Michael's Blog


26 June 2017

Good news from Museu de la Música in Barcelona. The book, to be published in three languages, is scheduled for September (let's say October?) featuring the pianos of Zumpe and celebrating the excellent restoration of their piano of 1776 by Kerstin Schwarz. Here we see it being played by Pablo Gomez (a preview that I've been given as I am contributing the opening chapter on the life and work of this maker). Kerstin contributes a full restoration report, with observations on the many changes that this instrument has been subjected to, and how she has tackled the challenge of returning it as nearly as possible to its original state. Pablo contributes the player's perspective, with remarks on the touch and the unique tone of these pianos, and also provides the recordings to be featured on the CD. Here he plays J. C. Bach in a very lively and interesting interpretation, which I found refreshingly different. I hope soon to be able to provide a link to this so that readers of this blog can access it on Youtube. How different it is from the high classical rendition of Mozart on the CD from St Petersburg! Something to look forward to.

22 June 2017

An opportunity to hear again the splendid Kirckman harpsichord in the Ashmolean Museum was enough to convince me that a day out in Oxford would be time well spent. Last year's recital by Arne Richards was so pleasant, as was the delightful afternoon stroll in the gardens of Worcester College. I shall not easily forget the chance encounter there with an American lady and her very evident sadness in having to return next day to Los Angeles.

The tiny hamlet of Binsey was to be on the morning schedule – an incredible oasis of rural peace less than 2 miles from the overcrowded city. My first desire was to go again to the little church in the fields – dedicated to Saint Margaret of Antioch – which was evidently known to Lewis Carroll (alias Charles Dodgson) as its Treacle Well turns up in the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. It's such a delight to find this church so lovingly cared for, though it seems to stand alone at the end of a country lane, without modern conveniences, such as electricity. To accompany the services there is a harmonium at the west end, on which I was able to extemporise a hymn tune, after first priming the bellows. Memorials inside the building, and outside, commemorate numerous members of the Prickett family who lived here long ago – not grand folk with impressive monuments, but middling sort of country people. For devotees of Alice this is a familiar name because Miss Prickett was governess to Dean Liddell's daughters. I have a suspicion that 'Pricks', as the girls called her, was the invisible presence on the famous boating trip when Dodgson and his friend Duckworth rowed the girls up to Godstow for a summer picnic.

The Kirckman harpsichord, which dates from 1772, is one of the more prestigious double manual instruments with elaborate marquetry around the keywell, and a machine stop (which Arne declined to use). The stand is also something special, with superbly carved ball-and-claw feet. It sounded even better than I remembered, but that may be because I stood at the back, near the foot of the stairs, where the tone seemed to take on a clarity and brightness that it did not have when I was seated near the front. It was a particular pleasure to hear many different registrations used, including the buff stop, and to admire the resonant bass notes in Duphly's music.

When walking the lane back to Binsey I was amazed to see a black rabbit — in 75 years I have never seen the like. Totally black, a wild rabbit: his ears were pricked as he paused from nibbling the wayside grass. A black rabbit, at Binsey - you'll be thinking that I was dreaming like Alice, though her rabbit was white! But no, he didn't pull out a pocket watch, or exclaim 'Oh, my ears and whiskers!' But what a curious encounter! Only a minute later a weasel shot across the lane at incredible speed. Let's hope our sooty friend got home safely!

18 June 2017

High summer, and just the weather it should be! Haymaking is now in progress, so as I walk over the field to my storage unit at Brookfield I see a blue tractor going up and down, under a blazing sun, pulling a trailer with whirling tines turning over the drying grass. From behind, I see a cloud of dust flying in the air wherever he goes. Presumably this is mostly grass pollen, which is not good news if you suffer from hay fever. But he's making short work of it. In former times (before petroleum) this field would have taken a dozen men a day or more, slowly working across it with their scythes, while their womenfolk followed later with their pitchforks, and hayrakes, tossing and turning the limp grass. Such a lot of labour we now cut short!

So too with square pianos. When you drill a wrestplank to take 122 tuning pins (or more) the work can now be done in two hours. Of course we now use a power drill – there's little physical effort involved, just pull the trigger and the hole is made. You must, of course, make sure you have spotted it accurately – that's the biggest task since the smallest error can result in strings touching adjacent notes, causing needless trouble. But when it's done I can't help thinking of the poor men who had to do this with hand tools in days gone by: such a lot of labour we now save ourselves. Just the repetitive effort of hand drilling - such a slow and laborious task, probably falling to an apprentice. Imagine the tedium of doing this day after day!

12 June 2017

The inscription on the French square piano showing here reads: Leonard Sÿstermans / Rue Saint Denis à Ste. Chaumont No. 18 / a Paris L'anne 1797. On the soundboard the same information is repeated with the addition of 'No. 130'. It was a bit of an enigma, in so far as this maker was unknown to me, and was not recorded in Martha Clinkscale's database – and even now does not appear on the updated online version.

