Michael's Blog

 

12 June 2018

Among so many square pianos it is hard to understand why Mr. Colt took a fancy to some of them. Musically speaking, the tiny little piano by Verel has little to commend it. You have to wonder why it was made. The sound it makes is no better than a toy, and the keys are so tiny and awkward to play. But it is a useful specimen in that it is the only known work signed by Ludovicus (or Louis) Verel after he parted company with Joseph Merlin. And after looking at the inventiveness and original thinking within it one may ponder how many of the innovative features of Merlin's instruments might have been truly due to Verel in the years when he worked as Merlin's foreman.

In Broadwood Square Pianos [pages 173 -176] I described the innovative design inside Charles Trute's small pianos, placing the wrestpins at the back, and hanging the dampers in the reverse of the usual orientation — these features being the outcome of his wish to create a very compact instrument. So here we see the same concepts in use in an even smaller instrument. James Shudi Broadwood's belief that his father was the originator of this relocation of the wrestpins was clearly mistaken. But what the Verel piano seems to show is that there was an association between Verel and Trute, and that they were both using features that were only afterwards patented by Broadwood.

Margaret Debenham's research on Joseph Merlin in London is available download for free on the Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle website, and that's where one can read about his connection with Verel.

11 June 2018

Think of English square pianos in the age of elegant Georgian-period furniture and you will probably bring to mind the 'Sheraton-style' instruments, with slender square-tapering legs. The best of them have warm, honey-coloured satinwood borders, and burgundy-wine mahogany panels. This style was popular from 1780 until about 1805 (when John Broadwood was still making them), but soon after came the six-legged version which I've heard many people say they do not like - 'it is the start of the descent into Victorian decadence' is a frequent sentiment. The earliest-dated example of the 'Sheraton style' that I have ever seen was offered as Lot 5 at the Colt Sale, neatly inscribed 'Christopher Ganer' and dated 1779, a nice looking instrument but internally showing the result of a poor quality restoration, and the loss of its hand stops to change resistrations. But it has potential, and the legs and frame stand are beautifully veneered en suite. It's not hard to understand why Mr. Colt liked it. It made £2100 [£2600 to take away] while a much plainer example from Ganer, dated 'circa 1790', generated much enthusiasm, selling at £5300 [£6572]. This surely indicates a musician buyer who intends to play this instrument which, in truth, was much nearer to performance standard. 'Elegant' satinwood examples by Broadwood, dated 1787 and 1788 met contrasting fates. The better piano was the earlier one and the bidders evidently thought so too. It made £3600 [£4464], the other reached only £1400 [£1736].

In the catalogue a similarly attractive satinwood square piano was Lot 59 – by Longman & Broderip, circa 1785. I was alarmed to see this make £1050 [£1302] because, handsome though it might have been, it had been horribly damaged in an amateur intervention (of the worst kind!). For some unfathomable reason this five-octave piano had its nameboard extended at either end and its construction modified to add extra notes in the treble - seven of them passing under the soundboard, wretchedly made and now all awry. The extension of the bridge (for these addtitional notes) is now missing from the soundboard (leaving a reverse shadow). None of this is mentioned in the catalogue. It simply reports 'Five-and-a-half octaves, FF-c4.

 

8 June 2018

Reflecting on the outcome of the Colt Collection sale I found it gratifying that the two highest prices were achieved by harpsichords – English harpsichords at that – but also rather surprising that two good Kirckman harpsichords remained unsold (on the day). The star of the event was Joseph Mahoon's harpsichord, which I was specially anxious to see, selling at £69,000 [£85,560 before you can take it away], a rare item since there are so few surviving English harpsichords made before 1750. But what is the true date of it? I saw for myself the signature 'C.Smith 1738' on the lowest key of the upper manual, but there is no doubt that the lower keyboard was made by a different hand at a different date. It would have been good to examine it more closely, but this one cannot do in the saleroom. Taking out 120 jacks, and removing the upper manual is not good form. Everyone who examined it remarked on the 'transitional' style of the work, incorporating features that would be expected in Shudi's instruments of that period, yet not following the Tabel school in many other ways. The case is made of English oak with the distinctive Tabel-style shape of the bentside too, yet Mahoon employs quaint lockboard battens – a substantial one at the back, but a slimmed-down version on the cheek. Incidentally, the Mahoon spinnet 'circa 1740' is in fact dated 1742 as I saw for myself, so it is very much contemporary with the harpsichord, though it has the GG-g3 keyboard range and arcaded fronts where the harpsichord has the FF 60-note range, with moulded keyfronts, as you see.

