“A Dolmetsch of the Middle-West: the story of John Challis and his Clavichords” was the title of a lengthy article that appeared in 1932. After tracing the changes of fashion that led to the supremacy of the piano, it focused on its subject:
It is not generally known . . . that in our own country there is a young man, a native American, who is skilled in building and playing these early instruments. John Challis, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a worthy successor to those master craftsmen who lived and worked before the machine age. True to their tradition, his clavichords and harpsichords are fashioned entirely by hand, every detail as perfect as skill and devotion can make it.
In his studio-workshop above his father’s jewelry store one morning last summer, Mr. Challis laid aside his tools to tell me something of his life and the events leading up to his present work. His story is one that many modern parents might well pause to consider.
With gratitude he looks back—and not very far back at that, for he is but 25—to a boyhood when childish wishes were not gratified as quickly and easily as they were expressed. Instead of having the objects of his desires bestowed upon him forthwith, he received opportunities to earn money to buy tools and make the things he wanted. Thus early and unwittingly was laid a foundation for his career as a craftsman. At thirteen he began repairing clocks in his father’s jewelry store; at sixteen he graduated to watches—all of it invaluable preparation for handling the delicate tools which were to become a part of his profession.
About the time he took over the watch repairing he made his first venture in the line of musical instruments. Details of this episode were told me by Frederick Alexander, director of the Normal Conservatory in Ypsilanti, whose part in the whole story is of rather more importance than appears in the present narrative. John wanted an organ, and to his mind the logical way of getting one was to build it. So he acquired a small reed organ and rigged it up with a set of pedals—or perhaps one should say half a set, for he played the pedals with one foot and pumped with the other. Mr. Alexander, with his lively interest in all young persons, and particularly in imaginative ones like John, admired the effort but mentioned the fact that it is customary to use both feet on the pedals.
Nothing daunted, John took the information as a suggestion, and before long Mr. Alexander was invited to view the organ again. This time it was equipped with a complete set of pedals playable with both feet, the wind being supplied from the family vacuum cleaner. Needless to say the noise of the vacuum cleaner rather overwhelmed the music, but the principle was there, and it worked!
John enrolled for piano and organ lessons in the Conservatory, meanwhile continuing his watch repairing and his high school work. At the Conservatory he had an opportunity to investigate the beautiful Dolmetsch clavichord owned by Mr. Alexander. At once he conceived a new desire. He had always hated Bach, particularly Bach Inventions. Now for the first time he glimpsed the true possibilities of the master. He must have a clavichord. Obviously the thing to do was to build it. And this he did, entirely without assistance except for the Dolmetsch instrument which served as model and guide. True, his clavichord was crude but, like his organ, it worked—and he could play Bach on it. From this beginning his interest in the early keyboard instruments and their music grew apace.
Unquestionably the one place to continue his work was with Arnold Dolmetsch at Haslemere. Eventually fortuitous circumstances opened the way, and John at the age of nineteen found himself on the way to England. He was set to work at once to test his ability. He assisted in building various instruments, but his musical studies were confined to the recorder and viola da gamba with no chance at the harpsichord and clavichord which he loved. All this, however, was but a period of preparation, a chance to learn the delicate principles of the instruments and to hear old music day in and day out until the style and proper rendition of it became second nature. Then when he was finally permitted to take up the study of keyboard instruments the results were gratifying—so much so, in fact, that he received, at Mr. Dolmetsch’s request, the first scholarship awarded on the Dolmetsch Foundation. Thus was his study at Haslemere assured. In all he remained in England four years, during which time he played in the Haslemere Festivals and appeared with the Dolmetsch family at their concerts in London and elsewhere.
Meanwhile Mr. Challis was collecting for himself a library of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century music, a fascinating undertaking in itself. Sometimes secondhand copies were available, sometimes valuable reprints of early editions; otherwise it meant copying by hand or reproducing photographically old prints and manuscripts now almost priceless.
Upon returning to America his first commission was a large two-manual harpsichord which he built for the Normal Conservatory. This instrument has four sets of strings, each with a different tone quality and all controlled by pedals so that they may be used separately or in combination. Two of the four sets are tuned to regular pitch, one an octave higher, and one an octave lower. What a wealth of tone color an instrument of this kind afforded the composers of polyphonic music! It gives to each contrapuntal voice an individuality and clarity of outline that the modern pianoforte cannot even suggest.
