Michael's Blog

19 March 2019

The appearance of a Pohlman square piano at the forthcoming Piano Auctions in London is a welcome reminder of the ongoing research project which I first reported on this Blog in January 2015. A very typical and representative example of the instruments Charles Burney was recommending to his pupils and friends, having the pioneering advantage of a fully chromatic keyboard down to FF. There are at least 2 other surviving examples from that year, one at the Priest House in West Hoathly and another in a private collection in nearby Arundel.

This one does not appear to have been subject to any major interventions, although the auction house is being a bit coy on some details. I do notice that they have fallen into the familiar trap of mis-quoting the inscription - by adding an extra 'n' to the maker's name. Looking at the nameboard carefully we see that in 1776 he was still using the more attractive form of cartouche (with broken ogee ends) but that he was already economising[?] by not sending these nameboards to a proper writing master (as in earlier years) for we see the inferior quality of calligraphy typical of his later products - just where you would think that he might want to impress his clients! His address is missing, as I have remarked before. In 1776 he was living and working in a house at the southern end of Frith Street, near Soho Square. I wonder whether his wife Dorothea may have tried her hand at inscriptions? Whoever it was, they never had any formal tuition.

14 March 2019

At Brookfield Farm my business unit is now clear of saleable square pianos (except for one under a plastic sheet that was half-finished ten years ago). I am really not sure that anyone loves Southwell. It could be a white elephant. But when clearing so much space other things, almost forgotten, are easier to see. Such was the case when I rediscovered a French style harpsichord carcass, painted green and looking quite good. There too was the shaped frame and set of gilded legs - rather handsome if I am permitted to say so! That's how it happens. Just when I expected to be clear of such work I am in the workshop again making keyboards. I really couldn't bear the thought of selling my beautiful French double to a stranger at a knock-down price, knowing well that it would not be completed to a very high standard.

Consequently, I am discovering again just how much labour there is in making keyboards by traditional methods. The work seems so time-consuming that my thoughts turned to making a quick mental calculation. Here is the lower manual limewood panel; I have planed it down to 20 mm thickness [three quarters of an inch]; it must be sawn and converted to 60 individual keys. This was taking more time than expected and, feeling weary, I asked myself 'How many yards of sawing will this amount to?' The answer: 120 feet, or 40 yards, each cut to be made accurately with a selection of fine-toothed hand saws. And that is before beginning on the upper manual keys! Each key then has to be finely shaped, the balance point mortices cut, the ebony covers made, glued and shaped; the arcaded fronts glued on, and then the time-consuming task of aligning and levelling each key. Just when I expected to have more time for writing and researching!

On the way home across the sheep pasture there was a wierd sensation. Instead of running away the ewes and lambs were trotting towards me! They've never done that before. They were coming closer and closer - not just a few of them but every animal in the ten acre field, running towards me as if I were their best friend! Two hundred eager friends running towards me! All their wariness forgotten! I never saw anything like it. Then I realized. I was carrying a white shopping bag, just like the one the farmer uses when he brings them some special treat. When I had crossed the field and gone through the gate without opening the bag they looked so disappointed. Better be careful what I am carrying next time.

27 February 2019

This week I say goodbye to what may well be my last Broadwood square piano - an instrument that was on my 'for sale' page for about a year. But this week came the pleasure of hearing it played in earnest. My word, it sounded good! Perfectly in tune, at or near its original pitch, (that's to say above a=420Hz) with a strong tone that is more than adequate for any domestic situation. A reliable action, with an expressive touch, such an instrument can deliver everything that a discerning musician requires.

It came to me from an auction sale in Suffolk some years ago, almost complete, but lacking its pedal, as they are so often. The idea of attaching it by a mahogany screw thread and then expecting it stand up to being frequently depressed by heavy-footed players – madness! The threads broke, and the pedal was presumably laid aside and eventually discarded. It happened so often.

So I claim no authenticity for the pedal you see here. In fact, it was purposely designed to offer the modern pianist a comfortable experience, placing the sustaining device under the right foot, where pianists have been accustomed to find it from their earliest days. (Broadwood, of course, had it under the left foot.) So, in addition to the pedal you see in this photograph there is a reversing lever attached to the underside of the piano - held by two steel woodscrews. Unlike Broadwood's pedal it will not fall off!