What surprised me most was the design and craftsmanship. If someone had exchanged the nameboard you see here for one with Erard's name it would not have raised any questions. In fact you might think it was one of Erard's better instruments! The interior design is exactly the same, with the distinctive 'Mechanique à double pilotes' seen in the Erard piano of 1793, on the Erard page on this site. (Harding shows this as Fig. 52, p.77). It has also the same very strong construction, and soundboard layout. Google searches have revealed several other Sÿstermans pianos, the earliest of which is dated 1800, (his 'No. 304') likewise of five octaves FF- f3, while other examples are found from 1817 onwards with an extended compass, and a new address in Paris from where his sons(?) continued the business through the 1820s.

The piano I am showing is not only the oldest known survivor from Sÿstermans but apparently the only one that still has its array of pedals. On this instrument they were assigned [Left to right] for sustain i.e. dampers; buff stop (harp); moderator (celeste); and lid swell.

8 June 2017

Seeing Tony Hemmant's spinet in the catalogue for Piano Auctions' sale on 22 June reminds me of visits I made around 1990 to the cottage in Andoversford, at the request of Tony's widow.

Wylva Hemmant was an extraordinary and very determined woman – 'indomitable' is the right word, I think. Barely five feet tall, if that, but with a most forceful character, matched by her commanding voice. 'Look here', she would say, to begin every sentence, as if she were reprimanding an errant child. After Tony died (suddenly when on holiday in Spain I seem to recall) Wylva's arthritis became worse, but she decided that if she made an effort to keep playing her instruments she might keep her hands working properly. My most abiding memory of her was when sitting in her kitchen (I having tuned the spinet and her pink harpsichord). She suddenly said, 'Have you ever had mice in your kitchen?' She had some. Many women living alone and having to deal with this problem, would be horrified and fearful. Not Wylva. She had her walking stick beside her and gave me a demonstration of her intended method of dealing with the invaders. Holding the stick upside down (like a hockey stick) she said that she would whack them if they dared to come out. And she meant it. But whether she ever hit one I never found out. Mice can be very quick.

5 June 2017

Richard Leppert's Music and Image is a book that I have always resisted. Published by Cambridge University Press in 1988, it was added to my bibliography in 1998, only because my editor at OUP was so keen on it. Now, with a copy in hand, I find it to be the sort of grossly distorted quasi-feminist polemic that enrages me. It's not a book about music, as he freely admits, nor is it a book about painting. Rather, by selective use of pictures and texts (he doesn't ever admit to being selective) and limiting his attention to the 'English upper classes' (though not properly defined) he expounds his thesis of male dominance and female subjection in eighteenth century England. In doing this he belittles the achievements of all women, and the huge importance of women in musical commerce — as performers, as buyers of music and instruments, as patrons of composers and teachers, and as the principal avenue through which music, taste and fashion were conveyed to their contemporaries. And often being mothers, their role in the transmission of musical excellence to future generations was so important too.

Professor Leppert expounds his unrelenting pseudo-feminist dialectic with myopic zeal, exposing himself to many ludicrous blunders, none more fantastic than on page 133. Dealing with 'The Male at Music', he attempts to show that English gentlemen could only indulge in musical performance on condition that it must not occupy too much time, and must not compromise one's status in society. So, in showing Nollekens' portrait of a gentleman playing a 'cello [interesting low position and underhand bow grip] he observes a spinnet in the background. Just what he needs!

'We are told' Leppert writes, 'that his wife is accomplished, hence reflecting well on her husband, for .. there is a spinet – essentially a women's instrument – above whose fingerboard is written 'Ladyman' – not the name of an actual builder of harpsichords in the eighteenth century, instead an indicator of the gender proper to the instrument's use.' It would seem therefore that since there is a spinnet in the house there must be a female to play it! We can assume that 'wife' is notional, as it could have been his daughter perhaps? But obviously not a son! [This, despite Pepys' love for the instrument, and his purchase of one, and Leppert's own Plate 41 showing Garton Orme at his spinnet - a young gentleman if ever I saw one.]

What can we say of this crass blunder regarding the maker? Can we take him seriously? Was the author 'under the influence' when he wrote this nonsense? John Ladyman was not only known as a maker of spinnets, but has two surviving instruments of this kind recorded in the standard work, Boalch, Makers of the Harpsichord & Clavichord, presumably available to Prof. Leppert in his department's library in Minnesota. It is very surprising that no copy editor pulled him up on this before the book went to press.

1 June 2017

A big thank you to all the people who are contributing to the Burckat Tschudi saga, especially to Prof. Richard John from Miami who has drawn my attention to an astonishing advertisement offering for sale three pianofortes. This shows that the 1729 Tschudi bought by Paul de Wit had been offered for sale in Naples in 1903 as a pianoforte in legno mogano (mahogany). It is very unlikely that Achille Longo was mistaken: he knew the difference between a harpsichord and a piano. His son was working at that time on his Scarlatti edition. We must conclude therefore that at some time between 1903 and 1911 an English grand piano, with the Tschudi name attached, was converted into a double manual harpsichord. The difficult question that now needs an answer is whether this was an authentic name batten, taken from a presumably ruinous single manual harpsichord, or a fraudulent confection with the brilliantly clever addition of the script on the back QVESTO CIMBALO E' DELLa SIGa ANNA STRADA 1731 LONDON. Just such an inscription as you would love to find but perhaps only dream of! Could it be that this is in fact a clever fake? A trap in which Paul de Wit was snared? I was very much inclined to think so.