Mr. Challis is now engaged in building a lovely one-manual harpsichord for Miss Madge Quigley of Detroit, who also owns a clavichord that he made in Haslemere. For himself he has built a small but exquisite clavichord. It stands in an inner room back of his studio, where protecting doors can be closed when he plays, for its delicate tone would be drowned by street noises. Such instruments were built for gentler days than ours. . . .
. . . Just what the future may be for this field of work Mr. Challis does not attempt to predict. Interest at present is naturally limited to a small field of serious musicians, but there are many music lovers who, given an opportunity, would appreciate the individual charm of these instruments and their music. It is to be hoped that in the course of time harpsichords and clavichords will cease to be regarded as museum pieces and will find their way increasingly into studios, to bring back to our world a beauty it forgot long ago.1
America’s first native-born twentieth-century harpsichord maker was from South Lyon, Michigan; John R. Challis (1907-1974) remained a “Michigan builder,” moving to Detroit in 1946 and working there until his property was taken as right of way for a road project. In 1966, disgusted, he moved to New York City.
That Challis built harpsichords in America was due in part to his health. He might have remained longer with Dolmetsch in Haslemere if the Surrey weather had been kinder to his always precarious constitution.
They have fourteen different kinds of rain and, once in a long time, a little sunshine. It had a very bad effect on my health. I had one continual cold from October to May every year. I was in misery much of the time. But I was doing what I wanted to do. What Dolmetsch was doing was fascinating to me and very soon, I was doing everything there was to do in the way of making keyboard instruments from start to finish.2
Challis’s onetime apprentice William Dowd surmised that Dolmetsch’s obsession with an improved “patent” action for the harpsichord might also have helped drive Challis back to his homeland.3 It seems unlikely, however, given his continual delight in experimentation, that such an attempt to re-invent the pianoforte would have caused Challis to forsake the Dolmetsch workshop. His resistance to Dolmetsch’s continual suggestions that his daughter would be a suitable bride and Challis’s eventual assertion that “he was not the marrying kind” probably led to a climate in the shop that rivaled the damp and chill of the outside.4
About returning to Ypsilanti, Challis said,
There was no person more scared than I was. . . . I wanted to know how I could make a living making these crazy instruments. Especially when nobody over here in America knew what they were. Not even the musicians. To them, it was some kind of funny thing that Bach used to play on. I wondered what I could do.
When [my first harpsichord] was finished, I had to play it. . . . My job was not only to build it, but to play it so these people could hear it and enjoy it.
I did play it, and it was accepted. After that I was called upon to play various recitals. Once in a while someone would come up to me and say quietly “I like the harpsichord” as if it were something one was not supposed to say. At that time there was only Manuel and Williamson of Chicago who [were] playing the harpsichord in this country. This, of course, in addition to the three tours Landowska had made. The audiences were not too impressed by her tours. They were not yet ready for the harpsichord.5
However, the orders came: there were forty-eight names on the list of purchasers of Challis instruments between 1931 and 1945. In addition to that first instrument, 1931 brought an order from R. Sydney Sprout of Leslie (also in Michigan). Nothing is listed for 1932 and 1933, which must be years of delivery, for the Quigley harpsichord mentioned in the 1932 interview with the builder is listed as an instrument of 1934. In 1934 instruments also went to St. Louis; Washington, D. C.; and Detroit. Chicago got one in 1935. Both coasts were represented in the list for 1937: New York, where the purchaser was Blanche Winogron Beck of New York City, a distinguished player of virginal music; and California, where the instrument went to Mrs. Kenneth Brown of Claremont. In addition an instrument went to Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and other orders came from Washington, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. In 1938 the musicologist Leonard Ellinwood of Washington, D.C., bought an instrument; in 1939 another went to Illinois. In 1940 the artist Thomas Hart Benton had an instrument delivered to Kansas City, Missouri; while two went to California; one to Provo, Utah; one to Seattle; and one to Mamaroneck, New York.
