Michael's Blog


11 December 2020

If you are at all interested in the history of the piano, Stuttgart is a good place to visit. The collection of historic instruments in the Württemberg regional museum, is located on the city's main square, where people sit at tables drinking coffee on a summer's day. Here you will find Zumpe's unique enharmonic square piano of 1766, with 17 notes to the octave, and great numbers of early German pianos. Notably, they also have an excellent display of action models, showing the internal mechanism, displayed behind glass as I recall, all along one wall. Rosamond Harding may have seen them back in 1931, as I deduce, because her action drawings in The Piano-forte - its History of 1933 give exactly corresponding information in her chapter The Piano-forte in Germany (pages 16–47); citing the code number for the Stuttgart exhibits in her captions. [There are good and bad points to this.]

But this month there was an interesting piano to be seen in another Stuttgart – in Arkansas, USA – a 'city', as they call it, of just 9000 inhabitants. There, Ponders Auctions sells plenty of bric-a-brac, and second-hand furniture, but among their recent offerings was a surprising square piano by 'Culliford & Co., Cheapside, London'.

This has to be one of the most interesting pianos to appear in 2020. The inlaid swags on the nameboard immediately remind us of many pianos sold by Longman & Broderip in the 1790s. The size and position of the oval look exactly right too, except that the oval is not white – and there as expected is the small folding music desk. But those handsome reeded legs! and the three drawers! They look exactly right for London pianos of the 1816-1820 period. But if that were really the date of manufacture then a conflict may be seen in the keyboard, for as we see it has just five octaves, FF to f3, just what we expect from an eighteenth-century instrument. Notice also that it has handstops at the left, so the absence of a pedal is no surprise or disappointment in this context.

What we have here is a square piano with Geib's escapement action, as sold by Longman & Broderip until the day they were bankrupted in 1795, but bearing the name of Thomas Culliford, one of their suppliers, who suffered the same fate a few years later. Evidently someone has recycled this instrument, to make it look modern, twenty years later. But Culliford & Co.? Very odd. When L&B had gone out of business, Culliford continued to make pianos, normally inscribed 'Culliford, Rolfe & Barrow', not very neatly written and not embellished in the best possible taste. These are, frankly, second-rate pianos. However, this one is an anomaly, far better in quality than Culliford usually offered, and inscribed Culliford & Co. - a style or title that usually relates to his earlier output in the 1780s. What an interesting puzzle it presents: a very good square piano, with Geib's best quality interior, surviving well, except that the buff stop has been removed at a later date, presumably when refurbished for continued music making after 1815. And, how fascinating to learn that there is another Stuttgart – but what a contrast with the one we know.

On the day I visited the German city (25 years ago) I took a pleasant two-miles walk through the park to Cannstadt, a 19th century spa town where they preserve the workshop of Gottlieb Daimler – who achieved fame in another field.


4 December 2020

Nine months now since anyone experienced live music as it should be. But tomorrow, despite the difficulties, Warwick Cole, Jonathon Morgan and David Hatcher are to play at Minchinhampton, near Stroud in Gloucestershire before a pre-booked audience of fifty people. The line-up will be exactly the same as is shown on this Blog on 4 January -- harpsichord, flute and bass viol -- an hour's concert for which the auditors will happily contribute ten pounds a piece, and be pleased to hear civilized music again, though the Corona virus madness continues everywhere. There are plans for the same venue on 21 December -- a 'mini-Messiah', performed by four select singers as both chorus and soloists. Unhappily, it will not be possible to wholly replicate the atmosphere of the former coffee concerts in Cheltenham – no Cole family task force, no home made cakes, and vastly fewer people – but it's better than nothing.

20 November 2020


Muzio Clementi & Co. circa 1803.



Here is a surprise: a set of square piano hammers, well over two hundred years old, that have never been interfered with in any way. Every hammer has its original leather hinge, and each one has its original soft-leather striking surface. (I have cleaned off the accumulated dirt and dressed them for continuing use.)


Something else may be a surprise. You can see that the first hammer is numbered '2'. They continue – reading to the right of this photo – to end at 59, which should have been 58, as it is for d3. The next note, E flat, passing under the soundboard, should be 59, but as usual, the numbering on those additional notes is 1 to 10.

This is not the first time that I have found this specific kind of wrong numbering. So my belief is that if we consider how this could arise we may deduce a great deal about the working methods of the craftsmen who made these instruments. Incidentally, the hammer hinges, normally of calf skiver, or thin, alum-tawed goat or sheepskin, are here made from soft, 1mm thick deerskin. It must have been very well prepared – it is most surprising that none of them failed.


8 November 2020

What amazing progress a youth could make with commitment such as Charles Burney showed!

In the last post on this Blog we saw him at fifteen, keen to learn music, but having no teacher. So after mending an old Spinnet he practiced so effectively that at seventeen he was able to scrape through a thorough bass, prima vista, to accompany a famous violinist. At twenty-one years old he was thrown in at the deep end, so to speak, when his master, Thomas Arne, sent him to play violin in a theatre band where Handel was conducting!

In 1745, when Giulia Frasi arrived from Italy, he was employed to teach Handel's prima donna, walking each day to her lodging in Great Pulteney Street to play the harpsichord so that she could learn the songs by rote. She had very little understanding of musical notation. Handel would bring his latest composition for her to learn, and it was Charles Burney's task to teach her the tempo and expression, repeating it many, many times until she had it in her head.

I love his description of one of Handel's visits to Frasi when the great man sat at the harpsichord himself to teach her a duet. Burney, looking over his shoulder, began to hum the second part, in which the composer encouraged him – only for Handel to burst into a tremendous rage when the young man made a mistake. When he had calmed down a little Burney excused himself, suggesting that there might be a mistake in the score. When he found this to be true, the composer was all sweetness and light. He blamed his scribe, Christopher Smith, for the error.

At the end of the session, Burney recalls, Frasi rashly said that she intended to study hard to learn thorough bass, so as to learn the parts herself. Handel however, 'knowing how little this pleasing singer was addicted to application and diligence, replied "Oh, that we may not expect!". So Burney's services were still wanted!

It's surprising how many top opera singers are unable to read music. Joan Sutherland says exactly the same of Pavarotti – Richard Bonning taking him through each solo, time after time, till he had it by heart.