Professor John, however, suggests a different scenario. Perhaps the inscription is genuine. It is in good Italian script, he believes, though a little puzzling in naming LONDON rather than LONDRA. We should consider whether it may have been written by Anna Strada herself, after her retirement, in the early 1740s. As mentioned on 29 May [below] the evidence suggests that this nameboard may have belonged initially to a single-manual harpsichord, but on the evidence of the sale notice above, it was probably transferred to a pianoforte some time after the singer's death in 1775. It is now established that she retired to Naples (not Bergamo as reported elsewhere) and was ultimately buried there at the church of Santa Anna di Palazzo. The supposed connection between 'her harpsichord' and Handel was always doubtful. There is no warrant for William Dale's romance though it is endlessly repeated — Who but Handel could have given it to her? (he asks). To this very instrument she must have sung, and on it Handel must have accompanied her. It is worth remembering that Strada was very well paid during her years in London, indeed it was the high point of her career. She could then easily afford to buy a harpsichord for herself.

In this portrait we see her in her prime, seated at a harpsichord, but if the representation is at all accurate this does not resemble any known harpsichord by Shudi. Indeed her appearance does not at all confirm the nasty things said about her looks by contemporary opera-goers — but then they were always seizing on performers' faults!

Well, whatever harpsichord she owned it was certainly not the instrument later bought by Paul de Wit, shown in the mono photograph from William Dale's book [see 25 May]. We are asked to believe that this is the same instrument now in Ueno Gakuen College, Tokyo, though if so it has been so grossly transformed you would not recognise it. We see that the veneer is modern; the stand is a modern replacement for the one with piano pedals; and the lid is definitely not the same one. All of this has been done since 1913, exactly when is not known. Internally the construction and mechanism replicates the design of Arnold Dolmetsch in the early years of the 20th century, in other words just what you might expect of a conversion in the harpsichord revival period – modern tuning pins, closed top jacks, leather plectra etc. [This I can now report thanks to the persistence of Yoshihisa Ando who obtained this picture and many others with the help of Prof Watanabe.]

Here is another thought. If you have been watching carefully you will have seen that Tabel's inscription has the word order 'fecit Londini'. Examine the inscriptions on all surviving harpsichords by Shudi made before 1766 and you see this order is consistently used. The purported 1729 instrument is an anomaly, having the order 'Londini fecit' – not otherwise seen on Shudi's instruments until decades later. Curious! It doesn't inspire much confidence.

29 May 2017

Further to the comments on the harpsichord shown on 25 May — there are a number of visible features that, taken together, conclusively show that it was extensively rebuilt before 1913. As mentioned, the height of the cross-wise batten that bears the inscription BURCKAT TSCHUDI LONDINI FECIT 1729 appears to be about 60mm [Tabel's is 36mm]. This suggests that it came originally from a single-manual instrument. This results in an awkward positioning of the stop knobs. It is gratifying to find that the supplementary clues, some of which I mentioned before, have been seen by others too. Chris Nobbs observed the extension of the cheek (resulting in the faint line where the new veneer abutts the old) and the position of the hook off-centre, but looking well centred if we imagine the extension removed. Both are very suggestive. But are we looking at a single-manual harpsichord with a newly added keyboard? Or are we looking at a fortepiano converted to a harpsichord with both keyboards being newly manufactured? Such schemes were often carried out in the harpsichord revival period 1890-1920. Who wants a third rate piano? 'Can't you convert it to a nice harpsichord?' the workman would be asked. An example of a conversion is the Portuguese fortepiano I mentioned on page 17 of The Pianoforte in the Classical Era. Dave Law had it in his workshop in the 1990s and kindly invited me to come and have a look. At first glance it was absolutely credible as a Portuguese harpsichord – a single-manual of course, in a painted case, very much like the Iberian harpsichord photo in Raymond Russell's book. But inspect the keys and you discover that in the eighteenth century it was a Cristofori-style piano with the distinctive shaping of the key levers around a mortise that held the escapement levers. Apparently Dolmetsch was responsible for its conversion. There are, of course, many examples of harpsichords that gained an additional keyboard, singles converted to doubles. So I am looking into other ways discovering the origin of the 'Tschudi harpsichord'.



25 May 2017

Information about Herman Tabel and Burkat Shudi continues to come in, opening up new insights. Most people with an interest in historic English harpsichords are more than familiar with physical characteristics of those made in the second half of the eighteenth century when the two competing workshops of Kirckman and Shudi dominated the trade. Likewise, it is widely known that their structural and accoustic similarities originated in the pioneer work of Herman[nus] Tabel. His only surviving work is the instrument shown below [17 May]. What has always been a puzzle is the earliest surviving work by his pupils or apprentices. Cited in all the reference books is a two-manual harpsichord by Shudi, dated 1729, which was first reported in 1911 by the then owner, Paul de Wit. When he sent a photograph to William Dale it was received with great enthusiasm, and became a cornerstone of Dale's book, Tschudi, the Harpsichord Maker, published in 1913. I have always been sceptical, and now I learn through communications generated by this blog that others too share my concerns. Here is the instrument as shown by Dale.