Poor health kept Challis from serving in the armed forces during the Second World War, so he continued to build harpsichords. In 1941 he delivered an instrument to the University of Texas at Austin; in 1942 important purchases were made by Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts; Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio; Daniel Pinkham, the young Cambridge harpsichordist and composer; and jazz-great Artie Shaw. In 1943 Challis instruments went to the concert artist Ralph Kirkpatrick and to North Texas State College in Denton. Customers in 1944 were Yale University; Dr. and Mrs. Bert D. Thomas, Columbus, Ohio; Frank Shaw, director of the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music; and Mrs. Q’Zella Jeffus of Fort Worth, Texas. In 1945, at war’s end, six instruments were delivered: to Oberlin College, to Arthur Quimby at Connecticut College, and to other individuals in Houston; Washington, D.C.; Berkeley; and New York City.
A photograph of John Challis at work on a set of keyboards illustrated this article from Time magazine’s music page early in 1944:
Man from Ypsilanti
The maker of the finest U.S. harpsichords was back last week in Ypsilanti, Mich., full of happy memories. Wiry, black-haired John Challis had vastly enjoyed a holiday season of harpsichordery in Manhattan. But he was anxious to get to work.
The U.S. enthusiasts for harpsichord music are a small, fervent, growing body. John Challis is probably the only man in the world who, despite war, continues to manufacture the instrument. (England’s world-famed Dolmetsch family, who made and played harpsichords at Haslemere, have long since turned to defense work.) Like most people interested in harpsichords, he is irritated by the lay notion that the instrument is a sort of Pleistocene piano. The true ancestor of the piano is not the harpsichord but the dulcimer, a more primitive stringed instrument played like a xylophone, with little hammers held in the hands. The harpsichord’s strings are not hammered but plucked with quills or leather plectra (picks).
But the harpsichord was the piano’s great predecessor. In the first half of the 18th Century, it was as popular as the piano is today. The finest composers of the century wrote for it prolifically. The harpsichord repertory includes a mass of rich and fascinating music.
Bakelite and Boar Bristles.
John Challis makes his harpsichords in a two-floor studio above an Ypsilanti dress shop. Two assistants, who have been with him for years, help him fit together the intricate combination of carved hardwoods, leather plectra, metal strings and frames, ivory keys and Siberian boar-bristle springs out of which a fine harpsichord is concocted. A slow, painstaking craftsman, Challis turns out only about eight harpsichords a year, at prices ranging from $400 to $2,700. So far, wartime shortages of materials have not affected his output.
John Challis, who is a first-rate harpsichordist himself, was born in Ypsilanti [actually, he was born in South Lyon] 36 years ago. . . . He introduced many improvements into harpsichord manufacture, utilized modern materials like bakelite, aluminum and nylon. “I am not an antiquarian,” he explains, “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.”6
Just what sort of instrument was Challis building? In appearance his harpsichords resembled those of Dolmetsch: the case exteriors of oiled wood with a thin gold molding around the lower edge,7 slanted key cheeks, a simple trestle stand, and the same style of lettering on the nameboard. The metal frame of the instrument was a Challis invention, although Dolmetsch also used a welded metal frame to support the 4-foot hitchpin rail, and the idea may have been planted in Challis’s mind during his apprenticeship.8 Challis’s original framing, developed in collaboration with an unemployed machinist, was made of welded steel. Because the metal tended to warp from the heat of the blowtorch, making strict tolerances impossible, Challis designed a cast aluminum frame. The soundboard rested on this frame—it was not built with a reinforcing plate over it as were many other metal-framed harpsichords—and all was constructed lightly enough that it was possible for the instrument to resonate. The instrument was extraordinarily stable, and so satisfied Challis’s primary concern.9
In his first harpsichords Challis made the soundboards from Douglas fir, which Dolmetsch had been using in place of spruce since the First World War. In 1946 Challis noticed that some of his instruments were in difficulty: the glue joints of the soundboards pulled loose, although none of the other joints in the instrument gave way. Surmising that the problem had something to do with a chemical property of Douglas fir, Challis decided to use spruce, but it produced too small a tone. His next step was to use laminated soundboards, made of a spruce plywood, supplied by the Chicago piano manufacturer Kimball. Finally, largely in response to a plea for an instrument that could withstand the Florida climate (for Catharine Crozier and Harold Gleason, who had moved from Rochester, New York, to Winter Park), Challis turned, in the late 1950s, to soundboards of cast metal. The exact composition is a closely guarded secret, 10 but the later Challis instruments, thus, became largely metal harpsichords.11
How successful were these instruments? Wolfgang Zuckermann stated categorically, “I personally cannot tell a Challis with a wooden board from a Challis with a metal board. To me they both have the characteristic Challis tone—loud but not particularly singing, and overplucking, causing a slight tearing of the string.” Plectra, originally of a thickly cut leather, were made of plastic in the later instruments. As with the soundboard, the characteristic Challis tone was little changed. “It seems that a builder’s personality is sometimes so strong as to impose itself on his instruments no matter what material he uses.”12
Stability of tuning and freedom from constant maintainance were the goals of Challis the builder. His brochure stated,
The musician needs an instrument which will be ready to play when desired, one on which he can depend. And it should remain as beautiful with the passage of time as when it is new.
