Michael's Blog

24 December 2021

'Laugh out loud' moments are quite rare when researching old documents. But this was the result of my reading recently. My wife was surprised and puzzled when, after reading quietly for an hour by the fireside I burst out in laughter, which subsided into prolonged merriment for several minutes. A good joke? Well, not intentionally so.

The source was a passage in Charles Avison's 'Essay on Musical Expression' which I bought in a paperback reprint of the 1775 edition. You may have encountered his name in recordings of his compositions, or in the 'Avison Ensemble', named in his honour. I encountered him quite often when searching eighteenth-century newspapers to find information on concerts of that period. Charles Avison was a worthy composer, a concert promoter, and an organist in the thriving northern city of Newcastle, on the river Tyne.

He was evidently a well-educated man, quoting from classical authors, and advancing his arguments with well-constructed, if polemical prose. It was no great surprise to find that, like many musical men of the time, he was not very impressed with pieces in the newest style by Bach and Abel. [John Christian Bach, you understand.] He wanted interesting parts for all the instruments, and so found compositions in the new 'galant' style (as we now call it) rather tedious, depending as they so often do on melodic interest with repetitive accompaniments. He calls attention to the three essential parts of musical compositions: melody, harmony and expression. Then, through page after page he disparages many un-named composers for their reliance on melody, neglecting the second and third elements. He writes of 'vague and unmeaning pieces' in which he finds the composer 'struggling with the difficulties of an extraneous modulation', or tiring the listener with tedious repetitions of some simple melodiic idea. 'Harmonious accompaniments seem generally neglected or forgotten'. And then we get a clue where he is going because he complains of 'extravaganzi, which the unskillful call invention'.

Then, after several more pages on similar lines he names several modern composers of 'inferior genius' who will be consigned 'to that oblivion to which they are deservedly destined'.

'Of the first and lowest class [is] VIVALDI ... whose compositions, defective in harmony and true invention, are only fit amusement for children'. Oblivion? Vivaldi? .... A merry thought for Christmas !

6 December 2021

Readers may have noticed the uncommonly long gap between posts on the Blog. The principal reason for this arose when a lady in Japan wrote to me about a problem with her newly-acquired Broadwood square piano. I explained what I thought the solution might be [although it was not a piano I supplied] and she said that she would send some more photos. So, when I saw an email from her next day with an attachment I opened it without hesitation. Disaster followed. My computer began sending out SPAM emails at a prodigious rate. Ten thousand went in half an hour or so! Each one had a malware attachment, to replicate the problem for someone else -- and I could not at first find a way to stop it! Three weeks later, after much expert attention, I was able to begin again. Why do people do such things?

So, here is something more helpful, and possibly interesting

assembly room

This is a contemporary image of the Assembly Rooms, newly finished in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1776. Prior to this concerts in the town were generally held at 'Mr. Parker's Long Room'. For this I could find no image, but that was where Charles Avison organised his subscription concert series throughout the 1760s, often including a harpsichord concerto of his own composing, or adapted from Domenico Scarlatti. It was his son who continued these musical pleasures after 1770, and he who must have bought the new harpsichord (a single manual) that was among the first orders that John Broadwood dispatched after taking over from Burkat Shudi, in 1771. It connects up rather nicely because I see in the newspaper advertisements for the subscription concerts in 1772 that Mr. Avison has a single key'd harpsichord for hire or for sale.

His fellow organist in Newcastle, J. Simpson [no details yet] advertised in 1778 that he had a harpsichord for sale made by Haxby (of York) with a pedal that produced seven varieties of tone - just as Haxby's patent promised. But very curiously, he also had for sale 'a Piano-Forte of the long sort, with pedal, maker Zumpe'. How curious! I never had heard of such a piano by him! His partner, Gabriel Buntebart, certainly made some grand pianos, with a pedal of course, though none are extant, as far as we know. But Zumpe? Was it perhaps a fake? Or did he really make some?

Newcastle's new Assembly Room is still standing, though the owners are having some difficulty finding a viable use for it. It has been a restauarnt, like so many other similar buildings. York led the way, with splendid assembly rooms on Blake Street built by 1736. Bath had to wait until 1768 for assembly rooms that matched the city's genteel expectations. But then many more towns followed, Leeds having an especially handsome building in 1776. Concerts of classical music, and elegant dancing afterwards ... how civilized!


14 November 2021

A look back to 8 August, this year, shows my reflections on the fate of several early piano makers in London – some ending their days in prosperity, while others, notably Fredrick Beck and John Pohlman, left little if anything to their wives and children. So, I am delighted to bring a correction, or at least a more cheerful outcome concerning Pohlman.

A new window has been opened by the kind contribution of chess master Herbert Bastian from Germany. Observing that an important book on chess had been published in London circa 1815 by J.G.Pohlman, he asks could this be John George? [i.e. is this the son of John Pohlman, piano maker?] The book, if you should want to examine it, is an English translation of a pioneering work by Philidor, with diagrams showing the board at many stages in the game. The author, J.G.Pohlman, does not identify himself, but is more informative in some other books, especially the one shown here, where we see that he is 'of the AUDIT OFFICE'. This was/is a parliamentary appointed independent bureau set up to examine government expenditure. The same author has been identified in bibliographic circles as John George Pohlman, whose earlier publications include a ready reckoner, with tables showing the number of days that elapsed between any two dates, a very useful help for actuarial purposes, for example in calculating interest for unfinished parts of a year. John George Pohlman: does this actually fit? The answer appears to be a resounding 'yes'.

I had previously discovered that the only son of the piano maker, had two sisters. The younger, Catherine, was married in 1799, when her brother signed the register, as a witness. The elder sister, Anna Louisa, never married, but ended her days in 1838 living in Pentonville, not so very far from where she was born.

John George lived in Pentonville at that time. He married in 1809, his bride being Anne Hamilton Williams. Their eldest child, i.e. the piano-maker's grandson, was born in 1811. It would be pleasant to know that the aged Mrs. Pohlman, widow of John, lived to see this grandchild, but I am as yet unsure on that point.

If John George, employed in the audit office, was blessed with a good head for mathematics, his son was also very able and hard-working. He qualified as a barrister in England, and after emigrating to Australia [date not yet known] he was ultimately appointed a judge. The Dictionary of Australian National Biography has a portrait of Robert Hamilton Pohlman [showing right, in his lawyer's robes] and more details of his career.

So, a much happier outcome than one would ever have guessed when reading of the apparently humiliating sale in November 1793 when widow Pohlman, unable to pay the rent, auctioned off everything she owned – instruments, tools, and even their household utensils. But it worked. They were able to stay in Great Russell Street for at least four more years.

My thanks to Herbert Bastian for his invaluable piece of information that opened up this heartening story.



31 October 2021

You may remember public concerts.

This one was the last of the Cheltenham Coffee Concerts, 7 March 2020. Doom mongers were preparing their plans at that time for a total lockdown, and it happened soon afterwards. Yet somehow the Cheltenham Gold Cup was allowed to go ahead, drawing 60,000 visitors a day to the nearby horse-racing venue. Well, the good news is that next Saturday the coffee concerts can begin again. Ann is to bake the cakes; Sophie will be 'in charge'; and her grandfather will be assisting with tea and coffee. The music will be Handel's, and the players will be Warwick Cole, harpsichord, Lara James, violin, and Hannah Davey, soprano. 11am, Holy Apostles' Church, London Road.

Will we see a plentiful attendance again? Or has the population been so scared that they stay at home? Here is a taster [YouTube]

Post script: a solid start - the audience was down compared with two years ago (70 on a quick count) so about 45 % of where we were, but enough to sustain hope that in 2022 there will be a steady return - let's hope for more people attending more live music events.