There's a good chance that we will see it again because it will go on a film set where, if they don't change their plans again, it will appear as the instrument that Mr. Churchill bought for Jane Faifax in the fiction of Jane Austen. Perhaps not the ideal instrument for that role, but credible at least, and most importantly, making the right sound!

22 February 2019

If you visit historic houses or museums you will have seen many old keyboard instruments - harpsichords, spinnets and square pianos in particular. Curators try to be informative. They will tell visitors what the instruments are, what materials were used, and very often the date of manufacture. All helpful information. But what they usually fail to tell you is the social context - what music was played, and for whom, in what sort of social gathering, and the most important thing of all - who played. That, you might think, is impossible to know. But one thing we can be very sure of - these instruments were mostly owned and played by females.

Nowadays historic keyboard instruments have entered the realm of BOYS TOYS, like vintage motor cars, or steam engines. This I find very sad. Everyone will admit that if, as I am saying, most of these instruments were owned and played by women or girls, it is unsatisfactory that their modern counterparts don't claim this ground. If you attend a meeting of 'friends of square pianos', for example, you see very few women - a reversal of the historic situation.

Some years ago I thought it might be worthwhile to investigate this. What I found was that in the transition period, if we may call it that, when harpsichords and pianofortes were equally in fashion, female players outnumbered males by four to one. To put it another way, 80% of keyboard players were women or girls. This huge gender imbalance is seemingly confirmed by every data set that has been compiled. Curiously, an investigation by Marcel Vekemans of seventeenth-century Flemish harpsichords, as depicted by contemporary artists (such as Vermeer) 81% of the players were female. Agreed, there could be reasons why painters preferred to show females, yet it may also truly reflect the preponderance of women players.

Today I decided to make my findings available for scrutiny by anyone who's seriously interested, so I have uploaded my original paper, as given in Almería in 2002, and at Michaelstein in 2003, to the academic research site, researchgate.net. Perhaps, at a future date, it will be possible to condense it and post it on this site too.

 

12 February 2019

In 1800 when Thomas Jefferson ordered an upright piano from John Isaac Hawkins he was intending to encourage the young inventor. But he was taking a risk. He paid Hawkins $264 for it, a lot of money, and the piano was duly delivered to Monticello. But it was a disaster. It proved impossible to keep it in tune, but this was not due to the weather in Virginia, or anything about its location within the house. A Kirckman harpsichord nearby remained perfectly playable.

George Washington also was probably thinking of encouraging American artisans when he bought a square piano from Dodds & Claus. This likewise proved a mistake. His grand-daughter, Eleanor, was much happier with the more reliable instrument he ordered for her from London. Washington obviously had to be seen to support American tradesmen, but in the end common sense prevailed. Buy from experienced craftsmen, who are constructing these instruments in quantity day after day!

When I saw a square piano by Dodds & Claus it was obvious that it was simply a pirated design, being an attempt to copy Broadwood's patent, but it was poorly done. No surprise really – Broadwood's design only makes sense in the context of high production volumes. Similarly, an eighteenth century square piano by Bachmann from Pennsylvania is obviously an attempted copy of Longman & Broderip's pianos made by John Geib in London. But mistakes were made. Better to buy from the men who are making them day after day!

This week, however, I got an unpleasant surprise. Tuning a square piano by Broadwood I was puzzled that bottom C would not go into tune. In fact, as I applied the tuning hammer nothing seemed to be happening. The pitch should have been rising, but it was not. 'Check, Michael' I said to myself. 'Are you on the right pin?' I checked. Everything seemed in order. It was fully five minutes, maybe ten, before I realized that Broadwoods (seemingly reliable and dependable) had sold a piano with the wrong markings on the wrestplank! For 200 years this piano somehow survived with every note in the bottom octave wrongly marked! There's nothing wrong with the piano, but how many tuners have been led astray by this? How many overspun strings have been broken on this account?

