Michael's Blog

24 February 2017

Some twenty years ago when researching the history of the piano I visited David Leigh at his then home in Oxfordshire to see and hear his grand piano by Robert Stodart, on which he did some recordings. It was a surprise to see that it was clearly inscribed with the date 1796 for, as David and I well knew, by that date the piano-making business had been transferred to Matthew and William Stodart, and all their pianos were inscribed with their names. It was readily apparent that someone had falsified the date by scratching out the third didgit and over-writing a nine. No one would do that in modern times so we agreed, the piano must have been made in 1786, but resold about ten years later when a more recent date would have enhanced its value. Certainly worthwhile financially if it looks convincing!

The same thing happened with this very attractive square piano by Broadwood recently sold at auction. The exterior has been lovingly preserved and is a credit to the previous owners. But the inscription has been falsified.

The final digit must look suspicious to everyone. Confirmation is found inside. The serial number 2315 places it definitely in 1793, and the brass under-dampers are on the straight pattern superseded that very year. Nevertheless, there was real pleasure in finding that the careful owners had done nothing foolish or ill-advised to the interior — a full set of hammers and dampers (though in bad condition), and what looks like a near complete set of old strings, perhaps dating from the original manufacture. Externally the satinwood borders and the distinctive inlay matches closely a Broadwood piano dated 1791 in the music room at Kenwood House, on Hampstead Heath. So many positives: a rare find these days! But how annoying to see a false date.

17 February 2017

Readers of this page may recall that I featured this piano in December when it came up for auction at Bishop & Miller's in Stowmarket. Sad to say no-one liked it. It will appear again on Saturday 25 February. The estimate is only £100-150, so it's clear that the vendor really wants to sell. It could go to one cheeky bid. Its ingenious down-striking action ought to make it a good item for any piano museum, or private collector, where the history of the square piano is taken seriously. This one is quite a rare specimen. The only intractable disadvantage with such instruments is that by extending the keyboard to seven octaves — which most players want — you must increase the front to back dimension. So like the monster 'square grand' pianos made in America in the 1880s it takes up much more floor space. This one isn't wider (left to right) than an eighteenth-century piano, just much bigger front-to-back.

11 February 2017

News from Catalonia received this week is that their London-made square piano by Zumpe & Buntebart (1776) is to be demonstrated in a recital at the museum on 12 March. It should make an interesting comparison with the recently recorded square piano in Pavlozsk from the same makers that was formerly the property of Catherine the Great - featured on this Blog page earlier. Where the Russian example is impressively decorated to a design that probably came from Robert Adam, the Barcelona piano is contrastingly of the basic type with no inlay whatever. Its cartouche, identifying the makers, is made from a shaped boxwood plaque applied to the front of the plain mahogany nameboard. Restoration has been recently completed by Kerstin Schwarz, formerly of Halle an der Saale, and then Florence. The photo herewith is before restoration. The legs, of course, are not original. They were provided at a time when this piano was used for organ practice, with a pedal board connected to the keys through a slot cut right through the baseboard - now filled in. Kertin's restoration has resulted in a much more credible instrument. The non-original prop sticks have been replaced with cords, and the missing damper cover rail has been re-instated. Further news: the museum is to publish a book about this instrument, with a CD, with contributions from myself, Kerstin Schwarz and Pablo Gomez Ábalos, out later this year.

8 February 2017

Mobile phones, cell phones, call them what you will, I really hate them. Young mothers no longer pay attention to their children, they are too wrapped up with their 'friends'. Shoppers at the checkout think nothing of answering the phone while everyone behind them has to wait. Drivers text their friends while speeding along public roads. Is this progress? Well, I know, it's how things are. I'm a dinosaur. I admit it.

But look what I'm missing! Anyone who has an iphone [or an ipad] can download Cleartune for less than £3. And see what it does! Any temperament, any pitch level. For an approximate tuning use the dial at the bottom. As you near the intended pitch the little yellow triangle at the top turns green. So easy! If you want accurate tuning watch the scale above. Centre it on zero. Perfect.

