A stately discovery

Oliver Condy visits Calke Abbey and stumbles upon its fascinating musical history

Last weekend I gained an interesting insight into aristocratic music-making during the 18th century. A visit to Calke Abbey in Derbyshire was always going to err on the side of curious. A staggering stately home, built at the turn of the 18th century and modified during the 19th and 20th, it was rescued from total ruin by the National Trust and to this day is still in the crumbling state in which it was discovered in the 1980s.

The idea, so the Trust’s blurb goes, was to restore some of the fabric (plasterwork and stonework) but to let Calke Abbey reflect the changing fortunes of the English aristocracy over 250 years as it gradually fell from riches to penury. The house is full to bursting with ‘things’. And when I mean ‘things’, I mean anything from bison skulls to over a thousand stuffed animals, from hundreds of horse-themed oil paintings to cupboard upon cupboard of sea shells. Ever since Henry, 7th Baronet, inherited Calke from his father in 1789, it seems that each new Harpur was rather fond of staying in and indulging in a spot of heavyweight hoarding.

But in among the cabinets, chairs, footstools and other chattels are some fascinating musical instruments. In an ante room just inside the main entrance sits a large Broadwood grand piano with walnut case, dating from the early 19th century. Up in what would have been the original entrance hall, is another, equally large Broadwood piano, probably from around the same date. Neither pianos are displayed with their lids open so I couldn’t date them accurately.

Upstairs in one of the more untidy rooms stands a couple of musical gems: a 1750 chamber organ, hidden from view by a one-manual harpsichord (again, with lids shut) which, after some internet detective work, I’ve found out is inscribed ‘Burkat Shudi No. 116 Londini Fecit 1741’. Both instruments could well have been bought by Sir Henry Harpur, 6th Baronet, who took over the house in 1748. In any case, the Swiss maker Shudi is an interesting figure in himself. Admired by the 18th-century music critic and commentator Charles Burney, Shudi made instruments for Clementi, Frederick the Great, The Prince of Wales, Thomas Gainsborough and Joseph Haydn.

Talking of Haydn, a brief chat with one of the National Trust guides revealed that Sir Henry Harpur, 7th baronet, commissioned the Austrian composer to write two Derbyshire Marches Hob.VIII:1 and VIII:2 in 1794. Harpur presumably thought it only right that his group of volunteer soldiers, made up from people from the Calke estate, be provided with stirring music in preparation for the Napoleonic Wars. The manuscripts for the marches, written for wind band, are apparently still in Calke Abbey’s possession, but they weren’t on display when I was there and there was certainly no information about them in any of the rooms. Still, Ronald Brautigam has, I discovered, recorded these short minute-long pieces in an arrangement for fortepiano (BISCD1323/24). You can buy the disc here.

The Harpur family may have grown more and more eccentric as the years passed, but it’s clear that music played an important part in the day-to-day life of the house during its 18th- and early 19th-century heyday. But were the Harpurs proficient musicians or simply followers of fashion? Did they invite musician of note to perform at Calke, and did they commission any other works from the great composers?