Of still more interest was the result for Lot 113 - 'a double-manual harpsichord by Shudi & Broadwood, 1790' - actually made by Broadwood, though. That it achieved a hammer price of £40,000 [£49,560 to take away] was interesting. Make no mistake, this is a very well made instrument, built by a team that was at the height of its powers. John Broadwood, 54 years old, expected the highest standards from his workmen, and his son James, approaching his 18th birthday, was already committed to a life of instrument making in the family business. They exerted themselves to achieve the exemplary standards with these 'Patent' harpsichords with swell. Modern pianists are firmly convinced that by 1790 the musical world had abandoned the harpsichord, but clearly not just in Britain but across Europe, much music was still performed on the harpsichord, not only in old-fashioned and impoverished cottages, but in the highest stratum of society, for which this superb instrument was made. For a direct comparison we had Broadwood's grand piano No.208, dated 1787, a rare item, in good condition, which made £16,000 [£19,840]. When new both instruments would have sold at about 60 guineas, perhaps 70 gns for the harpsichord, but their price differential in this week's sale was noteworthy.

There were sixteen historic Broadwood grand pianos on sale (they seem to have been a favourite item for Mr. Colt). And if economists know anything then the laws of supply and demand should have depressed the price of them. Perhaps it did. Hammer prices varied from £3200 to £8000, with the exception of a piano of 1821 with restrained brass inlay in the manner of Boulle, with the added prestige that it was formerly delivered to George IV at Brighton, and later taken to Windsor Castle. With a provenance like that who would not like to own it? The hammer price was £20,000 [£24800]. By contrast, there was a good looking example of Broadwood's 'Barless grand' (1889) much celebrated by Alastair Laurence, which failed to attract much interest, selling at £620.

The laws of supply and demand were clearly in evidence with Lot 3, an anonymous north-German Clavier, with a spurious label reading 'Johann Gottlob Wagner in Dresden'. Charles Colt described it as a Clavecin Royal and the sale catalogue repeats that, but despite its superficial similarity to Wagner's work there is no evidence I could see that it ever shared the aesthetic of the Clavecin Royal, which was to provide multiple registrations at the touch of a pedal, transforming the sound from harpsichord to Pantalon, to pianoforte, to lute, at your pleasure – and to all of these the option of a swell. Mr. Colt's Clavier had none of this. It was provided only with an awkward handstop for sustaining tone, and the vestiges of an equally inconvenient harp stop, now missing. The lid of this instrument is modern, and the painting inside pure hokum. You may be sure that I crawled underneath to look for signs of former pedals or knee levers – and found none. All that was to be seen was a sturdy diagonal plank that had been added to resist the twist of the casework. Nevertheless, at least two eager bidders pushed the hammer price to £18,500 [£22,800].

My observations on the square pianos on offer will be added at a later date.

6 June 2018

For anyone who visited Colts' business site near Bethersden in the 1970s the lasting impression was of a very enterprising firm making a really good argument for timber homes, precision machined and dispatched for self assembly (or, if need be, erected by experienced workmen). Some of them have been well-preserved and are still in excellent condition. There is a very large example in first-class condition in Prestbury, where I live, which looks if anything better than when it was put up. By contrast, visiting the Bethersden site on Monday (to view the pianos and harpsichords in the dispersal sale) the former display buildings looked shabby and neglected. Across the whole site briars and weeds are taking over. Given another decade of neglect it could draw comparisons with Angkor-wat in the Cambodian jungle. But this is rural Kent! Not ten miles from Ashford where Eurostar trains speed off to France through the Channel Tunnel.

However, inside the main hall everything was quiet and orderly on Monday morning. A few of us were busily looking for instruments we had come to see, and after finding them, carefully examining them either to assess the condition, or to collect data for comparisons. Clearly Charles Colt, collecting in the 1940s and 50s, developed a strong interest in certain makers. His collection is very strong on Broadwood grand pianos, especially the earlier ones, and also Wornum. And there remain some items of exquisite craftsmanship. I was so busy examining the unique Mahoon harpsichord that I scarcely noticed the growing throng of new visitors.

By lunch time there was a large crowd mingling among the instruments. More and more noise was being generated by what seemed like idly curious spectators playing repeatedly the same piece of music on one instrument after another which any normal person would recognize to be horribly out-of-tune. I have never heard such a vexatious, unmusical discord played with such gusto. Often there were notes that would not work, but nothing deterred them. Perhaps they had travelled a long way in eager expectation and under the circumstances, they could not be expected to go away without trying everything. I can only think that this was but a further manifestation of Samuel Johnson's observation: 'the triumph of hope over experience'. But tomorrow, Thursday, in the Canterbury Auction Gallery, twenty miles away, comes the final act. Mr. Colt's very personal collection, some bad, some very good, some almost playable, and many others never cherished or restored, will be knocked down to the higest bidder, and all dispersed, as we expect, to many and varied locations.