13 October 2021

Amsterdam is a remarkably important city in the history of English instrument making. I am thinking particularly of the input of Plenius in the 1740s, and Tabel in the 1720s. There is also Meyer who came to London to study with Zumpe in the 1770s. Unhappily, mystery still surrounds the origins of Americus Backers, but I would not be at all surprised to discover that he also was associated with hugely prosperous Dutch city of canals and merchants' houses.

This handsome piano also came from Amsterdam. It is inscribed as the work of Corneille van der Does. So it was a pleasure to be able to see it, in an auction preview, yesterday. It looks so handsome. We would love to believe that it is a wonderful survivor, always cherished, and often played. But unhappily, not. Its splendid mahogany veneer has been so comprehensively and skilfully restored, but we are left to ponder; 'are those brass mounts original?' When tried for a musical result, it sounds reassuringly pleasant, and the action was reliable on all the notes I played.

But did you notice the black blob inside at the left? It's a large iron coach bolt, with a nut to be tightened underneath. There is another at the right. And being a curious kind of fellow I had to inspect the bottom boards where, as I thought, there was ample evidence that the pedal we now see [for raising the dampers] was only one of at least three [I think four] that the 'restorer' has comprehensively removed. There's not a trace of trapwork for what I think must have been a full complement of tone-changing devices like those fitted by Erard in Paris. Lovely as it might look and sound, this piano has been irreversibly compromised. That is a pity.

What I was most interested to see was the derivation of van der Does' mechanism. He has in fact combined most of the features of the best French square pianos of the period (circa 1820), with the more sophisticated touch of London-made pianos using the standard English escapement action. Its mahogany lever over-dampers are held in a frame fastened down with butterfly screws, and incorporating brass springs, just like the French ones. Interestingly, it has a full length soundboard, extending from right to left above the whole keyboard. The keys are well made too.

Five other square pianos have surprisingly appeared in Dominic Winters' auction sale, where there were never any before. But unhappily, they are all compromised by interventions in the recent past (except the 1791 Broadwood that is frankly in poor condition). The most encouraging one is a Broadwood piano of c.1805, looking so good I was happy to see it — until I discovered that a recent 'improvement' had not only trasferred the pedal to the right (where most pianists would like to have it) but has also inserted ironwork to make it possible. The stand is also a 'marriage'. An 1820 Broadwood with rounded corners is a deplorable example of what happens when an enthusiastic hobbyist allows himself to be carried away with his pet project.


27 September 2021

I think it is time to announce that the project I have been working on for years is nearing completion. When this Blog started in January 2015 my research was intended to fill in some of the blank spaces in the history of musical instruments. Piano maker John Pohlman was the first subject. Considering that he occupied a very elevated position as one of the earliest square piano makers, highly recommended by Charles Burney, very little attention had been given to him.

Soon I had sufficient new material for several other chapters – Herman Tabel and his revolutionary harpsichord design; the under-reported story of pseudo-Ruckers harpsichords in England; the fascinating and illuminating life story of Mary Marsh; the social dynamics operating on female musicians (on which topic I profoundly disagree with Prof. Leppert's thesis); and concert life in towns and cities far from the London scene (which is unhappily often the exclusive focus of 'music histories'). These are some of the topics I have addressed. But it had no structure. So, for almost three years I was trying to see how best I could coordinate these discoveries and share them with a wider public. Organising these disparate topics into a coherent framework involves difficult choices. I did not want to write exclusively about the development of instruments (consequently appealing to a restricted readership). Harpsichords and pianos had a life after they left the workshop – otherwise why were they made?

Clearly we should consider where they were going (in what kind of environment would they be played?) – who played them? (who bought them is a very different matter!) – was the harpsichord really superseded by the advent of the piano? What kind of concerts were happening in Britain in the eighteenth century? Where did they occur? Who organised them? And what was their motivation? There is much to report. Now that the end is in sight I can see that it is likely to be a book of about 400 pages. But who will publish it? That's difficult. In 1996 Oxford University Press asked me to sign a contract in which they would have the first option on my future writing. That seems to be a standard procedure, but I felt it was unwise, and I said so. So it was deleted. I was planning other books completely unrelated to music. And those plans were followed through. When The Pianoforte in the Classical Era finally appeared it sold very well, and was still being reprinted in 2019. But sadly, the editorial team at OUP was broken up some years ago, and the whole operation was moved to New York. Not great news.

Self publication isn't always folly. There are advantages. If you master the technology you gain control over many editorial decisions, such as page layout, design, typeface — the lot. John Watson, in Williamsburg Virginia, has produced an amazingly professional-looking result with his Changing Keys book – in a very different style from anything I would choose, but excellent for the context and purposes for which he wrote. it is hard to believe it would have been half so good if he had handed the project over to a publishing house. Nevertheless, the resources of a good academic publisher are worth having. Ashgate and Boydell & Brewer might be good. But I must consider all options. If any readers have some friendly advice, I would be very happy to hear it.

13 September 2021

It is disappointing that the provenance of old instruments is not given more attention. Their history can be very important, and significant.

Showing here is one of the rarest class of harpsichord – an almost unaltered instrument by Andreas Ruckers, 1640. When writing about the history of the pianoforte in 1996, I presumed that this instrument had been lost, because the last I knew of it was a letter written by Rev. Thomas Twining in 1774 in which he despaired of finding anyone who would buy it from him. 'Do you know anyone I could prevail upon?' he wrote to his friend Charles Burney. He had just bought a new square piano from John Pohlman for 18 guineas (just under £19) and hoped that someone might give him a similar amount for this ancient harpsichord. Unhappily, there is no further news. But here it is, in the Belle Skinner Collection at Yale.

So what happened? Twining gave up on trying to sell it, and consequently it was still in his house in Colchester when he died in 1804. The family then kept it, and the next report I have found was in 1883 when Miss Elizabeth Twining, the distinguished flower painter, showed it to Alfred Hipkins, at the Dial House, beside the Thames at Twickenham. In 1889 it passed to her niece, the family ultimately selling it to antiquarian collector Sir Algernon Oliphant. And finally, about 1923 it was offered for sale in New York where the wealthy and perceptive collector Isobel Skinner swooped on it. It was in her gallery at Holyoke, before being transferred to the Yale University Collection in the 1950s.

Some of this can be found in summary form in Boalch Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord [3rd Edn.] but intermixed with a shockingly garbled blunder! This harpsichord, we are told, was 'Given by Charles Burney to Reverend Thomas Twining'. And this in a supposedly authoritative publication from OUP! I hope no one copies it from there. The truth is that Thomas Twining himself told Burney that his father – Daniel Twining, the tea merchant – bought it in London. He gives no date for this, but it seems likely to have been in the first half of the eighteenth century. He tells Burney that he doesn't know who sold it to his father [he was only a small child at that time] but suggests maybe Shudi or Kirckman. If so, the date of this transaction would be about 1740, though it could have been later, or even earlier. The great surprise is that it was so sparingly treated. It's clear that it was bought as a historic curiosity, rather than a musician's instrument. Grant O'Brien, after examining it, reported his belief that it had originally a short octave keyboard, bottom C being played from a key that appears to be E. But by narrowing the octaves to the standard English width, extra notes were squeezed in to provide C - d3 chromatic. Twining was still not happy with the result. 'The want of notes is miserable' he wrote.

Dial House, which I remarked in River Thames ~ a beautiful Journey, is in such a lovely location. Near York House and the fascinating Octagon, Orleans House, and the delightful riverside walk, near Eel Pie Island. There is also a private dwelling nearby, which I am honour bound not to name, where a curious Pohlman piano resides.


27 August 2021

Nothing so distinguishes a lady as her ability to dance. This was the premise on which thousands of parents put their girls under the tuition of a dancing master from the age of six or seven. Hopefully, by the time she was thirteen or so she would have acquired that poise and knowledge of the steps and figures commonly danced in minuets as to take her place with a suitable partner at the ball. Gentlemen too - boys were required to learn decorum, to hold themselves in a good posture with straight back and arms held in the elegant fashion that only a good dancing master might impart. Servants, when admitted to a ballroom, could only stand by the wall and admire the young master and mistress in their fine clothes and elegant movements.

