Michael's Blog

18 May 2017

Yesterday the light was so gloomy, and the rain was so dispiriting that taking a photo of Warwick town's most prominent landmark was hopeless. So here is what it looks like on a sunny day. St Mary's church tower can be seen for many miles around.

Inside there is an incredible gem — the Beauchamp Chapel [pronounce Beechum] built as a chantry. Here the gilded effigy of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, lies upon a tomb, his hands in a prayerful posture, looking towards a beautiful east window surrounded by a great array of polychrome saints that somehow escaped the savage destruction of post-reformation zealots (though the glass in the window was smashed). You might choose to come here as I did, if music is of interest to you, because in the 1440s John Prudde of London was commissioned to create stained glass windows all around the top of this chapel, depicting angel musicians singing God's praises, accompanied by a fantastic assembly of fifteenth-century instruments – rebecs, psalteries, and harps, shawms and a portative organ, but of special interest to me is a very early representation of a harpsichord, and a clavichord. Thus we know for certain that harpsichords, more or less as we know them, were in use in England 550 years ago.

The music that we are to imagine is actually notated on a stave, running continuously in each window. One of the stewards told me that on a special day every year the choir of St Mary's comes into this chapel to perform this music, re-enacting the ancient ritual, but regrettably without the instrumentalists!

17 May 2017

Dismal, dreary weather was forecast for this day, and did not disappoint! In Stratford on Avon, and Broadway, whose high streets are normally overwhelmed by visitors in May there was hardly anyone to be seen. Low mist hung over the hills, and rain continued from early morning until evening. But this was the day appointed for my visit to Warwick to see again the 1721 harpsichord by Tabel - a crucial instrument in the history of English harpsichord making. For many years now it has been withdrawn from public view and kept in very unsatisfactory depot on the outskirts of the town.

Data collection and critical comparisons with other surviving instruments are the means by which I hope to discover the true relationships between the numerous craftsmen building harpsichords (and related instruments) in London during the eighteenth century. One thing is easily agreed - that though this is undoubtedly a genuine and important instrument, there has been much undocumented interference, the most obvious being the restoration by John Broadwood & Sons in 1900. There's no record of what they did, but some of it can be readily detected. The keys, for example, have ebony naturals whose surface and shape show that they are not eighteenth-century work. This invalidates all the speculation about the materials used in early examples from Shudi or Kirckman. The ivories too (topping the accidentals) are very thin, and of much lower quality than the harpsichord merits. They are clearly NOT Tabel's work.

12 May 201

How sad it is that English harpsichords are so often ignored by modern players, instruments that were regarded with huge admiration by eighteenth-century musicians. If we try to find information about them the search is often frustrating. The most influencial text is Frank Hubbard's Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making – published fifty years ago. But in a book that covers 300 years in all countries there simply is not enough space to develop this topic. (Nevertheless, this remains by far the most informative text available.) Darryl Martin addressed the subject in 2010 with an essay in The Historical Harpsichord series, Volume 5, edited by John Koster, but this is frankly impenetrably dull for anyone except an academic specialist, and comes to no startling conclusions. At the end you don't feel that you have learned much at all. In any case, he omits several important instruments, without a convincing justification.

It was the publication this year of Charles Mould's Jacob Kirkman [sic], Harpsichord Maker to her Majesty that provoked me to resume an interest, especially when I saw in that book the incredible photographs of what purports to be an instrument by Shudi, once owned by opera singer Anna Strada, and widely reported to have been given to her by her mentor Handel. Charles Mould's 1970 vindication of the importance of Tabel's 1721 instrument in Warwick Museum was undoubtedly a most significant finding concerning English harpsichords, but published in Ed Ripin's Keyboard Instruments (1971) it hasn't had the exposure that it merits. So on Wednesday, after a six-months' wait while the museum has been refurbished, I am scheduled to examine this harpsichord with a visit to Warwick. Hopefully, after further fact-gathering over the coming year, I shall be in a position to compare it with several other London-made harpsichords from pre-1750. Reports to follow.