28 October 2020

We are used to seeing Charles Burney as the learned author in his doctoral robes as painted by Reynolds. But here is the young man, about 28 years old. It would be good to have a portrait of him even younger but this is too much to hope for. His route to eminence as a musician was most unusual. His parents completely neglected to give him any opportunity of learning music, except that as 12 year old he had singing lessons from the organist at Chester, with the result that, as a boy treble, he could sing Handel's Dove sei from Rodelinda: but, as he said himself, he sang without knowing a word of Italian, and hardly knowing any of the notes of the scale. At 15 he got access to the organ at Shrewsbury where his step-brother James was organist, but without any sustained teaching he made little progress, and was soon after obliged to return to his parents in Chester.

There, when he wanted to practice he had nothing to play and no teacher, so he had to show real spirit. His sister Nancy, four years his senior, had tried to master the spinet, but without success, so as soon as he arrived he writes; I found an old Spinnet by Keen[e] with short octaves, to practice on. It was in deplorable condition. But I was able to take it to pieces, new string it, repair the jacks, furnishing most of them with new tongues [I think he means plectra] and bristles, and regulating the touch. [No wonder his sister had given up!] 'After this', he writes, 'I was incessantly at it, either practicing or composing.' This instrument would have been about forty years old, made before a chromatic bass became customary.

Two years later, Dubourg, the eminent violinist paid a visit to their home, having been acquainted with Burney's father in the London theatres. 'When seeing a Spinnet in the room he asked who made use of it? When he was told that I was a young and humble music student who would be extremely happy to hear him play, he was so obliging as to send for his instrument, and I had the honour to accompany him in the 5th Solo of Corelli, without ever having had a Master in thorough-base. I was very proud of being able to acquit myself tolerably in this first trial of my skill, for I never had accompanied a great player before. His performance gave me infinite pleasure.'

So furiously did young Burney set to his practice thereafter that his mother's maid was prompted to ask, 'What is it Master Charley was playing? Is it tunes, or is it Consorts of Music?'

[Picture, courtesy of the Osborn Colln. at Yale Univ.]


18 October 2020














Just for the record, the photo above shows the keys of the square piano at Osterley Park, west of London. The inscription is identical with that on the square piano formerly in Christopher Hogwood's collection, sold at Corsham. But, as you see, the keys look completely different. This is the result of a comprehensive restoration by one of Dolmetsch's former workmen. There is no restoration report detailing the alterations, but it appears to me that these ebony key plates are replacements. As you may see, even from this one photograph, there were other changes too. Look for example at the dampers, with red cloth replacing the original buff leather pads.

10 October 2020

In the last two posts on this Blog you will have seen two nameboard inscriptions by 'Johannes Zumpe'. Two scribal hands can be detected, but there is a degree of uniformity, in the words, and their order, and the shape of the cartouche, with broken ogee ends. This same shape, and the innovative inclusion of the address in subscript, are to be seen on the better quality model in which the cartouche is inlaid into a veneered board, and enclosed in black lines. From 1767 onwards this smarter (presumably more expensive) decorative appearance continued on the outside of the piano, featuring darker mahogany with a pronounced grain, laid vertically, the black line theme repeated there too.

The continuing uniformity throughout the 1770s, excepting some specially commissioned instruments (for example the one designed by Robert Adam for St Petersburg) leads to immediate suspicion when we see different words, a different cartouche, and divergent treatment of the exterior. Take a look at the following, for example.













This is in fact a very well made square piano, and entirely worthy of preservation. Nor is there any need to doubt the date of manufacture. But clearly, it does not come from the same workshop. My suspicion is that it was made in Paris. And it says much about the prestige of Zumpe's London-made pianos at that time that someone would go to the trouble of fraud, expecting to make a ready sale, presumably at a good price. There are some internal features of the construction that lend support to the attribution to a French, or at least, Continental origin.

So this, we may safely say, is an eighteenth-century fraud, but nevertheless a piano of the period it purports to be from. It is a counterfeit, contemporary with the real thing. Not so some other specimens.

Neat writing; a well-made instrument, though in poor condition; and an interesting antique piano – but grossly misleading. The date of manufacture is certainly not 1768. The style of lettering owes more to 19th century ideas than Zumpe's lifetime. But my hunch is that it was written in the twentieth century.

The wording is not the same as found on Zumpe's pianos, and then there is the terrible blunder in the grammar. The word fecerunt is the plural form. (Lacking an adequate education myself, I ought to be the last person to criticise, but this is a very prominent blunder.) In fact the instrument that has been falsified is from the Schoene brothers workshop, about 1795. The inlaid designs, and the cable inlay at the bottom are strong indicators. Were it ascribed to them, the plural form would be correct.

No harm done? Well, I think there is really. A similar deception was regrettably more successful when someone inscribed a square piano with John Broadwood's name, together with the date 1774 which, taken at face value, would make it six years earlier than any other piano by that maker. Under Alfred Hipkins' direction, the Broadwood company bought this piano for their displays in the 1890s, and it was accepted thereafter as proof that John Broadwood's early manufacture of square pianos followed the standard Zumpe-derived pattern – as distinct from his known refashioning of the construction, seen from 1780 onwards. From this you would deduce an entirely wrong idea of John Broadwood's thinking and practice. Yet anyone who looked carefully at the false inscription ought to have discerned the poor quality of the fraudster's hand. There are numerous genuine inscriptions on contemporary harpsichords with which to compare.

If you don't want to be deceived, it is worthwhile to study such seemingly trivial matters of calligraphy and decor.


4 October 2020

You can see very readily that there are two different scribes used by Zumpe. Above is a good example to compare with the one given on 29 September (below). This example, dated 1775, is one of two square pianos from Zumpe's workshop in the storerooms of the museum at St. Fagan's, near Cardiff. It was bought from a second-hand shop in Aberystwith as I recall - a very plain piano in a far from perfect condition, whereas their other piano of 1772 is obviously a well cared-for specimen, from the Rice (or Reece) family of Great Barrington, whose other residence was in Llandeilo, South Wales. But, to get back to the topic under discussion, it is Zumpe's usual scribe who has lettered the nameboard above. See how this person stays true to the centuries-old tradition of shaping the strokes with a regular hook, so that in the capital J the bottom of the letter is closed with 1st quadrant curve, whereas in the rather macho style of the 1767 inscription the bottom stroke is 3rd quadrant. The same feature can be seen at the top of the lower case 'h' (in Johannes) - contrasting treatments from two writing masters.

