Michael's Blog


17 December 2019

Christies, Sotheby's and Piano Auctions, all fixed their end-of-year sale dates as per tradition. Little did they know that Boris Johnson would also choose 12 December for a general election! Worse still, it was one of those dreary days, with dark clouds and unceasing rain, when most of us would rather stay at home. So, much as I relished the prospect of seeing fresh-to-market paintings from some excellent British artists, including Edmund Blair Leighton and Atkinson Grimshaw, and interesting as it might be to see Sotheby's offering of choice items from Spetchley Park, including a splendid Kirckman harpsichord of 1766, I never saw any of them, and any thoughts of bidding for a picture came to nothing. Moreover, the instruments mis-catalogued by our friends at Piano Auctions were not ones from which I could expect to learn anything, so Election Day for me did not include a trip to London.

It was initially quite heartening to see that bidders ignored the estimate on Guido Bizzi's Italian harpsichord, taking it to a respectable £2700 plus commission, but then rather disappointing to hear that it has gone to a film company. As it was playing reasonably well, as I am informed, and not knocked about, my innocent mind supposed that it might have gone to some eager young student who really needed something to practice on! But immediately following that came the five-octave fortepiano in the style of J.A.Stein (at least superficially), estimated by these 'specialist auctioneers' at £600 to £800, when they believed it was a harpsichord, but doubled when someone whispered some better information. In the event £8,500 (with commission included) seems a bit steep, as it was after all a kit, built by unknown hands.

What disturbs me the most however, is the disgraceful vandalism meeted out to the keyboard – looking perfectly good when it went to the sale, but trashed by the removal of its sharps before the auction because they were allegedly capped with ivory of unknown date. In 2018 I observed on this Blog the disgraceful brutality applied to choice antiques sold by Christies (including the Chippendale-Pohlman piano and a florally inlaid cabinet) – not by the autioneers on that occasion – severely damaged items whose date of manufacture was indisputably before 1800. If this sort of cultural vandalism is justified by white middle-class activists, piously campaigning to save living elephants, then the Taleban on the same line of reasoning were equally justified in blasting Buddhist statues from the cliff face in Bamiyan.

2 December 2019

It is useful to return to Frank Hubbard's Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making from time to time, and give him credit for the quality of his research. I first read his book in 1968, and learned so much. Some of his work has been overtaken by later research, as one might expect, but his appendices, like Raymond Russell's, remain a very valuable source of information.

It is there that we find Hubbard's transcription of the inventories taken in Parisian harpsichord makers' workshops in the eighteenth century. Of special interest are the documents relating to Pascal Taskin's premises in 1777, where his own instruments were found next to old harpsichords by Ruckers that were to have their soundboards extracted for later use in newly made instruments. A finished harpsichord, by Taskin, ready to go, was valued at 600 livres, with a five octave compass - evidently a good quality example, with 4 registers. More surprisingly, five forte-pianos, which I think were made in London, were appraised at 1680 Livres (i.e. over 350 livres each!) So, not cheap! Yet we must conclude that these are likely to be 'square pianos' of the kind featured on this website, probably by Frederick Beck.

At that time he owed 660 Livres to Mr. Beck in London. Here is further evidence: a ticket shown above found inside a square piano by Beck, dated 1774. It says:

Sold by PASCAL TASKIN, Maker of Harpsichords and custodian of the King's musical Instruments, Pupil & Successor to Mr. BLANCHET, Rue de la Verrerie, facing St Merry, PARIS 1775.

My thanks to Alexander at www.pianosromantiques.com for these photos.



25 November 2019

How familiar this looks! It's not one of mine, but the keyboard, the distinctive style of music desk, and the disposition of the wrestpins immediately bring to mind the work of Johann Andreas Stein of Augsburg.

Described in the catalogue as a 'Harpsichord, modern, five octaves' in the December sale at Piano Auctions in London, it leaves me wondering how much the vendor knows about music, and how it is that the auctioneer knows so little about historic pianos. Estimated at £600-800, I predict that there will a buzz of eager piano fanciers swarming around it on viewing days.

I hope they don't do any damage, as there is little doubt they will want to extract the keys — a delicate operation only to be attempted with great care.

It may well have been built from a kit. Some that I have encountered do tend to have problems with hammers catching on the wrestplank. There is usually no back check on Stein replicas, leaving difficulties with repetition, but this can be minimized provided that, like the originals from Augsburg, there are wooden Kapsels with bushing in the axle. I predict a hammer price well beyond the auctioneer's expectations!

12 November 2019

If you have a serious interest in eighteenth-century music and the instruments on which such music was heard you will no doubt join with me in regretting that the Claveçin Royal has been unhappily neglected...but good news is at last here. Kerstin Schwarz has now completed a good quality replica, and Pablo Gomez is to record it. It is nothing short of pitiful that German musical heritage from the early classical period has been hijacked by the Walter-school fortepianos, reproduced in great numbers in recent decades. Conservatory students are taught to play them. They learn nothing else. Yet the aesthetic of multi-voiced claviers was so prevalent in German musical culture – that is, if you enlarge your view and spare a few moments to consider something other than masterworks by Mozart and Haydn on the concert platform.

Kerstin Schwarz's new clavier replicates the standard domestic instrument of the period, as made by Johann Gottlob Wagner of Dresden, the exterior being in plain oak, with four knee-levers to change the registrations. An advertisement from 1775, in the guise of a report in Forkel's Musicalisch-Kritische Bibliotek can be found in full, with my translation, on pages 338-344 of The Pianoforte in the Classical Era.

Recordings are under way, so I hear. Expect some interesting sonorities, as the player selects different voices, as a painter would vary his palette for different parts of the canvas.


17 October 2019

Readers may have seen this picture before, in other contexts. It dates from about 1892, and shows Paul de Wit, collector and dealer from Leipzig who also published and edited Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau from his office on Saint Thomas' Square, where J.S.Bach lived. An amusing photo, perhaps. But I think it tells us a great deal, not simply about de Wit, the man, and the times in which he lived, but also about the mischief that has been perpetuated by his musical activities — stories that some people would prefer to keep quiet, but which surely must be addressed some day.

He is shown here playing a Viola da Gamba from his collection. It is now in Leipzig University's Musical Instrument Museum, but perhaps not on display. Examine this photo critically and you see more and more anomalies. Granted that he apparently intends to play with a modern cello bow. Granted also that he is using an end spike (an anachronism which I am told was also used by players of the Dolmetsch family in those days). But even when we disregard these matters there are massive problems with the instrument itself. Look carefully and you may see that the upper bouts were originally in the familiar serpentine shape used by Joachim Tielke of Hamburg around 1690. But the belly has been enlarged, by adding new wood to convert it to a cello in the eighteenth century[?], when of course it would need a narrower neck, with a 4-string pegbox and bridge. Reportedly it had a label inside of Carlo Bergonzi of Cremona, with the date 1733, but labels in instruments from Paul de Wit's collection should never be taken at face value!

Before this photograph was taken it had been converted back to a viol (of sorts). Yet the chequer edge decoration as we now see it cannot be wholly Joachim Tielke's work, and the probability is that it was all added to a much plainer instrument in the late nineteenth century. Clearly the elaborate inlay on the fingerboard and tailpiece were also recent replacements. All very pretty, but not trustworthy. Which brings me to exhibit Number 2.