Well, you might notice immediately that the stand with its two distinctive pedals belongs to an English grand piano, of five octaves, made about 1780-90. After this you might see a suspicious looking vertical line on the cheek, as if the instrument had been lengthened (perhaps to accommodate the second keyboard?) Having seen a harpsichord that pretends to be an eighteenth-century double manual that began life as a pianoforte I am easily persuaded by such little clues! The curve of the bentside is exactly what you might see on a grand piano of 1785 but not at all like the profile you expect from Shudi [aka Tschudi]. Well, if all this raises doubts in your mind let me say that the instrument in this picture either does not exist, or if it does it has been recycled under another name, because the harpsichord that now bears the name batten 'Burckat Tschudi Londini fecit 1729' is now attached to a very different item, currently in Tokyo. Photos recently received confirm that the harpsichord in Japan, recently shown in 'Jacob Kirkman, Harpsichord Maker to her Majesty' is of entirely modern manufacture, and so far as we can tell it doesn't have even the tiniest vestige of eighteenth-century work. Here is the inscription and the keyboards.

You see immediately that the stop knobs on the upper manual end blocks have grown in size. (They are redundant.) You see too that the staple for the lock has gone. But maybe you are not yet convinced? Then let me tell you that the lid is not the same one, and there is more that you can deduce even from this one photograph. Compare the inscription superficially with the Tabel harpsichord shown 17 May. Very similar lettering; but observe the height of the batten on which the text is written. I have a theory to account for all of this, but we will save it for another day.

18 May 2017

Yesterday the light was so gloomy, and the rain was so dispiriting that taking a photo of Warwick town's most prominent landmark was hopeless. So here is what it looks like on a sunny day. St Mary's church tower can be seen for many miles around.

Inside there is an incredible gem — the Beauchamp Chapel [pronounce Beechum] built as a chantry. Here the gilded effigy of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, lies upon a tomb, his hands in a prayerful posture, looking towards a beautiful east window surrounded by a great array of polychrome saints that somehow escaped the savage destruction of post-reformation zealots (though the glass in the window was smashed). You might choose to come here as I did, if music is of interest to you, because in the 1440s John Prudde of London was commissioned to create stained glass windows all around the top of this chapel, depicting angel musicians singing God's praises, accompanied by a fantastic assembly of fifteenth-century instruments – rebecs, psalteries, and harps, shawms and a portative organ, but of special interest to me is a very early representation of a harpsichord, and a clavichord. Thus we know for certain that harpsichords, more or less as we know them, were in use in England 550 years ago.

The music that we are to imagine is actually notated on a stave, running continuously in each window. One of the stewards told me that on a special day every year the choir of St Mary's comes into this chapel to perform this music, re-enacting the ancient ritual, but regrettably without the instrumentalists!

17 May 2017

Dismal, dreary weather was forecast for this day, and did not disappoint! In Stratford on Avon, and Broadway, whose high streets are normally overwhelmed by visitors in May there was hardly anyone to be seen. Low mist hung over the hills, and rain continued from early morning until evening. But this was the day appointed for my visit to Warwick to see again the 1721 harpsichord by Tabel - a crucial instrument in the history of English harpsichord making. For many years now it has been withdrawn from public view and kept in very unsatisfactory depot on the outskirts of the town.

Data collection and critical comparisons with other surviving instruments are the means by which I hope to discover the true relationships between the numerous craftsmen building harpsichords (and related instruments) in London during the eighteenth century. One thing is easily agreed - that though this is undoubtedly a genuine and important instrument, there has been much undocumented interference, the most obvious being the restoration by John Broadwood & Sons in 1900. There's no record of what they did, but some of it can be readily detected. The keys, for example, have ebony naturals whose surface and shape show that they are not eighteenth-century work. This invalidates all the speculation about the materials used in early examples from Shudi or Kirckman. The ivories too (topping the accidentals) are very thin, and of much lower quality than the harpsichord merits. They are clearly NOT Tabel's work.

12 May 201

How sad it is that English harpsichords are so often ignored by modern players, instruments that were regarded with huge admiration by eighteenth-century musicians. If we try to find information about them the search is often frustrating. The most influencial text is Frank Hubbard's Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making – published fifty years ago. But in a book that covers 300 years in all countries there simply is not enough space to develop this topic. (Nevertheless, this remains by far the most informative text available.) Darryl Martin addressed the subject in 2010 with an essay in The Historical Harpsichord series, Volume 5, edited by John Koster, but this is frankly impenetrably dull for anyone except an academic specialist, and comes to no startling conclusions. At the end you don't feel that you have learned much at all. In any case, he omits several important instruments, without a convincing justification.