The importance of this was re-inforced for me in reading the Journals & Letters of Philip Fithian (1767-74) published long ago by Princeton. A theology student from a relatively humble background, he was intended for the Presbyterian ministry and so was studying at university [or college as they then called it] when his professor told him of a place that he could fill for a year or so at a plantation in Virginia, Nomini Hall. In this out-of-the-way place the owner, Robert Carter, was hoping to find a suitable tutor for his children - a sobre, God-fearing young man of good education to impart a little polish to his family. This was an opportunity for young Fithian to venture into a region that he did not know and earn some money, after which he hoped to return north and marry the girl who had won his heart some years before.

Mrs. Carter in particular was pleased with the young tutor, and provided him with a good horse so that he could accompany her when visiting other plantations and the church, some way off. She also managed to engage a dancing master, a Mr. Christian, who came for several days at a time, before moving on to other remote places and completing a circuit. This might have been an opportunity for Philip Fithian to learn the basics of a social skill that was completely outside his own background and experience, but perhaps the idea of participating in such lessons in the company of his own pupils would have been very awkward. So when Mr. Christian was giving the children their instruction in deportment, and figures, their young tutor kept to his study in the cabin alloted to him.

But then comes the critical moment when the Carter family have a ball and invite their neighbours. It's not a grand affair, but Mr. Carter can gather a few instruments together, and [most unusually] he plays the piano himself, but the children have a lot of fun, and quite innocently invite Fithian to come and join them. He, of course, declines, saying he will be preparing a sermon, or some such excuse. But this happens more than once, so one day when the music and dancing are in full swing, and they come over to ask him again, he has to say 'I cannot dance'. He doesn't know the steps, or the figures, and is afraid of making a spectacle of his inadequacies. The girls whom he taught were evidently very saddened by his refusals.

Fithian's Journals & Letters are quite hard to get hold of these days, but if you hunt around on the Internet you can find the text, uploaded by the Library of Congress. It's very surprising to me that as early as 1774 an English square piano [for I am convinced that is what it was] should have reached such a place as Nomini Hall, and be played by a man in Mr. Carter's elevated position. What became of Philip Fithian I will leave you to discover.

8 August 2021

Readers who have followed this Blog from its beginning (in January 2015) may recall that the first topic under investigation was the life and work of John Pohlman, one of the earliest London pianomakers. His enduring fame was much enhanced by the patronage of Charles Burney, who often recommended Pohlman to his pupils and correspondents, though he confessed that he continued to think John Zumpe made the best instruments of this kind. His judgement may be questioned.

However, what interests me at present is the life outcomes for the other early square piano makers. Adam Beyer, who made the best instruments (though he is never mentioned by Burney) prudently invested in a freehold house and land in Hampstead, though unhappily his wife died before they could move there. The wealth he accumulated in thirty years in Compton Street (and ealier as an organ builder in St. Pancras, a mile to the east) was inherited by his four daughters – each of whom was married to a respectable gentleman, the most successful being the youngest, Elizabeth Susann, who married the famous silversmith, Paul Storr.

Equally secure, financially, was the widow of John Zumpe, and those to whom he left legacies — his nephews in Fürth bei Nürnberg; the Charity School there; the Charity School in Marylebone; and the brothers Schoene who inherited his piano business. His former business partner Gabriel Buntebart also ended his days in prosperity, though unhappily his wife had predeceased him. There were no children, so his legacies were directed to nephews and nieces in Strelitz. Their only child, Gabriel junior, died in infancy.

Three industrious craftsmen, pioneer piano makers in London, whose labours were rewarded with comfortable circumstances in their later days — but not all ended that way. In fact very few! After all, we must remember that there was no safety net for those whose health began to give way in the smokey air of London, or anyone unwise enough to drink cholera-infested water from the city's wells. Zumpe acted wisely, it would appear, when he invested in long leases on housing on the healthier northern fringe of London, and consigned his business to the Schoene brothers from Fürth — who thereafter paid him royalties.

Pohlman showed less wisdom. At the height of success in the 1770s, he moved from Frith Street to more expensive premises in Great Russell Street (near the British Museum). The quality of his work was not maintained. And then in 1790 he fell ill. He lingered another two years, but when he died in December 1792 he had very little to leave to his wife and children. Mrs. Pohlman pleaded with their landlord, the Duke of Bedford, asking for more time to pay the rent. But there was only so much his agent could reasonably allow. So in November 1793 she put everything into a grand auction sale — tools, benches, finished and unfinished instruments, along with all her household goods. The outcome I haven't discovered (if the evidence still exists), but some cash must have been raised, enabling her to stay in Great Russell Street for five more years, during which time her younger daughter Catherine found a husband, with whom she settled in Bermondsey, on a Thameside wharf.

Eventually, mother had to move in with them [as it appears] because there she ended her days in 1811. But she wasn't buried there, on the south side of the river, but was carried back to Whitefield's Chapel in Tottenham Court Road where her husband had been interred years before. Her other two children died many years later in Pentonville, but not in prosperity, and the son John George, who was seventeen when his father died, was at one time recorded as being released from the debtors' prison - so not a good outcome it appears.

Frederick Beck fared no better. Many of his square pianos survive, and he's listed in all the important sources, but when he died in 1809 he had very little to leave to his wife (formerly Rose Ann Shudi) who was then living in Edinburgh, while her husband languished in rented rooms in London.

So, while the tremendous enthusiasm that greeted the advent of the square piano led to huge sales, and the foundation of many workshops, the ultimate outcome was very uncertain. In the end, the greatest sucess of the thriving eighteenth-century piano trade would be the prudent Scotsman, John Broadwood, who ironically for twelve or thirteen years preferred harpsichords to the new-fangled pianoforte.


22 July 2021

You can understand when a quick glance at this label induces people to think that this is a square piano by Broadwood. It was in fact made by Robert Allen & Co. as it clearly says. But the intent is plain: to add prestige to their products by claiming that the maker[s] had trained with/ worked for John Broadwood, or his successors.

Such practices were not uncommon, as we have seen on this Blog in the past. Schoene was licenced by John Zumpe to add his name to the pianos made by Schoene & Co., as successors to Johannes Zumpe, from about 1783. But the unwary can easily be misled because the name 'ZUMPE' is written much bolder than Schoene.

Here is another splendid example. It does truly say 'Thomas Loud' is the maker, but how easily it can be read as CLEMENTI & Co. Nothing wrong with the piano, as far as I know, but definitely easy to make a mistake over the origin.

It is absolutely clear that the person[s] who painted the exquisite floral design is the same who painted Clementi's pianos.




6 July 2021

The story told of Jane Austen's morning music practice at her square piano, rising early while her mother and sister were still in bed, is often told in the cottage museum at Chawton where they lived, and in every biography of the famous novelist. I suspect, however, that this early morning music practice was quite the norm.

Here you see Buckland Manor, in Gloucestershire. This photo shows the back of the house, from high on the Cotswold slope. It looks much grander from the front. Here, in November 1715, fifteen-year-old Mary Granville came, with her parents and little sister Anne. They called this place 'The Farm', probably because living in the country came as a shock to them after life in fashionable London. She writes of her life routine at Buckland, that she had regular hours for every useful activity. For her harpsichord practice she would come downstairs long before anyone else. When they lived in London her mother had hopes, expectations even, that Mary would be given a place at court as a lady-in-waiting, but when their finances collapsed, her expectations were severely reduced.