Shown in an illustrated guidebook to de Wit's collection in 1892, this unfetted clavichord bears a label ascribing it to C.G.Hubert of Ansbach. This instrument had been recently painted and gilded, covering the original cross-banded veneer, which nevertheless can still be detected underneath. It was also provided with a cabriole stand that says more about nineteenth-century taste than the era which it purports to represent. De Wit, in his introduction to Perlen aus der Instrumenten Sammlung [choice items from his collection] writes that it is dated 1772, so the compass FF to a3 is more extensive than any authentic Hubert clavichord, and possibly any other clavichord of that date by any maker. The keys have been tastelessly 'improved' with ivory inlays perhaps by the same man who did the fingerboard of the viol. If we compare the label bearing what purports to be Hubert's inscription with all known examples, we see that the handwriting is not at all similar to any verified instrument from this maker. I could go on ... about the instrument's unique dimensions, the lid painting ... But why introduce this subject here, on this website you may wonder?

Well, if square pianos are your special interest you will know of Exhibit No.3, Rosamond Harding's illustration [1933] of The oldest known example of a Square Pianoforte ... by Johann Söcher, 1742. This too came from Paul de Wit's collection, and like the clavichord above, its only authentication is a paper ticket pasted down on the soundboard. I remark elsewhere that this Socher inscription looks nothing like a baroque period label, but I have dealt with that before, so that's not the point of this entry on my Blog either.

In Tokyo, at Ueno Gakuen College, they have what purports to be a very important harpsichord – the oldest known instrument (1729) by Burkat Shudi (John Broadwood's father-in-law). It is even suggested that Handel gave it to Anna Strada, his famous prima donna. However, the construction and the inscription are completely at variance with this attribution. There is not one part of it that resembles the next oldest Shudi instruments. Again, the provenance of this unacceptable '1729' instrument leads us to Paul de Wit.

Then there is the 'Bach harpsichord' that Paul de Wit sold for 10,000 Marks, to a museum that believed (on the basis on an article published in Zeitschrift fur Instrumentenbau) that they were buying Johann Sebastian's own instrument. That too appeared in De Wit's 1892 booklet, though at that time he did not claim anything for it, other than that it resembled the work of Gottfried Silbermann. It has the now discredited 'Bach' disposition with 8' and 4' on the upper manual, and 8' and 16' on the lower. Though the 16' stop is now known to be a later addition, many 20th-century harpsichord makers replicated this, believing it to be what Bach used. The source of all the mischief was specifically this spurious Bach relic sold by Paul de Wit.

Raymond Russell, in The Harpsichord & Clavichord [1959, page 108] brands Paul de Wit 'an unreliable Dutch writer, dealer and collector'. 'Unreliable', yes. I think we must recognise this as a euphemism, of the kind that a well-bred English gentleman of those times might use when he really thinks something far more sinister. Unreliable? Yes, and something beyond that. Since Paul de Wit supplied instruments to at least three of the most important German museum collections it is surely time to be scrupulously honest about this man and the instruments involved.


3 October 2019

'A mahogany spinet or harpsichord by Adam Berjer' was the original description of an item in the catalogue of a Gloucestershire auction house. But it seems some wise owl has now informed them more nearly. Today it shows in the online catalogue as 'a 19th century [!] square piano or harpsichord', but still by Berjer. So it is clear that their internet searches did not find my page on Adam Beyer, on which subject I have written at some length. Though, at first sight, it appears to be yet another conversion to a desk or side table it is possible that there could be a different scenario. The keys have disappeared, but the conversion has not hapened. More to follow when I have examined it.

'I've had lots of phone calls and emails about this one', said the auctioneer when I asked him if he would remove the the two balalaikas, and a mandolin so that I could open the lid. 'I can tell you what's inside', he added: 'nothing'. Seeing the remnants of the keyframe I guess we were all hopeful that perhaps only the keys had been removed – but no. The soundboard has gone, so too the hammers, the dampers – everything. Disappointing, but still I wanted to collect the information concerning the instrument it once was. Back in 1995 I compiled a list of all the Beyer pianos I could then locate, and of course, by publishing this [in the Gaplin Society Journal] the profile of this superb craftsman was greatly raised, hence more instruments came to light. This one, previously unknown, was lurking in an old house in the quaint Gloucestershire town of Newent, but it is not known how or where the lady acquired it.

The quality of the ivory keys that are now missing can be understood by examining some complete examples at: the Horniman Museum, London (1777); the Bate Collection, Oxford (1779); the Handelhaus, Halle (1777); the Prussian Cultural Heritage Museum, Berlin (1775); the National Museum in Warsaw (1798) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (1790) – to name but a few. There is another at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York (1795) - but that one I haven't seen. Such instruments are an enduring testimony to the supreme quality of Beyer's craftsmanship – neater and cleaner than anything ever done by Jacob Kirckman, or Broadwood, or Clementi's men. But some idiot who got his hands on this piano could not understand that. Quality was staring him in the face, but he couldn't see it. Away went the keys and those precision-cut hammers. He trashed the soundboard and chopped out the liners; threw away the pedal and the brass handstops. All irrevocably lost. He also started hacking away at the hitchpin block, but then gave up. So after all this, his intended conversion was never completed! It is just a piano case with no innards.

For the record, it bears Beyer's serial number 735, and the date was 1785. It had the expected 3 handstops, and a swell pedal. Judging by the quality of what remains, Adam still had his brother Lorence and 'Nol' the keyboard maker working for him at this time.

Footnote: 5 October. Hammer price £80. If the piano had been complete (not trashed) it might have been £2000!


22 September 2019

Despite being overshadowed by Burney's History of Music, I find that Sir John Hawkins' History published in 1775 (thus beating Burney to the press) is often more interesting and informative – nowhere more so than in his lengthy commentary on the life and work of George Frederic Handel. This I discovered again today when turning to Hawkins' Volume 5, for information on Porpora and his pupil Carlo Broschi, known to the musical world as Farinelli. The fame of this extraordinary singer survived even in th e twenty-first century when a second-rate film appeared, spiced up with salacious scenes to titillate modern appetites.

But Farinelli's fame when he first appeared in London was much more carefully managed. Engaged by the opera of the nobility, in their conflict with Handel, he was first introduced at court to sing before King George II, and what an impact his vocal skill and judgment produced! But what I did not know, before reading Hawkins, is that seated at the harpsichord to accompany Farinelli was Princess Anne, the king's eldest daughter. What a task! What a talented woman! But she must have had more than average ability because Handel, always averse to giving lessons, made an exception in her case. Later she also wrote texts that Handel set to music!

You may have seen her playing a harpsichord in the painting by Philip Mercier circa 1728 – often called The Music Party – where her brother Prince Frederick plays the cello, leaning forwards rather awkwardly as if he had difficulty reading the music. But on this page [above right] you see Princess Anne later in life, as she portrayed herself in 1740, reportedly having taken lessons in painting from Royal portrait painter Herman van der Mijn, after she was married to the Prince of Orange and known in the Netherlands as Anna van Hannover.

Of course, she wasn't the only British royal to display far above average musical ability, because among them we find Princess Augusta and Queen Charlotte, who was featured in this Blog in 2017. Hearing the Queen play and sing must have been a pleasure – Haydn commented approvingly, as too did a more frequent visitor, the Duchess of Northumberland who says that she played very neatly and, unlike many ladies, she had a strong singing voice.



4 September 2019

The almost illegible inscription shown on 29 August is to be read as Leukfeld. A useful clue to reading it can be seen on the bottom line where London is made to look like Sondon. When you know that the maker's name begins with 'L' you're half-way there.

He was a prolific manufacturer in the early part of the nineteenth century but few of his instruments survive with their maker's name inscribed above the keys. Much of his output seems to have been sold through the trade and reached the public via retailers such as Goulding or Broderip & Wilkinson.