It was the publication this year of Charles Mould's Jacob Kirkman [sic], Harpsichord Maker to her Majesty that provoked me to resume an interest, especially when I saw in that book the incredible photographs of what purports to be an instrument by Shudi, once owned by opera singer Anna Strada, and widely reported to have been given to her by her mentor Handel. Charles Mould's 1970 vindication of the importance of Tabel's 1721 instrument in Warwick Museum was undoubtedly a most significant finding concerning English harpsichords, but published in Ed Ripin's Keyboard Instruments (1971) it hasn't had the exposure that it merits. So on Wednesday, after a six-months' wait while the museum has been refurbished, I am scheduled to examine this harpsichord with a visit to Warwick. Hopefully, after further fact-gathering over the coming year, I shall be in a position to compare it with several other London-made harpsichords from pre-1750. Reports to follow.

7 May 2017

When Thomas Twining wrote to Charles Burney in February 1779 he began with a thank you. 'The P[iano]Forte arrived safe.' It had been delivered from Pohlman's London workshop a few days before. He went on to say: 'Miss Forster has a sweet voice and an excellent ear. I wish you had her under your tuition.' The piano was meant for this young woman, a near neighbour in Essex, and daughter of a local clergyman.

I thought of this yesterday when listening to a succession of young singers, mostly girls, and all 14 or 15 years of age, performing at Cheltenham Town Hall. They were accompanied by 2 different pianists – music teachers – on the Steinway concert grand. Now, I cannot say whether the this instrument was well regulated or not, but I observed that, no matter which pianist played, the girls' voices were often swamped by the piano. The lid was down, of course. But it made no difference. The songs were mainly duets, with some trios too, but the Steinway piano, even when it is played softly had too much strength. Perhaps with a mature, conservatoire-trained opera singer there would be less of a problem. It is not that the pianist is insensitive. The difficulty is that the softest sound from a Steinway, though quiet in relative terms, still has power, strength, body of tone. So the balance with a young voice is completely unsatisfactory.

This is a problem not just with young singers but with the huge repertoire of instrumental pieces from the eighteenth century. For example the harp, even a modern seven pedal high tension harp, cannot have the same relationship with a modern grand piano that a gut-strung harp had with the low-tension pianos when Dussek wrote his music. [And not only Dussek of course!] A wooden flute cannot balance with a Steinway. The pianist is having to play with enormous restraint. How much we lose by this! How different would be the young singers' experience if they were in an easier relationship with the accompanist. It is all to do with transparency and clarity.

2 May 2017

Here is what we would all like to see – if we care about old instruments. These are the hammers of a square piano by Buntebart & Sievers, 1788, which was in my possession recently. What we see are the original hammers, in pristine condition, hardly marked by any use. The screw you see had never been taken out, and when I did unscrew it I found all the original white leather hinges in perfect condition.

What surprised me most was that the maker lined the aperture in the hammer shank with soft leather so that it would make no sound as it rubbed against the guide pin. This was something I had never previously seen in a London made piano of that period – usually they are plain wood, so sometimes they do make a slight noise.

I mention this because during this last week I have been struggling with the problem of how to replace such tiny bits of leather in a piano by Leonard Systermans of Paris, 1797. As with so many other lost skills of the piano trade we have to try to recover it by trial and error (and much thinking!), but I think I have now arrived at a satisfactory method, though it is a long tedious process. Maybe it's the sort of work that was given to a low-paid apprentice or a nimble fingered girl. As there are none around I will have to do it myself!

24 April 2017

London in the 1770s was the prime destination for aspiring pianoforte makers. King Carlos III even commissioned promising Spanish makers to learn all they could in the workshops in England and in at least one case, Juan del Marmol, granted a pension on condition that he would employ local men on his return and pass on his knowledge. From the Netherlands a young man named Meinke Meyer was similarly absorbing all the knowledge he could before returning to Amsterdam in 1779 where his reputation was greatly enhanced by his time in London.

Was Philip Schmidt a similar aspirant? And where did he disappear? Some years ago I was sent photos from Germany of a square piano inscribed 'Philippus Schmidt Londini fecit' and had to confess that I had never heard of this man. But now another example has appeared, dated very clearly 1780. Today I had the opportunity to examine it, coming to a tentative conclusion that young Schmidt was probably employed in the 1770s by Frederick Beck. But what happened to him, I wonder? And where in London was he working when he was hoping to establish his own workshop, rather than returning mainland Europe? The design of this instrument was up-to-date in every respect with the enlarged soundboard overhanging the treble keys, a sausage-shaped oval cartouche for the inscription, excellent inlays, and a matching stand in the latest style with square-tapering legs. The inscription appears to have been written by one of London's best writing masters — no economy there. An interesting find. Unfortunately restored in the 1970s [I guess] with galvanised wire, and perhaps never tuned since, it sounds terrible — but a nice historic specimen, nevertheless.