Both of these pianos are Zumpe's basic model, plain mahogany with no inlay. The inscription is written on a pre-shaped boxwood plaque, which was then glued directly onto the [plain] nameboard. This seems at first to be very crude, and unworthy of a prestigious maker, but the Zumpe & Buntebart workshop continued to produce them in this form for those who cared little for status or fashion, or were penny-pinching. This 1775 piano, by the way, has ivory naturals, so there's no association with economy key plates.

Glued on? Well yes, which makes them very vulnerable as you can see in my next photo.

This sad looking specimen is indeed a Zumpe & Buntebart piano, which from the case dimensions and damper design we can reasonably date to 1775 or thereabouts. It is presently in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and may perhaps have been taken to America about 1790. The missing plaque has been replaced with a spurious inscription reading G. Alex Emery, perhaps someone who bought it as a used and damaged piano, intending to acquire the rudiments of music. It's history is there to intrigue the curious, so restoration is certainly not advisable.

My thanks to the Portsmouth Historical Society for the photograph.

29 September 2020

Black keys! That's the first thing you may notice because they are so unexpected. But there are two other features to be observed in this early square piano that deserve your attention. But first, what about those keys? We expect English instruments to have white naturals, and black sharps. But this is not the only piano by John Zumpe to have reverse colour keys. His earliest surviving piano, that formerly belonged to Bill Garlick, dated 1766, has black keys that are surely original. The ones showing here also look right to me.

It is not unknown for historic instruments to have their key covers replaced, indeed it was very common in times gone by. In the early music revival period, at the beginning of the 20th century, the novelty of ebony naturals and white sharps was very attractive. This, I believe, is the explanation for reverse-colour keys on the Tabel harpsichord of 1721. Having examined the keys closely I am fairly sure they are replacements fitted by Broadwoods in 1900. And I am convinced that it was after seeing these keys that Leipzig dealer Paul de Wit commissioned a matching set for his recently acquired 'Shudi 1729' harpsichord in 1905. This very obvious correspondence between two London-made harpsichords from the 1720s has led many people astray. For example, Charles Mould in his otherwise erudite writings on English harpsichords has observed that black keys were used by both Tabel and Shudi before 1740, leading him to remark in Jacob Kirkman, Harpsichord Maker to Her Majesty (2016) that it is noteworthy that the oldest known Kirckman harpsichord (dated 1744) has the more conventional format, with an original set of ivory naturals.

Unfortunately, ivory keys that have been played for more than 200 years are likely to show much wear and tear, with hollowed key plates and even chipping on the front edges, so it is tempting for restorers to replace them all. Even before the current ivory legislation, Morleys of London replaced a complete set of ivories on an early square piano by Frederick Beck with synthetic replacements. They are very obvious. The same happened to that beautiful piano housed in a laquered Chippendale cabinet, sold at Christies last year. What a splendid thing it was! The catalogue happily drew attention to the fact that it was previously owned by the Duchess of Northumberland, and photographed (incidentally) in Sion House. (The alteration to the keys was done after it left Sion, in case you are wondering.) Design features inside the piano reveal (in my opinion) that it was made by John Pohlman - a uniquely important colaboration between Chippendale, the master cabinet maker, and a piano maker very much in vogue in the 1770s. Alterations, for whatever reason, are not welcome!

Just across the M4 motorway, west of London, is another wonderfully extravagant mansion at Osterley Park. There we find another Pohlman square piano, dated 1773, that also has had its keys re-covered. They're black! How confusing that might be, if we took them to be original. But it's not so difficult to discover the truth if you look closely at the scores on the keys. If you use a magnifying glass (or a Vision Visor) you can easily see the round-bottom form of the grooves - not at all like the scores cut by 18th-century workmen. Happily there is adequate evidence in this case that the piano was comprehensively restored in the 1950s, when ebony naturals were still much preferred by many early keyboard players. It would be very unfortunate if this piano was thought by anyone to show that Pohlman was following Zumpe's precedent in making pianos with black keys as late as 1773.

If you will bear with me, I will return to the other two features of the 1767 Zumpe piano in a later post.









27 August 2020

An unusual offering at auction last week, this beautifully crafted square piano was described in the catalogue as a small piano probably 'made for a child'. I wonder.

It is undoubtedly the work of a good maker, but who? The shape of the cartouche, and the very short soundboard suggests it might be by Charles Trute. Were it so, when we lift the lid we would expect to see the tuning pins at the back. But no, the pins are at the right as usual. The dampers are conventional, wooden levers - retro orientated. It is simply a very compact piano, of conventional design.

Here is the interior of Verel's miniature piano, likewise with pins at the back, and intro-oriented dampers. Pohlman also made mini-pianos, but they are easily recognised by the way he takes the bass strings through the nameboard and cheek, so that they are exposed above the treble keys. So, of the really well-known makers, the one who is known to have made square pianos with a very small soundboard and no innovative features would be Buntebart, after he parted company with John Zumpe. No doubt we will discover that there were others enagaged in this special niche market. For a child? There was certainly a market for small instruments that were portable, to be easily taken in a carriage. Ladies also were often attracted to dainty instruments, even ultra small ones that could be combined with sewing box.



14 August 2020

While government restrictions are having such a devastating effect on all cultural activities we can only cheer ourselves up by re-viewing some high-class performances from the past. An excellent example is the Youtube video illustrated left, of Andrew Brownell playing music by Muzio Clementi on an early nineteenth-century square piano, made in London by Celementi's own workmen. He is, as he says himself, principally a player who perfoms later period music on modern pianos, but he here demonstrates a sensitivity to the tone and touch of these lovely instruments that is very creditable. And the piano is working well too! I hope he will some day return to this repertoire and these charming instruments. Meanwhile, if you like to hear more modern music try Warwick's latest video, with Lawrence Kempton at 'Minchinhampton Music'.