It seems utterly cruel that she was married off at seventeen, accomplished, genteel, lively and pretty, to a sixty-year-old overweight, red-faced friend of her uncle, who was thought to be very wealthy. Perhaps they thought that she would be set up for life, on the basis of his supposed wealth, but it turned out differently. He took to heavy drinking, suffered from gout, and was maddeningly suspicious of his young bride, having the servants report everything she did. She endured this for seven years, until he died, only to discover that the wretched man, had not made out a new will in her favour, so she was left with only 'a few hundred'. But she did gain her freedom, in her mid twenties, when she found that as a widow she was socially free in any company, and after this we find her musical activities resumed in earnest. She was living in London through the 1730s, where her harpsichord was given pride of place in her rooms. She writes to her mother and sister about the latest opera productions, making some very wise judgments in favour of Handel's Semele and finding Porpora's music not nearly so good. She writes in 1734 of how Handel came to visit her, and played her harpsichord from seven till eleven, with great good humour, accompanying 'all the ladies that sang'. But unhappily for us, she never gives any details of her instrument, or her own playing.

However, I note that her friend, Lady Dysart, was formerly the same Miss Grace Carteret who married an Earl in 1729 and went to live at Ham House, on the banks of the Thames. There we find her harpsichord is the renowned pseudo-Ruckers, that stands there even today.

Miss Mary Granville, the girl who practiced her harpsichord at Buckland, is generally remembered today as 'Mrs. Delany' – much favoured by King George and Queen Charlotte in later years, giving her a house near the castle at Windsor. Mrs Delany was celebrated for inventing a method of picturing flowers with cut and coloured paper, examples of which are preserved in several museums, including the Royal Archives.


26 June 2021

For more years than I remember, my visits to Berrington Hall included an hour or more sitting in this delightful room (when the house was closed to visitors) tuning the harpsichord that you see in this picture. Nearly every visit would include replacement of one or two crow quill plectra – but a mysterious malady affected some of them which took a long investigation to overcome. I mention this for the benefit of anyone else who may encounter a similar problem.

At the base of the affected plectrum a semi-circular notch would appear where the quill had been eaten away, for about half the width. This weakened the quill, but did not destroy it. We discovered eventually that this was the work of hungry house mites – tiny creatures about the size of a speck of dust. They lived in the corners, on the wrestplank or at the edges of the soundboard, and fed on whatever they could consume – birds' feathers, or hogs' bristle springs in the jacks. And they prospered because house staff, who came with their dusters and vacuum cleaners never dared to lift the lid of the harpsichord. They cleaned the outside, but not the inside. Later it became part of my routine to use a small, low powered electric cleaner to suck them out. I also encouraged the house manager to see that the cleaners had permission to do the same. We had fewer problems after that.

This all ended about three years ago when the National Trust decided that they no longer needed my visits. Their Southwell square piano at nearby Croft Castle is also left unattended in recent years. Why they should do this I have never learned. Last month, however, it was announced that the Kirckman harpsichord had been removed to the auction rooms at Leominster. It is to be sold on 7 July. But I wonder if it will attract many bids? The estimate is fifteen thousand to twenty thousand pounds, which for a single manual, in today's market conditions seems very optimistic to me. But of course, my advice was never asked for.

For the record, it dates from 1787, has the standard 61 note, five octave keyboard (with FF sharp), four hand stops, with original buff stop, and a pedal attached to the bottom of the left leg (which may be missing in the photos issued by the autioneers). This pedal was not original, but was made and fitted by Clayson & Garrett, many years ago. It operated a basic sort of machine stop, taking off the octave (or four foot) choir. To set the registration to one unison it was/is necessary to use the tapered brass pins, supplied by Kirckman, at the end of the registers, which are otherwise set 'on' by default, pushed by sturdy steel springs.


16 June 2021

A great pity that so few historic items have a long provenance! Take this square piano from Longman & Broderip, for example.

Not a great rarity, in itself. But factor in the location, in the Canary Islands, where it has been for many, many years, and the first question that comes to mind is 'When did it arrive there?' Was this piano delivered on one of the hundreds of British merchant ships that called at these islands when maritime travel was powered by wind in the sails and ocean currents? The date of manufacture would be about 1780-82, and it's obviously in cherished condition. Of course, with only a fragmented provenance, it perhaps arrived post-1850, bought merely as a curious antique.

Here is another fascinating story, concerning Longman & Broderip. It is to be found in Calcutta's English-language newspaper for 1786. Mr. G. G. Mann, had plans to expand his music business in Calcutta. He was previously managing the retail shop of James Longman in Cheapside (it would appear) and, making use of his London experience, he intends to supply harpsichords, spinnets, pianofortes and all manner of instruments and, importantly in the Indian climate, he is proposing to repair and tune instruments with the greatest care and promptness. A concert season is also proposed, if there were enough subscribers.

How fascinating to see these examples of the reach of the London traders in times gone by. Naturally I have searched for later advertisements to see if the venture prospered, but so far nothing.



7 June 2021

I'm not really sure that everyone will like the appearance or the musical qualities of Woffington's piano, but it deserves a lasting place on the internet, if there can be such a thing. Here is a much better photo than before.

Handsome surely? Distinctive too. If I ever see another I am sure it will be instantly recognizable. It has what so many square pianos lack – style. There is a personality behind it, once seen always remembered.

In fact, today I have been kindly informed of a nearly identical instrument, a twin you might say, that surfaced a few years ago. But it is/was in pitiful condition. A wreck, with many parts missing, but undoubtedly by Woffington, and exhibiting just the same quirky design.

So let us hope that it will be cherished in future, and this charming bit of Irish heritage will be secure. It is due to be sold at Chilcott's Auction room in Honiton on 12 June.



28 May 2021

An interesting square piano is to be offered in Chilcott's Auctions next month. At first sight it appears to be a London-made example, obviously eighteenth century, and for those who are accustomed to such things it shows a strong hint of the influence of Adam Beyer, in the division of the lid for a swell. Otherwise, it looks unfamiliar in several respects.

Ignore the rod above the soundboard, almost certainly a later addition, but look to the most unusual board above the dampers, and the very strange handstop at the left. In fact it is an Irish piano, made in Dublin by Robert Woffington. I would suggest a date of manufacture about 1780. The stand on which it rests looks interesting. Perhaps original - but judgment reserved on that.

What makes this instrument interesting is that it represents an alternative Irish school, a rival to William Southwell, and as shown by Margaret Debenham's research, there was some conflict between them. Whereas pianos from Southwell and his associates can often be recognised instantly by the elegant division of the front into five, unequal panels, Woffington, at least in this example, has a more conventional style. [Incidentally, it appears that the highest notes were never provided with dampers.] If you find that his name is familiar, it may be because there was a very pretty little upright piano at Finchcocks.


17 May 2021

Of all nineteenth-century music historians I think Alfred Hipkins is usually the most reliable, the least likely to fall into the trap of repeating dubious tales.

So it is very disappointing to see that when he bought a spinet in 1883 he accepted the tale the vendors gave him - that their ancestor Andrew George Lemon [d.1756] received this instrument as a gift from his friend Handel! This 'Lemon', he was assured, had travelled with Handel to London in 1710, though there is no record whatsoever to back this up. Writing about it in The Athenaeum, Hipkins suggested that the name may have been originally Leahmann, or something similar. (How well I remember Mrs. Fletcher, the well-meaning lady from Harrogate, transforming the name of her ancestor C. J. D. Pohlmann, of Celle, so as to make it fit the family myth that her great great grandfather had priority over Zumpe, having made the first piano in England! In fact pianomaker John Pohlman was not part of her ancestry at all!)

Hipkins' wrote in 1883 that his newly acquired spinet was inscribed above the keys: Johannes Hitchcock Londini fecit 1676. Amazingly, he took this to be the date of manufacture, and wrote that it was 'a spinet of Stuart time'. I am very disappointed that he should have made such a blunder. Maybe this just demonstrates how readily collectors will over-estimate the importance of instruments they own. Hipkins himself remarked, in the same paper, that there are numerous spinets signed by either John or Thomas Hitchcock, so in his years of study of old instruments he surely saw others with which to compare. There is hardly one that does not have a four-digit number on the nameboard. [The specimen at Packwood House, for example, has the inscription Thomas Hitchcock Londini fecit 1193. A Norman period spinet?]