A delightful engraving showing his premises in Tottenham Street was collected by Ambrose Heal and published in his copiously illustrated books on London Trademen's Cards and other ephemera – his original collection now being in the British Museum. It is curious to see that the artist has been instructed to feature Leukfeld's latest novelty — pianos with round ends. Personally, I have never seen a surviving example, though there is something very like it by John Geib & Sons of New York. See too, with a smile, how the carters loading them into their vehicle are dressed in top hats and tail coats! Evidently a very high class business! Are we seeing the man himself, Ludwig Augustus Leukfeld, with his hands in his pockets, supervising the men?


29 August 2019

There has been a glut of square pianos at auction sales in England recently. Fifteen have come to my attention in the past two months — but only one of them had any keys! All the others had been gutted and converted to dressing tables or writing desks.

The exception, the one retaining its keys, was of special interest to me, as it was an early Pohlman piano, but badly damaged by some previous owner who had foolishly over-written the inscription above the keys – apparently without being able to read the original. I imagine the text had faded. The newly written inscription reads: Johannes Pohlhiam London feci+ with the date 1770, but I am sure this is mistaken. 1773 seems likely but we'll never know. So I wonder what he/she would have made of this one? [showing right] Who was the maker?

Some of these pseudo-Gothic inscriptions do obscure rather than enlighten! The piano it was meant to enhance was a beautiful five-and-a-half octave instrument with handsome satinwood borders, on a matching stand with square-tapered legs. A very pretty piano, with an excellent tone, no doubt, judging by the tone of others from the same workshop. Unhappily it is now a more-or-less useless desk.

Have a look at the name and see if you can decypher it. I will tell all at a later date.


18 August 2019

It would be good to know more about William Dale. His curious monograph Tschudi the harpsichord maker was a fascinating mine of information, published in 1913, at a time when there was very little in print relating to harpsichords and their makers, yet it seemed to catch the mood of the moment. Harpsichords were just beginning to be taken seriously again after decades of neglect – a voice from the past that made so much sense of baroque music. Forgotten instruments were being rescued and restored as never before.

It was this 'antiquarian' delight that motivated William Dale. He published papers on numerous topics in the journals of archaeological societies, and often served on their commitees. But so far I have discovered very little about the man behind these activities. He tells us himself that in his early days he lived in Great Pulteney Street, in the very house where John Broadwood, and his father-in-law Burkat Shudi lived. He says that in the attic he found forgotten bundles of crow quills that must have lain there undisturbed since the 1700s. He tells us also that he owns a harpsichord discovered in ruinous condition in a stable in Newbury that was made by Shudi and his son-in-law in 1770, a very special example since it bears both names (before they were officially partners) and has Shudi's unique five-and-a-half octave compass, extending down to CC in the bass.

That instrument features in photographs in his little book, as does a rather splendid specimen made for Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. But the harpsichord that seems most to delight him was, as he believed, the oldest surviving example, dated 1729, about which he corresponded with Herr Paul de Wit of Leipzig, and excitedly shared the news with Lucy Broadwood. She too was thrilled to hear of this instrument, made by her great grandfather apparently when he was at most 27 years old. She was doubly delighted to read the inscription on the back of the nameboard linking it to Anna Strada, Handel's prima donna. Wlliam Dale's thrill at this outcome is palpable. '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.' Little did they know or suspect what a shady story there was behind Paul de Wit's 'discovery'.

This coming Saturday I planned to speak at an international conference in Oxford on this very topic. But this will not now happen. The organisation requires me to pay a 'registration fee' of £120 — which I decline to do. This is a disappointing outcome. I did not see it coming, having already put in a great deal of research and preparation. But some day the story of this '1729 Tschudi harpsichord' and de Wit's other misleading 'finds' will be published for all to read.

Only yesterday, when searching for William Dale, FSA, I found on the internet a blog by someone hiding under the pseudonym 'Prof Hedgehog' who has taken Dale's rather fanciful text a step further by saying that Tschudi's 1729 harpsichord was commissioned from the maker by Handel for his leading lady. That there is a very different harpsichord shown in an authentic portrait of Anna Strada is passed over, without comment. The relentless accretion of mythology over time is something that I addressed many years ago when speaking at another conference, in Edinburgh, on the so-called 'Twelve Apostles', piano makers who according to these unverified myths all arrived from Saxony in 1760 as economic migrants!

Copies of William Dale's book are still available second-hand and rather surprisingly there is even someone offering photo reprints for sale on the internet.


7 August 2019

A piece of American heritage – this square piano by Dodds & Claus of New York featured in a concert at Mount Vernon, Virginia, on Saturday evening. It dates from the early 1790s, and was rescued recently from a barn in Florida by John Watson. Abandoned and neglected for so many years, it was in poor condition – so bad in fact that it could have been thought not worthy of rescue. And truthfully, the original workmanship is not impressive either. It was (and is) a very basic instrument, in poor condition — but the makers' inscription on the oval plate saved it! Dodds & Claus. It was from this New York workshop that President George Washington bought a piano, that was used by his grand-daughter Eleanor aka 'Nelly' Custis.

So now it has been put back into playing order to join the collection of Washington memorabilia in the old plantation house on the banks of the Potomac River. On Saturday it was played by Joyce Lindorff in the sort of music that Nelly played for guests in the 1790s, undemanding but pleasant songs performed by Julianne Baird, soprano, accompanied with flourishes and interjections from baroque violinist Shelby Yamin. There was a good turnout, considering it was a hot August evening, and tickets were not cheap. Many of these people had never heard anything like this before, yet by the last song, 'The flaxen-headed Cowboy'[*] there was palpable enthusiasm from the audience – they really warmed to this repertoire. Such overwhelming applause! Everyone on their feet, cheering loudly! For late eighteenth-century parlour music! Astonishing!

For the cognoscenti let me report that it is in every detail a duplicate of the standard trade pianos made in London in the 1790s, with a triangular mahogany cover plate at the right covering the wrestplank. Its 'single action' is not easy to handle, but the instrument was kept nicely in tune by constant attention over the preceeding days from local pianoman Jim Davis, and it was played [authentically, but for other reasons] with only the front part of the lid opened.

[*] As to how William Shields' ploughboy whistling merrily as he drives his team to the fields, was transmuted to a cowherd taking cattle to the dairy, I am still puzzled. Other delights included James Hook's 'Hush every breeze' (quality composition) and 'Hope told a flattering tale' which I believe was adapted by Michael Kelly from an Italian original ascribed to Paisiello.

26 July 2019

It is commonly said that in the 1770s harpsichords made in London were fitted with a pedal for a 'Swell' in response to the rising popularity of the piano-forte. Shudi & Broadwood had their patent Venetial-style shutters over the soundboard, implying of course that the lid itself must be propped open. Then, press the pedal on the right and you'll see and hear the louvres opening and thus letting out a rush of sound.

I was visiting the Bodleian Library in Oxford last week, to consult again John Broadwood's manuscript 'Journal', transcribing his harpsichord sales in the period 1771-1773. It's possible to discover the exact specification of each harpsichord sold in this period because Shudi was to receive a commissionon from his son-in-law on each sale on a sliding scale, according to the exact specification. The fee reserved to Shudi reveals exactly what type was sold. It also, incidentally, tells me the name of each buyer (useful information to be incorporated into my presentation at Mount Vernon next weekend). What I saw was that of 41 new harpsichords sold in a period of 22 months, 28 were fitted with the patent swell – a surprisingly high percentage, considering the additional expense.

Now look at the Adam Beyer piano [currently on the index page, and also below under 8 June], and you see there a piano-forte likewise fitted with a swell pedal. Beyer, a pioneer in this respect, first fitted a swell pedal in 1774, and after a few changes it became a feature of all his output. So, wait a minute! Shudi patents a swell for harpsichords in 1769, long before the piano-forte was perceived as a threat to the harpsichord's popularity. Beyer responds to the popularity of the harpsichord swell by designing one for a square piano!

