Like Steve Jobs, who built his first PC in his parents’ garage as a teenager and revolutionized computers, a child musical genius in Ypsilanti built an organ in the loft above his father’s jewelry store and went on to modernize an ancient instrument – the harpsichord. This is the story of John Challis and the way that the Ypsilanti community - with its many resources including generous citizens, a supportive family, caring instructors, and the support of the Michigan Normal College community - helped an “unusual” child turn into a world-renowned musical master.
John was one of four children born to Charles and Alice Callen Challis of South Lyon, Michigan. Charles studied watch and jewelry making and also mechanical and electrical drawing, and attended college in Illinois. His parents, Charles and Mary Gready Challis, built a large double store on Lake Street in South Lyon in 1900. They sold farm implements and carriages and later automobiles. That year, their son Charles married Alice and established a jewelry business in his parents’ building.
The jewelry business was not all that Charles was interested in. He was excited about the newly-invented telephone and in 1902 organized an independent telephone company in South Lyon called The South Lyon Telephone Company. This successful business was sold to The Michigan Bell Telephone Company around 1916. Charles then became partners in his father’s business, and when his father retired in 1918 after 47 years, Charles moved his family and talents to Ypsilanti. In 1919 he opened a jewelry store at 104 West Michigan Avenue.
It was then that Charles’ twelve year old son John began to blossom. John was being trained as a watch maker and jeweler by his father and learned to use metal working tools. At the same time, his musical abilities were being encouraged by his mother. In an Ypsilanti newspaper article by Flora S. Jones from 1928, she describes how John’s mother contacted Professor Frederick Alexander of the Normal College Conservatory of Music to request that John receive organ lessons from him. She further described how her young son had made his own organ and now needed to learn how to play it. Professor Alexander stated that the child “…had rigged up an old reed organ with pipes, and played with one foot while he pumped with the other. ‘But John’, I said…’an organist plays with both feet – and shortly afterward he had arranged that very thing, having hitched it up in some way to his mother’s vacuum cleaner. True, the vacuum cleaner was about all you could hear – but he played with both feet in approved style.”
Not only was John allowed free reign to use his father’s metal tools as well as the loft above the jewelry store containing well seasoned boards, Professor Alexander also kindly allowed John to have the keys to the musical studio at the Conservatory, which contained an old style clavichord which was made by master craftsman Arnold Dolmetsch, commissioned by the Chickering Company of Boston. Imagine the amazement of Professor Alexander when one day John told him that he had made his own clavichord. Alexander’s response was “But John - you can’t make a clavichord” to which John is said to have replied “I know it – but I have.” The 1928 article quotes Alexander as describing this creation. “He had never seemed to consider he would be unable to do the thing he wished to do, and he has always seemed to know how to go about it. In this instance, he had taken apart an old melodeon, a well seasoned old picture back made the sounding board; he had sent away for the finest wire he could obtain and untrained and unskilled except the instinct prompted and he had studied the makings of my instrument – he had made his first clavichord. A bit crude of course, but a vicious achievement for a boy or thereabouts. His hands were trained to fine accuracy, for John’s father is a watchmaker and the boy was to follow his father’s footsteps.”
John was so impressed with the clavichord made by Arnold Dolmetsch which he was allowed to play at the Normal that he wrote to him in England and this is where the community rallied about the talented young Ypsilantian John Challis. When it was established that a place was reserved in the studios of Dolmetsch for his apprenticeship at Haslemere, Surrey, England in 1926, a fund was organized, led by Miss Madge Quigley, a talented graduate of the Normal Conservatory of Music who had studied clavichord at Dolmetsch Studios. The Ypsilanti community soon contributed enough money to pay John’s transportation and expenses to learn at the hand of the master craftsman. At that time Dolmetsch was one of a handful of people manufacturing harpsichords in the world.