7 May 2017

When Thomas Twining wrote to Charles Burney in February 1779 he began with a thank you. 'The P[iano]Forte arrived safe.' It had been delivered from Pohlman's London workshop a few days before. He went on to say: 'Miss Forster has a sweet voice and an excellent ear. I wish you had her under your tuition.' The piano was meant for this young woman, a near neighbour in Essex, and daughter of a local clergyman.

I thought of this yesterday when listening to a succession of young singers, mostly girls, and all 14 or 15 years of age, performing at Cheltenham Town Hall. They were accompanied by 2 different pianists – music teachers – on the Steinway concert grand. Now, I cannot say whether the this instrument was well regulated or not, but I observed that, no matter which pianist played, the girls' voices were often swamped by the piano. The lid was down, of course. But it made no difference. The songs were mainly duets, with some trios too, but the Steinway piano, even when it is played softly had too much strength. Perhaps with a mature, conservatoire-trained opera singer there would be less of a problem. It is not that the pianist is insensitive. The difficulty is that the softest sound from a Steinway, though quiet in relative terms, still has power, strength, body of tone. So the balance with a young voice is completely unsatisfactory.

This is a problem not just with young singers but with the huge repertoire of instrumental pieces from the eighteenth century. For example the harp, even a modern seven pedal high tension harp, cannot have the same relationship with a modern grand piano that a gut-strung harp had with the low-tension pianos when Dussek wrote his music. [And not only Dussek of course!] A wooden flute cannot balance with a Steinway. The pianist is having to play with enormous restraint. How much we lose by this! How different would be the young singers' experience if they were in an easier relationship with the accompanist. It is all to do with transparency and clarity.

2 May 2017

Here is what we would all like to see – if we care about old instruments. These are the hammers of a square piano by Buntebart & Sievers, 1788, which was in my possession recently. What we see are the original hammers, in pristine condition, hardly marked by any use. The screw you see had never been taken out, and when I did unscrew it I found all the original white leather hinges in perfect condition.

What surprised me most was that the maker lined the aperture in the hammer shank with soft leather so that it would make no sound as it rubbed against the guide pin. This was something I had never previously seen in a London made piano of that period – usually they are plain wood, so sometimes they do make a slight noise.

I mention this because during this last week I have been struggling with the problem of how to replace such tiny bits of leather in a piano by Leonard Systermans of Paris, 1797. As with so many other lost skills of the piano trade we have to try to recover it by trial and error (and much thinking!), but I think I have now arrived at a satisfactory method, though it is a long tedious process. Maybe it's the sort of work that was given to a low-paid apprentice or a nimble fingered girl. As there are none around I will have to do it myself!

24 April 2017

London in the 1770s was the prime destination for aspiring pianoforte makers. King Carlos III even commissioned promising Spanish makers to learn all they could in the workshops in England and in at least one case, Juan del Marmol, granted a pension on condition that he would employ local men on his return and pass on his knowledge. From the Netherlands a young man named Meinke Meyer was similarly absorbing all the knowledge he could before returning to Amsterdam in 1779 where his reputation was greatly enhanced by his time in London.

Was Philip Schmidt a similar aspirant? And where did he disappear? Some years ago I was sent photos from Germany of a square piano inscribed 'Philippus Schmidt Londini fecit' and had to confess that I had never heard of this man. But now another example has appeared, dated very clearly 1780. Today I had the opportunity to examine it, coming to a tentative conclusion that young Schmidt was probably employed in the 1770s by Frederick Beck. But what happened to him, I wonder? And where in London was he working when he was hoping to establish his own workshop, rather than returning mainland Europe? The design of this instrument was up-to-date in every respect with the enlarged soundboard overhanging the treble keys, a sausage-shaped oval cartouche for the inscription, excellent inlays, and a matching stand in the latest style with square-tapering legs. The inscription appears to have been written by one of London's best writing masters — no economy there. An interesting find. Unfortunately restored in the 1970s [I guess] with galvanised wire, and perhaps never tuned since, it sounds terrible — but a nice historic specimen, nevertheless.

