Michael's Blog


18 August 2017

There have been so many terrible recordings of Zumpe's square pianos, indifferently played and badly restored, that it makes a special pleasure and something of a breakthrough to bring a youtube video to wider attention – recorded by Pablo Gómez Ábalos on a recently restored instrument of 1777, now in Zaragosa. Today, while I write, he is in Cambridge, having made a long journey in a commendably thorough research project – to examine there the 1766 Zumpe piano at Emmanuel Collge. [After six attempts to create a link to this video on youtube - all failures - I can only suggest you go to the youtube site and type in his name. I have watched this upload several times so I can verify that it does work and is worth watching.]

12 August 2017

This Palladian bridge spans the River Wylye within the beautiful gardens of Wilton House. A visit to this place had been on my agenda for two years but their opening days are so fickle that my intentions were thwarted until now. The sun was shining, as you see, so the house and the gardens were as attractive as they could ever be. Wilton, just west of Salisbury, has a marvellous pedigree. Built initially by architect Inigo Jones for the Earl of Pembroke, it has as much elegance and grandeur as the seventeenth century could muster with cube and double cube rooms, immense plaster coving, gold leaf ornaments, and huge oil paintings in gilded frames. Their room guide boasted that here they have the largest collection of Van Dyck pictures in the world, but I am somewhat underwhelmed. Who wants a massive collection of Van Dycks? Accomplished - yes, they are. But what do they say? What else is there to see? Two winter scenes by Bruegel, much smaller than the pompous portraits, and much more interesting. They hang in a small ante-room. A few bits of furniture worth looking at, but nothing memorable. They proudly mention a whole suite of gilded sofas and associated pieces by William Kent. I find them ugly. The best of Wilton is the grand arched gateway surmounted by an equestrian figure, and the bridge you see here.

You may be wondering: what's the musical connection? There's none. And that is the point. I had no expectation of seeing any musical instruments, and there were none. Huge wealth – plenty of evidence for that. A very fine collection of classical period Roman sculptures - clearly someone had a passion for them. But no sign of music! What kind of a household was this? Without music, or at least a suggestion of it, this great mansion seems dead. This only came to my mind when leaving. On display near the exit they have a large dolls' house showing an imagined Wilton in times past. Servants in the kitchen, a nursery upstairs, but no harpsichord or square piano – items so often included in dolls' house furnishings.

Just three miles north, both going and on return, we had to pass Stonehenge. Traffic was at a standstill. Crawling progress on the A303. But consider the positives — we had plenty of time to look across this magnificent prehistoric landscape. The monument itself is awe-inspiring. Humbling. Perhaps even beautiful in its ruined state. Hundreds of visitors were circling the stones – circling because you may not go inside the stone circle except on specially pre-arranged visits – at a premium. Thousands come day after day, paying prodigious fees to be allowed near this ancient and deservedly famous site. On a ridge to the south there is an impressive array of barrow mounds breaking the skyline, overlooking the monument from a respectful distance. You can believe that the spirits of the dead linger here, looking out with everlasting devotion on the place they held so dear. Four thousand years ago Stonehenge was the only place to be in life or in death. But I wonder: when their ceremonies were conducted, when their rituals enacted, was there silence? Of course not! Horns blowing. Drums beating. Great shouts from priests and people. Without music the place would be dead.

8 August 2017

For those who have been following my investigation into English harpsichords the quaintness and charm of the inscription above the keys on the Tabel instrument has made 'J7Z1' very memorable. The whole inscription reads HERMANUS TABEL FECIT LONDINI J7Z1, executed very clumsily, apparently freehand – so not by a professional signwriter. It is of poor quality when you examine it closely. In comparing the veneer on which this is written with the supposedly matching batten between the upper and lower keyboards I saw indisputably that their varnish is very different. Turn both of them over to examine the back and you see that the batten between the keyboards has a ground layer of pine, of coarse open grain with some knots, whereas the companion piece bearing the inscription is excellent straight grained spruce good enough to be an off-cut from a soundboard. Different stock, different varnish and not quite matching veneer either: it is time to question the authenticity of this inscription.

Happily this does not raise any doubt about the instrument itself. 'Herm. Tabel' signed the top key of the lower manual, adding the date 1721, written with a normal 2 not a Z, and further, the design of the keyboards with their in-line balance pins (not staggered) corresponds with others by Shudi in his early years. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this Tabel harpsichord. It is a very precious survival. But I suspect that when it was rediscovered circa 1895, probably at Longford Castle, it may have been in neglected condition – perhaps missing the name batten? The quaint style of the inscription may owe more to Victorian fascination with 'Merry Old England' than to the Fleming whose work was to be immensely influential in English harpsichord making ever after.

