The Harpsichord Master

This little advertisement appeared in the London newspaper The Post Boy, 21-23 October 1697. It is actually a transcription of the title page of a collection of keyboard pieces called The Harpsichord Master by Mr Henry Purcell and others, published in that year. It was the first of a series of instructional books published by John Walsh, and his successors, to meet a growing demand from the public as the harpsichord became more and more popular as an instrument. During this time the harpsichord underwent considerable development and became one of the most important European instruments eventually evolving into the pianoforte. Often it is only the advertisements like the one above that give evidence of the existence of these books.

Ref: Henry Purcell. The harpsichord master. London: I. Walsh, 1697.

The Harpsichord Master had been referred to in several written works about Purcell but no one really knew exactly what it contained. In fact, no copies were thought to have survived. When this unique volume of The Harpsichord Master was discovered at Auckland Public Library in 1978 by library assistant Robert Petre, there was much excitement in the musicological community around the world. The item was donated to Auckland Libraries by Mr Claude Philip Gyon Purchas in March 1937. However, we do not how it ended up in New Zealand, 300 years after it was first published. A very exciting part of the discovery was that it contained two otherwise unknown works by Purcell. Also represented are pieces by some of the less renowned English composers of this time: Jeremiah Clarke, Thomas Morgan, John Barrett and Robert King.

Subsequent to the Auckland Public Library’s unique discovery, a new edition of the book was compiled by Petre and published in 1980. In his introduction, Petre describes the first piece in The Harpsichord Master as one of the most interesting because it appears to have Purcell’s own fingerings which are quite different to current practice. Also, there are quite a number of annotations throughout the book which all have some sort of nautical association. It seems natural to think that one of the book’s owners had a strong connection to the sea. Perhaps the notes and tunes were added on board ship at some time?

Auckland Central City Library is pleased to announce that on the 23 August 2018 maestro Peter Watts will give a performance of The Harpsichord Master as part of the Library’s Thursday Heritage Concerts – Spring Series. Peter will be performing on his own harpsichord and talking about the instrument, its development and The Harpsichord Master. The score will be on display for the month of August in the Sir George Grey Special Collections Reading Room at the Central City Library.

Peter’s instrument was made in Wellington and is a copy, by Zuckerman, of an early 17th century Flemish single manual harpsichord after the design of Ruckers. Andreas Ruckers, based in Antwerp, was one of the most important Flemish harpsichord makers.

Heritage concert: Harpsichord master

When: Thursday 23 August, 12.10pm – 1pm

Where: Auckland Central City Library, Level 2, Whare Wananga

For further information about the Thursday Heritage Concerts series please go to the Auckland Libraries website


Real Gold: treasures of Auckland City Libraries/ by Iain Sharp; Auckland University Press, 2007

The Harpsichord Master: containing plain and easy instructions for learners on ye spinet or harpsichord / written by ye late famous Mr H. Purcell……./printed and sold by Walsh and Hare 1697

The Harpsichord Master: containing plain and easy instructions for learners on ye spinet or harpsichord / written by ye late famous Mr H. Purcell……./ Price Milburn Music, 1980

Author: Marilyn Portman, Senior Librarian Music