Burkat Shudi

I had been vaguely aware for some time that there existed in London in the eighteenth century a harpsichord-maker called Burkat Shudi. On 12 March I noticed that his date of birth was 13 March 1702. On 13 March I learned that our own dear Fitzwilliam Museum is in the process of acquiring a Burkat Shudi harpsichord through the enlightened H.M. Government Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme. Since there is no such thing as coincidence, I have deduced that Providence is guiding me towards finding out more …

The best starting point on these occasions is almost always the ODNB: in this case the article is by Dr Charles Mould, and among the sources cited is Tschudi, the Harpsichord Maker, published in 1913 by Constable and Co., and written by one William Dale, F.S.A. Happily, this short book is available online, and one detail which it confirms immediately is the original spelling of its subject’s name as Burkhardt Tschudi – the simplification was presumably to make life easier for his English customers.

The Tschudi family lived in Schwanden, in the Swiss canton of Glarus, and indeed claimed to trace their roots their back to the ninth century. Burkat’s father was, apparently, a wool-merchant (though I suspect this is a typo for wood-merchant?), a surgeon and also a local councillor. The main local business was wood-working, especially the manufacture of slates in wooden frames, and wooden tables with slate tops. Tschudi was apprenticed to his uncle to learn the craft, but while he was still in his teens, the bottom fell out of the trade as the availability of wood from local sources declined as a result of over-felling.

The village of Schwanden in about 1890. (Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

At the age of sixteen Tschudi enterprisingly emigrated to London, and in the 1720s is to be found in the workshop of Hermann Tabel (c. 1660–1738;  also known as Table), a Flemish-born harpsichord-maker, in Swallow Street, St James’s. Dale makes the point that the Schwanden parish records note other migrations to London including that of Hans Jacob Wild (1674–1741), whose daughter Catherine Tschudi married in 1728/9, so there may already have been a small community of expatriate Swiss which young Burkhardt could join.

Tabel had trained in Antwerp at the workshop of the Couchets, the descendants and successors of the legendary Ruckers family. Shudi’s first known harpsichord was made in 1729, apparently at the behest of Handel, who may later have presented it to the well-known Italian singer, Anna Maria Strada del Pò – it is inscribed ‘QUESTO CIMBALO É DELa SIGra ANNA STRADA 1731, LONDON’. Dale describes it as being (then) in the collection of Paul de Wit of Leipzig, which passed in the 1920s to the university’s music museum, though I can’t locate it there – either their website or my German (probably the latter) is not equal to the challenge.

This portrait of Anna Maria Strada del Pò by Johannes Verelst (1648–1734) is in the collection of the Foundling Museum, London. (Credit: Art UK)

Anna Maria was one of the Italian singers brought over by Handel for the 1729 opera season. This picture of her seated at a harpsichord (whose???) shows an attractive young woman, and Handel wrote roles of sublime beauty (including Elmira in Sosarme and Angelica in Orlando) for her, but she was cruelly caricatured in the famous war between the rival London opera companies. (Dr Burney notes that ‘she was usually called the Pig. However, by degrees she subdued all their prejudices, and sung herself into favour’.) Mrs Delany (who at this stage was the widowed Mrs Pendarves, living in London again and released from an unhappy marriage, and who as a teenager had Handel play her harpsichord) remarked of her: ‘her voice is without exception fine, her manner perfection, but her person very bad, and she makes frightful mouths’.

This harpsichord in the collection of the University of Edinburgh is inscribed ‘Burkat Shudi No 529 fecit Londini 1766’. Interestingly, it was restored in 1898 by Arnold Dolmetsch the great pioneer of early music, whose brand of recorders has been responsible for much acoustic misery in homes and primary schools across the land …

Shudi ran his business at first from what is now 1 Meard Street, off Dean Street in Soho. He seems to have flourished, and the Handel connection must have helped, since it introduced him to Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose feathers emblem he used as his shop sign both here and later in Great Pulteney Street nearby. Dale calculates that Shudi’s output averaged eight instruments per year, and: ‘In the height of his career he never made more than sixteen or eighteen per annum.’ As well as making instruments, an important part of his business was in renting out harpsichords, including two by Ruckers, for public and private concerts.

This terrific portrait of Shudi, his wife and their two eldest sons, Joshua and Burkat (and the cat), was painted about 1742 by Carl Marcus Tuscher (1705–51). According to Dale (who did not know the painter), it used to sit over the fireplace in Great Pulteney Street, and family tradition had it that the harpsichord he is tuning is one of those made for Frederick the Great. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

Dale conjectures that the harpsichord at which Handel sits in the famous portrait by Philip Mercier is a Shudi (though not the same one later owned by Anna Maria).

Handel composing by his harpsichord, by Philip Mercier (1689–1760). This picture is now in the Handel House at Halle, Germany. Dale states that it was painted for Thomas Harris, a member of Handel’s circle and brother of the Earl of Malmesbury, and in 1913 it still belonged to the Malmesbury family.