The important things to know when buying a harpsichord are: How long will it endure? How long will it keep in tune? Will repairs be frequent and costly? These have always been problems in buying harpsichords. Mr. Challis has found that skillful designing and superior workmanship will conquer all these difficulties so that the instruments stay in tune and need little attention.
. . . The structural frames are made of cast aluminum which assures complete stability. The jacks are moisture resistant and will not stick in damp weather. The tuning pin blocks are made of materials which cannot split. Above all, the new Challis soundboards are also made of materials which will neither crack nor lose their tonal beauty through the years.13
That Challis achieved his goal to an extent not formerly seen in harpsichord making is indisputable. Concert artist Fernando Valenti saw his Challis harpsichord dumped into the Colorado River, bailed it out, and played a recital on it the same night.14
Challis set the professional standards for dealing with one’s customers: if the instrument didn’t work, Challis would fix it; if the customer wasn’t satisfied, he or she could return the instrument. Challis gave real credence to the definition of a professional builder as one who would buy back any of his own work. Indeed a prospective buyer could read in the builder’s brochure, “Purchase first a small instrument such as you can afford which, if used carefully, may be exchanged later, when the initial cost will be applied toward a larger instrument. In this way one may start with the smallest, and in a few years advance to a two-manual harpsichord.”
John Challis was ahead of his time with his interest in a Mozart piano. His catalog listed “A pianoforte constructed especially for the music of Mozart and Haydn, having thin strings, small hammers and a light, responsive action. The tone quality reminds one of orchestral strings and woodwinds. Though the volume of tone is only half that of the twentieth-century pianoforte it has a large dynamic range.”
Shortly before his move to New York City, Challis was pictured once again in Time. The article “The Plectra Pluckers” surveyed the burgeoning harpsichord business, giving this assessment of Challis: “Leader of the metal faction is John Challis, pioneer U.S. manufacturer of harpsichords. . . . In a shop at the rear of his huge, century-old brick house in Detroit, Challis constructs about twelve harpsichords a year (last week he was working on his 230th), grosses $30,000. . . .”15
Challis was also the builder of several “pedal” harpsichords—large independent instruments played by the feet, on which a double-manual harpsichord could be set—giving an organlike machine. E. Power Biggs was especially enamored of this instrument. During the national convention of the American Guild of Organists in 1960 Biggs came to Challis’s Detroit residence to try the prototype instrument for the first time. Taking off his shoes, he played in his stocking feet his own solo version of the Soler Concerto in G major, which he had recently recorded at the organ. He was most complimentary about the instrument, subsequently purchased one, and made numerous recordings on it.16
Challis was never shy about offering his opinions. At a 1966 recital by Gustav Leonhardt, played on a Hubbard harpsichord at Hunter College, he expressed his view of the latest trend in harpsichord making. As the applause died away before the intermission his rasping voice was heard complaining, “If I hear one more note of quill I’m going to puke!”17
Blanche Winogron Beck, quoted in Biggs’s obituary for John Challis, evaluated his contribution to the American harpsichord revival:
Due to the movement toward literal reproduction of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century instruments, John Challis, [a] pioneer of early keyboard building in this country, is not always accorded the honor he deserves. John had arrived at his techniques in order to make instruments suited to our climate and heated houses. Whether or not we agreed with his ideas of construction and materials we know he was a master builder. The younger generation knows and honors the newer builders. But they have little idea of how many of these newer builders John Challis helped, coached, schooled and how he led the way. Challis was a first-rate artist, artisan and craftsman, and a fine generous human being. He is fully responsible for recreating an art and an industry in our time.18