This isn't at all the history as you see it written in books about harpsichords.

16 July 2019

Since January 2005 when it was published, we have been posting Broadwood Square Pianos from Prestbury Post Office, showing right. There are now copies of the book in every continent, but from now on they will have to be sent from a different and more distant outlet. Our village post office, run by the same family for 170 years has now closed. The people you see here were photographed on the last day of business.

This is what the internet has done for us. In the village high street both banks (HSBC and Barclays) have disappeared. The doctor's surgery has amalgamated with another and relocated three miles away, the pharmacy is barely surviving, severely hurt by the doctor's removal. The hardware shop closed long ago, and the owner of the general store is looking for someone to take over. This is the fate the High Street in numberless communities across England.

As you may see, the post office counter was located in the farthest part of the building, removed there some years ago to make it less vulnerable to robbers. But now regulations demand that expensive alterations must be made to accommodate disabled customers. An elevator for wheelchair users is required. Add that to the unrelenting drive by government to have many of the functions carried out by the post office - paying old-age pensions, providing tax discs for cars and vans &c. - to be carried out online. Eventually the business was so hard pressed that building works could not be contemplated. Disabled clients, like everyone else, must now make a journey of several miles.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that our books will continue to be posted (there are 30 copies left), but not from the family run shop that was such a friendly feature of village life.


9 July 2019

While I never expected a YouTube video of a square piano to 'go viral', it is nevertheless a pleasure to see that our Longman & Broderip video has now passed 9000 views – far more than I ever expected. It is linked from our Longman page, and from the home page.

Good news too that Pablo Gomez's YouTube videos where he plays on Zumpe & Buntebart pianos have started to pick up. We have in recent years heard far too many poorly restored examples, often badly out of tune, giving musical people the impression that these really do not deserve any serious attention. My hope is that these efforts will continue to reach a wider audience, convincing newcomers that square pianos, properly restored and played by a good musician, bring something to eighteenth-century music that other instruments never can.


2 July 2019

With only one month to go I really need to finalise my thoughts for my presentation for the Mount Vernon Harpsichord Symposium. It promises to be a truly international gathering, as the organisers proposed. I look forward to meeting again Laurence Libin, editor-in-chief of the Grove Dictionary of Music after many years, and Geoffrey Lancaster, flying in from Australia. And, hearing music! John Watson has produced a superb replica of the instrument purchased by George Washington for his grand-daughter in 1792, which will be heard in solos and songs. It promises a novel experience in that all of the plectra are of leather, not of the hard variety used by 'Revival period' harpsichord makers of the twentieth century, but of a softer, more yeilding texture which, with all the resources of a late English harpsichord with 2 pedals and 5 handstops, puts a great many expressive possibilities under the players' control.

After first thinking that it would be good to tackle the seeming anachronism of harpsichord use in the age of the piano-forte, I have opted instead to introduce the subject of gender, or as some would have it 'women's studies', which has not been addressed adequately in any published literature that I can find. When Eleanor (Washington's grand-daughter) was old enough to start her lessons in music the family already owned an American-made square piano, but there must be an explanation for his decision to send an order to Longman & Broderip for a harpsichord. I would look no further than Carrollton, where there was a recently arrived harpsichord from Shudi & Broadwood, with swell, that could well have inspired him. Its noble sound, and prodigious resources (whether from direct experience or by report) must have made an impression that Washington and his wife Martha must have noted. Compare such an instrument with a second-rate square piano – what would you think?


25 June 2019

Many readers of this Blog have clicked through to hear an excellent performance of C.P.E.Bach's dramatic rondo in C minor, linked from the entry for 23 May. This is an arresting piece if you have never heard it before, and doubly so as heard in the recording by Pablo Gomez Abalos on a piano by Zumpe & Buntebart. At last, there is a chance to hear why these instruments were so popular! Come at this (if you can) by first listening to similar music played on a harpsichord — that way you will experience the novelty of these instruments as people did in the 1770s.

More news on this topic — there is now a recording available on the 1776 piano at the Museu de la Música, as highlighted on our home page. But as I know many people come directly to this Blog I highlight it here also. Click through, hear it, and you will probably agree — this is what we have been missing for so long – a convincing account of the sound of these instruments that brought in the new styles of keyboard music around 1770. (If you 'like' it on YouTube it will probably give the player some encouragement!)


18 June 2019

I had hoped to be able to direct readers to the e-book version of the book showing opposite, but in Barcelona they continue to have diffculties. The latest news is that they are to begin again as they've had problems, as I understand, with the software not producing the result they were seeking.

Better news is that, despite it not being the same piano, Pablo's Youtube video of CPE Bach, which I linked last month on this Blog [see 23 May] has had a good number of views, and those who have been in contact with me are impressed, as I was, with the creative use of Zumpe's stops, and Pablo's inteligent variations of touch. Some day soon I hope to be able to direct readers to a video of the Barcelona piano of 1776, which is working remarkably well following Kerstin Schwarz's restoration.

Kerstin and Pablo are currently working on the most important unexplored topic in 18th century keyboard music – the Clavecin Royal. A reproduction, closely similar to Wagner's instruments circa 1775, has been constructed, and they hope to be able to make recordings with it soon. It should be an event to anticpate with pleasure. How is it, I have been asking for years, that Emmanuel Bach's music is only played on instruments that he would never have possessed himself? A Walter fortepiano, whether old or reproduction, is not similar to any instrument he owned, and simply doesn't have the resources to change registrations in any way similar to the Clavecin Royal. Pablo is surely the man to play it!


8 June 2019

The work of Adam Beyer, piano maker from 18th-century London, is now widely admired, and justly so. His meticulous attention to the smallest detail (even those that his clients would never see) ranks him, in my opinion, at the highest pinacle of the craftsman's art, alongside Chippendale.

This fine example of his work will be familiar to many as the square piano on which Richard Burnett used to give his daily demonstrations at Finchcocks. But if you remember it as having faults - the odd squeak or rattle, and a few temperamental notes - the good news is that it has been recently restored by Lucy Coad. It now sounds and plays as we would all wish it to do. It is due to be delivered very soon to the Horniman Museum, in London, where visitors will be able to hear it again, sounding better than ever.

For this to become a reality the Horniman, would be pleased to hear from suitably experienced musicians (familiar with historic pianos and their music) who are able to join her list of volunteer demonstrators. The hope, I know, is that unsuspecting visitors to the museum will be surprised and delighted by music, the like of which they have never heard – local people, especially children, who have never been to a classical music concert and had no idea that such instruments existed. An inspiring concept, which may soon become a reality!

If you can help please contact Beatrice Booker at the museum.

3 June 2019

My journey last week to the town of Hertford was all about women who played the harpsichord — long ago. One of my first calls was West Street, hoping to find that Charles Bridgeman's house was still there, and that the barn-like building to the side, adapted as a concert room, had not been changed out of recognition. It hadn't. It is very much as shown in the frontispiece to Gillian Sheldrick's edition of 'The Accounts of Thomas Green' – a useful little book that many harpsichord enthusiasts have on their bookshelves, as a curiousity really – the hand-written journals kept by a local organist in the mid eighteenth century. It is interesting to see that Green encountered harpsichords and spinets by many of the well-known makers of the period – Kirckman, Shudi, Baker Harris etc. Charles Mould, then working on the third edition of Boalch, was delighted to examine these records when Green's accounts were edited and published in 1992.