18 April 2017

A sequel to my story of 25 January, regarding the surprising discovery made by a piano tuner in Shropshire. The full story is now made public, so for those readers outside the UK it is now possible to give more information. When Graham and Meg Hemmings moved from Essex to Bishop's Castle they took with them an old upright piano by John Broadwood & Sons. Some time later they decided to give it to the local school hoping that it might be useful for children to learn on, or at least have the opportunity. So the school asked piano technician Martin Backhouse to overhaul it. But finding the touch a bit troublesome he began taking out the keys and saw several mysterious packets underneath. There were six of them, all stuffed with gold sovereigns! 913 of them, 13 pounds in weight! Their value is now revealed to be 'hundreds of thousands of pounds', so naturally there have been many hopeful claimants, but none of them pass a reasonable test of credibility. So it has been declared 'treasure' - in this case that means a hoard that has been deliberately hidden, by persons unknown. While most of the value goes to the Crown, piano man Martin Backhouse and the school can expect to share in a substantial reward, while Mrs Hemmings comments: 'We are very happy that the money will go to the school, and hope that they will use it to benefit the children's musical ability'.

The rest of us will have to keep poking about in old pianos!

10 April 2017

Square pianos continue to puzzle some auctioneers, perpetuating confusion among the general public. A good example is this instrument which appeared at a very reputable auction many months ago as 'A clavichord by Schon & Larsen'. It is in fact a square piano by Schoene & Vinsen, about 1798, and a very handsome and desirable instrument when new. But appearing now in a sadly decayed state it made just over £1000, which I thought a surprisingly good result for the vendor. But when the buyer discovered how much it might cost to restore it the pleasure of ownership quickly waned. Amazingly, it reappeared in the same auction rooms last month, again catalogued as a clavichord, this time achieving only £300.

Just when we thought that awareness of early pianos had advanced so much, we find that we are not really making very much progress at all! This week, again in Gloucestershire, we find two 'spinets' for auction, in Cirencester. One of those is an 'early nineteenth-century' example by John Broadwood & Sons — a give-away clue really, since Broadwood never made spinets even in the eighteenth century. I hope no one is misled this time.

3 April 2017

Chance enquiries and encounters sometimes lead to some really interesting new knowledge. Christopher Clarke's splendid reproduction of Erard's grand piano of 1802 has been finished more than 3 years now, and I so much looked forward to hearing a recording employing its unique resources in a historically credible way. Well, there is a fine commercial recording of Alexi Lubimov playing Beethoven which I bought, but it is deeply disappointing to me in that he uses none of the special resources of Érard's design. He plays Beethoven with the expected panache, but only in the way that you might expect of a Russian pianist of distinction. He ignores the row of pedals (excepting the sustain, and just occasionally the una corda). So I have been longing to hear a recording by Pierre Goy which I am told does make use of them. Chris Clarke expects that M. Goy's recording will be issued this year, so I live in hopes.

But reminding Chris of my interest, I learned something new and unexpected — a Youtube video devoted to the life and work of Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). In it we hear many of Montgeroult's compositions, played by a variety of performers and, showing above, the Érard copy played by Marcia Hadjimarkos. Unhappily I did not learn much new about the piano, which is only heard in short extracts, but it was very interesting to learn about Hélène de Montgeroult and her charming music. Somehow she had not previously registered on my radar!

22 March 2017

Only last week I discovered that in the graveyard at St Marylebone where Johannes Zumpe was buried in 1790 one of the most outstanding pianists of the Beethoven era was laid to rest. This was Joseph Woelfl, born in Salzburg, a pupil of Leopold Mozart and an accomplished violinist in his youth (as was Wolfgang Mozart), but after hearing Anna Maria [Nannerl] play on the fortepiano, and playing duets with her, Woelfl's primary instrument became the piano. His impressive and enjoyable concertos can be heard on Youtube, of which I particularly liked No.5.

He was on an extended concert tour in England when he died on 21 May, 1812. So his last resting place was very near to Stephen Storace, friend of Mozart, but a long way from Salzburg. The rebuilt church is shown below, with traffic passing along Marylebone Road, near where the Royal Academy of Music now stands.

20 March 2017

When researching 'Piano-forte', as mentioned in British newspapers before 1800, I often came upon the name of 'Miss Guest' performing in concerts in London and Bath. She must have been a very capable player as she generally appeared in ensembles that included some of the most famous professional musicians of her era. 'Miss Guest' was during her teenage years a pupil of J. C. Bach, and later of Rauzzini, probably the most eminent singing teacher. So it was a pleasure to find that she actually has an entry in Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians – Jane Mary Guest, some time music teacher to Princess Amelia and also to Princess Charlotte, and that she has several published compositions to her credit. This includes her Opus 1, Six Sonatas of 1783, issued with an impressive list of subscribers and afterwards published in Paris. I was delighted to read that among the subscribers for this work was 'Miss Northey'. This new information has now been added to 'Mrs Northey's Piano' in the left hand column of our home page. How marvellous to find that here is a piano bought by Mrs Northey in April 1784, played by her daughter Charlotte, and now we even know some of the music she played. This must be unique.

10 March 2017

Spring as you would wish it to be. Warm air, the gentlest breeze, blue skies, and green buds bursting in the hedgerows. Add to these pleasures the leisure to enjoy them, with a visit to Overbury, which I truly believe to be the most beautiful village in England. What happiness! Among my all-time favourite country walks is the ascent of Bredon Hill beginning at Overbury Court. In the course of your half-an-hour's trek to the summit you see some modestly beautiful Georgian houses, delightful gardens, a tumbling cascade hidden among the trees, and as you near the hilltop skylarks fluttering above you spilling out their joyful songs.