And this fine builder had spent his life doing what he wanted to do: “ ‘People are in a constant scramble . . . to produce more than will make them happy. I find that by making twelve or fifteen instruments a year, I’m happy. After all,’ Challis said, fingering a series of chords on the new harpsichord to play it in some more, ‘shouldn’t that be the purpose of a man’s work?’”19
At least one other professional harpsichord maker was working contemporaneously in the United States. An extensive article in Musical America reported, “The only generally known makers of harpsichords and clavichords in the United States today are John Challis of Detroit, and Julius Wahl, of Los Altos, California.”20 Wahl (1878-1955), born in Krefeld, Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1891. He began his career as a piano maker with Chickering’s in Boston during the Arnold Dolmetsch years (1905-1911). It is uncertain whether he worked on harpsichords at this time, but it is easy to assume that Dolmetsch’s pursuits had some influence on him. Later he served as curator of the Belle Skinner Collection of Early Instruments in Holyoke. In the late 1930s Wahl and his wife visited California and decided to move there.21
For the past ten years [1940-1950] Mr. Wahl has been working alone with no interest in training apprentices, on the Duveneck ranch in Lost Altos. He has produced about forty instruments—one-and two-manual haipsichords, virginals, spinets, and clavichords. His fine cabinet work and his reverence for traditional decoration can be observed. . . . Every part of a Wahl instrument, even the hinges on the cover, is made by hand.
Neither Mr. Wahl nor Mr. Challis considers himself bound by all the traditional methods of constructing harpsichords, although the basic mechanical form remains much as it was in the earliest known instrument, dated 1521. . . .
Mr. Wahl prefers to use traditional woods—boxwood from Ceylon and Madagascar for the natural keys, ebony for the sharps, spruce for the sound-board, maple for the wrest-plank; and a variety of Latin-American woods for the casing and cabinet work—primavera, de oro, and mahogany. Occasionally he uses rosewood, olive, or cherrywood for the keys and other parts, or for the often elaborately carved roses in the soundboard.22
Wahl built his instruments two at a time because he had discovered that to be the most efficient way to work: one instrument generally took five months to build, while two could be completed in eight. A customer’s waiting time after ordering an instrument ran between four and eighteen months.23
The illustrations in the Musical America story included a portrait of Challis, but for Wahl, only pictures of his instruments. They resembled the German production harpsichords of the period, appearing to be of heavy case construction and utilizing thick leather plectra. As with Challis’s instruments (and indeed nearly all revival instruments produced before 1950), the registers were controlled by pedals. Wahl was reported to have made some instruments with knee levers to operate the stops, but none of this type was illustrated. The article concluded:
The possession of a fine harpsichord is no longer beyond the reach of anyone who can afford a medium-priced piano. A harpsichord takes up less floor space than a baby grand piano. . . .
The harpsichord has been employed by Manuel de Falla in a harpsichord concerto and in his El Retablo de Maese Pedro, by Poulenc, Milhaud, Stravinsky, Ravel, Walton, and Piston. Popular musicians have tried modern compositions on it with occasional good effect; Artie Shaw made good use of the instrument in his old Gramercy Five recordings. A small chamber orchestra is incomplete without the rich toning undercoat of resonance provided by the harpsichord in the performance of the older music. The modern American-made instruments are well within the reach of many schools. There is no reason why their use should not continue to expand and develop, as the qualities of their tone are appreciated and the flexibility of their tonal combinations is explored.