But my journey had quite a different aim. I wanted to see for myself the things that Gillian Sheldrick considered of less interest - the list of (mostly) young ladies who took harpsichord lessons from Thomas Green. I wanted to know how many there were; how long they continued; and whether we might discover some hints on their future progress after they discontinued the tuition. Their names are all listed – Green was so methodical! We can see how long they persisted, how much the lessons cost, and often deduce what instrument they practiced on. Occasionally we even discover what music they chose – usually Handel or J.C.Bach. Many of these ladies later acquired the newly fashionable square pianos, but Green declined to teach 'Forte-piano'. As late as 1785 his tuition was confined to the harpsichord.

The names of these long-forgotten women are not important in themselves – but when subjected to a little basic statistical analysis, we get a picture of humbler musical activities far removed from the concert life of London and famous performers - activities that provided the necessary commercial foundation for composers, instrument makers and music publishers - resulting in the musical heritage that we still value today.


23 May 2019

It's good news, I think, for everyone who believes that 'square pianos' are not an irrelevant sideshow in the history of music. Here we have the first book ever devoted wholly to such instruments and featuring the celebrated innovators John Zumpe and Gabriel Buntebart. I would like to congratulate Pablo Gómez Ábalos on his initiative. His energy and enthusiasm set this project in motion, and he has devoted a great deal of effort to his examination of these instruments from the players' perspective. Pablo points out the connections, commercial and musical, between Zumpe's Guittar-making business and the sonorities of the 'small Piano-forte' he developed in the mid 1760s that took the world by storm, so to speak, when every fashionable lady had to have one in her drawing room.

Pablo has also demonstrated a compelling affinity with the instruments as a performer, which you can see and hear in his Youtube video of a C.P.E.Bach rondo, making creative use of the stops to change the sonorities, and employing many varieties of touch, to bring out the possibilities latent in such instruments. If you have been disappointed (as I have) in the miserable musical results of many previous offerings, this will strike a different tone! At Pablo's invitation I was delighted to provide an introductory chapter filling in the historical details and, completing the presentation in a very thorough manner, Kerstin Schwarz provides an insight into her decisions regarding the restoration of Museu de la Música's piano of 1776, musically transformed from a 'basket case' to an excellent musical instrument under her careful hands.

The text of this book is given mostly in English and Spanish, with Catalan translations, so all three languages can be seen on every pair of facing pages. The ISBN is 978-84-9984-473-2 and the jointly credited publishers are Documenta Universitaria and Museu de la Musica, Barcelona. 274 pages, copiously illustrated. And don't forget to watch Pablo's Youtube video!



16 May 2019

The motor launch 'Gaiety' is still moored on the Thames near Medley Bridge, where today I walked beside the river to Oxford. My plan was to visit the Bate Collection, to examine again and photograph the 1781 harpsichord by Shudi & Broadwood; then to visit the Ashmolean Museum to see and hear a very similar instrument by Kirckman; and finally to renew my Bodleian Library reader's ticket so as to examine again John Broadwood's Journal – all these errands were in preparation for two papers to be given in August. The river walk was as pleasant as ever, departing from Binsey, the hamlet made famous among poetry lovers by Gerard Manley Hopkins' lament on the loss of a fine stand of poplar trees that stood here beside the Thames 170 years ago.

Throughout June and July the blue-flowered chicory is a delight, and soon we shall also see the purple loosestrife springing to bloom along the river bank. Who would choose to ride in a motor car when this way into the city is so much more pleasant and peaceful beside the silent Thames? The afternoon recitals on the Kirckman harpsichord are free. What more could you ask?

The papers? I am booked to speak on the subject 'Ladies at the Keyboard' for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association on 3 August, and on 'Paul de Wit, collector and dealer', at Oxford on 24 August. Hope you like the picture. We still have copies of River Thames ~ a beautiful journey for sale.

6 May 2019

Good news from Barcelona! The long-delayed publication of our book on Zumpe and his pianos is at last in print. Co-author Pablo Gómez Ábalos tells me that the official launch takes place in a presentation at Museo de la Música on Thursday, 9 May, and that he will be giving a ten-minute demonstration of the 1776 square piano, recently restored by Kerstin Schwarz. I am rejoicing over this because - at last - we can hear and see one of Zumpe's instruments correctly set up and properly voiced - and thus capable of giving a truly musical result. I intend to place a sample of this video linked from this site as soon as possible. Praiseworthy too is Pablo's intelligent use of the stops, so that we hear how the treble sustain and the buff stop add character to the tone.

The book, as I have mentioned before, has three sections: Part 1, about Zumpe and his instruments by Michael Cole; Part 2, observations on the musical characteristics of these instruments, in context, by Pablo; Part 3, details of the restoration by Kerstin, and the necessary reconstruction of parts that were compromised by previous 'restorers'. The soundboard, as you may see, is a replacement (of a replacement) but musically all the better for that as it is a well matured, carefully made replica, very likely performing as Zumpe's own soundboards performed when new.

More details to follow when I have them.


30 April 2019

It is rare for me to stray off the topic of historic keyboard instruments on this Blog, but this is a proud moment for me, as a father.

Many readers will recall 'Warwick Henry Cole' as the author of at least two ground-breaking papers on the early piano in Britain, especially his important research on 'Americus Backers - original Fortepiano Maker'. If so, you'll be glad to know that he has not stopped thinking, and not stopped applying his critical understanding of music to new topics. You may have read earlier posts on this Blog about his reconstruction and performance of forgotten Easter music by Stölzel, copied out and used by Bach in Leipzig. Well, today I have rejoiced greatly over the appearance of Warwick's paper on Bach's C minor 'cello suite published, after lengthy and frustrating delays, in Early Music [Oxford].

You will read few more convincing and erudite academic papers that are so clearly argued and so well expressed. His thesis, for those unable to consult it, is that the scordatura required for this suite, tuning the top string down a tone, has left clues in the earliest surviving manuscript (showing above) by the accidental inconsistency of alternative notations, that it was originally composed for a different instrument — and that the music must have been transcribed from an original version in tablature almost certainly written for the mandora (a large lute with distinctive tuning). This will not necessarily cause anyone to perform the work differently from the way they currently do, but it should give both performers and listeners an enhanced appreciation of the way in which Bach worked, and (you never know) someone might even reclaim it for the lute repertoire – with a reconstructed mandora. Warwick has done so himself, for his private satisfaction, making an instrument, and acquiring the basic technique, but as a 'cellist he would be much gratified to hear a highly skilled lute-player perform it to a higher standard.


26 April 2019

It's had a lot of publicity in the UK and Western Australia – a Frederick Beck square piano reputed to be the one carried on the First Fleet taking settlers from England to Australia in 1788. Now, having completed the reverse journey, it is with Lucy Coad, with the intent that it should be returned to playing order – not an easy task as there has been so much unwise interference. As soon as you lift the lid the dampers shout at you - NEW - Paris style - clumsy - wretched brass springs - blue felt pads! And there is more bad news to follow, when the piano is thoroughly examined.

But this could be a breakthrough educational opportunity. Edith Cowan University is sending over someone eager to learn, and I'm sure that after a week in Lucy's workshop he will know a great deal more, and have much to share with colleagues back home.

This outcome, and what is expected to be a burst of enthusiasm for early pianos in Australia, is principally due to the amazingly persuasive educator and musician Geoffrey Lancaster. When Lucy's work is done and Geoffrey sits down to play the finished instrument I'd certainly like to be there.


20 April 2019

There is no doubt that Donald Boalch's initiative, compiling his catalogue of surviving harpsichords and clavichords, and his labour in seeing it through the press in 1956, has been of great help to everyone who has ventured into this subject ever since. Two revised editions have followed reporting additional instruments and biographies.

But anonymous instruments generally escape. So the spinet at Upton House, like many other unattributed examples, cannot be easily traced and sampled for inclusion in any study of such instruments. Usually, the maker would inscribe his name at the front, on the 'nameboard' above the keys, but in this case the original board is no longer present. Instead we have an elaborately veneered work laid on a spurious walnut panel. It looks OK, and fills up the vacancy very well, but not informatively. The keys are certainly genuine, as is quickly confirmed when you examine the hidden part behind the board. And that's where you find the maker's inscription, as shown in my previous entry on this blog.