8 August 2020

Walking in the Cotswold Hills this week I stopped for an hour at Sevenhampton, one of the most peaceful villages you could ever wish to find. It was there in the new churchyard extension that I was happy to see again the memorial to my friend Bill Waterhouse — Musician, Bassoonist, Author, Collector & Teacher. He was all of those things, but what most endeared him to his friends was his irrepressible enthusiasm. Everything he did was evidently so much fun!

Many people from all over the world have memories of visits to the Music Barn at Whitehall Cottage, high on the Wolds in the mddle of nowhere. But for me, especially when passing through this musical desert when so many people live in fear of an invisible virus, it is good to recall some of the marvellous fun concerts in Sevenhampton, especially those in which the whole Waterhouse family played — Bill on bassoon of course, Elizabeth on the organ or piano, their daughters on violins and Graham on the cello. No one will pretend that these events were of the most exacting musical standard, but no one should criticize them either. They were enjoyable, and the source of that joy was always Bill's enthusiasm. It was a privilege to be invited.




22 July 2020

Still no progress with research while all archives and museums remain closed. But here's something that readers might like to ponder:

Found inside Adam Beyer's pianos this enigmatic sign is repeated often on the keyframe (as shown here), and usually on the keys themselves. Nol – not No.1– but NoL. What does it mean? And what of that more mysterious cypher that always accompanies it?

In the absence of any reports of this sign elsewhere, I can only guess that it is a stylized 'f' and flourish. No variations have been observed, so there's no help coming from any study of that. In this photo (taken by David Hunt) the number 597 is the production or serial number, in this case signifying that Beyer's workshop had made and sold almost 600 instruments by 1782.

I am, of course, very familiar with the usual types of carpenters' marks, especially those indicating face and edge when planing by hand. Nol's mark seems to be something different. It would be very good to have this elucidated, so if you have ideas, please say.



24 June 2020

The research that I've been reporting intermittently for the last three years is at a standstill. No progress is possible.

All museums have been closed now for so long that we've almost lost count. The libraries are shut. All documents in the archives are inaccesible. I have several requests pending at the Bodleian.

So when the sun shines, it's best to make the most of it. Here is Oxford as few tourists ever see it. We are on the banks of the River Thames at Port Meadow - less than a mile from the city centre. Matthew Arnold's 'dreaming spires' are just beyond that line of trees.

Yesterday seemed like a good opportunity to travel again along the route of my book 'River Thames'. Highlights of the day included a peaceful interlude in the churchyard at St Margaret's, Binsey. In the hamlet itself (almost a mile from the church) thatchers were at work making a new roof for one of the cottages. We sat for a while at Iffley Lock where a passing tern fluttered up into the sky, then arrowed down like a gannet to snatch an unwary fish, rising again with its silver catch.

In Christchurch Meadow where long queues normally wait patiently to enter the picture gallery, there were no visitors. On the river no boats passed. Salter's Steamers have ten pleasure boats clean, spruce and ready for action, but they lie at their moorings waiting for better days. Indeed, the whole town was eerily quiet with no students, no bicycles, and little sign of life as it used to be.

11 June 2020

Canada seems to be very well supplied with historic English pianos. Twenty-five years ago Bill Garlick sold what I believe to be the oldest surviving Zumpe piano, dated 1766, to the Cantos Music Foundation in Calgary. A highly significant instrument.

The oldest known Broadwood piano of any kind is the square piano branded 'Burkat Shudi & Johannes Broadwood', dated 1780 in the Royal Ontario Museum. It is unfortunate that the museum keeps it in a little used store room - not on public display.

In addition to which some rarities also appear from time to time. Thomas Garbutt isn't well known, but he could be the earliest known native Englishman making square pianos under his own name - from 1772. In private ownership in British Columbia (I hope that it's possible to refer to that state in this way!) is an example by Garbutt from 1773.

This week comes news of another such rarity, by the otherwise unknown George Godfry. It's dated 1775, and is undoubtedly genuine. The mahogany casework is almost an exact replica of the Christopher Ganer piano of 1775 that I owned some years ago, whose external appearnce is replicated by another historic piano, fraudulently inscribed as the work of John Broadwood, 1774, now at Fenton House [National Trust] in Hampstead, London. They all share the same elaborate chequer inlays, and very similar dimensions. Godfry, who gives his address as No.12 Strand, near Temple Bar, was clearly trying to impress, with scrupulously neat cabinet work, some aspects of which suggest that he learned his trade in the workshop of Adam Beyer. A feature of the keyboard work is the location of the balance pins in the treble, which resembles the work of John Pohlman, though Godfry has the early type of soundboard, with a zig-zag left side, not the overhanging type. An interesting feature is that the keyboard includes bottom FF.

This surprising instrument recently appeared in a sale in Toronto, and is now in safe hands.


3 June 2020

Here's a more cheerful story, coming via email from South America. My correspondent has recently bought a Broadwood square piano dated 1798, sent all the way from Scotland to Brazil. Inside there is a note to say that it was originally the property of Miss Catherine Murray-Theipand, also with a volume of her early music.

For 200 years it was kept at Fingask Castle, near Perth. Naturally, it hasn't been played for many years, but the intention is to have it carefully restored, retaining as much of the original as possible. I very much like the follow up: After it is restored we are planning to offer to the public a series of free concerts with music composed for the fortepiano together with Jacobite songs.

Free concerts? Excellent. Music for the fortepiano? Sounds good.

Jacobite songs? What would John Broadwood have said to that!

Charles Stewart, 'Bonny Prince Charlie', hoping to take the throne and re-establish Roman Catholicism! Not popular with Prestbyterians like the Broadwoods.

The passage of time has, of course, cloaked these events in romantic nostalgia. So I'm sure I could countenance their wistful songs. Wish I could be there to hear the music!


25 May 2020

Readers who have visited this page before may have noticed that I have not reported on any new research results for some time. This is not through neglect. With all archives and museums closed it is simply impossible to make any progress. Auction houses too have only very restricted activity, so there have been no interesting items for comment there either. Concerts are a thing of the past!

