AMERICUS BACKERS

Early attempts to popularise the fortepiano in England met with little success. The first person to make such an instrument in London was Rutger (alias Roger) Plenius, a harpsichord maker residing in South Audley Street, who constructed at least two examples, taking as his inspiration an Italian pianoforte in the possession of Fulke Greville, Charles Burney's master. It is reasonable to suppose that Plenius' work resembled the Florentine pianofortes invented by Cristofori. The date would be about 1747. (Earlier references to pianofortes in England, for example one played by Handel in 1740, are likely to have been imported instruments.)

Plenius was born in Orsoy, on the Rhine in the Duchy of Cleves, but he was orphaned at six years old and spent most of his early life in Amsterdam, living with his uncle - who was not an instrument maker. It does not appear that Plenius ever learned musical instrument making as an apprentice in that city. None of his instruments are reported to have survived, although his work was much admired in England during the eighteenth century. His astonishing productions included a three-manual harpsichord of 1736, every bit as ambitious as the 1740 example by Heironymus Hass of Hamburg, and two lyrichords, keyboard instruments with gut strings activated by rosin-covered wheels, to imitate the sustained and swelled tones of violins and cellos. But his unhappy entanglement with an English speculator named Cope eventually led to his bankruptcy, in 1756. [There is more information in the RMA Research Chronicle jointly researched and written by Margaret Debenham & Michael Cole. There's a link on the home page.]

At the time of Plenius' difficulties another migrant harpsichord maker, Frederick Neubauer arrived from Hamburg. It appears that he acquired some of Plenius' stock, but whether this included any fortepianos is uncertain. Neubauer assuredly was a highly competent professional craftsman. His crowning achievement was perhaps the astonishing harpsichord made for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, in 1774 (illustrated in James, Early Keyboard Instruments, 1930, Plate LIII). He made 'Piano Fortes', to various designs, advertising them unequivocally in London during the years 1763 to 1768. Unhappily no surviving instruments by Neubauer have been identified, and there is no detailed description to fill the void.

But there is no doubt about the nature of fortepianos made by Americus Backers, which were played by the foremost musicians of the day. He too came from the Netherlands (according to James Shudi Broadwood) and archival documents first confirm his residence in Jermyn Street, just round the corner from the Royal Opera House, in 1763.

Backers fortepiano Copy by Michael Cole

Backers may have been making fortepianos in 1768 or earlier, judging by the serial numbers of his later output. Examples finished by him in 1770 were exhibited for several weeks at the Thatched House in February 1771, attracting much attention. They have several features that are very significant in the historical development of the grand piano. His were, it is believed, the first pianos to have a sustaining pedal, lifting off the dampers ad libitum to create a full resonant tone. This was worked by the player's right foot, a convention that has been followed ever since on concert instruments. Similarly, the left pedal, then as now, operated a 'soft pedal', again an innovation by Backers. In his instruments this moved the keyboard slightly to the right so that each hammer struck only one of the unison strings for that note, allowing the others to vibrate sympathetically. Such an effect, with its unique tone colour, cannot be replicated on modern pianos.

There is just one known fortepiano by Backers extant today. It was long on loan to the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, and illustrated in their catalogues but is now returned to Apsley House, London, the historic home of the Duke of Wellington. Dated clearly 1772, with serial number 21, it is by far the oldest surviving English grand piano. Its hammer mechanism is truly a breakthrough in design. It is not only simple and reliable, but has the great advantage over all other actions of the period that it may be adjusted and kept in good order through a series of set-off screws, easily accessible by simply removing the nameboard. Examination of this mechanism reveals that Backers had invented all essential features of what became known as the 'English Grand Action' certainly by 1772, and probably some years earlier. Unfortunately his reputation suffered a severe blow long after his death when Henry Fowler Broadwood published a little booklet promoting the Broadwood company in 1861. In this he states that his grandfather, John Broadwood, together with his then assistant Robert Stodart, played some essential role by assisting Backers to perfect this mechanism. Hence many derivative publications repeat this apocryphal tale, usually suggesting that the invention of this important step in the development of the grand piano should be attributed to the three men jointly. However, the writers who say this do not appear to have ever examined the 1772 hammer mechanism, or to have considered why Henry Fowler Broadwood might have been motivated to corrupt his father's testimony on this subject. James Shudi Broadwood (1772-1851) is on record for twice giving Backers all the credit for the invention of the English grand piano, without ever suggesting that John Broadwood or Robert Stodart had any necessary part in this work.