Who was he? His initials are hard to decypher. But I suggest that they read 'TB' (squeezed together), and since the date is 1700 we could hope to identify him. So, suspecting that this might be Thomas Barton, we turn to Boalch (3rd edition), where it says that he was baptized in 1685. [Oh dear, he's too young.] It then says that he was apprenticed for seven years to Stephen Keene, which would normally occur when the boy was fourteen [1699] which has been confirmed. The indenture was signed in November that year. Well, we really cannot imagine an apprentice being allowed to sign the keys, even if he were capable. So we haven't yet identified the maker. We may have identified his initials, but it seems he must be among the many craftsmen whose name is unknown. Sadly, therefore, this spinet cannot appear in Boalch! ... and it joins the unwritten list of anonymous instruments that are likely to remain off the radar in future research.

10 April 2019

It's odd how some people pop up so often in unexpected and surprising places. Mrs. Ionides is one of them. She swam into my view again yesterday.

I was at Upton House examining a spinet, a strangely enigmatic instrument with some curious features that are hard to assess. It undoubtedly dates from the year 1700, as written in ink on the top key, and the keyboard compass of 54 notes is just what you might expect at that date - the bottom note is GG, but appears to be BB. The two lowest sharps are divided to provide AA and BB as well as the accidentals C sharp and D sharp. [GG/BB-d3] Next to the date is the maker's colophon (his initials done with an odd sort of flourish that now defeats everyone). If you'd like to play detective, the image is below.

There's no record of how or when this spinet came to Upton House, but the probability is that it was bought by Viscount Bearsted from someone in the antiques trade – after 1927 when he bought and enlarged the house. He was an avid collector of pictures too. On the walls at Upton you'll see splendid paintings by Canaletto and Stubbs (as I happened to notice). There is a large view of the Grand Canal adjacent to their black-painted Bechstein grand.

So where does Mrs. Ionides come in? Well, she was Lord Bearsted's sister - maiden name Nellie Samuels - they were brother and sister. What a collector she was! Her fascination with old musical instruments is revealed in the strange assortment that remains at her former home beside the River Thames at Twickenham. What drew me there in 2016 was an extraordinary Pohlman square piano, smothered in gilded rococo carving. I had negiotated for some months to see it. However, I had previously encountered the spirit of Nellie Ionides back in 2010 when trekking along the Thames. And you might do the same. If you should be travelling downstream, approaching London, take time out to climb Richmond Hill. Stand on the terrace at the top and look down over the green meadows and the winding river below. Though you are well within the urban sprawl of London you will see nothing but verdure – a seeming forest stretching far away into the heart of England. It hasn't changed significantly since the eighteenth century. How so? Well, because some people cared – they wanted this view to be preserved and enjoyed by people like you and me. And Nellie Ionides played a vital part.

As you can read in my book 'River Thames - a beautiful journey' some smart developers saw an opportunity to buy up a slice of riverside land near Twickenham and begin large-scale sand and gravel extraction. They first demolished Orleans House, an important heritage building, and were about to demolish Gibbs' octagonal room when Mrs. Ionides trumped their dreams by buying out the company's interest, and stopping the destruction. She was adamant that the view from Richmond Hill should be preserved for future generations. Well done Nellie! and thank you!

So while I am examining this cute baroque-period spinet at Upton this nagging question comes to my mind: 'Why is it here? Did Nellie put her brother up to this?' I can just imagine her persuasion: 'It would go so well in your Long Gallery'. (It has a uniquely pretty treatment of the keys that would just appeal to her taste, I think. She loved anything quaint or curious.)

So, here is the enigmatic colophon:

The numbers are clear enough: it is key number 54.

The date is 1700. Exactly the shape and size of characters that we expect.

But what are those letters in between?

A highly respected expert read the second letter as S, suggesting that it might be by Slade, perhaps.

But I think not. Let me not influence you. I will give my suggestion at a later date. If I am right, these are the initials of a well known instrument maker, but not one I would have automatically considered.





26 March 2019

As part of my ongoing research, focusing on English harpsichord making in the eighteenth century, I have been carefully reading a recent publication from the Musical Instrument Museum, Brussels. The subject is 'The Golden Age of Flemish Harpsichord Making', being a study of the MIM's Ruckers instruments - virginals in various forms, dating from 1604 to 1633, and six harpsichords, all bought as 'Ruckers' or Couchet. On the face of it, this is the primary reference collection, more extensive than any other as regards the famed Antwerp makers, and acquired over an extended period, mostly by purchase. Nearly all of them, of course, were enlarged and adapted to later musical requirements, so no one was surprised that they rarely conformed to the designs and appearance shown in the extensive iconography of Flemish paintings of the period. Nevertheless, they were all inscribed boldly with the name of Hans, Johannes, or Andreas Ruckers, or their successor Couchet, and needless to say perhaps, they all had the expected gilt rose with their makers' initials in the soundboard.

This museum publication has with remarkable honesty reported the findings of an international panel of experts. We discover thereby the extent of the deception. The glorious Hans Ruckers double manual of 1612 is, beneath its elegant gilded stand and casework, a French harpsichord circa 1695, probably by Antoine Vater. The deception, it seems, goes back to at least 1777 when an advertisement in Paris offered for sale a Ruckers harpsichord of 1612, painted by Van der Meulen, and newly fitted up by Pascal Taskin. Then there's the magnificent Johannes Ruckers harpsichord with a virginal in the bentside space (a mother and child), dated 1619, shown in James (1930) and many other reference works, which has been subject to restorations which are justly described as 'outrageous'. Very little remains of its seventeenth-century construction, so considering the rarity of this item, and its value as a heritage artefact, this is a catastrophic result. I quote: The instrument has been subjected to an excessive and unfortunately irreversible restoration shortly after it was acquired by the [museum].

The care with which the study has been conducted, the painstaking investigations and the lavish presentation in a book of 418 pages, copiously illustrated, has provided musicological studies with a much valued new resource. Strangely, it doesn't appear to have an ISBN so I cannot quote it.

My attention to this subject is necessary because the Ruckers mania that gripped Paris in the eighteenth century was also evident in England, with the same result - fakery, and fraud. This has to be taken into consideration when reporting on harpsichord making in London.

19 March 2019

The appearance of a Pohlman square piano at the forthcoming Piano Auctions in London is a welcome reminder of the ongoing research project that I first reported on this Blog in January 2015. It's a very typical and representative example of the instruments Charles Burney was recommending to his pupils and friends in the 1770s, having the advantage of a fully chromatic keyboard down to FF. There are at least two other surviving Pohlman pianos from that year, one at the Priest House in West Hoathly and another in a private collection in nearby Arundel.

This one does not appear to have been subject to any major interventions, although the auction house is being a bit coy on some details. I do notice that they have fallen into the familiar trap of mis-quoting the inscription - by adding an extra 'n' to the maker's name. Looking at the nameboard carefully we see that in 1776 he was still using the more attractive form of cartouche (with stepped ogee ends) but that he was already economising by not sending these nameboards to a proper writing master (as he had in earlier years) for we see all too well the inferior quality of calligraphy typical of his later products - just where you would think that he might want to impress his clients! His address is missing, as I have remarked before. In 1776 he was living and working in a house at the southern end of Frith Street, near Soho Square. I wonder whether his wife Dorothea may have tried her hand at inscriptions? Or was it Pohlman himself? Whoever it was, they never had any formal tuition in the art of lettering.