2 June 2018

The history of 'English' harpsichord making is, I find, misunderstood and misrepresented in even the most respected sources. Though there are meticulous published reports of a few isolated instruments – for example the Coston harpsichord (O'Brien) and the Theeuwes claviorgan (Rose) – these singly or collectively do not amount to a considered or accurate account of the evolution of harpsichord design and use in England. Only recently have I discovered how far back this goes – with misleading statements by James Shudi Broadwood, who as a twenty-year-old was present in the workshops when his father's men were building prestigious instruments in London – and, much later, Raymond Russell presenting a thesis that divided eighteenth-century harpsichords into 'national' schools (accepted and further promoted by Hubbard). Many errors are perpetuated too in even the most recent publication, Jacob Kirkman [sic], from Charles Mould and Peter Mole.

Personal observation of surviving instruments has already confirmed how necessary it is to see the instruments, to measure them in ways that are not generally done, and to photograph them. This takes me today on a long journey to Kent where I fear that a visit to the Colt Collection might be my last chance to examine the work of Joseph Mahoon. Who knows where this harpsichord might be next year? It is helpful that there is in the sale a spinnet by the same man, and an opportunity to examine closely a Kirckman harpsichord that is dated 1750, and therefore among his oldest survivors. (Of course, since I am there, I may look at the square pianos too!)

28 May 2018

The forthcoming auction sale of the Colt Collection is attracting much interest. The rooms should be very busy on viewing days, beginning in less than a week. Following the sale of Christopher Hogwood's collection, then the Finchcocks' Collection, this might be the last of the major dispersal sales for some time. And like the Finchcocks' sale the actual auction is again to be a remote business – the instruments staying at Bethersden while the auction itself will take place in Canterbury.

The range of instruments that Mr. Colt acquired over the years is remarkable - his first purchase many, many years ago being a square piano (by Broadwood, as I recall) but thereafter, as his knowledge increased, his purchases seem to have become those of a discriminating collector. What strikes me about the catalogue is the prodigious range of published estimates, sometimes no doubt reflecting the current condition of specific instruments, which may not be good, contrasting with the surprisingly ambitious expectations attaching to others. Harpsichords by Kirckman have not kept their value well in recent decades. Many have changed hands in the last fifteen years at prices that do not match their value from previous decades. So if the bidding next week is as vigorous as the auctioneers seem to expect this will go some way to restoring the prestige of these splendid items of Georgian craftsmanship. As with the Hogwood Collection, we will not be surprised if some lots fail to get away at the first time of asking. With CITES certificates already obtained there should not be any impediment to worldwide bidding. Will this free up the market? It will be interesting to see. A recently consigned square piano of great prestige has already had its beautiful ivory keys artlessly replaced by sythetic materials — as will soon be revealed. Let's hope that there will be no more vandalism of this kind!

23 May 2018

An interesting and unusual email from Mike Goodall came a week ago. He is an enthusiast for the history of playing cards and came across a surviving 'Pack of Cotillons' - resembling playing cards, but having directions for performing these country dances, which not many people do these days. This pack was published by Longman & Lukey, 'about 1774' says Mike, so with some detective work on the internet he found our page on Longman, watched the video, and saw within it a list of music - evidently a catalogue from the 1770s. Well done, Mike! He just had a hunch that there might be some mention of these dancing cards on some other part of the catalogue that I hadn't shown. I confess, I was doubtful. But there it is! Two shillings and six pence for a complete pack, and if you care as you should, another nine pence for a case to keep them in. Then, of course, you might be tempted to buy a fan? Read more. And don't forget to take them when you go to the next Ball or Assembly.

12 May 2018

In external appearance this piano (private ownership, Sardinia) is seemingly identical to the Broderip & Wilkinson piano on our 'For Sale' page. The same mahogany exterior, identical legs, and the expected white enamel oval above the keyboard. Yet, as this photo shows, internally it is very different. Above we see lever over dampers, and no fretwork in the back right-hand corner. Just out of view there are two steel levers: one lifting the dampers, the other working the buff stop [harp sound]. Look closer and you discover that it has the old-fashioned Zumpe-type action, with no escapement. Yet the two pianos were made in the same workshop less than a year apart as the serial numbers clearly show! What is most surprising is that the oval plaque of the piano above says 'New Patent' when very clearly it is not. Below you see the 'New Patent' - escapement action, Irish dampers, fretwork in the corner and at either end of the nameboard. Yet so easy to confuse them from the outside!