Then suddenly, standing beside the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, you see the whole of Worcestershire laid out before you, with the meandering River Avon shining in the sunlight. Immediately below, between Bredon Hill and the Avon, lies Woollas Hall where a heavy cart came from Evesham in 1712 bringing the harpsichord by Joseph Tisseran. It was destined to remain there, hidden in this remote location until 1949, when it was sold at auction in London — only to return the same way to the nearby village of Rous Lench, having been bought by Tom Burn. It's now in the Bate Collection in Oxford where we can all see it, and if you go on the right day, you might also hear it played. Dave Law, who restored it for the Bate, is keeping it in fine playing order.

It is among the instruments that I am thinking of featuring in a commentary on English harpsichords in the context of domestic music in England in the eighteenth century. This seems to me such a neglected topic. Nothing very informative and readable has presented the story of English harpsichords for a general readership since Frank Hubbard's Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making in 1965, and he unhappily dismisses Tisseran's work in a few words. 'Both the name Josephus Tisserand, and the style of this harpsichord lead me to believe ... [it] is not very pertinent to the history of English harpsichord making.'

He was equally dismissive of the work of Herman Tabel whose only survivng instrument I hope to examine in the store rooms at Warwick Museum very soon. Hubbard wrote: 'it seems likely that the traditional role ascribed to Tabel and his posthumous fame were the fabrications of both Kirckman and Shudi in their dotage, a reminiscence of the good old days'. However, I am not alone in thinking that the contrary is true: Tabel was a great innovator and the founder of a whole tradition of immense importance.

3 March 2017

When I first saw this piano [case] in George Kidner's auction catalogue it struck a chord immediately. Those decorative chevron strips along the bottom of the case, the 5-panel treatment of the front, the intarsia at either end — this surely must be another of William Southwell's instruments, made in Dublin around 1795-1800. But 'No'. It transpires that when some misguided antiques dealer stripped out the piano action he left behind the nameboard, more or less intact. The fretwork is not like Southwell's, and the name of the maker / seller is plainly there: 'BYRNE' is all it says. Margaret Debenham has lately added a useful page of data on John Byrne which can be read online. Yet another little window on Dublin's music trade in former times.

4 February 2017

Some twenty years ago when researching the history of the piano I visited David Leigh at his then home in Oxfordshire to see and hear his grand piano by Robert Stodart, on which he did some recordings. It was a surprise to see that it was clearly inscribed with the date 1796 for, as David and I well knew, by that date the piano-making business had been transferred to Matthew and William Stodart, and all their pianos were inscribed with their names. It was readily apparent that someone had falsified the date by scratching out the third didgit and over-writing a nine. No one would do that in modern times so we agreed, the piano must have been made in 1786, but resold about ten years later when a more recent date would have enhanced its value. Certainly worthwhile financially if it looks convincing!

The same thing happened with this very attractive square piano by Broadwood recently sold at auction. The exterior has been lovingly preserved and is a credit to the previous owners. But the inscription has been falsified.

The final digit must look suspicious to everyone. Confirmation is found inside. The serial number 2315 places it definitely in 1793, and the brass under-dampers are on the straight pattern superseded that very year. Nevertheless, there was real pleasure in finding that the careful owners had done nothing foolish or ill-advised to the interior — a full set of hammers and dampers (though in bad condition), and what looks like a near complete set of old strings, perhaps dating from the original manufacture. Externally the satinwood borders and the distinctive inlay matches closely a Broadwood piano dated 1791 in the music room at Kenwood House, on Hampstead Heath. So many positives: a rare find these days! But how annoying to see a false date.

17 February 2017

Readers of this page may recall that I featured this piano in December when it came up for auction at Bishop & Miller's in Stowmarket. Sad to say no-one liked it. It will appear again on Saturday 25 February. The estimate is only £100-150, so it's clear that the vendor really wants to sell. It could go to one cheeky bid. Its ingenious down-striking action ought to make it a good item for any piano museum, or private collector, where the history of the square piano is taken seriously. This one is quite a rare specimen. The only intractable disadvantage with such instruments is that by extending the keyboard to seven octaves — which most players want — you must increase the front to back dimension. So like the monster 'square grand' pianos made in America in the 1880s it takes up much more floor space. This one isn't wider (left to right) than an eighteenth-century piano, just much bigger front-to-back.

11 February 2017

News from Catalonia received this week is that their London-made square piano by Zumpe & Buntebart (1776) is to be demonstrated in a recital at the museum on 12 March. It should make an interesting comparison with the recently recorded square piano in Pavlozsk from the same makers that was formerly the property of Catherine the Great - featured on this Blog page earlier. Where the Russian example is impressively decorated to a design that probably came from Robert Adam, the Barcelona piano is contrastingly of the basic type with no inlay whatever. Its cartouche, identifying the makers, is made from a shaped boxwood plaque applied to the front of the plain mahogany nameboard. Restoration has been recently completed by Kerstin Schwarz, formerly of Halle an der Saale, and then Florence. The photo herewith is before restoration. The legs, of course, are not original. They were provided at a time when this piano was used for organ practice, with a pedal board connected to the keys through a slot cut right through the baseboard - now filled in. Kertin's restoration has resulted in a much more credible instrument. The non-original prop sticks have been replaced with cords, and the missing damper cover rail has been re-instated. Further news: the museum is to publish a book about this instrument, with a CD, with contributions from myself, Kerstin Schwarz and Pablo Gomez Ábalos, out later this year.