14 March 2019

At Brookfield Farm my business unit is now clear of saleable square pianos (except for one under a plastic sheet that was half-finished ten years ago). I am really not sure that anyone loves Southwell. It could be a white elephant. But when clearing so much space other things, almost forgotten, are easier to see. Such was the case when I rediscovered a French style harpsichord carcass, painted green and looking quite good. There too was the shaped frame and set of gilded legs - rather handsome if I am permitted to say so! That's how it happens. Just when I expected to be clear of such work I am in the workshop again making keyboards. I really couldn't bear the thought of selling my beautiful French double to a stranger at a knock-down price, knowing well that it would not be completed to a very high standard.

Consequently, I am discovering again just how much labour there is in making keyboards by traditional methods. The work seems so time-consuming that my thoughts turned to making a quick mental calculation. Here is the lower manual limewood panel; I have planed it down to 20 mm thickness [three quarters of an inch]; it must be sawn and converted to 60 individual keys. This was taking more time than expected and, feeling weary, I asked myself 'How many yards of sawing will this amount to?' The answer: 120 feet, or 40 yards, each cut to be made accurately with a selection of fine-toothed hand saws. And that is before beginning on the upper manual keys! Each key then has to be finely shaped, the balance point mortices cut, the ebony covers made, glued and shaped; the arcaded fronts glued on, and then the time-consuming task of aligning and levelling each key. Just when I expected to have more time for writing and researching!

On the way home across the sheep pasture there was a wierd sensation. Instead of running away the ewes and lambs were trotting towards me! They've never done that before. They were coming closer and closer - not just a few of them but every animal in the ten acre field, running towards me as if I were their best friend! Two hundred eager friends running towards me! All their wariness forgotten! I never saw anything like it. Why? Then I realized. I was carrying a white shopping bag, just like the one the farmer uses when he brings them some special treat. When I had crossed the field and gone through the gate without opening the bag they looked so disappointed. Better be careful what I am carrying next time.

27 February 2019

This week I say goodbye to what may well be my last Broadwood square piano - an instrument that was on my 'for sale' page for about a year. But this week came the pleasure of hearing it played in earnest. My word, it sounded good! Perfectly in tune, at or near its original pitch, (that's to say above a=420Hz) with a strong tone that is more than adequate for any domestic situation. A reliable action, with an expressive touch, such an instrument can deliver everything that a discerning musician requires.

It came to me from an auction sale in Suffolk some years ago, almost complete, but lacking its pedal, as they are so often. The idea of attaching it by a mahogany screw thread and then expecting it stand up to being frequently depressed by heavy-footed players – madness! The threads broke, and the pedal was presumably laid aside and eventually discarded. It happened so often.

So I claim no authenticity for the pedal you see here. In fact, it was purposely designed to offer the modern pianist a comfortable experience, placing the sustaining device under the right foot, where pianists have been accustomed to find it from their earliest days. (Broadwood, of course, had it under the left foot.) So, in addition to the pedal you see in this photograph there is a reversing lever attached to the underside of the piano - held by two steel woodscrews. Unlike Broadwood's pedal it will not fall off!

There's a good chance that we will see it again because it will go on a film set where, if they don't change their plans again, it will appear as the instrument that Mr. Churchill bought for Jane Faifax in the fiction of Jane Austen. Perhaps not the ideal instrument for that role, but credible at least, and most importantly, making the right sound!

22 February 2019

If you visit historic houses or museums you will have seen many old keyboard instruments - harpsichords, spinnets and square pianos in particular. Curators try to be informative. They will tell visitors what the instruments are, what materials were used, and very often the date of manufacture. All helpful information. But what they usually fail to tell you is the social context - what music was played, and for whom, in what sort of social gathering, and the most important thing of all - who played. That, you might think, is impossible to know. But one thing we can be very sure of - these instruments were mostly owned and played by females.

Nowadays historic keyboard instruments have entered the realm of BOYS TOYS, like vintage motor cars, or steam engines. This I find very sad. Everyone will admit that if, as I am saying, most of these instruments were owned and played by women or girls, it is unsatisfactory that their modern counterparts don't claim this ground. If you attend a meeting of 'friends of square pianos', for example, you see very few women - a reversal of the historic situation.

Some years ago I thought it might be worthwhile to investigate this. What I found was that in the transition period, if we may call it that, when harpsichords and pianofortes were equally in fashion, female players outnumbered males by four to one. To put it another way, 80% of keyboard players were women or girls. This huge gender imbalance is seemingly confirmed by every data set that has been compiled. Curiously, an investigation by Marcel Vekemans of seventeenth-century Flemish harpsichords, as depicted by contemporary artists (such as Vermeer) 81% of the players were female. Agreed, there could be reasons why painters preferred to show females, yet it may also truly reflect the preponderance of women players.

Today I decided to make my findings available for scrutiny by anyone who's seriously interested, so I have uploaded my original paper, as given in Almería in 2002, and at Michaelstein in 2003, to the academic research site, researchgate.net. Perhaps, at a future date, it will be possible to condense it and post it on this site too.


12 February 2019

In 1800 when Thomas Jefferson ordered an upright piano from John Isaac Hawkins he was intending to encourage the young inventor. But he was taking a risk. He paid Hawkins $264 for it, a lot of money, and the piano was duly delivered to Monticello. But it was a disaster. It proved impossible to keep it in tune, but this was not due to the weather in Virginia, or anything about its location within the house. A Kirckman harpsichord nearby remained perfectly playable.

George Washington also was probably thinking of encouraging American artisans when he bought a square piano from Dodds & Claus. This likewise proved a mistake. His grand-daughter, Eleanor, was much happier with the more reliable instrument he ordered for her from London. Washington obviously had to be seen to support American tradesmen, but in the end common sense prevailed. Buy from experienced craftsmen, who are constructing these instruments in quantity day after day!

When I saw a square piano by Dodds & Claus it was obvious that it was simply a pirated design, being an attempt to copy Broadwood's patent, but it was poorly done. No surprise really – Broadwood's design only makes sense in the context of high production volumes. Similarly, an eighteenth century square piano by Bachmann from Pennsylvania is obviously an attempted copy of Longman & Broderip's pianos made by John Geib in London. But mistakes were made. Better to buy from the men who are making them day after day!

This week, however, I got an unpleasant surprise. Tuning a square piano by Broadwood I was puzzled that bottom C would not go into tune. In fact, as I applied the tuning hammer nothing seemed to be happening. The pitch should have been rising, but it was not. 'Check, Michael' I said to myself. 'Are you on the right pin?' I checked. Everything seemed in order. It was fully five minutes, maybe ten, before I realized that Broadwoods (seemingly reliable and dependable) had sold a piano with the wrong markings on the wrestplank! For 200 years this piano somehow survived with every note in the bottom octave wrongly marked! There's nothing wrong with the piano, but how many tuners have been led astray by this? How many overspun strings have been broken on this account?

6 February 2019

On Saturday I had the opportunity to hear a concert grand piano by Fazioli played by three different pianists in various chamber music works by Dvorak. The venue was a large Victorian church, with a high roof, but given a modern make-over with carpet tiles and comfortable chairs – so with a much modified accoustic. Not echoing, not harsh or unsympathetic for music. Yet I found that, no matter which player, or which ensemble, the persistent impression was of an instrument with an over-powerful voice redeemed by no beautiful tone in any register. Power? Certainly. You could play Rachmaninov on this in Carnegie Hall and everyone would hear every note. But was it enjoyable in this context? Sad to say, I found it no more pleasant than the equivalent Steinway. Maybe in the tenor and bass (especially in the notes below 8 foot C) one could hear unusual clarity at times, but the stentorian treble had no pretty sounds whatever. So, three pianists, separately, playing similar pieces, but what came over most assertively was the intrusive nature of the piano itself.