7 May 2018

With regard to harpsichord voicing, a subject I have touched on before, an old catalogue from Longman & Lukey has reappeared lending further weight, if any were needed, to my contention that very few harpsichords are now set to perform as they would have been in the historic heyday of such instruments. This photo shows part of the back cover of a catalogue of 1775. You will see that harpsichord players could be provided steel forks for tuning; [music] desks, and tuning hammers. And see what materials were supplied for reneweing the plectra! Crow and Raven quills. Exactly what John Broadwood supplied in the 1780s. But sad to say, when I check out some of the musuem harpsichords I voiced twenty years ago I find that the plectra have been replaced with turkey feathers! They are nothing like! (By the way: the Mutes of Brass, Box and Ivory, at the bottom of the list were for violins.)

30 April 2018

In prosperous middle-class homes where the ladies might have played a 'square piano' many gentlemen indulged in a rather more expensive treat for themselves - a chamber organ, like the one shown left. This example has a very fashionable oval at the front, displaying gilded dummy pipes backed with silk, suggesting that it dates from about 1790. Organ builder Martin Renshaw owned it in 1975, but it was bought from him soon afterwards by Richard Burnett. Consequently, many visitors saw it at Finchcocks.

At the Finchcocks' Sale it was acquired by the Horniman Museum, south-east London, where their policy under the persuasive curatorial interest of Mimi Waitzman should result in it being heard again, better than it has ever been in modern times. For this purpose it is now at the workshop on the Duke of Portland's splendid Welbeck Abbey Estate, near Worksop. There on a dismal rainy Friday, a group of twenty guests assembled to hear Dominic Gwynne talk about this instrument.

No one can be sure who made it. There's no visible signature, inside or out. Dominic suggested that it may have been constructed by a jobbing organ builder who had a few 'whizz ideas' he wanted to try. So, in this example when the keyboard is pulled out to play it rises on a wedge or ramp, reminiscent of Viennese fortepianos, so that the keys are lifted upwards to sit close under the stickers that activate the mechanism for each note. Unhappily, as Dominic observed, the keyboard doesn't then lock in place, so it can be accidentally knocked upwards. When it left the maker's workshop those hanging stickers presumably sat neatly above each key. At present some of them are inclined to lean at odd angles, so more than one of them can sit over one key while its neighbour is left blank. Not conducive for a very musical result! For the curious, let me say that it has a four-octave keyboard, lacking the lowest C#, with 2 extra notes, GG and AA, provided by the the apparent BB and C#. The smaller pedal, at the left, removes the Principal and Fifteen ranks from the full chorus, (i.e. takes off the octave and double octave), while that on the right enables the player to provide wind for himself when he cannot persuade a child or a servant to do it by hand (using an alternative mechanism at the left side).

24 April 2018

A STORY

Many, many years ago there lived a poor farmer in Africa who tilled the soil and planted crops, hoping to feed his family. When he had finished he built a strong fence around his little plantation to keep animals out. It was hard work, but he looked forward to the time of harvest when everyone would have food to eat. Then one morning he woke to find that a big bull elephant had pushed down his fence and destroyed all his work. His crops were eaten or trampled, and his children would have nothing to eat.

So one day he joined other men from his village who had a surer way to success. They hunted elephants. It was dangerous work but they caught an old male elephant, cut off the enormous tusks (which were very heavy) and carried them on a long overland trek, walking barefoot day after day until they arrived at a trading post. With the proceeds of the sale there would be food for all, even if the harvests failed.

The ivory they sold was carried thousands of miles over the ocean in sailing ships, to a land where elephants had never been. There, some hard-working craftsmen bought the precious material, carefully sawed it into small rectangles, then fitted them in a musical instrument. With great care they shaped every piece, scribing them, each man using his own special pattern, and polishing them until they were fit for a fine lady to touch.

Many years passed, till one day those same ivories, still clean and neat, were broken off, one after another, and thrown on a fire by people who never made anything so beautiful; never worked under the scorching sun to grow food, or toiled as those mariners did through storms and raging seas to bring their precious cargo across a mighty ocean. Where there had been neatly fashioned pieces of ivory they fitted a tedious white, make-believe substance. It was not tapered or shaped as the ivory had been. They made no attempt to reproduce the shape or form of the original. All the pretty detail and authenticity has gone.

'Is this a true story?' I hear you ask. Well, yes it is. I saw the evidence last week on two pianos – both are real enough, and both were made in the days when sailing ships brought precious cargos into the heart of London. But now they have featureless white keys that look utterly wrong. You may learn that long ago one of these pianos was played in a very beautiful house by an elegant duchess – that also is true. But, of course, she did not play on the keys we see now – the ivory has been destroyed, wantonly, to get it through American customs. This will surely happen more and more in the future. What an age we live in!

When we see such deliberate destruction what should we think? --- Perhaps we might pause for a while, and remember the hardships endured by the poverty-striken farmer. Think of the barefoot porters – they really did carry those heavy burdens under the blazing sun. Consider the lives of the brave seamen, who ran so many dangers crossing a mighty ocean. And remember also the exacting work of fine craftsmen. -- What right do we have to destroy their work?