Like the suberb portrait showing above, painted by Edith Hipkins, the Hitchcock spinet was presented to the Royal College of Music. It is gratifying to see their museum catalogue has not repeated Hipkins' error regarding the date. So in Boalch III, edited by Charles Mould, it is suggested that the date of manufacture could be as late as 1750, and is certainly not earlier than 1740. Yet, with nothing more dependable than the hear-say romance of Lemon's family (who were selling the instrument!), Boalch III (supposedly the most authoritative reference book) says that the spinet 'was owned by Handel'. Oh dear!


5 May 2021

This interesting photograph was recently sent to me, in hopes that I might be able to identify its maker.

That wasn't easy! However, the date is not so difficult. It must have been made in the earliest part of the nineteenth century - probably 1805-1815. The reason that I am quite confident is that the design so much resembles the pianos made by Broderip & Wilkinson, and those by Clementi & Co., which were prevalent from about 1800 to 1810, and later. Ignore, if you can, the very unusual nameboard decoration, which is a strong hint that it was made elsewhere in Europe. But see how the instrument is provided with a mahogany case, inlaid with the expected lines, sits on a frame with square-tapering legs, and [as I can confirm from another photo not shown here] it has Geib's escapement action, Southwell-type dampers [much decayed and messed up] and pale veneer around the interior. But there is one curiosity. It has the tuning pins at the back, as Broadwood, not at the right, and though you can't see it here, the bridge has the distinctive zig-zag that Broadwood employed, where the 'extra notes' begin.

The maker did not intend you to remain in ignorance. He wrote his name in the circular disc in the centre, but unlike the Bilston-enamel plaques used in London, this was a more fragile material and is falling apart. We can't make out much of what remains, but I am inclined to read the bottom line as GENOVA. It would be good to confirm this, as the north Italian port [now styled Genoa] would be interesting in the context of those times, when Austria ruled much of northern Italy, and French military incursions south of the Alps produce much cultural turmoil. So, a distinctive, unusual and interesting object - though in poor condition.

At the time when this was made most north Italian square pianos were derivative from Viennese designs. I'm thinking mostly of those made in Milan, Turin or Venice. What a strange instrument!

An interesting feature that cannot be seen easily in this photograph is that the 'additional notes' begin after C not D as is usual with London-made pianos.


22 April 2021

Willoughby Bertie, a wealthy English gentleman, was the first person known to have brought a Piano-forte to Britain. Yet, despite studying and researching such matters for more than 30 years, I had never heard of him until a few weeks ago.

This portrait appears to have been painted in England before his travels in Italy. He was in Florence in the mid 1720s, the birthplace of the piano – the 'new type of harpsichord' invented by the astonishing Bartolomeo Cristofori. Mr. Bertie [as he then was] is reported to have taken one to England when he left Florence in 1727. So, Charles Burney's report that the first pianoforte seen in England was the one he played at Wilbury in 1747-49, was mistaken. Burney's narrative was accepted for almost two hundred years. But then (in the late 1990s) came the discovery of documents reporting Charles Jennens' piano [see 5 April] and now that I have facsimiles of the relevant letters to Jennens from his friend Holdsworth, it is clear that Jennens himself was preceded by Bertie. There is a long-hidden story here. One that I must research, as soon as government restrictions are lifted. I know where to start, but cannot gain admittance at present.

Here, I suggest, we may have a key event: Willoughby Bertie married Anna Maria Collins, in August 1727 in Florence after which they and the piano made the long journey home. For an English nobleman to marry abroad, taking a wife with no genteel family connections, would raise a few eyebrows. What happened later was even more surprising. The eldest of their seven children, Elizabeth Bertie, born 1728, [unconfirmed] married an Italian dancing master! Not what you would expect of an aristocratic lady, as indeed she was by then. Her father gained the title 3rd Earl of Abingdon when his uncle died with no son to inherit. And thereafter as the Earl and Countess of Abingdon, Willoughby and Anna Maria lived at Rycote, a splendid Elizabethan palace near Thame in Oxfordshire. Was the Florentine piano there? Unless we can find a cache of family correspondence we may never have proof.

The dancing master who became son-in-law to the Earl and Countess was known in London as 'Sir John Gallini' – a name that may be familiar as he teamed up with Bach and Abel as projectors of the Hanover Square Rooms where so many memorable concerts took place. How did Gallini come to be so wealthy? For he truly was surprisingly rich. (Maybe it pays to marry the right girl?) He later bought out Bach and Abel's shares to become sole proprietor of the fashionable concert venue, and afterwards was very much involved (as a financial backer) in Salomon's great triumph in enticing Joseph Haydn to London. By this time, 1791, Willoughby Bertie (the 3rd Earl whose portrait you see here) had been succeeded by his son of the same name — a brother-in-law to Gallini, and a gentleman composer, no less, whose elegant tunes were harmonised by Haydn. Plenty of musical connections there!

We need to know more about Willoughby Bertie! And about Miss Collins, alias Mrs. Bertie, alias the Countess of Abingdon! (Query: who was the first person to play a piano in England? He or she? Curious? I am.)


12 April 2021

When Handel played the Piano-forte in 1740 it must [almost certainly] have been the one that belonged to his friend Charles Jennens. Thomas Harris wrote to his brother that 'Handel ... played finely on the Piano-forte' from which there are several inferences to be drawn. The first is that the instrument must have been in good playing order, which is reassuring, considering that it had been transported by sailing ship, through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar, and across the notorious Bay of Biscay. And even after arriving in England it had to be transported to Jennens' House. But which? Jennens is well known as the master of Gopsall, a lost Palladian Mansion in Leicestershire - but that is not applicable in 1740. In fact it was not until 1747, when his father died, that Handel's friend and colaborator inherited the ancient Tudor manor house and began rebuilding it in the grand style with a splendid portico facing newly landscaped grounds. Nor was he living at his town house in Great Ormond Street where Jackson says he saw the pianoforte [see 5 April]. Jennens did not live there before 1753.

In 1740 he lived at No.8. Queen's Square, so it seems logical that the Italian Piano-forte went to that address. Was it Jacob Kirckman, or some other harpsichord maker, who was called in to set it in order, and tune it? Handel probably played it there on many occasions. But it did not stay there, or so it would seem. Ten years ago Brenda Sumner published a very interesting short paper 'Charles Jennens' Piano and Music Room' in the Handel Institute Newsletter [Vol.22/2: 2011]. The astonishing find she reports is that an engineer, John Grundy from Lincolnshire, wrote a meticulous description of the unfinished Music Room at Gopsall in July/August 1750, with a remarkably precise description of the room and its contents. This shows beyond doubt that a Piano-forte, which Grundy of course refers to as a 'harpsichord', was located to one side of the fireplace. It had no quills, he noticed, but was sounded by little hammers covered with leather 'which makes the tone infinitely softer and more melodious'. In this astute and informative description Grundy also takes care to mention the dampers, likewise furnished with soft leather, that silence the strings when your finger leaves the key.

During Grundy's visit to Gopsall the master himself was not at home, so the visiting engineer was presumably shown around by Jennens' housekeeper, in expectation of a gratuity, as was the custom. Consequenly some of the verbal information he was given was inaccurate. He was told, for example, that the Italian 'harpsichord' was made in Venice, and was only the first or second example that the inventor had made. Tantalizingly, Grundy deferred writing down the name of the maker. He left a space for it, but he forgot, and it remains blank! To the other side of the fireplace there was another harpsichord, not an Italian one but 'one of Tabercers'. I wonder what name got mangled in this misheard or mistaken information?

So, a Piano-forte was sent to England in 1732 — much earlier than we had been led to believe. But it wasn't the first! We will have more on that topic in a future Blog.

My thanks to Colin Coleman, Dr. Margaret Debenham, and Prof Donald Burrows for variously helping with parts of this news.