The 19 year old did not waste his time or talent while in England, A small article published in the local Ypsilanti Newspaper dated December 17, 1927 reads “John Challis, Ypsilanti musician who is this year in England, has just had his fourth concert in London with the Dolmetsch family. George Bernard Shaw was in the audience. Miss Madge Quigley who played the clavichord which Mr. Challis made in England, at the Normal Christmas concert here, is under contract with Prof. Frederick Alexander not to play the instrument in America except under his management. A subscription recital is already under way in Detroit.”
When John returned to Ypsilanti for a two month visit with his family and friends, a reporter was sent to interview him. This unusual article, published October 20, 1928 begins: “ ‘Success?’ happily smiled, John Challis, son of Mr. and Mrs. C. E. Challis, Congress St, slender, straight young – boy – almost, except for the black eyes, shinning beneath black brows and wavy hair – fine artist’s eyes, ashine (sic) with the joy of following the gleam of inspired genius, and seeing the accomplishment of his handiwork. ‘Success, as the world sees it, doesn’t mean so much to me -; it is having the chance – and he smiled again, even while his eyes looked away off to Haslemere, England where for two years he has worked in the shops of Arnold Dolmetsch, renowned and world recognized as the master and reviver of old time hand-made musical instruments.” (Note – This is an exact quote from the article with strange grammatical usage but it does get the point across).
Returning to England after this visit home, John became foreman and supervised ten craftsmen in the building of harpsichords and clavichords. In 1930 John came back to his father’s loft on Michigan Avenue and went into the business of manufacturing harpsichords. According to a Time Magazine article written about John Challis and his harpsichord building, published January 24, 1944, John clarified that the harpsichord was not the predecessor of the piano and that the ancestor of the piano is the dulcimer. Both the dulcimer and piano use a hammer process to produce notes. The harpsichord’s strings are plucked with either quills or leather picks called plectra.
At one time the harpsichord was the instrument of choice for many classical music composers, but was replaced by the piano for concerts in large orchestra halls because harpsichords simply could not be heard by a large audience. In an undated article written by Allen Shoenfield, John Challis stated that he fell in love with the harpsichord. When he played one for the first time he heard how the composers had written their music. He spoke of playing their works on a piano. “It is like putting the masters in straight-jackets.” Challis says, “Bach is usually played like a schoolboy recites poetry, in a meaningless singsong.”
Challis was soon manufacturing and selling about eight hand crafted harpsichords a year in his studio/workshop on Michigan Avenue where he employed two assistants. Not only did he manufacture instruments, but his goal was to create a harpsichord that would be powerful enough to be heard in concert halls. The Time Magazine article tells us that “He introduced many improvements into harpsichord manufacture, (and) utilized modern materials like Bakelite, aluminum and nylon…” “I am not an antiquarian, “ he explained, ”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.” In 1944, when the article was written, he was the only producer of harpsichords in the world.
One of the ways in which he changed this instrument was by using an aluminum casting for the frame. In an unpublished paper written by the Reverend Jasper Green Pennington of Ypsilanti in 1985, we learn more of Challis genius and inventiveness. “Challis was a highly creative and innovatory builder… The extremes of climate in large areas of North America, as compared with the moderate climatic conditions of Europe in which the harpsichord and clavichord were developed, led him to experiment continually with new materials and techniques of construction in an effort to produce instruments with stability comparable to that of the modern piano… While remaining faithful to a decorative scheme in the tradition of Dolmetsch’s later finish and leaf-gilded moldings, he based the interior structure of his instruments increasingly on components of metal and plastic. In his last years he even used metal soundboard, thereby gaining stability in tuning without sacrificing the characteristic Challis tone quality.” While greatly changed inside, Challis harpsichords were noted for having a traditional exterior and handmade brass hinges. They stayed in tune through changes in temperature and humidity and had a clear, bright sound.
However, not all musicians approved of his “improvements.” One critic wrote that “Challis was another example of what happens when 400 years of refinement through craft is suddenly thrown out, combined with some really counter-productive engineering.” She went on to state that “someone had to be John Challis and put the harpsichord through an experimental phase if only to expose the hubris of modern engineering when applied under false goals.” Yet, it seems that many musicians valued his hand crafted instruments and his business grew.