18 April 2017

A sequel to my story of 25 January, regarding the surprising discovery made by a piano tuner in Shropshire. The full story is now made public, so for those readers outside the UK it is now possible to give more information. When Graham and Meg Hemmings moved from Essex to Bishop's Castle they took with them an old upright piano by John Broadwood & Sons. Some time later they decided to give it to the local school hoping that it might be useful for children to learn on, or at least have the opportunity. So the school asked piano technician Martin Backhouse to overhaul it. But finding the touch a bit troublesome he began taking out the keys and saw several mysterious packets underneath. There were six of them, all stuffed with gold sovereigns! 913 of them, 13 pounds in weight! Their value is now revealed to be 'hundreds of thousands of pounds', so naturally there have been many hopeful claimants, but none of them pass a reasonable test of credibility. So it has been declared 'treasure' - in this case that means a hoard that has been deliberately hidden, by persons unknown. While most of the value goes to the Crown, piano man Martin Backhouse and the school can expect to share in a substantial reward, while Mrs Hemmings comments: 'We are very happy that the money will go to the school, and hope that they will use it to benefit the children's musical ability'.

The rest of us will have to keep poking about in old pianos!

10 April 2017

Square pianos continue to puzzle some auctioneers, perpetuating confusion among the general public. A good example is this instrument which appeared at a very reputable auction many months ago as 'A clavichord by Schon & Larsen'. It is in fact a square piano by Schoene & Vinsen, about 1798, and a very handsome and desirable instrument when new. But appearing now in a sadly decayed state it made just over £1000, which I thought a surprisingly good result for the vendor. But when the buyer discovered how much it might cost to restore it the pleasure of ownership quickly waned. Amazingly, it reappeared in the same auction rooms last month, again catalogued as a clavichord, this time achieving only £300.

Just when we thought that awareness of early pianos had advanced so much, we find that we are not really making very much progress at all! This week, again in Gloucestershire, we find two 'spinets' for auction, in Cirencester. One of those is an 'early nineteenth-century' example by John Broadwood & Sons — a give-away clue really, since Broadwood never made spinets even in the eighteenth century. I hope no one is misled this time.

3 April 2017

Chance enquiries and encounters sometimes lead to some really interesting new knowledge. Christopher Clarke's splendid reproduction of Erard's grand piano of 1802 has been finished more than 3 years now, and I so much looked forward to hearing a recording employing its unique resources in a historically credible way. Well, there is a fine commercial recording of Alexi Lubimov playing Beethoven which I bought, but it is deeply disappointing to me in that he uses none of the special resources of Érard's design. He plays Beethoven with the expected panache, but only in the way that you might expect of a Russian pianist of distinction. He ignores the row of pedals (excepting the sustain, and just occasionally the una corda). So I have been longing to hear a recording by Pierre Goy which I am told does make use of them. Chris Clarke expects that M. Goy's recording will be issued this year, so I live in hopes.

But reminding Chris of my interest, I learned something new and unexpected — a Youtube video devoted to the life and work of Hélène de Montgeroult (1764-1836). In it we hear many of Montgeroult's compositions, played by a variety of performers and, showing above, the Érard copy played by Marcia Hadjimarkos. Unhappily I did not learn much new about the piano, which is only heard in short extracts, but it was very interesting to learn about Hélène de Montgeroult and her charming music. Somehow she had not previously registered on my radar!

22 March 2017

Only last week I discovered that in the graveyard at St Marylebone where Johannes Zumpe was buried in 1790 one of the most outstanding pianists of the Beethoven era was laid to rest. This was Joseph Woelfl, born in Salzburg, a pupil of Leopold Mozart and an accomplished violinist in his youth (as was Wolfgang Mozart), but after hearing Anna Maria [Nannerl] play on the fortepiano, and playing duets with her, Woelfl's primary instrument became the piano. His impressive and enjoyable concertos can be heard on Youtube, of which I particularly liked No.5.