Incidentally, J. S. Broadwood's statement that Tabel learned his craft in the workshop of the successors to the Ruckers in Antwerp is looking very doubtful. As Maria Boxall has stated: this is not supported by any documentary evidence. Recently, thanks to the help of Henk Verhoef in the Netherlands, we can confirm that Tabel and his brother Barnard lived in Amsterdam, not Antwerp, and that both were born in Vastenau, now Vastenow, in the United Provinces.

29 July 2017

At this time of year as soon as you come within 2 miles of Oxford the sandy roadsides are crowded with delicious sky blue chicory flowers. Then, if you take the path beside the Thames, the riverbank is awash with self-sown purple loosestrife. So as you walk into the city your way is like a beautiful stroll in a lovely garden - purple, sky blue, green and yellow, beside a gently flowing stream – such a delight. This is much the best way to approach Oxford.

At the Pitt Rivers Museum I was fascinated by their specimen of a home made three-string violin, an 'ethnic' artefact for those who want to see it that way, which was collected by a European in the nineteenth century from tribal people in South America. I love it. You feel that in handling this you are in touch with an unknown soul, yet someone who was immediately responsive to the music that came to him from a faraway land, carried probably by Jesuit missionaries, who did so much to bring music to the native people. The workmanship is not precise, the materials are not very satisfactory, and clearly the concept was imperfectly grasped, yet the childlike desire to emulate is very touching.

A similar interest (for me) lies in the quite scarce keyboard instruments made by country people in the eighteenth century. In Germany especially there are some very quaint 'square pianos' fashioned by rustic craftsmen, evidently in admiration of instruments played by wealthy ladies. Simple Prellmechanik lends itself well to untutored copyists. There is a particularly interesting example in the collection of Prof. Heiko Hansjosten in Trier, made of plain oak and elm with a rough and ready pine soundboard. Long ago it was someone's pride and joy, for a short while. Usually such instruments are unsigned and will remain anonymous, but this example is exceptional in having a signature on the soundboard, somewhat blurred, but read by Heiko as Carl Teschemacher, with the place of manufacture as Nattrop bei Natteln, a very remote country area. It doesn't work well, or hold in tune, and the keys are not made with nearly enough precision, but the idea I find fascinating. Similarly fashioned instruments can be found in America too, but in France or Britain they are hard to find, and perhaps were never numerous. Maybe this indicates a cultural difference, which would itself be a dimension worthy of study. Survival is the difficult factor. The 'Teschemacher' clavier is of such liitle value as a playing instrument and was probably always troublesome, so I cannot help but think that it must have survived solely as family piece, preserved by generation after generation because it had some special connection, until eventually this heritage was forgotten and the family link broken. Maybe it was made by someone's great, great grandfather for his daughter to play long ago, or perhaps an offering for his betrothed as a token of love. If it was anything less its survival is hard to explain. Oddly, of course, Teschemacher means joiner or carpenter, so by trade and by name a suitable person to have a try at making such a thing.

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 used. Opened, as you see it here (I lifted the lid only 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 now turned up and flipped over like a playing card is veneered and cross banded, just like the outside. Here the plain mahogany is bordered with a dark, richly coloured Cuban variety, separated with boxwood and hareswood stringing, as you see in the photo herewith.

As it hasn't been opened often in recent years the colours are quite fresh and vibrant as 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 the maker did not supply it with prop sticks. Neither did it have cords tied to eyelets under the lid, as shown in the somewhat plainer Pohlman piano of 1776 in the Priest's House, in Sussex, shown on my Pohlman page. He intended this piano to be used with the lid down, and voiced it accordingly.


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, to his master Herman Tabel, 'who had learned his business in the house of the successors to the Ruckers in Antwerp'. [Really? I see that Maria Boxall's entry for Tabel in Grove Dictionary of Music rightly observes that there is no documentary evidence for this.]

Nevertheless, for many people this connection 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 oak-cased harpsichords, with 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 — there's no problem. But English? It seems to me that this unchallenged mythology may have boosted Broadwood's status in Victorian times but it does a great disservice to Tabel, surely one of the most original and influencial 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.

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