18 April 2018

The inscription on the piano mentioned below is a good example of the better quality of calligraphy of that period. But unhappily someone thought they could improve it by adding a date. This could only happen when the piano had become an antique - most likely in the mid-twentieth century. The year chosen was probably 1792, but some later comer had the wit to erase it, as best they could. But there is something else to observe, in that Garcka was not content to add Stephen Street, Rathbone Place on his subscript line, in conformity with the usual practice of that time in London, but specified 'No. 16', so visitors would be sure to find him. (There were in fact a number of other workshops in the nearby back streets off Tottenham Court Road.) To the best of my recollection, the first 'manufacturers' of keyboard instruments to do this were Longman & Broderip. John Zumpe set a precedent by giving his address as Princes Street, Hanover Square. Harpsichord makers had not previously given their exact whereabouts. Longman took this a step further in the early 1780s when he specified 26 Cheapside, adding '13 Haymarket' after 1784.

The clear form of these letters, and the uniformity of balance (only the k of Garcka being amiss) suggests that this might be the same 'writing master' who inscribed Buntebart's pianos – much the neatest hand in town.

7 April 2018

It was a great pleasure this week to receive photos of this beautiful square piano. With rich mahogany casework, set off with satinwood borders, it would have been a visual delight when it left the workshop of George Garcka in London about 1785-90. But when you add such elegant painted decoration it becomes a exceptional item, a work of art in itself. This is not the first such piano I have seen – anyone who visited Finchcocks Living Museum at Goudhurst will have admired a Stodart piano with similar decoration. Others I have encountered personally are by John Broadwood and by Longman & Broderip, of a similar date. In my opinion they could all be painted by the same artist (with the possible exception of the Finchcocks instrument).

The vogue for this reached its peak in the first half of the twentieth century, say 1920-1930. You can understand why people loved it – it's such a shame we cannot identify the painter. On a Broadwood piano that was in my workshop almost twenty years ago I observed that the artist made a blunder by adding a date (1784 as I recall) revealing rather more than he or she intended. Clearly from the serial number inside, and details of the damper mechanism, the instrument was made at least ten years later than the external decoration would suggest! This confirmed for me what I had long suspected – that the external painting was added about 1920 or later for the antiques trade.

But what a triumph this is! A redundant piano, probably non-functioning or grossly out of tune when acquired, was transformed into a highly desirable work of art, commanding a hugely enhanced retail value. Interior decorators had to love this, and may have suggested to their clients that the classical scenes on the central panels might be the work of Angelica Kauffman. It is so well done. We would love to believe it ... but it is delectable anyway.

My thanks to John Garcka, a descendant of the piano's maker.

2 April 2018

What delight, and a privilege, to hear this seemingly forgotten music! That was the reaction of the two hundred or so people who turned out despite the dismal, rainy weather to hear the concert on Saturday.

Of Warwick, the editor, performer and musical director, everyone was in awe. 'What a useful addition to the Easter repertoire', they said, 'and how lovely the music was'. A great deal of praise was also heaped on our grand daughter Lois, who not only had the very challenging task of translating Stölzel's text but also spent many hours over designing the hugely impressive programme, with its copious notes on the composer. The general opinion was that, when once the music is known, it will become an enduring addition to the Easter repertoire.

 

27 March 2018

Cheltenham Coffee Concerts resume this coming Saturday with something very special – the first modern performance of the Easter music that J. S. Bach played in Leipzig in 1734. The St Matthew Passion? St John? Neither. Bach's choice that year was Easter music by Stölzel. I have never heard the music myself, but my son Warwick assures me that it is good ... and why should it not be so, if Bach chose to perform it. Yet it has been entirely overlooked and never performed until now. So as usual we will have an excellent band of musicians lined up; coffee and cakes at 10.30am; and then the whole of Stölzel's music performed in two sessions with a break at noon. If you are in this region you might like to attend - free admission, with retiring collection - Holy Apostles' Church, London Road, Cheltenham.

23 March 2018

The north side of Oxford Street – an ordinary day, as we may believe, with the activities you would expect to see: a coach with four-in-hand setting out for Oxford. All stations in life are faithfully included. A girl wearing a white apron carries a basket on her head, with (as we may suppose) a life of drudgery before her, while gentlewomen in fine dresses have time to chat under the portico. John Zumpe's house was a little west of here, behind the viewer, but this is very much the scene as he and his clients would have known it. John Broadwood's premises were off to the right, near Golden Square

When Joseph Haydn wanted peace and quiet to complete his symphonies for Salomon's concerts he travelled this way to hide away at Gabriel Buntebart's house at Lisson Grove, which the Oxford coach will be passing in a few minutes time.

