos of the 17th and 18th centuries—fill the rooms.
Each item in his collection tells a story from the past. Take his most recent acquisition, a 340-year-old wing spinet thought to be the earliest surviving English spinet.His own research and that of others has tied this small walnut-cased harpsichord back to Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist, and, Wilson believes, quite possibly, also to Queen Anne of England.
"At this time, I am convinced that this instrument is Samuel Pepys' spinet," says Wilson. "I also think it may have been given by Pepys to the infant Princess Anne. So far I have been able to trace her cherished spinet to about 1860. If it checks out it is an important part of England's history and must be returned."
Another of Wilson's pieces is a 5 ½ octave Shudi-Broadwood harpsichord built in 1773. Only 11 of these imposing instruments, "with long collie-like snouts" as Wilson describes them, exist. One was played by the 8-year-old Mozart in 1765, and one was presented to Maria Theresa of Austria by Frederick the Great of Prussia as a consolation prize for defeating her at war. King Frederick had earlier bought three of the instruments for himself. Wilson's is one of two of the harpsichords in private hands and the only one in America.
"It was given by the maker Broadwood to St Michael's School, a choir school in the English countryside around 1807," he explains. In 1978 the school needed money and auctioned it off to a noted folk singer in Cornwall and then in another auction it was sold to a billionaire from Perth, Australia. Wilson was the next buyer.
Wilson was introduced to the harpsichord at Exeter when he asked if he could record a concert of early chamber music given at the Academy by harpsichordist Erwin Bodky. Wilson went on to study music at Oberlin and he worked one summer for a harpsichord maker. In 1953, while studying at the University of Exeter in Devon, England—"The real Devon-Exeter," he says, referring to the "Devon" of A Separate Peace—he made the purchase that would start his collection: a piano made in 1795 by Longman & Broderip in London.
What draws Wilson to these English keyboards? "They are pleasing both aurally and visually," he says. "Their resonance appeals to the ear, and their shape, combining rectangles and parabolic curves, attracts the eye." English instruments also have a close attachment to America and its history. Wilson points out that four of his nine instruments predate the American Revolution. "In the era they were made, we were all Englishmen and London was our capital city," he says. He also believes that one of his spinets has always been in America.
Wilson says he sometimes plays his keyboards, but he is not a skilled musician. He does, however, invite accomplished artists to play and allows the instruments to be used in concerts. Of one such performance in 1973, the New York Times reviewer Peter G. Davis said, "The debut of an 1808 Broadwood fortepiano restored by Charles Wilson stole the limelight."
In a thank-you to Wilson for opening his home for several recent symphony fundraising events, one organizer noted, "Through his enthusiasm and openness, the music of centuries gone by will live and inspire this generation and the next."
— Julie Quinn