8 February 2017

Mobile phones, cell phones, call them what you will, I really hate them. Young mothers no longer pay attention to their children, they are too wrapped up with their 'friends'. Shoppers at the checkout think nothing of answering the phone while everyone behind them has to wait. Drivers text their friends while speeding along public roads. Is this progress? Well, I know, it's how things are. I'm a dinosaur. I admit it.

But look what I'm missing! Anyone who has an iphone [or an ipad] can download Cleartune for less than £3. And see what it does! Any temperament, any pitch level. For an approximate tuning use the dial at the bottom. As you near the intended pitch the little yellow triangle at the top turns green. So easy! If you want accurate tuning watch the scale above. Centre it on zero. Perfect.

The photo you see here is of my son's ipad. I set it to A=415 with sixth comma meantone (for a harpsichord) but there are many other possibilities. How I wish it had been available twenty years ago! In 2000 I was contracted to provide a fortepiano for a BBC live broadcast of The Marriage of Figaro - to be tuned to A=430. Live Broadcast, I emphasize. I didn't have a fork for this pitch but a kind guy from Marksons Pianos lent me his. However, knowing what happens on stage just before a performance I was worried. How would I hear the piano with stagehands stomping around and shouting to one another? They always do. So I paid £400 for a tuning device. Set it to any pitch, with 12 temperaments to choose from. It saved the day, and my sanity... at a price. But today if you have a mobile phone or an ipad Cleartune is so cheap, and so reliable. (However, I still don't have a mobile phone.)

25 January 2017

It has always been a special pleasure to have an untouched instrument for repair. You never know what you might find, especially when a piano has been retained as a decorative item, long after its musical use has ceased. But the most interesting stray items I have found under the keys or in the action have been visiting cards, or notes to the maker: e.g. 'Lady Crewe will have her piano tuned on Tuesday morning' – 230 years ago. Sewing pins that have fallen among the keys, or costume jewellery — these are very common. Sometimes you find a coin — usually of low value.

So it was very amusing last week to read of a Broadwood upright piano made in 1906 having a hidden hoard of treasure concealed inside. This discovery was not made until the owners asked for it to be tuned and repaired! Peter Reaval of the British Museum's portable antiquities scheme described the find as 'a stunning assemblage of material'. The items are believed to be mostly gold. But this instrument has changed hands several times, and consequently no one knows who might have hidden these items. It is reported that though the objects were considerably older, they were presumably hidden in the last hundred years by someone who probably intended to retrieve them but never did. The owners may be entitled to quite a large sum of money — certainly more than the piano itself was ever worth!

17 January 2017

The pictures of the piano in Pavlovsk from Pavel Akhanov make an interesting comparison with the amazing design by Robert Adam for a harpsichord 'for the Empress of Russia'. In the picture below Yuri Semenov is preparing to record the piano by Zumpe & Buntebart, dated 1774. Its decorative motifs show a striking resemblance to the harpsichord design which, though some have doubted that it was ever made, was in fact built by Frederick Neubauer (with some modifications) and sent to Russia that year. This is one of the findings from our paper for the Royal Musical Association, 'Pioneer Piano Makers' by Margaret Debenham & Michael Cole, for which you can find a link on our home page.

The inscription 'Adelphi 1774' was apparently added after the event, probably not by Robert Adam himself. This is reproduced in Philip James, Early Keyboard Instruments, London, 1930, Plate LIII, page 133.

12 January 2017


It looks completely unlike any piano that ever came from the workshop of Zumpe & Buntebart. Made to a design from Robert Adam when he was at the height of his fame and prestige, this instrument was sent to St Petersburg for Empress Catherine the Great and has recently been restored for exhibition in the Palace of Pavlovsk.

A piano fit for a palace? If you look inside you see that it is essentially a standard square piano from Zumpe's workshop. Redundant space has been added at the left side, and more extraneous timber added at the front creating the unexpected breakfront appearance, with its all-important symmetry when the instrument is closed. The date on the front of the piano is 1774. Robert Adam supplied a fantastic design for a harpsichord for Empress Catherine, made in London and shipped to St Petersburg by Frederick Neubauer. It would be a truly wonderful discovery if this too were to be found in some forgotten store room.

Restoration of the piano was undertaken by Alexander Khukhtonen [the furniture] and Pavel Akhanov [musical function].

The portrait shown right is Empress Catherine's daughter-in-law, Maria Feoderovna, painted 1777. The piano is now located in Maria's stunningly beautiful boudoir shown in our December blog.


In the short audio clip showing below you can hear the piano, recorded in Pavlovsk Palace, by Yuri Semenov. The music is from Mozart's Adagio, K.540



Hear this piano [MP3 file]





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