18 March 2018

Flotsam and jetsam, the debris that beachcombers delight to find washed up by chance along the shoreline occasionally throws up some intriguing items, as last week when a bottle was reportedly found in Western Australia with a message inside dating from 1886. Thomas Green's account books washed up on the tide of history seem much more interesting – and an equally unlikely find. Just a few little pocketbooks kept by a music teacher in Hertfordshire – why would anyone save them? But I'm so glad they did.

At All Saints church in the town of Hertford, about 25 miles north of London, twenty year old Thomas Green was appointed organist in 1740. Consequently he moved from Cheshunt to lodge with the Bridgeman family on West Street where he stayed until his death in 1791. In a large room at the side of the house he organised concerts featuring local amateurs and his best pupils, though unhappily he doesn't tell us what music they played; but they look like incredibly good value at one guinea for ten fortnightly concert through the summer.

To supplement his income Thomas Green also tuned harpsichords and made minor repairs as necessary, making visits to clients up to 20 miles away – and very usefully he wrote down the details of many of these instruments. So we gain a good idea of how many harpsichords were in frequent use in the area, and sometimes find that in the mid eighteenth century he saw examples by some makers whose work is no longer extant today.

He was also asked to tune square pianos when they became newly fashionable around 1770, and over the next fifteen years he attended to at least forty of them, but though he noted with care the names of harpsichord makers, and the specification of those instruments, he never once records the names of pianoforte makers. Conservative? Old fashioned? I'm sure he was. But his attitude to the new Piano-forte was not unusual, so it is important to look into his reasons. Thomas Green wasn't being wholly unreasonable, nor was his opinion rare among the older generation of harpsichord players. This is an area of research that is of great interest to me at present. It is part of the history of music in eighteenth-century England, a topic that brings us closer to the reception and practice of music in past times, and its social function, which tends to be lost in most books on music history. I'm so glad that the people into whose hands these notebooks passed kept them safe, even when they must have seemed of no more consequence than the debris cast on the ocean, or even the proverbial 'message in a bottle'.

6 March 2018

Bitterly cold weather during the past week brought a fieldfare into my garden, searching for food. These winter visitors to England will be migrating home to continental Europe soon. They are never known to nest in Gloucestershire. But, whenever I see them it reminds me of my visit to Fürth in May 1995, and particularly of an evening there as the guest of Dr. John Henry van der Meer.

Born in Holland of a Dutch father and an English mother, and fluent in many languages, including German and Italian, he was for many years on the staff of the German National Museum in Nuremberg, where he negotiated the acquisition of two major collections of musical instruments – those assembled by the Rück and Neupert families. This superb resource, combined with instruments already owned by the museum, created an immense wealth for future study. Anyone who wants to know about German keyboard instruments really must go to Nuremberg. I spent a whole week there arriving at 9am, going down two floors to the sub-basement, and re-emerging into the daylight at 4.45pm. Armed with my notes on the Thursday evening I took the S1 train service for Fürth, and having time at my disposal, walked to the Stadtpark, beside the river Pegnitz, which looks so much like an English park, except that there the churring calls of fieldfares attracted my attention, flying constantly back and forth to their nesting sites in the trees nearby. They were so busy. So too the cyclists riding home in the early evening through the park.

It was there, sitting on a bench in the park, that I began to consider how to organise the immense wealth of data gathered in the museum's basement. How to make sense of the immense diversity of square piano designs? - that was my main concern. And from that, with the churring fieldfares flying overhead, came the idea for my presentation of four types of 18th century square piano, in German workshops, that was written up and published in the Galpin Society Journal in 1997. Dr Van der Meer was very pleased that I was throwing a spotlight on this little-considered aspect of German culture. We had a very pleasant evening at his favourite Italian restaurant in Fürth: I shall never forget his hospitality. It was he who put me in touch with his friend Dr Helmut Richter, at the town's archive, from whom I received much valuable information about Fürth's once famous son –Johannes Zumpe.

For anyone who searches for Tafelklaviere or square pianos on the Musical Instrument Museums' website [MIMO] my condensed notes from the Galpin Society publication are apparently the only information on many of the instruments in the GNM basement. Perhaps one day there will some new investigator with sufficient time and finance venturing underground for further study.

28 February 2018

In the early 19th century, James Shudi Broadwood, as senior partner in the world's largest piano manufacturers, was often asked about the origins of the pianoforte. The text showing here is a sample of his beliefs, published after his death by his son Henry Fowler Broadwood, in 1862. Clearly his information is not very accurate. But many people have taken this as being true, some even thinking this is an eye-witness account – which it is not. James Shudi Broadwood was born in December 1772, and therefore would not have been conscious of anything about the introduction of the piano by Zumpe until many years after the event. It is, to put it bluntly, hearsay, and untrustworthy.