The photo you see here is of my son's ipad. I set it to A=415 with sixth comma meantone (for a harpsichord) but there are many other possibilities. How I wish it had been available twenty years ago! In 2000 I was contracted to provide a fortepiano for a BBC live broadcast of The Marriage of Figaro - to be tuned to A=430. Live Broadcast, I emphasize. I didn't have a fork for this pitch but a kind guy from Marksons Pianos lent me his. However, knowing what happens on stage just before a performance I was worried. How would I hear the piano with stagehands stomping around and shouting to one another? They always do. So I paid £400 for a tuning device. Set it to any pitch, with 12 temperaments to choose from. It saved the day, and my sanity... at a price. But today if you have a mobile phone or an ipad Cleartune is so cheap, and so reliable. (However, I still don't have a mobile phone.)

25 January 2017

It has always been a special pleasure to have an untouched instrument for repair. You never know what you might find, especially when a piano has been retained as a decorative item, long after its musical use has ceased. But the most interesting stray items I have found under the keys or in the action have been visiting cards, or notes to the maker: e.g. 'Lady Crewe will have her piano tuned on Tuesday morning' – 230 years ago. Sewing pins that have fallen among the keys, or costume jewellery — these are very common. Sometimes you find a coin — usually of low value.

So it was very amusing last week to read of a Broadwood upright piano made in 1906 having a hidden hoard of treasure concealed inside. This discovery was not made until the owners asked for it to be tuned and repaired! Peter Reaval of the British Museum's portable antiquities scheme described the find as 'a stunning assemblage of material'. The items are believed to be mostly gold. But this instrument has changed hands several times, and consequently no one knows who might have hidden these items. It is reported that though the objects were considerably older, they were presumably hidden in the last hundred years by someone who probably intended to retrieve them but never did. The owners may be entitled to quite a large sum of money — certainly more than the piano itself was ever worth!

17 January 2017

The pictures of the piano in Pavlovsk from Pavel Akhanov make an interesting comparison with the amazing design by Robert Adam for a harpsichord 'for the Empress of Russia'. In the picture below Yuri Semenov is preparing to record the piano by Zumpe & Buntebart, dated 1774. Its decorative motifs show a striking resemblance to the harpsichord design which, though some have doubted that it was ever made, was in fact built by Frederick Neubauer (with some modifications) and sent to Russia that year. This is one of the findings from our paper for the Royal Musical Association, 'Pioneer Piano Makers' by Margaret Debenham & Michael Cole, for which you can find a link on our home page.

The inscription 'Adelphi 1774' was apparently added after the event, probably not by Robert Adam himself. This is reproduced in Philip James, Early Keyboard Instruments, London, 1930, Plate LIII, page 133.

12 January 2017


It looks completely unlike any piano that ever came from the workshop of Zumpe & Buntebart. Made to a design from Robert Adam when he was at the height of his fame and prestige, this instrument was sent to St Petersburg for Empress Catherine the Great and has recently been restored for exhibition in the Palace of Pavlovsk.

A piano fit for a palace? If you look inside you see that it is essentially a standard square piano from Zumpe's workshop. Redundant space has been added at the left side, and more extraneous timber added at the front creating the unexpected breakfront appearance, with its all-important symmetry when the instrument is closed. The date on the front of the piano is 1774. Robert Adam supplied a fantastic design for a harpsichord for Empress Catherine, made in London and shipped to St Petersburg by Frederick Neubauer. It would be a truly wonderful discovery if this too were to be found in some forgotten store room.

Restoration of the piano was undertaken by Alexander Khukhtonen [the furniture] and Pavel Akhanov [musical function].

The portrait shown right is Empress Catherine's daughter-in-law, Maria Feoderovna, painted 1777. The piano is now located in Maria's stunningly beautiful boudoir shown in our December blog.


In the short audio clip showing below you can hear the piano, recorded in Pavlovsk Palace, by Yuri Semenov. The music is from Mozart's Adagio in B minor, K.540



Hear this piano [MP3 file]







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