The reason for this unprecedented shutdown is a near hysterical fear of what is widely said to be a deadly virus. Misleading and bogus statistics are being uncritically used by broadcasters and newspapers to support this state of affairs. So these days when I walk down the street supposedly inteligent people cross the road, ostentatiously demonstrating that they wish to stay as far away from me as possible. Churches have been locked for weeks on instructions from the bishops (no doubt Richard Dawkins is delighted). Everywhere I see children's playgrounds are padlocked (that'll teach 'em!). Public car parks are barricaded to prevent anyone stopping near the local parks. How clever is that! Last week I discovered that a local farmer near Broadway has blocked a public footpath in a self-righteous attempt to prevent anyone from using the trail for recreation. We need to record these matters so as to leave an eye-witness account of the astonishing tailspin into which our civilization has been dragged by the hysteria made possible in the new age of 'social media'!

5 May 2020

On this day, 5 May 1995, I began my investigation of the vast collection of eighteenth-century square pianos in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. I arrived there, by appointment, armed with a large sheaf of pre-printed forms I had devised, designed to record as much information as could be squeezed on two sides of an A4 sheet – each sheet to be filled with data from one instrument. A week – five and a half days – was all the time I had, but it was not enough. My intention was to closely examine anything that looked like an early instrument to discover whether there was any evidence to support the oft-stated contention that the square piano was invented in Germany before 1750 - or soon after that date, depending whom you asked. Some of these instruments were on display in the public galleries, but the vast majority were down in the sub-basement, stored on racks, where I believe they remain to this day.

From time to time I was joined by Sabine Klaus, who took a great interest in this project, because her doctoral thesis (published at Tübingen) had for its subject the evolution and classifcation of German-made keyboards. And every hour or so I had to call for the assistance of Georg Ott, who would come down to help me draw another couple of specimens off the racks. A few were almost playable, but most were quite ruinous. It was methodical work, persistent, and often tedious, but without this information it would not be possible to understand the development and history of such Tafelklaviere. While there I saw very few Italian or French pianos, there were a few English specimens (I recall Garbutt and Bury, for example) – and curiously another London-made piano that was falsely labelled as the work of Wagner of Dresden! These I ignored. I took no breaks. Yet even after so many hours in the basement I had still not seen all of the relevant instruments.

On the last day Doctor Klaus surprised me by asking me to hand over all my data sheets so that she could photocopy them. This disconcerted me not a little. It was, after all, my own research, and thinking that only I would see them, I had taken no care to write neatly. Some years later, however, I found that my notes had been used by the museum to give a very brief description of the pianos I had seen, on the MIME website. They apparently have no other source of information on the vast collection of instruments in their store. Twenty-five years! No progress!

Upstairs, in the public galleries, the 'Johann Socher' square piano of '1742' was on display, described as the world's oldest square piano – made by an unknown craftsman in a village in south-western Germany, during the lifetime of Johann Sebastian Bach, and apparently pre-dating any surviving grand piano from Gottfried Silbermann. This came from the Paul de Wit Collection, and is no more credible than his Bach harpsichord, sold at a huge price to an important museum.

An abiding memory of my week there in 1995 is of an evening visit to Fürth bei Nurnberg, the birthplace of Johannes Zumpe, and of a visit there to John Henry van der Meer, the man responsible for gathering this fabulous collection of instruments when he was on the staff at GNM. He has since departed this life, but I would still like to visit Fürth again when the current travel restrictions have been lifted.

A summary of my thoughts, written later that year, appeared in the Galpin Society Journal for 1997. There are a few off-prints left in my office, which I would be happy to send to anyone who needs the information. Last week I sent one copy to a collector in Germany, who found it very useful. I have too my original data sheets, with their unique collection of information. Ask, if there is something you need to know.


25 April 2020

Ten thousand! It is very pleasing to see that our Longman & Broderip video on YouTube has reached five figures! The aim of this video was to make the sound of these lovely instruments more widely known – so I imagine this aim has now been realized. To judge by some of the comments we have received, many listeners are impressed. But here is a sobering thought.

On Ebay UK someone from London is hoping to sell (for £12,000) a Longman & Broderip square piano. It is apparently one of the basic [entry level] pianos, with plain mahogany exterior, incorporating Zumpe's single action, and a keyboard that extends only to GG in the bass. What is puzzling is that the intending seller states that it is dated 1772 – which is clearly impossible. The style 'Longman & Broderip' was not used until after Lukey's demise, in 1776. These facts have been on my website for years – available free to anyone who cares to look. But the seller offers more information: 'the earliest square piano is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and dates from 1767!'

Even worse, from my point of view, the seller informs us that these instruments were made by migrant craftsmen called 'The Twelve Apostles'. So, just when I thought we were winning....


18 April 2020

It is always a pleasure to receive messages by email from readers of this Blog, so if you have something to say, or just want to confirm your interest, please do make contact via the email address given on the contact page. You will understand that the word 'at' is there only to make life more difficult for parasites, trawling the internet for email to infect. Substitute the usual sign and you'll get through.

The news this week is frustrating. For almost a year I have been trying to persuade the staff of the Russell Collection in Edinburgh to assign a date when I can examine their London-made harpsichords. If you have been following this Blog for some time you will know that my aim is to rewrite the history of English harpsichord making in the 18th century, and of course, the largest holding of such instruments in one place is, perversely, in Scotland. My special concern is to see for myself the harpsichords made before 1760, of which they have six that are easily indentified, and possibly others, not recognised. At last, arrangements were made. The instruments I wanted to see would be made available either in the gallery at St Cecilia's Hall, or in the remote store room, on 21st and 22nd of April.

Then came the blanket ban on travel, imposed by our government. Any hopes I entertained that this draconian measure would be moderated after Easter were confounded. This coming week, which was to have seen my journey to Edinburgh, we have the ultimate disappointment. The Russell Collection is closed, sine die, so we must begin again.

Meanwhile, I write what I can. One topic that I must return to is the biography of Mary Marsh, a representative of the vast numbers of female musicians who were the forgoten foundation of all the music trades in past times. Her playing of the spinnet, piano, harpsichord and organ, and her very accomplished singing, make a story worth telling in itself, but add to that the astonishing vicissitudes of her long life – impoverished, then married, a mother, then widowed, her struggles to make ends meet – all make hers a life so much worth writing.

There have been two emails coming in from distant countries with helpful comments, in recent days. When writing proves wearisome, I am glad to be able to return to the workshop, where I am continuing to make action parts for an unfinished harpsichord — tedious, repetition work, but I break it up into 3-hour sessions to make it more bearable, before returning to the equally tough assignment of writing.