5 April 2021

The First Piano in England: a startling headline to find in a Victorian-era newspaper! I found this in February having taken out a 3-month subscription for British Newspaper Archives. If you view this on a decent sized screen you may be able to read the whole text for yourself. The source is William Jackson, (1730-1803) sometime organist of Exeter Cathedral, whose autobiography The Four Ages (1798) was reprinted in The Leisure Hour in 1882. It was lifted from there by a newspaper hack looking for some copy to fill out a column. As you see by the highlighted words, I was actually searching for Ruckers harpsichords, sold in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Like a gleaming Roman coin in a ploughed field, this piano item turned up unexpectedly. Key facts: he says the piano belonged to 'Mr. Jennings' - that it came from Portugal - and that Jacob Kirckman had the benefit of Jackson's advice: 'that the period was not remote when the harpsichord would be disused'. I am prone to vanity myself, but Jackson's is at a wholly different level! 'My prophecy has been fulfilled', he says.

Jackson doesn't give a date to this encounter, but seeing that he was born in 1730, I guess that it cannot have been before 1750 - probably somewhat later. One would assume that a teenager (however vain) would not venture to offer such advice to Jacob Kirckman, the most eminent harpsichord maker in Europe. Establishing a date would put this meeting in some kind of context. I note that as late as 1773 John Broadwood's Journal records tuning 'Mr. Jennings' Harpsichord and Pianoforte'.

The 'Mr. Jennings' who lived in Great Ormond Street is surely none other than Charles Jennens, remembered now chiefly for his libretti for Handel. A collection of correspondence is now happily in the care of the Foundling Museum, beautifully bound in red morocco with gilt decoration. It deserves no less. There we find a letter to Jennens from his friend Edward Holdsworth in Florence, dated 9 August 1732. 'Inclosed is the bill of loading for your Harpsichord which my Banker Mr. Blackwell informs me was put into the Cabbin of the Ship that it might be less exposed to damage, and was by him particularly recommended to the care of the Captain'. 'A Harpsichord', you observe, but he writes further: 'I have bought you a book of sonatas 'composed here purposely for the Piano-forte'. These must be Giustini's Twelve Sonatas for the Piano-forte, published in Florence in 1732 (re-issued by Rosamond Harding in 1933). There's more to follow, because when Holdsworth reached Turin in November he writes again to Jennens: 'I hope the Piano-forte is arrived safe'.

It was Prof. Donald Burrows who first informed me of this, in March 1998, three months after the publication of the Pianoforte in the Classical Era. But as Oxford University Press is showing no interest in a new edition of that book, this information has not reached the wider audience that it deserves.

As for 'Portugal' – I think Jackson, reminiscing some years later, is confused (at best), or prone to romancing. Prof. Burrows is the leading authority on Handel, and he suggests that this would be the Piano-forte that Handel is reported to have played in 1740, as noted in a letter of Thomas Harris. So, no thanks to Jackson, we may conclude (provisionally) that the first piano seen in England arrived in 1732, from Florence, and was almost certainly made by the great innovator Bartolomeo Cristofori. Samuel Crisp's Piano-forte, made in Rome by Lewis Wood, must take second place. (If you follow this link, look for 15 November, and 30 October)

Lately, I have discovered that there is even more to be researched on this topic, and hopefully I will have something to report later this year, but as museums and archives are still not functioning properly, thanks to the government's response to a nasty version of SARS virus, news may be delayed.


23 March 2021

My thanks to Margaret Debenham – intrigued by the story of Elizabeth Randles – who has unearthed a long list of her appearances in concert tours with her father from 1803 to 1808. He was a blind harpist from Wrexham, in north Wales, and also organist there.

So remarkable was her skill at the piano that at three years old she played in London under the patronage of the Prince of Wales and several titled ladies, and such her fragile form and delicate appearance that the little child evoked the tenderest motherly feelings in Princess Caroline who wanted to adopt her as a companion for her own daughter. Her father would not agree to this proposal.

No other child prodigy came near to her level of precocious talent, except Wiliam Crotch, whose amazing musicality gained him phenomenal fame as a child, around 1779, but only indifferent success as Professor of Music at Oxford University, and no lasting fame. Most people even in musical circles do not know of him.

Elizabeth Randles' health was never robust, and confounding my hypothesis (see 15 March), she was not Edward Randles' eldest child, nor was she his only daughter. It's good to have your ideas challenged at times by awkward data! She was, as reported in an early 19th-century source, the youngest of three sisters, but the only one among them who showed any talent for music. It's reported that she was trying to pick out tunes on the piano before she was two! After her meteoric fame as a child, there's a long gap, when she makes no headlines. That's not really surprising. The world soon loses interest and she was no longer a sensation. But it would be nice to know how her life went during the following twenty years. All I know is that Edward Randles returned to his roots in Wrexham and that's where they settled. (The advert I found last week was indeed her. Interesting connection with the Southwell piano makers.)

Elizabeth died in Liverpool in May 1829, aged 28, with only a local reputation as a teacher of piano and harp.


15 March 2021

Some weeks ago [see 5 February] I mentioned the outstanding performances of several girls who excelled in London concerts as players of the harpsichord or piano. Maria Anna Mozart was twelve when she played in London; Esther Burney was ten; so too was Maria Reynolds when she played her earliest solos at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford. There were others I could easily add to the list, very young performers who surprised their audiences with their dexterity. All of them were daughters of muscians – that's not hard to spot, and the same applies to every one of the others in my records – except perhaps Miss Guest, of Bath, of whose origins almost nothing is known.

But there's something more. It is that these girls were always the eldest daughter. And more than that, they were almost invariably the eldest [surviving] CHILD. This is pointedly so in the Mozart family where Leopold Mozart and his wife had three children who all died as infants before their fourth child, little 'Nannerl' [Maria Anna] came along in 1751. For four and a half years she was the darling child of her musician father, and had become a very able little clavier player before her brother was even born. We discern this pattern again and again. And anyone who has observed the special bond that young girls so often have with their fathers will understand the dynamics of this situation.

So I would love to know more about Elizabeth Randles. I had never heard of her before reading [again] the Journal of John Marsh, painstakingly edited by Brian Robins. In February 1808 Mr. and Miss Randles arrived at Chichester with a letter of introduction to Marsh, along with a third musician, Mr. Parry who played the flute and flageolet. Mr. Randles, otherwise unknown to me, was a blind harp player. His daughter, eight years old, played the pianoforte to a very high standard. John Marsh went to visit them at their lodging before their concert and was astonished that a child so young, and with such small hands, could play with such expression and force. Her fingers could not stretch an octave, yet such was her skill that no deficiency at all was apparent. Nearly a hundred people turned out for the concert by these unknown players on a winter's evening, but all were delighted with the music. All three were excellent on their instruments, and all three sang, solo or together. This was so pleasing that the visiting artists were persuaded to stay three days longer so that they could appear again.

Who were they? And what became of little Miss Randles? The only clue I have found is the following notice from the Liverpool Mercury, August 1817.


3 March 2021

That's lucky!

This harpsichord that I made in 1990 has boxwood and ebony keys. I flatter myself that many folk might say that these keys are well styled and neatly made. So you will hopefully understand that I would be very annoyed if someone were to come along next week and rip off these key covers and burn them. Yes, that is what could be happening if they were made from ivory. This is the implication of the latest decision from a committee of European Commission.

Last week, when hardly anyone was looking, the commission conceded to the wildlife lobbyists and reversed an earlier undertaking, hereafter making it illegal to buy or sell any instrument made after 1974 if it has ivory keys – of whatever date, or whatever type. So hundreds of harpsichords (not to mention violins, guitars and lutes) made carefully and thoughtfully after 1975 cannot now be legally bought or sold! Yet we were acting responsibly, recycling old and otherwise useless materials. That's good — isn't it? 'Recycling', the buzz word of the 1990s! Sorrowfully, I remember several harpsichords I made about that time, some for colleges and schools. They have now become the owners of toxic property! (Do you wonder that politicians are no longer respected?)