Frederick, Prince of Wales, acquired one, now in Kew Palace, in 1740, and Shudi also made spinets for the later George III and his sister Augusta (He was also responsible for tuning the instruments in the Prince’s household.)

The Shudi harpsichord now in Kew Palace. The fashion for painted harpsichord cases, so popular in Europe at the time, never really caught on in Britain, where the beauty of the wood and the marquetry were paramount. (Credit: The Royal Collection Trust.)

He was an innovator in the construction of harpsichords, taking out a patent on 18 December 1769 for a ‘Venetian swell’, described in these terms:

The purpose of the device was to increase the crescendo and diminuendo of the instrument, and it seems likely that Shudi was already using it in 1765, in the first of five harpsichords which he made for the music-loving Frederick the Great of Prussia. Dale quotes in translation an article from the Allgemeine Augsburger Zeitung of 1765 which describes the first of these: ‘… the decreasing and increasing of the tone can be produced at will, which crescendo and decrescendo harpsichord-players have long wished for’. The same article mentions that ‘Tschudi was proud to have his royal harpsichord played upon for the first time by the most celebrated player of the world, the nine-year-old music-master Wolfgang Mozart’.

W.A. Mozart, painted in 1763, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1721–82). (Credit: the Mozarteum, Salzburg)

The companion portrait of Anna Maria Mozart (‘Nannerl’), also painted in 1763. (Credit: the Mozarteum, Salzburg)

This, if accurate, seems to suggest that the infant prodigy met Shudi during the Mozart family’s grand tour of Europe – one of their lodgings in London (where they stayed from April 1764 to July 1765) was in Thrift Street (now Frith Street), Soho, close to Shudi’s workshop, and also near the home of J.C. Bach. Did Mozart try the new instrument destined for Prussia (Dale’s account of the history of Frederick’s Shudi harpsichords is speculative and complicated …) before it was sent abroad? It would be interesting to know what instrument was used in the Mozart children’s several performances before George III and Queen Charlotte …

By the end of Shudi’s career (he retired in 1771, and died in 1773), he had supplied instruments to the Empress Maria Theresa, Joseph Haydn, and the painter Thomas Gainsborough, to name but a few, but the harpsichord was becoming somewhat passé. His business passed to his apprentice and son-in-law, John Broadwood (1732–1812), whose name was later to become synonymous with the word ‘piano’. The great-grand-daughter of John and Barbara Broadwood, who married in 1769, was the musician and folksong collector Lucy Broadwood (1858–1929), to whom Dale dedicated his book, and who he thanked for her ‘valuable help’ with the chapter on Shudi’s early life, presumably supported by family papers as well as family tradition.

John Broadwood (1732–1812) in the year of his death, engraving by William Say after John Harrison. (Credit: National Galleries of Scotland)

A fascinating light is thrown on eighteenth-century middle-class life by Barbara Broadwood’s ‘housekeeping book’, from which Dale transcribes a number of entries, containing everything from the cost of a silk petticoat (£1.3s.) to an order from the ‘Duk of Argile’ for harpsichord tuning, to servants’ wages (usually with an extra allowance for tea), to the timetables of various coaches and wagons setting out from London to the provinces, and the inns from which they started their journeys (this presumably was useful for the despatch of both instruments and tuners to various country seats).

One of the last orders recorded in Shudi’s account book before his death is in 21 January 1773: ‘Dutches of Malbury bespoke a harpsichord’. Was this safely delivered to Marlborough House in London or Blenheim Palace?

Caroline, Duchess of Marlborough (1743–1811), painted about 1759–62 by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (Credit: Trustees of the Goodwood Collection, Goodwood House, Sussex)

Something I am surprised not to have found online (so far – though there is a great deal of interesting material, including problems with Dale’s account, on Michael Cole’s website, here) is a list of the known surviving Shudi instruments, their current whereabouts, and whether they are still playable  – an agreeable tour to track them down could be devised …



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2 Responses to Burkat Shudi

  1. michael cole says:

    Your account of the contents of William Dale’s book, Tschudi, the harpsichord maker, was always risky, since you are relying on a work more than a hundred years old, written by a man who disclaimed any special qualification for the task. Many of the facts you have chosen to report are incorrect. This might be excusable, since you are not the only one to have repeated parts of Dale’s text, but when you say that Shudi’s earliest known harpsichord was made in 1729 ‘apparently at the behest of Handel’ you have gone beyond what Dale wrote. In fact the 1729 harpsichord, though happily accepted by Dale, is and always was a spurious item.


  2. Thank you for this very helpful comment. I don’t ever pretend to have any specialist knowledge on anything I write about, and have no intention to mislead – I just try to share things I find interesting, and am always grateful to be corrected by people with better knowledge than myself.


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