4 April 2020

We are accustomed to seeing paintings that purport to show eighteenth-century interiors featuring a square piano. The player is nearly always a young woman, elegantly dressed. But most such pictures are inauthentic, in that they are retrospective – composed from the imagination of a nostalgic artist, as a 'genre scene'. The usual date of such pictures is late nineteenth or early twentieth century – wistful and romantic.

Here is something very different. The artist has apparently composed this picture for the parents of these girls. It is not great art, in fact the composition is very unsophisticated, but it comes very close to telling us the truth, not only about the costumes worn by these girls, but also about their music making, and by implication the hopes and desires of their parents. Sadly, we do not know their names, and the painter is likewise unidentified. I supect it may be Scottish, but that could be wrong.

All that we can say for certain is that the appearance of the piano suggests a date about 1780, and its chequer inlay may indicate that the maker was Frederick Beck, or Christopher Ganer. Equally importantly, we see that the younger child has a song to perform, and that the rôle of the piano is to accompany her. With this we gain a much more informed view of domestic music-making at that time than we can ever gain today by hearing expert players performing masterworks by Mozart.

I am grateful to Chistopher Foley for this image when the picture was in his possession last year. I have cropped the image, to omit an interesting stray chair at the right. Otherwise there is nothing else informative, and no certainty of the artist's name.


24 March 2020

My trip to Virginia last summer, at the invitation of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, produced an unexpected insight that I'd like to share with anyone who has taken an interest in Roger Plenius, the eighteenth-century harpsichord maker. If you are not familiar with this important maker, do check the link on my home page, where you can read about Pioneer Pianomakers in London.

The connection with Mount Vernon is this: In October 1761 George Washington ordered a 'Spinit' from London. More than that, he specified that he wanted one from 'Mr. Plinius, of South Audley Street'. You may already have known this, as it was reported by Raymond Russell in The Harpsichord and Clavichord (1959). That's certainly where I first encountered the story – and thought no more about it.

But wait a minute! Washington, by his own admission, knew nothing about music. Why was he ordering a Spinit? And how is it that he could specify the maker? (suggesting that he was a discriminating buyer!) Did someone advise him? And if so, who might that be?

Now here is the context: George Washington married Martha Custis, a young widow with 2 children in 1759. The initiative for this musical purchase must have come from her. The reason isn't far to seek – her daughter was just then approaching her sixth birthday. She was of an age to start learning music. Now the implications: Washington did not have an instrument in his plantation house. The sound of music was not previously something he experienced at home. Second, the choice of Plenius is also likely to have been Martha's. Why? Well, possibly she read about his work in news from London, or much more likely, she had encountered one of his instruments in Virginia and wished to have one like it. That's how it usually works.

Now, the important point – that Russell doesn't say – is that the instrument duly arrived, in May 1762, and the account still exists, perserved among Washington's papers: it shows a payment of ten guineas to John Plenius, plus eleven shillings for a supply of spare strings and a packing case. That seems all well and good. We know that John's father, Roger Plenius, was declared bankrupt in 1756 and was locked up in the debtors' prison. So Washington's agent in London obviously acted on his own initiative and tracked down the son, in Holborn, working at the trade his father had taught him. So, perhaps we could assume the Spinnet that arrived in Virginia was made by John Plenius? Maybe not, as I will explain below. Nevertheless, on this instrument 'Patsy', the six-year-old daughter, began her lessons. You might like to think about the dynamics of this situation: [1] Patsy setting out on her musical education (the mark of a lady), [2] under the eye of Martha, her mother, reportedly a demanding parent [3] on an instrument sent all the way from London and paid for by her stepfather. So this is not just an artefact; not just an item of trade — it is loaded with meaning and significance for all of them. Think about it from each person's point of view; the child, the mother, and the father who no doubt hoped to hear some pleasing tunes when visitors came by.

But the price? Ten guineas! That is remarkably cheap for a new instrument from a good London maker. Rather, this suggests to me the price we might pay for a refurbished instrument – secondhand, but in good condition. Fifteen guineas is the price I would expect to pay for a good instrument, newly made. Yet ten guineas was the price John Plenius received, as shown on the bill. That being so, perhaps it was an instrument bearing the name of the very man Washington had specified – Plenius the elder*. Today 'Plenius' might be celebrated as the maker of the first Piano-forte made in England, or as the inventor of the Lyrichord, or maybe as the man who patented so many 'improvements' to the harpsichord in 1741. If you've read the paper by Margaret Debenham and myself, you will also think of him as the unfortunate victim of an ill-advised partnership with Charles Cope, resulting in his bankruptcy, and his wasted years in prison.

Patsy Custis made decent progress in music, and her Spinit was eventually traded in for an American made square piano, but that's another story.

* The inscription could have read: Rutgerus Plenius Londini fecit though curiously on legal documents his signature is 'Rutgerus Pleunis'. I remember John Henry van der Meer, then curator at Nuremburg, saying that he thought Pleunis might be the man's original name. He should know - he was born in the Netherlands. Sadly, Doctor van der Meer is no longer with us so that conversation cannot be renewed.


16 March 2020

There is an ever-present problem with museum exhibits, I find. Interesting objects, often of great intrinsic merit, like the stone age hand axe showing right, are so often presented without context. We can marvel at them, but we cannot truly understand them without some knowledge of the social context in which they belong. The same is true with paintings in art galleries, as I have remarked before in the opening pages of my Broadwood book. If we don't know for whom it was made, and where it was originally hanging, an oil painting can only be understood in terms of other similar objects, also shown in galleries, also without context.

As regards the incredible work that went into creating this hand-axe, and its phenomenal status in stone age society there is an excellent webpage from the National Museums of Scotland – do check it out. However, my main concern here is the musical and social context of square pianos, a topic that is so little understood.

When the great piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg encountered a little pianoforte by Pohlman at the Great Exhibition in 1851, he was incredulous. He simply could not understand how anyone would want to play on such a feeble instrument. There has been little change since then. For example, when the Zumpe piano at Pavlovsk was restored, a conservatoire trained pianist was brought in to record its sound — and what did he play? Mozart K540. And of course, he and the recording team made every effort to make it sound noble and impressive. What a wasted opportunity! A similar story attends so many restorations. A broken down piano that doesn't play – someone restores it – a musician is brought in to play it – and inevitably the choice of repertoire is something they have learned on a modern concert grand piano! They have no idea what such an instrument was used for, or in what social context it was seen and heard.