It was ever a praiseworthy principle that laws cannot be made retrospective. If it wasn't a crime when the deed was done, you cannot make it so afterwards. The same principle applies. I'm thinking of some beautifully crafted instruments made by friends and colleagues – harpsichords, clavichords and fortepianos that are now in danger of being trashed or severly damaged by unwarranted interference from wildlife zealots. When this decision becomes law it will no longer matter how old the ivory is. It could be 200 years old or more. If it is incorporated in any item made after 1974 it is illegal.

My thoughts inevitably return to the beautiful Chippendale pieces that I saw in Christies storerooms in 2018, prior to the ambitious 'Chippendale 300' sale. Grievious damage had been done to two of them by misguided owners who had the ivory prised off to be replaced with modern synthetics. Potential buyers were not pleased when it was discovered (after these splendid works were already illustrated in the catalogue). I was there when furniture experts arrived to examine a beautiful inlaid chest, confirming that the vandalism was real. (I had just seen for myself the utterly deplorable replacement keys on the Chippendale-Pohlman piano made for Syon House.) Bids were understandably hard to come by, and some lots remained unsold, unique and beautiful as they were.

The logic of this kind of 'political correctness' will put many more cultural treasures in peril. So, if it were found by some future generation that a pigment used by Raphael is somehow unacceptable to their refined sensitivities, it will be OK (by current logic) to scrape off the offending colours and repaint with acrylics! Heaven forbid!


22 February 2021

One of the first things you learn in woodwork is 'never screw into endgrain' – a lesson you should never forget or disregard. If you do, the inevitable result will be that under the slightest stress metal threads cut into and sever the longitudinal fibres of the wood, the purchase is lost, and the screw pulls out. Try as you may to re-insert the screw, there will be no secure attachment. It will pull out very easily.

Yet we see this again and again in square pianos that have wire-operated dampers – and it often spells TROUBLE. The design originates with William Southwell, the Irish 18th-century innovator whom I have praised as the most influential 'ideas-man' whose design features are seen in nearly all London-made pianos, 1800-1830. The beauty of Southwell's concept, as I have mentioned before, is that his dampers are nearly silent in operation, and can be adjusted by simply rotating the head, in or out, screwing the wire into a limewood dowel [endgrain] that's secured to the distal end of the key. Clementi's workmen continued with this system, until 1815, though it gives technicians and restorers no end of problems. Broadwood, and others after him, improved the system, certainly by 1806, so that his pianos have a truly independent pedal. Pressing the pedal does not disturb the keys.

Yet Broadwood's dampers fail very infrequently while Southwell's and Clementi's often do. The reason is that Broadwood's screw threads are bolder. Their threads are 'rolled' and therefore stand pround of the wire, i.e. the peaks of the screwthreads are of greater diameter than the wire itself. This doesn't mean that the rule about endgrain has been circumvented, but it does result in a stronger purchase.

What happens if a damper wire is broken, or fails to grip, as often happens with square pianos by Clementi or Broderip & Wilkinson? I find that there are no tools available to 'roll' a thread, in the old-fashioned way, so we have to resort to using a watchmakers' die. This CUTS into the metal, resulting in a screw that is of marginally smaller diameter than the wire with which you began, but it does produce a decently well-defined screw – unlike Southwell's. [Note: the wire I use is Nickel-Silver, of a slightly greater diameter than the original. The result is satisfactory, but I still regret breaking the rule regarding endgrain.]

This fault in the Irishman's damper design is just one example of his doubtful understanding of basic mechanical principles. His ideas were very widely adopted. His influence is pervasive. Yet his understanding of the basic principles of design and materials is faulty to say the least, and everywhere observable in his pianos. I'd say he's a maverick rather than a genius!


5 February 2021

On 23rd April 1760 there was a concert at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, London. Tenducci was the leading performer, but the unusual feature of this event was the debut of four children – all very well qualified. Giardini's pupil Master Barron gave a solo on the violin; Cervetto's son played the cello, and two girls, Miss Burney and Miss Schmelling played harpsichord and violin. [Note this was several years before the Mozart children arrived.]

Miss Burney – she's forgotten now, so much so that I have the greatest difficulty in finding any information about her. You might think, and I certainly hoped, that with various societies dedicated to preserving and celebrating the achievements of her sister Fanny, there might be someone who has collected information about her eldest sister Esther, alias 'Hetty'. I'd like to show you a portrait of Hetty, but sadly I cannot. There are several portraits of her husband, Charles Rousseau. I have even seen his signature on the soundboard of a square piano. But of Hetty, nothing.

Concerning his daughter Fanny, Charles Burney later wrote: she was wholly unnoticed in the nursery for any talent or quickness of parts. Indeed at 8 years old she did not know her letters. By contrast, Hetty was a marvel. Writing to a friend he recalls, 'my eldest daughter was a better player at 7 years old than I was at 17.'

When she made her debut in that London concert she was ten years old, and probably astonished many with her precocious talent. Roger Lonsdale in his biography of Charles Burney writes that her phenomenal ability at the harpsichord was taken as a specimen of her father's teaching methods, gaining him a long list of pupils, and a long term engagement at Mrs. Sheel's school for young ladies in Queen's Square. She must have been very good.

Sometimes Hetty appears in her sister's diaries, notably in 1775 (aged 25) when she was the star performer in an evening of music in the family home, with many distinguished guests. She played mostly on her square piano with her husband, playing the harpsichord, the star item being their rendition of Müthel's duet. Using a Zumpe piano in 1769 she played one of her father's four-hand duets, pre-publication, taking primo I presume, with the composer himself secondo. But she is, in general, a fugitive personality, like one of those elusive characters who only appear in the background in other people's snapshots.

Now, I have to say that I'm not exclusively interested in Hetty herself, but as a prime representative of a specific category of women keyboard musicians. They have something in common that I find no one has observed. Others whom I would bracket with her include such well-known individuals as Marianna Mozart [Nannerl], and Catherina Cibbini [daughter of Leopold Kozeluch]. Maria Parke, who achieved fame as a concert performer, is another. I wonder if these are sufficient clues for readers to guess what is the exact nature of their connection?


20 January 2021

Showing left is Taphouse's music shop in the centre of Oxford, circa 1900. From the window above the shop front visitors had a squint view down Broad Street, towards the Sheldonian Theatre, and here in the private first floor room the genial Thomas Taphouse, erstwhile piano tuner, turned collector, turned art dealer, was at home surrounded by his 2000 rare books, and his precious collection of historic musical instruments. In the box below (from the Musical Times, October 1904) you can see a list of the keyboard instruments he owned at that time – and you will no doubt observe, without my saying, that there are two square pianos, one by Pohlman of 1769, and another by Broadwood, 1796. Generally, collectors at that time were fascinated by the lost sounds of the harpsichord and clavichord, but took little interest in historic pianos. So, in this respect Taphouse was a little different.


But a little further research reveals that he had also owned a Zumpe square piano of 1767, which was loaned for the International Inventions Exhibition of 1885. Unhappily, I cannot identify it with any of those listed in Clinkscale Online. Which just shows how readily the continuity of provenance can be broken. As I mentioned on 4 January [below] the clavichord by Hass, and the harpsichord by Shudi & Broadwood are both now in the Bate Collection (so they have moved only half a mile), and there too you will find Taphouse's spinet of 1749 by John Harrison. But, speaking of provenance, I see that the 1776 clavichord by Nicola Palazzi of Rome, is listed in Boalch 3rd edition as being at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but there is nothing by way of 'Previous History' to show that it was formerly in the Taphouse Collection. He also may have owned a 1775 Kirckman harpsichord, because his step daughter lent one to her friend Nellie Chaplin after Dolmetsch had ignited her enthusiasm for such instruments in 1904.

