Michael's Blog

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 – whistful 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. As is commonly seen, the lid is closed.

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 'Spinnit' 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 orderring a Spinnet? And how is it that he is specifying 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 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 six years old. 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 Spinnet 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. Nevertheless, on this instrument the six-year-old daughter began her lessons. You might like to think about the dynamics of this situation: [1] six year old 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 three of them.

But the more I think about it, the more I question some of these details. Ten guineas! That is remarkably cheap for a new instrument from a good London maker. Rather, it suggests to me that this is 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. That being so, perhaps it was a secondhand one 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. Perhaps, 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 Spinnet 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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