Michael's Blog

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. Shiel'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!


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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