For those who enjoy playing or hearing the keyboard compositions of Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, Purcell, Byrd, and Rameau, there is no substitute. The harpsichord is not merely an old-fashioned piano. It is the medium for which a great and distinctive literature was written, and it deserves the place it has belatedly won among living instruments. John Challis and Julius Wahl are doing a great deal to end the harpsichord’s career as a museum piece and to bring it into homes and schools where the most intimate music is made, and where it may regain its high position in musical life.24
CLAUDE JEAN CHIASSON
“It may seem strange . . . but although I have been building harpsichords in America longer than almost anyone else, I have never built as a builder. It has been primarily an avocation for me rather than a vocation. . . .”25 This was a strange viewpoint for one who was working on his thirty-third instrument when he made these comments in 1972. Claude Jean Chiasson (1914-1985) was another New Englander of French descent. Brought up in Cambridge, he studied piano with Jesus Maria Sanroma at the New England Conservatory. But it was the influence of Putnam Aldrich, just returned from his studies with Wanda Landowska, that made the deepest impression. “I studied every phase of music with him—harmony, counterpoint, figured bass, continuo playing at sight—the works! And most of it I didn’t pay for. I took it out in tunings, cleaning [his] apartment and things of that nature.”26
Through a piano teacher friend in Boston, Chiasson met Julius Wahl in Wellesley. When Wahl became curator of the Skinner Collection, Chiasson went to visit it with Aldrich. Playing on these instruments broadened Chiasson’s harpsichord experience, especially the “beautiful tone of the Ruckers double” and “the Hass which had the sixteen-foot choir of strings.”27 Another acquaintance was William Lyman Johnson, who still had two Dolmetsch instruments in his possession—a virginal and a small triangular spinet, both in need of repairs. Johnson determined that Chiasson could do this work, and on the strength of this experience, recommended him to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a repairer for their eighteenth-century Kirckman harpsichord.
Chiasson’s own first harpsichord was constructed on the general plan of his Kirckman, with an added 16-foot register, a la Pleyel, and a lute stop. The instrument was completed in 1938 and nicknamed “the monster” by its builder.
Chiasson also became acquainted with John Challis. The story of their meeting involves two other figures of note:
Just about the time the “monster” was finished, playable and in my studio in Cambridge near Harvard Square, a young man came to me and introduced himself. He told me that he was at Phillips Andover Academy and owned a Neupert clavichord which he became interested in after attending concerts by the Trapp Family Singers. He indicated that he would be at Harvard the following year and wanted to know if I took pupils.
Well, I did take pupils and later on, in September, when he got squared away, he came back and said “I’m here! I want harpsichord lessons.” That is how Daniel Pinkham became my pupil.
In the course of time, he bought a small Challis harpsichord. Not only did he receive the instrument, but Challis came out with it to see that it was in good order and also to visit Melville Smith, an old friend of his who, in the meantime, had become director of the Longy School of Music.
. . . John stayed with Melville during this trip. As a matter of interest, the little harpsichord John was delivering was taken to Melville’s house and we had a grand party that evening.
The next day, John visited me and “the monster” and John and I became friends and have remained so over these many years. That was my first introduction both to Challis and a Challis instrument.28
Two instruments joined Chiasson’s “monster” in Boston: one was built for Margaret Mason, a counterpoint teacher at New England Conservatory; the other for a professor of economics. The Museum of Fine Arts administration invited Chiasson to stay on the staff as coordinator of the Sunday afternoon Museum Concerts; he remained in this position for two seasons, until 1942, at which time he entered the Air Force. During the war Chiasson’s first harpsichord was placed in the Cambridge home of Melville Smith.
After five years in the Air Force Chiasson returned to civilian life. He was engaged by Community Concerts as a touring pianist, traveling all over the United States during the next four seasons. Tired of this peripatetic existence (“One can net more by staying home where expenses are not so high. I got tired of supporting hotels and restaurants in all parts of the country”), Chiasson settled in New York, where he shared a workshop with a friend. Here he made four identical instruments, adaptations of a Taskin harpsichord, but with a rounded, Germanic tail. He gave solo concerts, played in orchestras, and “had more than enough work. I was very busy as a player.”29 His recordings primarily of French harpsichord music, were made on these instruments.
Chiasson moved to New Jersey to work as an organist-choirmaster. After two years he gave up this position to devote his time to piano and harpsichord teaching, some concerts, and a continuation of his avocation, building harpsichords.