6 February 2019

On Saturday I had the opportunity to hear a concert grand piano by Fazioli played by three different pianists in various chamber music works by Dvorak. The venue was a large Victorian church, with a high roof, but given a modern make-over with carpet tiles and comfortable chairs – so with a much modified accoustic. Not echoing, not harsh or unsympathetic for music. Yet I found that, no matter which player, or which ensemble, the persistent impression was of an instrument with an over-powerful voice redeemed by no beautiful tone in any register. Power? Certainly. You could play Rachmaninov on this in Carnegie Hall and everyone would hear every note. But was it enjoyable in this context? Sad to say, I found it no more pleasant than the equivalent Steinway. Maybe in the tenor and bass (especially in the notes below 8 foot C) one could hear unusual clarity at times, but the stentorian treble had no pretty sounds whatever. So, three pianists, separately, playing similar pieces, but what came over most assertively was the intrusive nature of the piano itself.

When we hear a good violin (which we did on Saturday) we appreciate its particular voice, its individual character, bright or mellow, sweet or strong, on the top string or the D string. But with our gleaming black concert grand pianos it seems that the manufacturers aim only at uniformity: a standard product – one size fits all, so to speak. The variation from one to another is minimal, the sound being as fascinating as the black lacquer on the outside.

By contrast last week, using headphones with my computer, I found a recent recording of Schubert's grand duo Fantasie in F minor (D940), on a Viennese square piano. My eardrums were never assaulted in the louder passages (as they are so often when two confident pianists get to work on a Steinway) and even though there were imperfections in the tuning, there was no chance of my giving up on this performance. I listened with interest to every note, right to the end.

29 January 2019

As preparations for the symposium at Mount Vernon begin to take shape, I am awestruck by photos of the reproduction harpsichord recently completed by John Watson. Such a magnificent accomplishment! So many seemingly insurmountable challenges met and overcome!

The original instrument - as played by George Washington's grand-daughter - was purchased from Longman & Broderip in London in 1793. At that point in the history of music we tend to think that the harpsichord's useful life was over - it would soon be redundant, overtaken by the inexorable rise of the pianoforte. Yet on this Virginia plantation this fabulously complex harpsichord, with machine stop and Venetian swell, continued as the lady's principal instrument well into the nineteenth century. In 1817 this was the instrument on which 'Nellie' entertained her house guests, and judging by their comments preserved in letters, they greatly admired her performances. (She had long before abandoned her square piano!)

What should we make of this? I see from my notes on Mary Marsh, that she was soon to acquire her third square piano. Finding her Broadwood piano of 1788 rather disappointing, she took her brother's advice in 1794 and chose a much better one from Longman & Broderip. Of course, this does not mean that she would not have been happy to play on the Mount Vernon harpsichord - if we can imagine her magically transported across the ocean. Making sense of all this, and the conflicting information we glean from documentary sources is quite a challenge - but one I have engaged to undertake.

 

18 January 2019

Innovation in piano design is not dead or even moribund. For those like me who yearn for some diversity, and deplore the stranglehold that Steinway & Sons have enjoyed for too long on the concert platform, the discovery I made this week of the innovative grand piano designs of Stephen Paulello is refreshing news.

Long ago we entertained hope for the Bösendorfer Imperial grand, an instrument that seemed to have some subtle differences, though it came in the familiar-looking package of a black-laquer sprayed monster that could be nowhere at home but in a large concert hall. Sadly, I found that despite the generous comments of some well-known players (possibly under contract) its touch and tone was not specially pleasing and hardly different from the product we already knew. And Bösendorfer's much-vaunted extra notes in the bass were disappointingly dry and dull.

Fazioli promised much, and their concert grands have their adherents, but when I made a long journey to hear one in concert it was not a rewarding experience. It sounded good. The player was better than most. But it certainly did not come over as a break-through product. I think the truth may be that the makers did not have sufficient nerve to depart very far from familiar the Steinway territory, where most conservatoire-trained players feel at home.