By 1946, Challis’s instruments were much sought after and he moved his workshop to larger quarters in Detroit. Challis continued to inspire and teach others the art of harpsichord making. In 1955, 16 year old Frederick Battershell worked Saturdays and Sundays at the Detroit shops. They were first located at 549 East Jefferson and then moved to 85 Vernor. He wrote “I will never forget this experience and the kindness of his partner Ephraim Truesdell.” He described a very positive experience which led him to a long life of making instruments using the skills that he learned at the Challis shop.
Another admirer wrote about visiting Challis’s Detroit studio on Vernor, near Woodward in the 1960’s. He said “John was quite nice to me and demonstrated his dual manual models and then showed off his reinvented Mozart-Hayden pianoforte. I had never heard such sound before or have since. He was constantly smoking and had a bit of a shake at this time, but as soon as he started playing, the shake stopped and he was a magnificent player.”
In 1966, when John’s house was condemned to build the Chrysler Freeway, he moved his business to New York and located at 133 Fifth Avenue. David Worth writes of visiting John Challis “numerous times in NYC and found him to be the most generous individual as well as an exceptional performance coach.” Stephen Danziger, M.D., F.A.A.D., F.A.C.P., Treasurer Brooklyn Chapter, American Guild of Organists wrote in May, 2010 his memories of Challis. “My high school, the High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia H.S.) in Manhattan had a one manual Challis harpsichord in the music office which I played every day I worked in the office – lunchtime. On one occasion I visited John Challis’ studio on lower Fifth Avenue and he very kindly showed me what he was working on. His instruments were made with a metal frame, instead of the usual wooden one. He said that it kept in much better tune. Of course the sound of these instruments was much more powerful than a wood-frame instrument. Some compared it with Wanda Landowska’s metal-frame Pleyel harpsichord which had strings under great tension, as in the piano… The instruments at Music and Art had pedals instead of hand stops. The appearance of the case when the harpsichord was closed resembled a coffin, and students often commented on what was really inside.”
John Challis, a musical genius whose talents were recognized, encouraged and nurtured by the kind people of Ypsilanti, died in New York City at the age of 67 on September 6, 1974. It has been speculated that he had Parkinson disease but a member of the family, a neurologist, who knew John personally thought that he had died of a liver disorder. In his obituary in a local paper we learn that John had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities Degree by Wayne State University and also an honorary Masters Degree by Eastern Michigan University. He was survived by his 92 year old father, a resident of Lake Alfred, Florida, a sister Hazel Davies in Tampa, Florida, a sister Grace Joardar in Tacoma Park, Maryland and a brother Dean, a retired high school principal living in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. No matter the cause of death, we need to celebrate the life and achievements of this great, talented, imaginative and ambitious young man who left a mark in musical history as Ypsilanti had left it’s mark on him.
The University of Michigan Stearns Collection has a Challis harpsichord in their world-renowned collection of musical instruments. Other museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art have Challis harpsichords in their collections. Two videos on You Tube can help you experience the vibrancy of a John Challis harpsichord. The performances are performed by Rosalyn Tureck in 1961 and are J.S. Bach compositions – BWV 848 Prelude and Fugue in C-Sharp ( http://tinyurl.com/k5bzbro ) and BWV 825 Partia-Giga No. 1 in G-flat Major ( http://tinyurl.com/ms3sla4 ). Examples of organist E. Power Biggs playing the Challis harpsichord can be found at http://jsebestyen.org/harpsichord/audio.html#Challis .
(Jan Anschuetz is a long-time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)
Photo 4: In 1930 John came back to Ypsilanti and began to manufacture harpsichords in the loft above his father’s business at 104 W. Michigan Avenue. Today the space has been combined with 106 W. Michigan Avenue and is occupied by the Ypsilanti Convention and Visitors Bureau.