If you look again at the shop front, you see that the sign reads C. Taphouse & Son. Thomas, showing right, is the 'Son'. I marvel at how far they had come – Charles Taphouse was a humble farm labourer when Thomas was born, yet here we see the son Thomas William Taphouse as a highly respected Town Councillor, ultimately the mayor of Oxford, who left an estate valued at over £6300 – a tidy sum in those times! He was also recognised as a man of learning, of whom John Ruskin could say that he learned more about music talking to Taphouse for one hour than by reading many books.

You might also observe, to the right of the shop front, a sign that reads 'Music Rooms'. This, I suppose, was a separate entrance for the recital rooms, along the passageway, where public events were sometimes held. Advertisements in Jackson's Oxford Journal during the 1890s reveal that Mr. Taphouse's Music Room was also the venue for fine art sales where a local firm of auctioneers held old master picture sales.

The good news with regard to Taphouse's collection is that, although he restored many of them, taking advice and guidance from Alfred Hipkins, none of them was harmed by his actions. In fact, it is quite remarkable how wisely he treated them, and how honest he was. This is such a contrast with the nefarious activities of Paul de Wit, the Leipzig collector and dealer, whose surviving instruments, now in many museums in Europe, should always be viewed with great scepticism – including the 'Johann Socher' of '1742', that Harding reported as the world's oldest square piano. The contrast between Taphouse and de Wit was to have been the subject of a paper I prepared for a conference in Oxford in 2019.

Footnote: the shop in Magdalen Street is now occupied by Debenham's [no connection with my friend and colleague!] The Oxford Mail (newspaper) has today reported that Debenham's store will not reopen after the current lockdown, as the landlord has other plans for the site! No one will ever guess that this was the place where so many precious musical manuscripts and instruments were kept.


11 January 2021

According to Thomas Taphouse's own testimony, reported in the Musical Times (1904), the splendid harpsichord that began his collecting enthusiasm [see 4 January] was sold at the dispersal sale of Colonel Bowles of North Aston House, near Banbury, 1857. My efforts to trace this sale have drawn a blank. But the harpsichord is real enough. Donald Boalch's Makers of the Harpsichord and Clavichord report it as being at St Michael's College, Tenbury Wells in the 1960s – one of at least six Shudi harpsichords with the 5 extra notes in the bass, this one dated 1773 and bearing the inscription 'Burkat Shudi et Johannes Broadwood Londini fecerunt'.

The Taphouse Collection when finally settled did not include this one, but included, as mentioned last week, the 1781 harpsichord that is now in the Bate Collection. It was this instrument that his step-daughter Eleanor (aka Nellie) used in public concerts. Many people who heard her play were delighted with the novelty of the sound, and the way that one could change the tone by selecting different stops. Very few Victorian pianists had previously heard anything like this. I observe from various sources that Miss Taphouse also sang – in 1899 she was singing from her father's copy of Pills to Purge Melancholy, printed in 1719. On other occasions she sang Three Little Maids by Sullivan with Mrs. Sims and Miss Hill. Nellie was in her thirties at the time, and there's no reason to think her friends were younger, so I guess it was very tongue-in-cheek and very amusing.

A very different style was needed in 1895 when the bi-centenary of Purcell's death was marked with an illustrated lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre, given by Sir John Stainer. Musical excerpts selected from King Arthur, Dido & Aeneas, and the Indian Queen were conducted by Dr Bridges of Westminster Abbey. But the solo instrumental items were played by Miss Taphouse on the harpsichord. Someone who often appeared with her was 'Mr. Wesley Woodward', playing popular pieces on the 'cello. There's no proof yet, but I suspect that he was her cousin or nephew. 'Miss Taphouse' was born Eleanor Woodward, and often named as Eleanor Woodward-Taphouse by people who post items on the internet, but this is not how she was known to her contemporaries. I note that both she and Mr. Woodward belonged to the Methodist Church in Oxford. He was playing with Nellie in a charity event in Sandford-on-Thamesin 1900, when he was 21, performing pieces by W.H.Squire. But soon after this he moved to Eastbourne, where he secured paid employment in two orchestras. He hoped to advance his career still further by playing on the transatlantic steam ships, and had crossed the ocean several times before he signed up for a crossing to New York on the Titanic. Yes, indeed, Wesley Woodward, stayed at his post, with his fellow musicians playing 'Nearer My God to Thee' when the ship went down.



4 January 2021

As we start a new year I am reminded of the input of the late Michael Debenham of Newmarket, who designed this website, with much thought and effort, for the great benefit of us all. I hope you find something useful here, though it is going to be difficult in 2021 with such draconian restrictions in place. Museums are closed. Archives are subject to very unhelpful regulations.

One story that I can share, which you may not have known, concerns the nineteenth-century collector Thomas William Taphouse. If you have an interest in clavichords, you are perhaps familiar with the H.A. Hass instrument at the Bate Collection in Oxford. A strikingly handsome instrument, of five ocatves, made in Hamburg in 1743. It is one of three historic keyboard instruments that came from the Taphouse Collection – but I find that asking people about Mr. Taphouse doesn't often get you anywhere. Here is a little to be going on with.

T. W. Taphouse was born at Sherfield on Loddon, south of Reading, in 1838, the eldest son of Charles Taphouse and his wife Sarah. Charles was a farm labourer. So, Thomas did not have a privileged start in life. But, as historians know well, there was a great upheaval in agriculture around 1845, as huge numbers of labouring men left the land. They had no education, or widely applicable skills, so many of them (especially in southern England) tried to make a living as gardeners. These were hard times. Many gave up, and went to work in the new industrial cities, where their skills of hedging and ditching, ploughing and animal husbandry were of no use to them. Charles Taphouse, however, moved to Oxford, and somehow established himself as a second-hand furniture dealer. (He is described in the 1851 Census as a 'Broker'.) His son, Thomas, became an apprentice cabinet maker as soon as his 'education' was finished, at 14 years old. But only four years later he went to London where he spent one year learning piano tuning. Somehow, his contact with the Methodists had instilled in him a love of music, which resulted in him learning to play hymns on a harmonium. After returning to Oxford he held appointments as organist in the Wesleyan Chapel, and later in a Congregational Church.

By 1859 father and son had opened a music shop, in the town centre, from where Thomas established a busy round of piano tuning visits with a pony and trap. A most extraordinary event occurred when he was nineteen years old. Auctioneers in Banbury [20 miles north of Oxford] held a country house sale from which young Thomas acquired a Shudi & Broadwood harpsichord, reportedly for two pounds ten shillings! That was the beginning. Some time later he sold it for £15 to Henry Fowler Broadwood. (I understand it was the five-and-a-half octave, double manual of 1773, now in Baltimore, USA.) For a hard-working young man that was a good profit, and a useful introduction to some significant people in the piano trade, including Alfred Hipkins who remained a good friend ever after. Hence his commitment to buying and selling instruments, and the fabulous collection of manuscript and printed music that he built up in the following years. Perhaps you have heard Purcell's haunting music for Queen Mary's funeral? Taphouse preserved what was probably the only copy. And that's just one example.

By 1890 he was a prosperous and highly respected citizen, serving on several committees of Oxford City Council. When he died suddenly, of a heart attack, in January 1905, his music collection, and many of his instruments were sold by Sotheby's, but I have yet to see the documentary records. His step-daughter Eleanor, otherwise 'Nellie', kept a few for herself, and she is of particular interest to me, as she often gave concerts on a historic harpsichord from her father's collection, but more than that I have been unable to discover - so far. If anyone should read this and be able to direct me, it will have been worthwhile to put this Blog on the internet. I believe Nellie probably used the 1781 Shudi & Broadwood double manual at the Bate Collection that I put into good working order in the 1990s. (Unhappily it has been spoiled since. I say this in case you find it a disappointing instrument to play.)

My thanks to Stephanie Jenkins for her excellent profile of T.W.Taphouse as Mayor of Oxford, 1904.


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