You cannot say that of Stephen Paulello. You see no iron framing. No black lacquer. A unique piano concept with an instantly different shape, longer and wider than expected, with a subtly different curvature. It was specially interesting to see that the bass strings have been repositioned. The crossed-over bass, placing the lowest notes on a separate bridge, was originally a space-saving configuration adopted by Henri Pape in his small upright pianos. Why Steinway pretended that his basses gained any tonal benefit from such an arrangement is puzzling. Most of us, if we are honest, find the cross-over register muddy, slow-speaking, and confused. Paulello has boldly dispensed with this modern dogma. By placing his string band in something resembling the old straight-strung grands he has regained some clarity and quicker speech. But I wonder if he hasn't over-cooked the goose! Like Hawkins' astonishing patent upright pianos of 1800, Stephen Paulello has gone way beyond what was needed to open up a special place in the history of piano technology. You're accustomed to 88 notes? Paulello has 102! I have to say that his deep bass doesn't sound any better Bösendorfer's. Apart from the very top, the treble seem bright and clear. It's good to hear that those disheartening dead tones that come at the climax of many pieces by Chopin may have been eliminated. Well, there is more to see and hear, but even if I listen carefully with headphones, there is no accounting for what the record producer and sound engineer may have cooked up. So I look forward to hearing one of these pianos live one day, with a musician who can exploit new possibilities. It looks and sounds promising.

8 January 2019

Last Saturday's Coffee concert was a happy success. About 150 people turned out to hear music for viola da Gamba and harpsichord, and they were very appreciative and attentive throughout. Their generous donations will help finance future events. It was good too that the Cole family was brought together again before university commitments take Lois and Henry away. Warwick and Rachel were mingling and chatting, Grannie Annie welcomed everyone at the door, and her husband was busy in the kitchen making pots of tea and washing up. When a page turner was needed 'young' Sophie was happy, as ever, to oblige. She's nearly sixteen now!

But amidst all this happiness we heard some terrible news. Our friend Alan Crumpler had a disastrous fire at his home in Lemster [shown on maps as Leominster]. His is a very old house in the centre of the town, and here when everyone slept on Christmas night an electric fire had been left on. The first they knew of it was in the early hours when the bedrooms were filled with acrid smoke. Everyone escaped, but dressed only in their pyjamas. Fire appliances arrived as promptly as possible, and the flames were confined to the music room - but only by pumping in a cascade of water. In the end, when the smoke subsided, all that was left of Alan's pipe organ was a pile of charred timber and a pool of molten lead. His harpsichord, which he used for concerts in the Lion Ballroom has been totally destroyed, as has a rare eighteenth-century bassoon, and about 30 other instruments. On this website on the Zumpe page you can see the nameboard of a modest little piano with three pedals by Schoene & Co., dated 1785. It has been severely burned and is unlikely ever to play again. Then, of course, there is Alan's lifetime collection of music – all gone. What the flames did not consume a torrent of water ruined. A disastrous Christmas. Sadly, of such events is history made.

3 January 2019

Highlights of 2018 as recorded in this Blog must include the dispersal sale of the Colt Collection, and the eagerness shown by bidders hoping to acquire one (or more) of the harpsichords and pianos on display in Bethersden. Some will continue to be thrilled with their purchases; some disappointed that, in the heat of the battle, they were unable to afford their cherished instrument. Still others may wonder if they made a wise investment. But it was all very interesting, and good to see some of the best instruments had been returned from long-term loans and at least for a time relocated with the rest of Mr. Colt's collection. Following so soon after the sale of Christopher Hogwood's instruments, and the dispersal of Richard Burnett's collection at Finchcock's, the Colt sale seemed to signify the end of an era, a double bar with no da capo.

2019 however, holds promise of many interesting events. In August at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, there will be an international gathering in which the English harpsichord owned by his grand-daughter Eleanor will be brought back to life in the form of a replica made by John Watson. At this gathering I have agreed to give a lecture which is intended to reflect on the lady's harpsichord and her American square piano into their cultural and musical context. In Oxford two weeks later I propose to speak at the conference at the Faculty of Music on the less-than- helpful activities of some earlier twentieth century collectors, particularly the dubious legacy of Paul de Wit, one time owner of the now discredited Shudi harpsichord of 1729 – and why this is so damaging.

Maybe – fingers crossed – 2019 will also see the publication in Barcelona of the long-delayed Zumpe book. Let's hope. But most of all we look forward to as yet unsuspected musical pleasures, beginning this Saturday when the Cole family in Cheltenham will all be together again for the opening Coffee Concert of the year at Holy Apostles.

 

 

Earlier entries

View Blog for 2018

View Blog for July-Dec 2017 here

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