There is further widespread misinformation about Americus Backers and his instruments on the internet, and even in printed formats. Potentially the most misleading statement is that he was an apprentice of Gottfried Silbermann in Saxony, endlessly repeated by lazy authors. There is absolutely zero support for this idea in any historic document, its first mention being with Edward Rimbault (1860) - who is simply unreliable. (It was he who reported that Zumpe retired to Germany in 1784, for example.) The names of Silbermann's assistants/apprentices were reported in 1982 by Werner Müller, a careful German scholar. His research did not find any of the later London piano-makers engaged by Silbermann in any capacity (not Zumpe, not Pohlman, not Beyer, and not Backers). Furthermore, any knowledgable person who compares a Silbermann piano with Backers' fortepiano of 1772 will see at once that there are few if any similarities. If you examine the interior of Silbermann's surviving pianos you find that it scrupulously copies many details of the best Cristofori instruments, reproducing them so accurately that it must be concluded that these features could only have been produced by a craftsman who actually examined the interior of an earlier Florentine pianoforte. Silbermann also copied the amazing design of wrestplank (as seen in the 1726 Cristofori piano now in Leipzig) with its inverted configuration (the strings being attached to the underside); he also copied Cristofori's escapement mechanism, his back checks, the dampers, and even the hollow cylindrical hammer heads. These features can also be seen in pianos made by his nephew Jean Henri Silbermann in Strasbourg during the 1770s, but not in Backers' pianos.

If Backers ever saw a Silbermann piano he clearly chose to do otherwise.There is no reason whatsoever to assert that he was Silbermann's apprentice. As Prof. John Koster has observed, if Backers' pianos can be said to resemble any earier work, then Iberian instruments, not German ones, are closest. It would seem most likely that the derivation of Backers' designs could be most easily explained by a connection with Cristofori mediated by Portuguese and Spanish makers, form the period around 1750. However, most of what we see in his fortepiano design is very original.

Backers' 1771 exhibition was evidently a great success because his 'Forte Pianos' were played by many influencial musicians, notably the foremost professional player of the period, Johann Samuel Schroeter, whose delicate touch and expressive performances were praised by all who heard him. A newspaper item, found by Dr Margaret Debenham, has also revealed that Marie Antoinette ordered a fortepiano from Backers soon after the exhibition at Thatched House. She was followed by Empress Maria Theresa, to whom another was dispatched for Vienna in April 1773. But they were not exclusively bought by the super-rich. A grand piano by Backers was owned by Miss Mary Hancock in Salisbury c.1775-1780 and often played in semi-public concerts there.

So successful was Backers at this time that his design was not only copied (which could not be prevented as he had not patented it) but, much worse, counterfeits began to appear, fraudulently inscribed with Backers' name. He was understandably furious. In newspapers he offered a reward to anyone who would identify the forgers. This counterfeiting activity is almost certainly the origin of an eighteenth-century grand piano at Fenton House, Hampstead, (National Trust). It is inscribed as the work of Americus Backers, but it has many internal features which, when compared with the 1772 fortepiano in Edinburgh, reveal significant discrepancies. This plainly suggests that it may be a counterfeiter's work. Nevertheless, it is an interesting and well made instrument of the period, and probably predates any surviving grand piano signed by Stodart or Broadwood. (However, it is unhappily true that this Fenton House piano was subject to a major restoration in the twentieth century in which the soundboard and bridge were replaced so that they now resemble the typical Broadwood work of the 1790s.)

The dearth of surviving pianos from Backers is not so very surprising as he enjoyed his fame for only five years or so before he fell ill. He died on 8 January 1778, leaving two children, Charles and Christiana, seven and six years old respectively. Despite the misleading wording of their father's will these 'natural' children were not illegitimate (as one might presume) but were born to Backers' wife, Philadelphia, whose existence was previously unknown. As she is not mentioned in her husband's will it is presumed that she died prematurely, perhaps soon after she gave birth to a third child, Amelia who was baptised in 1772 but died in infancy. As orphans Charles and Christiana may have faced a bleak future: it is not known what became of them. [My thanks to Dr Margaret Debenham who drew my attention to the previously undiscovered baptismal records of these children at St Dunstan-in-the-West, dating from 1770, 1771 and 1772.]

After Backers' untimely death instruments ostensibly made by him, but probably finished by a former apprentice, continued to be sold from his house in Jermyn Street. They were advertised for sale until at least April 1780, fully two years after their putative maker had died. These public notices include the following sentence: The several crowned heads who have been pleased to order them, the numbers of persons of the highest rank and fashion in this country who are possessed of some of them, together with the approbation of the most eminent music masters, sufficiently show their excellence ... they need only to be heard to be approved. [Morning Post]

Backers' pioneering work was of the utmost importance for the future of grand piano manufacture in London as the principal makers active during the following period, Robert Stodart [from 1775] and John Broadwood [from 1785] developed Backers' design rather than the Silbermann tradition. Indeed, the distinctive features of Silbermann's design had virtually disappeared even in Germany and France by 1790. Sebastien Erard, who began making grand pianos in Paris c.1792, chose the English grand piano as his model, adding to it extra pedals or mutation stops to cater for the French taste of the period (a fashion which flourished until at least 1820).

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