He was on an extended concert tour in England when he died on 21 May, 1812. So his last resting place was very near to Stephen Storace, friend of Mozart, but a long way from Salzburg. The rebuilt church is shown below, with traffic passing along Marylebone Road, near where the Royal Academy of Music now stands.

20 March 2017

When researching 'Piano-forte', as mentioned in British newspapers before 1800, I often came upon the name of 'Miss Guest' performing in concerts in London and Bath. She must have been a very capable player as she generally appeared in ensembles that included some of the most famous professional musicians of her era. 'Miss Guest' was during her teenage years a pupil of J. C. Bach, and later of Rauzzini, probably the most eminent singing teacher. So it was a pleasure to find that she actually has an entry in Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians – Jane Mary Guest, some time music teacher to Princess Amelia and also to Princess Charlotte, and that she has several published compositions to her credit. This includes her Opus 1, Six Sonatas of 1783, issued with an impressive list of subscribers and afterwards published in Paris. I was delighted to read that among the subscribers for this work was 'Miss Northey'. This new information has now been added to 'Mrs Northey's Piano' in the left hand column of our home page. How marvellous to find that here is a piano bought by Mrs Northey in April 1784, played by her daughter Charlotte, and now we even know some of the music she played. This must be unique.

10 March 2017

Spring as you would wish it to be. Warm air, the gentlest breeze, blue skies, and green buds bursting in the hedgerows. Add to these pleasures the leisure to enjoy them, with a visit to Overbury, which I truly believe to be the most beautiful village in England. What happiness! Among my all-time favourite country walks is the ascent of Bredon Hill beginning at Overbury Court. In the course of your half-an-hour's trek to the summit you see some modestly beautiful Georgian houses, delightful gardens, a tumbling cascade hidden among the trees, and as you near the hilltop skylarks fluttering above you spilling out their joyful songs.

Then suddenly, standing beside the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, you see the whole of Worcestershire laid out before you, with the meandering River Avon shining in the sunlight. Immediately below, between Bredon Hill and the Avon, lies Woollas Hall where a heavy cart came from Evesham in 1712 bringing the harpsichord by Joseph Tisseran. It was destined to remain there, hidden in this remote location until 1949, when it was sold at auction in London — only to return the same way to the nearby village of Rous Lench, having been bought by Tom Burn. It's now in the Bate Collection in Oxford where we can all see it, and if you go on the right day, you might also hear it played. Dave Law, who restored it for the Bate, is keeping it in fine playing order.

It is among the instruments that I am thinking of featuring in a commentary on English harpsichords in the context of domestic music in England in the eighteenth century. This seems to me such a neglected topic. Nothing very informative and readable has presented the story of English harpsichords for a general readership since Frank Hubbard's Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making in 1965, and he unhappily dismisses Tisseran's work in a few words. 'Both the name Josephus Tisserand, and the style of this harpsichord lead me to believe ... [it] is not very pertinent to the history of English harpsichord making.'

He was equally dismissive of the work of Herman Tabel whose only survivng instrument I hope to examine in the store rooms at Warwick Museum very soon. Hubbard wrote: 'it seems likely that the traditional role ascribed to Tabel and his posthumous fame were the fabrications of both Kirckman and Shudi in their dotage, a reminiscence of the good old days'. However, I am not alone in thinking that the contrary is true: Tabel was a great innovator and the founder of a whole tradition of immense importance.

3 March 2017

When I first saw this piano [case] in George Kidner's auction catalogue it struck a chord immediately. Those decorative chevron strips along the bottom of the case, the 5-panel treatment of the front, the intarsia at either end — this surely must be another of William Southwell's instruments, made in Dublin around 1795-1800. But 'No'. It transpires that when some misguided antiques dealer stripped out the piano action he left behind the nameboard, more or less intact. The fretwork is not like Southwell's, and the name of the maker / seller is plainly there: 'BYRNE' is all it says. Margaret Debenham has lately added a useful page of data on John Byrne which can be read online. Yet another little window on Dublin's music trade in former times.

4 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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