Nevertheless, during the 1990s I visited many German museums, carefully examining instruments in their store rooms, searching for any Tafelclavier that might be the kind of instrument that Broadwood imagined had been Zumpe's inspiration. Sometimes the search threw up an interesting specimen that resembled the well-known 'English Piano-fortes' that made Zumpe's fortune. But on closer examination it was plainly evident that they were derivative: they were copies of Zumpe's design, not antecedents. Tell-tale signs included the exact replication of his hammer mechanism, with sockets for guide pins and rounded hammer heads; his scaling, facilitated by the dogleg shape of the treble keys, cranked to the left; the insertion of a cartouche above the keys with the ink inscription executed in an imitation of English Gothic script. So, in the end, I concluded that James Shudi Broadwood had misled everyone. Whoever told him about Zumpe's return from Germany with a square piano in his luggage, was simply wrong. J. S. Broadwood's testimony concerning the origin of the square piano was no more reliable than his beliefs about the origins of Herman Tabel's harpsichord design (which, by the way, he changed several times).

In the last few weeks the original first draft manuscript by James Shudi Broadwood has been rediscovered, and I am delighted to be able to compare this with the version printed by his son in 1862. The discrepancies appear to be highly significant. JSB's handwriting is often very difficult, but having now completed a transcript, my self-imposed task is to make a detailed comparison with the published text so as to clear the ground for a more accurate history of keyboard instruments in England.

12 February 2018

Pedalling, that seemingly indispensable aspect of piano technique for modern musicians, produces a beguiling effect in some of the slower tempi sonatas of Scarlatti. However, we all know that such an interpretation could not have been anything near Scarlatti's experience. The piano-fortes that he played, apparently with great pleasure, had no means of raising the dampers, by pedal or any other method. So, thoughtful pianists have sometimes given attention to the mysterious, historic development of pedalling technique. Nevertheless, David Rowland's study, published in 1993, seems to be the first thorough attempt to delineate the evolution of piano pedalling, using original sources rather than retrospective judgements.

Those who confine their attention to Viennese fortepianos, and English concert grands, find that evidence provided by the instruments' construction leaves a wide-open territory on which any subjective interpretation can be imposed with little effort. But for those, like David Rowland, who extend their view to the much more prevalent square pianos there is ample evidence of how, prior to 1810, and maybe later, very competent musicians had little if any dependence on legato pedalling as we now understand it. This is clearly shown in the variety of pedal provisions from highly regarded makers. For example, Clementi & Co. sold many very beautiful square pianos, certainly not economy models, that had no pedal whatever. (As is now well known, those Clementi square pianos from the early 1800s provided with a pedal had a disconcerting touch as the mechanism pulled the keys downward by about 2mm. Similar instruments from Broderip & Wilkinson circa 1800 often had no pedal of any kind.) William Southwell's patent pianos from Dublin had a knee lever, but it was for a buff stop, not sustaining tone. French square pianos at that time usually had a row of four pedals that were intended to be used as mutations, changing the voice of the instrument, in longer passages. Sostenuto pedalling does not work well on such pianos. John Broadwood in London was among the first to provide a truly independent sustaining pedal for square pianos which could be used, conveniently, in the way that modern musicians expect. So, presumably around 1800 there was still a wide variety of expectations, and no settled technique.

2 February 2018

Port Sunlight, that spacious and pleasing modern village near Birkenhead, has a charming art gallery and museum at the heart of the community. Thanks to Lady Lever's collecting interests, that's where we find a curious square piano by Frederick Beck incorporated in an elaborately decorative cabinet from c.1775. This was the starting point for research by Margaret Debenham, which has now been published online in The London Journal. So I am delighted to announce that Margaret and I have been given the opportunity to give access gratis to up to fifty readers who don't have an academic institutional access.

Besides the question of whether these commodes were commissioned by Beck to enhance his pianos, or whether the cabinet maker obtained ready-made pianos to enhance his commodes, we also report a recently-discovered piano by Beck that pre-dates all other known examples, and reveal the story of Rose-Ann Shudi, whose father's premature death in 1774 left her with an uncertain future, as mentioned in Broadwood Square Pianos (pages 8-9)

29 January 2018

Good news from Woking. In 2005, describing the procedure for researching Broadwood pianos in the archives at Surrey History Centre, I reported that unhappily the sales ledgers were incomplete. It was not too difficult to get information about square pianos made and sold up to 1797, or for those made after 1808, but for owners of Broadwood pianos made around 1800 the bad news was that the vital sales ledgers were lost. So it is good to report that this information is now out-of-date.

