Michael's Blog

22 July 2017

The search for Pohlman pianos had a sequel today when I was shown an interesting piano that has eluded me for two years and more, though it was and is the closest to home. This example dating from 1779 hasn't been used as a musical instrument for a very long time. For the last thirty years it has been in Gloucestershire, where no one has paid very much attention to it. By report it has been in the same family, with homes in London and in remote rural Radnorshire for at least a hundred years. There are three handstops as usual, but also some original iron trapwork underneath to raise the flap - the so-called swell.

What is especially nice about this piano is that it shows how the instruments were played. Opened, as you see it here (I lifted the lid simply to display the interior), the underside of the lid is plain mahogany. But if you close the lid (as I found it) and open only the front part as when you play music, you find that part of the underside is veneered and cross banded, just like the outside, the plain mahogany being bordered with a dark, richly coloured Cuban variety, separated with boxwood and hareswood stringing.

And of course, as it hasn't been opened recently the colours are quite fresh and vibrant when compared with the faded exterior. It was certainly a pretty item in 1779. Inside the absence of stays or props to hold the lid at an angle was remedied by an inept restorer in the twentieth century, but it is clear to me that this instrument was not supplied with prop sticks. Neither did it have cords tied to eyelets under the lid, as shown in the plainer Pohlman piano of 1776 in the Priest's House, in Sussex, shown on my Pohlman page.





18 July 2017

It looks like an oil painting but is in fact a ceramic plate, about 15cm wide, in the miscelaneous store of Cheltenham Art Gallery (recently rebranded as 'The Wilson') — an object of remarkable skill since the painting must be done in faith as the colours change so much when in the kiln for 'firing'. It is presumed that it must have been done as a labour of love by one of the very skillful painters employed in the Worcester ceramics factory — where else would you find someone with such technical mastery of this medium? Obviously such a portrait has no commercial value. Only her friends and admirers would see it, privately, so to speak. Its history is a bit of a mystery. But the context is not difficult to understand.

It was painted about 1820. She is clearly a young woman with much musical skill. She holds a piece of music, so accurately painted that we can read the actual notes and the key signature, but I cannot identify the composition. She sits beside a piano of the usual type, at that time, made in London, probably of five and a half octaves, which has sycamore (maple) veneer in the keywell, with black inlaid lines. This limits the likely makers. A shortlist would include Tomkison or Dettmer. I think of her as representative of the overwhelming majority of pianoforte players — female, much admired for their music, women who set the tone for the appreciation of music that would be built upon and developed during the Victorian era that followed. Western music could never have flourished without such people — and the music publishing industry would hardly exist.

11 July 2017

When James Shudi Broadwood passed his 21st birthday he was given a quarter share in his father's business, so from January 1794 their instruments were signed 'John Broadwood & Son'. By that date harpsichords were so out of fashion that the whole workforce had been transferred to piano making. Yet the prestige that attached to a long-established business was something to boast of, so for the Broadwood family their descent from a famous harpsichord making tradition, stretching back to the seventeenth century was gratefully remembered. And thanks to some 'Notes & Observations', published by the firm in 1860, every history that mentions Broadwood inevitably repeats a story connecting J.S.Broadwood's grandfather, Burkat Shudi, and thence to Shudi's master Herman Tabel, 'who learned his craft from the successors to the Ruckers in Antwerp'. [Really?]

For many people this explains how Tabel came to be so celebrated. As Boalch puts it: 'Tabel's importance lies in his having influenced [Shudi and Kirckman] to the extent that almost every English harpsichord ... exhibits the many Flemish traits present in Tabel's harpsichord of 1721'. This has troubled me for many years. I cannot see how an oak-cased harpsichord, with dovetailed corners, a cut-through lute stop, and a very distinctive form of bentside, can be said to be derived from Ruckers harpsichords with their poplar cases, mitred corner joints, and very gently curved shape. They're so different. French harpsichords derived from Ruckers — no problem. But English? It seems to me that this mythology may have boosted Broadwood's status in Victorian times but it does a great disservice to Tabel, surely one of the most original innovators.

Charles Mould did a great job in establishing the authenticity of the 1721 Tabel harpsichord, but the photographs he took then cannot now be found, so Thursday week I shall be returning by invitation to Warwick Museum for a further examination, and a photographic session which will hopefully supply the museum with the digital images they need.

30 June 2017

Haymaking is nearly finished. Neatly packaged bales are stacked in the corners of the field that was mentioned on 18 June. There are crows strutting around in the newly cut grass, but they fly up when they see me coming. Seen against the sky they look ragged, and dishevelled, and will do so throughout July. Their wing feathers fall out one by one like children's milk teeth, and similarly the damage isn't long-lasting. Although the birds struggle for power with their gap-tooth wings, new feathers will grow. By October they will have a full set again.

I mention this because it is these feathers, the primary flight feathers, specifically from crows and ravens, that were collected by harpsichord makers of old. It is puzzling to me why modern-day harpsichord makers ignore this fact. One can readily agree that for a newly made harpsichord, intended for a busy, practical musician, delrin plectra that can be bought ready shaped and easy to insert, are a great convenience. But is the sound the same as from quills? I think not. It is similar, but lacks those characteristic speech inflections that old harpsichords ought to have. Recently, when examining the Herman Tabel instument of 1721, I saw that in the 1960s or 70s someone voiced it with quills – very good, but they are all white as snow. I guess they're goose quills. Paul de Wit writing in 1911 about the 'Tschudi 1729' harpsichord he recently bought boasts that he has replaced the 'goose quills' with leather, to improve the tone, as he thought, so it was a common perception that goose feathers were the original choice. Well, geese were as plentiful in former times as they are now; and turkeys, eagles and vultures were also obtainable – so why did Professor Talbot of Oxford, write circa 1690 that plectra should be 'crow [quills], raven's best for bass'. And why did John Broadwood, ninety years later, continue to supply crow quills and raven quills for his customers? Could it be that experience – the accumulated wisdom of numberless craftsmen – showed that it was precisely the elasticity of crow quills, and their durability, and maybe also their pearl-like matt surface, that ideally suited their purpose?

So we need to shoot more crows? No. Throughout July anyone can collect all the feathers they need for such work. Crows have favourite trees for their overnight roost, and it is while they sit in the tree tops that they preen their wings, so the flight feathers they pull out drop to the ground. Look under the right tree and you find a daily supply.

26 June 2017

Good news from Museu de la Música in Barcelona. The book, to be published in three languages, is scheduled for September (let's say October?) featuring the pianos of Zumpe and celebrating the excellent restoration of their piano of 1776 by Kerstin Schwarz. Here we see it being played by Pablo Gomez (a preview that I've been given as I am contributing the opening chapter on the life and work of this maker). Kerstin contributes a full restoration report, with observations on the many changes that this instrument has been subjected to, and how she has tackled the challenge of returning it as nearly as possible to its original state. Pablo contributes the player's perspective, with remarks on the touch and the unique tone of these pianos, and also provides the recordings to be featured on the CD. Here he plays J. C. Bach in a very lively and interesting interpretation, which I found refreshingly different. I hope soon to be able to provide a link to this so that readers of this blog can access it on Youtube. How different it is from the high classical rendition of Mozart on the CD from St Petersburg! Something to look forward to.

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