So it was interesting to hear last week that the Moravian History Society in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, is to have a reproduction made of the curious upright Pantalon/Piano that I showed in The Pianoforte in the Classical Era. For those who have no access to that book, let me say briefly that it has a four-octave keyboard and hammers that are half covered with a very thin layer of leather, and the other half with an exposed brass insert.You can play either voice, selected by a handstop: soft but percussive, or bright and jingling. It is possibly the oldest surviving keyboard instrument made in America, at least in the integrity of its unaltered state: but what was it used for? And in what context? Well, if you begin by considering the nature of the early Moravian settlement, and imagine their reverent hymns and Christian songs. Think of solos and duets, sung before a small gathering in a sparsely furnished room. Examine the compositions of Christian Latrobe, to sample the hymn-like quality of their music. But above all, do NOT reach for your favourite pieces by Mozart!

7 March 2020

Saturday morning – we were apprehensive that with the hysterical media reports of a Coronavirus pandemic there might be a lower-than-usual turnout for the Coffee Concert, but we needn't have worried. Our regular supporters turned out in force once again – today's programme being exclusively baroque chamber music – an hour long programme of pieces that the Bach family might have played together. We heard music by JSB himself, his son Emanuel, Golberg (he of the doubtful connection with the magnificent variations) and lastly Telemann, whose delightful concerto scored for treble recorder and strings was very well received.















The ensemble you see in this picture is only lacking violinist Kelly McCusker whose presence lights up every performance she's involved in. The harpsichord by Michael Cole is now approaching its 30th birthday, and is still going strong, though it has some bumps and scratches that witness to the phenomenal number of times that it has appeared in concerts all over England and Wales.

Behind the counter – ready to serve tea and coffee – you see Sophie Cole and her grandfather.

Next month's coffee concert continues the annual Bach Passion series, this year featuring the reconstructed St. Mark Passion music, with a new connecting narrative in English. 4 April, at Holy Apostles Church, London Road, Cheltenham, half past ten.

Note: in the following days the government ordered a total lockdown, preventing all concerts and church services.





24 February 2020

This quaint looking rustic piano, as it is called, is inscribed 'John Huber fecit', and resides with the Easton Historical Society in Pennsylvania. It is an excellent specimen of the way that musical and craft traditions from Germany were translated thousands of miles across the ocean, a journey to the New World from which this craftsman could not expect to return. For an unknown client he has produced a bichord, north German Pantalon with the usual compass of C to f3. The hammers, of bare wood, have retro Prellmechanik mit Treiber action. There is no escapement. As we expect with a Pantalon there are no dampers. It is in effect a hammer dulcimer played through a keyboard, giving it resources, in terms of harmony and facility, that an ordinary dulcimer cannot have. However, continuous reverberation is not welcome in every musical context so to cancel it one could use the harp stop, in this case very similar to Zumpe's buff stop, which could be applied most likely by knee lever – just touch and release. There is also a Moderator, for a more dulcet tone. Both stops were operated by lost mechanisms, traces of which remain visible on the bottom, so it is possible that pedals worked the stops.

Huber was not a very accomplished craftsman, but organically speaking his design holds all the features that a north German Pantalon would usually have in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the plan view, below, observe how wide the hitchpin block is in the bass. This helps with structural stability but shortens the leverage in the bass keys. Also, you may notice the carved profile at the treble end (marked A). The snail-like volute at the treble end of the bridge is very unusual, perhaps a passing fancy of the maker.










16 February 2020

To illustrate the style or character of to be expected of good quality inscriptions I thought I would share this one of the Pohlman square piano at Shibden Hall, near Halifax, featured on this Blog in January 2015. This photo shows very well the disposition of the numerals 6 and 9 (see below, for 6 February). The script on this nameboard is so similar to some of Zumpe & Buntebart's pianos of the same year that I suspect that both workshops may have sent their work to the same writing master. Zumpe used other scribes at various times, but unhappily Polhman's inscriptions declined very rapidly about 1774, when they were evidently done 'in house' by an untutored hand. No other reputable maker has such scruffy writing as Pohlman's later pianos, at least not in London.


6 February 2020

A good attempt – as such things go. Someone has tried to fake a Kirckman inscription on this square piano, sold yesterday by auction in France. I like the care that has gone into this. The fraudster has actually looked closely at one of Jacob Kirckman's instruments, presumably a harpsichord, and almost succeeded in replicating it. The letter forms are correct, and each word is correctly spelled, but if you look closely at 'Londini' do you feel sea-sick? the letters just don't sit well. But of course, the date is what really lets this down. It looks totally insecure.

In eighteenth-century London there were many people working as 'Writing Masters' – or calligraphers, as we would now say. They started in the trade as apprentices, usually aged 14, and first learned how to make pens of various widths (from goose feathers), how to prepare ink, and then how to hold the pen at a consistent angle, leading naturally to the formation of letters with down strokes that almost go south-east, so to speak. And they avoid straight lines like the plague. No verticals, no horizontals: each stroke has a curved or serpentine form. And of course, you learned how to lay out the lettering within the given space, and between three lines. The lowest and middle lines define the lower-case letters – and the numerals. The number 1, which in this example slopes awkwardly backwards, must be constrained within the lower-case guide lines. The top of the 7 should be along the middle guide. And the 6 and 9, which we nowadays write standing on a line, should have the body or 'o' sitting on the lower line, with the tail (up for the 6 and down for the 9) extending outside the guidelines. And of course, no scribe that Kirckman would employ could possibly have these 'o' shapes in such uneven sizes as shown above.

But something worse has happened. If you intend to fake an inscription, first select a suitable instrument. The one to which this 'Jacob Kirckman' script is applied is in fact a French instrument from the 1790s. Internal inspection shows that it contains not one feature that relates to the London pianos circa 1769. So, don't rewrite your history books yet. The oldest dated square piano with a credible Kirckman inscription was made in 1773 - by Adam Beyer. My wife first spotted the AB stamps in the dovetails. It was gutted, as so many are, and served me well as a desk in my office. [There is an older example, that I bought in Cheltenham, many years ago, but it is not actually dated.]