In preparing for the upcoming auction sale of the Colt Collection two more ledgers have been found, plus some loose pages. The Surrey History Centre now has these items. The information I've received is that two books, covering the period 1797-8, and 1802-1807, may be of great interest to anyone owning a piano from that period. They have now been donated to the Broadwood Archive in Woking.

21 January 2018

Following recent discoveries (reported on this Blog last year) concerning a fraudulent 1729 harpsichord, it is now possible to be confident that the oldest surviving instrument by Burkat Shudi is his 1740 double-manual harpsichord at Kew Palace. Good news also – you can see it on a newly uploaded page on the Royal Collections website. There it is introduced by Chris Nobbs and demonstrated by Laurence Cummings, who plays from the 'Harmonious Blacksmith' variations by Handel. As Chris points out in the video, this really was an exceptional fine instrument worthy of the royal patron for whom it was made. Though we see it now as a harpsichord only, it originally sat on a cabinet containing organ pipes, so that one could play the harpsichord, or organ, or both together, changing registrations at will by a pedal – not the one it has now, but an earlier version concealed within the furniture. Unlike later machine stops, there is no clunky box attached to the back of the harpsichord. Everything was enclosed. The instrument was restored by Miles Hellon.

To see the video go to the Royal Collection's website and search for 'Shudi'.

11 January 2018

When I first proposed in 1995 that a distinction should be made between the Pianoforte and the Pantalon I sensed a great deal of resistance among German musicologists. My reading of the situation was that they did not much like an Englishman [foreigner] intruding on their patrimony. So it was with some pleasure that I discovered that Michael Günter, a collector from Bad Homburg, has not only embraced the idea, he has worked up a long paper entitled The Pantalon: a misunderstood 18th century instrument — featured in the recently published proceedings from Kloster Michaelstein. 'Hooray!' I thought, 'at last my work is being taken seriously in Germany.' Closer reading makes for some sad disappointments. As is his custom, Michael Günter makes no acknowledement of my prior work in this field. But then he doesn't give any credit to anyone for anything! You would imagine that the editorial team at Kloster Michaelstein would subject his paper to a peer review, but apparently not. Well, here is a cringe-worthy sample.

This very unprepossessing instrument is in Michael Günter's personal collection. It has no date or maker's inscription but he ascribes it 'with certainty' to Georg Ludwig Krämer and dates it to about 1764. He describes it (truthfully) as having been much altered in the 19th century. It had no dampers originally, so perhaps there is good reason for his description of it as a 'Pantalon'.

On the basis that Krämer worked in the Nuremberg area in the early 1760s, which is where Zumpe's parents lived, he then makes an extraordinary claim: 'because of the striking similarity of construction and action there can be little doubt that this is the prototype [Modelle] for the square pianos that Zumpe afterwards made in London'. He goes further. 'Krämer is the spiritual forefather of the 'English Square Piano'. [geistige Stammvater]

Does this really look like Zumpe? Ignore the black keys. Pretend, if you wish, that Krämer's cranked wrestplank was later simplified by Zumpe. But does that dainty S-shaped bridge resemble Zumpe's work? Also, why is that Zumpe's treble keys are cranked to the left, while Krämer's are straight? All very puzzling. Now have a look at the action:

Do these hammers suggest they are the ancestors of English square pianos? Let's make it clear: these hammers may have been abused and modified, but it is certain that Krämer used hammers of this type, with iron stems and axe-like hammer heads, seen in surviving specimens right up to 1790. (I made a detailed examination of one signed by him and dated 1788 in Nuremberg many years ago.) So how is it that Zumpe used something so radically different? And if Zumpe based his work on this model would Herr Günter like to confirm that the all-important scaling and string tensions are the same? They are not!

What this shows, contrary to Günter's hypothesis, is that if this instrument was typical of the small hammer claviers being made in Nuremberg in the 1760s, then clearly Zumpe rejected it and made an enormous leap forward. Even in his earliest vintage, his 'small Piano-forte' was systemically different and distinctive. What's wrong with our German friends? Why are they so unwilling to give credit to one of their own countrymen? I might have explained this as resulting from their failure to understand the difference between a Pantalon and a Piano-forte: but no, clearly Michael Günter does know the difference

6 January 2018

About 150 people turned out for the first Cheltenham Coffee Concert of the new year on Saturday morning. They had a treat.

The musical menu included Corelli, Scarlatti, Vivaldi and Handel — all delightfully played by violinists Ann Monnington and Miranda Walton, with their delicious blend of gut-strung harmonies, accompanied by Imogen Seth-Smith and Warwick Cole. They were joined by Linda Gerrard who sang a long-lost Gloria from Handel's early period in Italy. This music was only rediscovered in 2001, 'lost' in the Royal Academy in London. Delightful. It makes you wonder how many other baroque treasures are overlooked and never heard, waiting for some diligent researcher to find them.

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