When we hear a good violin (which we did on Saturday) we appreciate its particular voice, its individual character, bright or mellow, sweet or strong, on the top string or the D string. But with our gleaming black concert grand pianos it seems that the manufacturers aim only at uniformity: a standard product – one size fits all, so to speak. The variation from one to another is minimal, the sound being as fascinating as the black lacquer on the outside.

By contrast last week, using headphones with my computer, I found a recent recording of Schubert's grand duo Fantasie in F minor (D940), on a Viennese square piano. My eardrums were never assaulted in the louder passages (as they are so often when two confident pianists get to work on a Steinway) and even though there were imperfections in the tuning, there was no chance of my giving up on this performance. I listened with interest to every note, right to the end.

29 January 2019

As preparations for the symposium at Mount Vernon begin to take shape, I am awestruck by photos of the reproduction harpsichord recently completed by John Watson. Such a magnificent accomplishment! So many seemingly insurmountable challenges met and overcome!

The original instrument - as played by George Washington's grand-daughter - was purchased from Longman & Broderip in London in 1793. At that point in the history of music we tend to think that the harpsichord's useful life was over - it would soon be redundant, overtaken by the inexorable rise of the pianoforte. Yet on this Virginia plantation this fabulously complex harpsichord, with machine stop and Venetian swell, continued as the lady's principal instrument well into the nineteenth century. In 1817 this was the instrument on which 'Nellie' entertained her house guests, and judging by their comments preserved in letters, they greatly admired her performances. (She had long before abandoned her square piano!)

What should we make of this? I see from my notes on Mary Marsh, that she was soon to acquire her third square piano. Finding her Broadwood piano of 1788 rather disappointing, she took her brother's advice in 1794 and chose a much better one from Longman & Broderip. Of course, this does not mean that she would not have been happy to play on the Mount Vernon harpsichord - if we can imagine her magically transported across the ocean. Making sense of all this, and the conflicting information we glean from documentary sources is quite a challenge - but one I have engaged to undertake.


18 January 2019

Innovation in piano design is not dead or even moribund. For those like me who yearn for some diversity, and deplore the stranglehold that Steinway & Sons have enjoyed for too long on the concert platform, the discovery I made this week of the innovative grand piano designs of Stephen Paulello is refreshing news.

Long ago we entertained hope for the Bösendorfer Imperial grand, an instrument that seemed to have some subtle differences, though it came in the familiar-looking package of a black-laquer sprayed monster that could be nowhere at home but in a large concert hall. Sadly, I found that despite the generous comments of some well-known players (possibly under contract) its touch and tone was not specially pleasing and hardly different from the product we already knew. And Bösendorfer's much-vaunted extra notes in the bass were disappointingly dry and dull.

Fazioli promised much, and their concert grands have their adherents, but when I made a long journey to hear one in concert it was not a rewarding experience. It sounded good. The player was better than most. But it certainly did not come over as a break-through product. I think the truth may be that the makers did not have sufficient nerve to depart very far from familiar the Steinway territory, where most conservatoire-trained players feel at home.

You cannot say that of Stephen Paulello. You see no iron framing. No black lacquer. A unique piano concept with an instantly different shape, longer and wider than expected, with a subtly different curvature. It was specially interesting to see that the bass strings have been repositioned. The crossed-over bass, placing the lowest notes on a separate bridge, was originally a space-saving configuration adopted by Henri Pape in his small upright pianos. Why Steinway pretended that his basses gained any tonal benefit from such an arrangement is puzzling. Most of us, if we are honest, find the cross-over register muddy, slow-speaking, and confused. Paulello has boldly dispensed with this modern dogma. By placing his string band in something resembling the old straight-strung grands he has regained some clarity and quicker speech. But I wonder if he hasn't over-cooked the goose! Like Hawkins' astonishing patent upright pianos of 1800, Stephen Paulello has gone way beyond what was needed to open up a special place in the history of piano technology. You're accustomed to 88 notes? Paulello has 102! I have to say that his deep bass doesn't sound any better Bösendorfer's. Apart from the very top, the treble seem bright and clear. It's good to hear that those disheartening dead tones that come at the climax of many pieces by Chopin may have been eliminated. Well, there is more to see and hear, but even if I listen carefully with headphones, there is no accounting for what the record producer and sound engineer may have cooked up. So I look forward to hearing one of these pianos live one day, with a musician who can exploit new possibilities. It looks and sounds promising.

8 January 2019

Last Saturday's Coffee concert was a happy success. About 150 people turned out to hear music for viola da Gamba and harpsichord, and they were very appreciative and attentive throughout. Their generous donations will help finance future events. It was good too that the Cole family was brought together again before university commitments take Lois and Henry away. Warwick and Rachel were mingling and chatting, Grannie Annie welcomed everyone at the door, and her husband was busy in the kitchen making pots of tea and washing up. When a page turner was needed 'young' Sophie was happy, as ever, to oblige. She's nearly sixteen now!

But amidst all this happiness we heard some terrible news. Our friend Alan Crumpler had a disastrous fire at his home in Lemster [shown on maps as Leominster]. His is a very old house in the centre of the town, and here when everyone slept on Christmas night an electric fire had been left on. The first they knew of it was in the early hours when the bedrooms were filled with acrid smoke. Everyone escaped, but dressed only in their pyjamas. Fire appliances arrived as promptly as possible, and the flames were confined to the music room - but only by pumping in a cascade of water. In the end, when the smoke subsided, all that was left of Alan's pipe organ was a pile of charred timber and a pool of molten lead. His harpsichord, which he used for concerts in the Lion Ballroom has been totally destroyed, as has a rare eighteenth-century bassoon, and about 30 other instruments. On this website on the Zumpe page you can see the nameboard of a modest little piano with three pedals by Schoene & Co., dated 1785. It has been severely burned and is unlikely ever to play again. Then, of course, there is Alan's lifetime collection of music – all gone. What the flames did not consume a torrent of water ruined. A disastrous Christmas. Sadly, of such events is history made.

3 January 2019

Highlights of 2018 as recorded in this Blog must include the dispersal sale of the Colt Collection, and the eagerness shown by bidders hoping to acquire one (or more) of the harpsichords and pianos on display in Bethersden. Some will continue to be thrilled with their purchases; some disappointed that, in the heat of the battle, they were unable to afford their cherished instrument. Still others may wonder if they made a wise investment. But it was all very interesting, and good to see some of the best instruments had been returned from long-term loans and at least for a time relocated with the rest of Mr. Colt's collection. Following so soon after the sale of Christopher Hogwood's instruments, and the dispersal of Richard Burnett's collection at Finchcock's, the Colt sale seemed to signify the end of an era, a double bar with no da capo.

2019 however, holds promise of many interesting events. In August at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, there will be an international gathering in which the English harpsichord owned by his grand-daughter Eleanor will be brought back to life in the form of a replica made by John Watson. At this gathering I have agreed to give a lecture which is intended to reflect on the lady's harpsichord and her American square piano into their cultural and musical context. In Oxford two weeks later I propose to speak at the conference at the Faculty of Music on the less-than- helpful activities of some earlier twentieth century collectors, particularly the dubious legacy of Paul de Wit, one time owner of the now discredited Shudi harpsichord of 1729 – and why this is so damaging.

Maybe – fingers crossed – 2019 will also see the publication in Barcelona of the long-delayed Zumpe book. Let's hope. But most of all we look forward to as yet unsuspected musical pleasures, beginning this Saturday when the Cole family in Cheltenham will all be together again for the opening Coffee Concert of the year at Holy Apostles.



Earlier entries

View Blog for 2018

View Blog for July-Dec 2017 here

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