There is one further oddity about this French piano - its compass. At first sight it looks like a standard 5 octave keyboard from the 1790s, but oddly it has an extra note in the bass - bottom EE. I have no explanation for this.


2 February 2020

We have seen some ravishingly pretty square pianos in recent years but nothing quite like this one – for sale with Antiquités Fouquet in Paris. It is not hard to imagine that it will be very attractive to an interior design consultant. It would look utterly charming in the right salon – a piece that all your visitors would be drawn to with curiosity and admiration.

The maker of this instrument was Leonard Sÿstermanns, and the date 1791 is inscribed in the usual places, so it is very comparable with the handsomely veneered 1797 example that I had for sale on this website a year ago – four pedals, a 61 note keyboard (with very nice ivories), and high quality mahogany casework. Unhappily, there is a strange discontinuity with this one that I find hard to overlook. The charming painting is on the outside only. Fold back the lid as you will to reveal the keys and you expose the unpainted mahogany parts.

Nevertheless, the decorative appeal of such pianos is surely a winning formula. The George Garcka square piano shown on this Blog in April 2018 was indeed very beautiful, even if the rococo style painting was applied in the 20th century. In the same way, Ruckers harpsichords with extravagant oil paintings under the lid are so attractive that editors of non-specialist books inevitably fall for their appeal when needing a picture of 'a harpsichord' — though the paintings were all done long after the instrument had qualified as an 'antique'. A crazy anachronism, but very attractive.

Square pianos, let's face it, are simply 'quaint' to most people, so if they can be bought cheaply their value (as commercial antiques) may be hugely enhanced with some suitably appealing classical painting.


24 January 2020

Readers of this Blog will have seen in August and October 2019 two examples of eighteenth-century square pianos effectively trashed by antiques traders who converted them to writing desks, or dressing tables, stripping out the soundboard and discarding the keys and hammers. Generally such 'conversions' preserve the nameboard with its revealing inscriptions, so if you followed the link above you probably saw an inscription by Adam Beyer, and another for 'Leukfeld', a prolific maker based in Tottenham Street. Sadly, sometimes these interesting inscriptions are not preserved, but I can recall no precedent for the one shown below.

This is what I found when I took apart a so-called 'writing desk' last year. 'Took apart' is perhaps a euphemism: I found it to be fastened together with dozens of rusty nails, requiring some force to be applied with a long crow bar. It was then that I found the attractive name plate, SAWN IN TWO and turned inwards, so that one could never guess the maker beforehand. I can reveal the name of the man who did this, from this inscription on the inner face of the baseboard: 'Fitted up by F. Lawes / July 1900'. N.B. The script on this beautifully painted cartouche should read: NEW PATENT / George Astor / Cornhill London'. (The black hole is where F. Lawes hammered in a large iron cut nail.)

The weather here has been rather cold lately (truly only the sort of weather we should expect in the middle of winter) so we have been keeping warm by burning what remains of a very pretty piano! But I was able to recycle the attractive square-tapered legs that were underneath it.

14 January 2020

A very interesting CD arrived this week from Spain, where Pablo Gómez Ábalos has recorded a selection of music from the 1780s on the first modern replica of a Claveçin Roïal. A 'square piano' to most people, though of an exceptionally ambitious design, first made by Wagner of Dresden in 1774. Advertising puffs, especially from the 18th century, should always be 'taken with a pinch of salt', but I think Wagner was not being overly pretentious when he announced this as a new kind of clavier.

Here you see the interior of Kerstin Schwarz's replica – pearwood triangular hammer heads, moderator tabs just beneath the strings, a tassle fringe that can be lowered to produce a harp-like sound, and cloth-covered under-dampers. Such features are utterly unlike English or French pianos – and there's more. Four pedals controlled the tone-changing devices, for which the inventor claimed six different sounds, five of them said to produce a convincing imitation of known instruments. These were the harpsichord (bare wooden hammers, rather than plucking), the pianoforte (using the moderator), the harp, the lute, and pantalon – a special feature of Wagner's instrument being that the dampers are off, or disengaged, in default mode. So while the dampers will be thought by some to pre-figure the brass under-dampers of John Broadwood's making [which in truth, he cribbed from George Froeschle], their use and their design is not at all like the London-made instruments. The concept, as a whole, is somewhat similar to the pipe organ, providing a multiplicity of stops (changed by pedals, while playing) so that the different voices might be used to provide the Affect appropriate to changes in the music. This is very much related to the so-called Sturm und Drang aesthetic of German music in the 1770s.

Pablo's choice of music includes, as you might expect, six Fantasias from C.P.E.Bach, and rather more surprisingly, one of Beethoven's youthful Kurfürsten Sonatas. An interesting experiment!

I would like to be able to give readers a reference to show where this recording can be purchased, but there is no clear indication on the CD or its package. More information when I have it. Meanwhile there is a spare copy here which I would happily send to the first applicant, if they will pay the postage and packing. CLAIMED 15/Jan/20!


4 January 2020

Our musical start to the New Year was a real treat for the regular audience, and a great many newcomers who travelled quite some distance to be present. In all about 180 people sat listening with great attention to baroque chamber music -- Jonathan, Warwick and David playing very harmoniously.

Seven members of the Cole family - three generations - working hard to make it all possible, and at the end, generous donations in the collection which will go towards future concerts, including Bach's St. Mark Passion [reconstructed] to be featured at Easter.

1 January 2020

The new decade starts as we woud wish it – with music. As last year, three generations of the Cole family will be in attendance this coming Saturday for the next edition of the Corelli Concert series. Jonathan Morgan (baroque flute) is to pay a return from his new home in London, and will play alongside Warwick Cole (harpsichord) and David Hatcher (bass viol) – just what the regular audience likes best, if we judge by their generosity and the numbers attending. So we look forward to a varied programme of solo and ensemble pieces. Tea, coffee and home made cakes, and an hour of genteel music – not a bad way to start the year. If this is anything like 2019 we can expect visitors from far and wide.

If there is one thing that I woud wish for in the coming year it would be to see no more harpsichords or early pianos irrevocably damaged by the destruction of their ivory keys.



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