John Broadwood & Sons may reasonably claim to have been the world's most prolific pianomakers. Here you will find the principal facts about them and their pianos.
John Broadwood was working in London in the 1760s when the pianoforte became fashionable. He was employed by the Swiss-born harpsichord maker Burkat Shudi in Great Pulteney Street. As foreman in the shop Broadwood was responsible for finishing soundboards and gluing them into harpsichords – clearly an important task. By 1769 Shudi was in declining health, and as his only surviving son was not considered suitable to succeed his father, the family inheritance and the business were placed in John Broadwood's hands. His crafts skills were of the highest order; his sincere religious convictions agreed well with Shudi; and his choice of Barbara Shudi (Burkat's youngest daughter) for a wife: these all contributed to Shudi's decision to place the inheritance with his son-in-law, giving possession to Broadwood in 1771, with the proviso that he should, during the remainder of Shudi's life, pay him a premium on every new harpsichord. Shudi moved to Charlotte Street, near Whitefield's Chapel. In August 1773 he was buried in a reserved plot in the south-west corner of the burial ground.
Thereafter Broadwood continued the workshop alone. You may read elsewhere that until 1793 he was in partnership with Shudi's only surviving son, but in truth Broadwood was in sole charge. Burkat junior had been left no share in the business by his father. The reasons for this were never mentioned, but the most likely explanation is that the son was either of feeble intellect, or had some other disability. It is clear that the terms of Burkat Shudi's Last Will & Testament imposed drastic penalties on his son if he should attempt to work for anyone other than John Broadwood, and this had the desired effect. He received a small annuity, had his own room at Great Pulteney Street for more than twenty years, but he took no executive role in the business. His cousin, Joshua Shudi, a very competent harpsichord maker who had previously worked in Great Pulteney Street, was also omitted from any family inheritance, for reasons mentioned in my book (see below).
So from 1773 Broadwood was left in sole possession of the business and the house. During his first ten years in command the workshop continued as before, at first making only harpsichords. These were inscribed, Burkat Shudi et Johannes Broadwood long after the firm's founder had died. This made sense: potential harpsichord buyers knew the firm by this name, and everyone with any musical connections in London knew where to find them. Nevertheless, from 1770 onwards some of Broadwood's clients asked him tune, or repair, or even transport square pianos: these were newly fashionable instruments bought from Zumpe, Pohlman, Beck or Beyer. However, harpsichords remained popular. Some people who were thinking of buying a new harpsichord asked him to take their square pianos in part exchange. Often he would agree. He also responded to requests for short term square piano hire, not with instruments of his own but generally passing the business to Christopher Ganer who lived in nearby Broad Street.
Nevertheless, harpsichords remained the prestige item. Broadwood usually sold them for forty guineas for a single manual, and seventy guineas for a double with patent swell pedal. Production increased too, so during the 1770s there was little incentive to get involved in making square pianos, which often sold for eighteen guineas or less.
So, now the big question: when did Broadwood begin making pianos?
Certainly not in 1774, as so many books and websites tell you! There is a well-known square piano at Fenton House, Hampstead, inscribed: Johannes Broadwood Londini fecit 1774, bequeathed by David Wainwright. Following my research this is now agreed to be fraudulently inscribed. Why, we do not know. It was purchased by the Broadwood company in 1897, apparently on the advice of Alfred Hipkins, which I find rather surprising. It is clear that this deliberately misleading inscription was added to an existing piano in the late Victorian era, together with some inappropriate floral inlays, in a nineteenth-century style, which were never completed. However, close examination of the piano shows that it was almost certainly made by Christopher Ganer, in the 1770s. David Hunt, who was commissioned to remedy the unhappy 'restorations' as far as possible, wishes to champion Frederick Beck. There's very little difference, but I can justify my conclusions if required (see Appendix 4 in Broadwood Square Pianos). It is also reported by Wainwright, in Broadwood By Appointment that John Broadwood must have been making pianos as early as 1770. This is repeated in many secondary sources, but it is simply not true.
Consequently, Broadwood's oldest surviving pianos are two square pianos made in 1780. Above the keys both are inscribed exactly like the harpsichord shown above, by the same hand, on the same style of cartouche. This agrees exactly with Broadwood's own handwritten record: 1780 marks the start of his piano production. He sold six that year, and the names of each buyer can be found in Broadwood's Journal now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
It was not until 1785 that Broadwood sold a grand piano. But it is not absolutely certain that it was made by Broadwood. The oldest known survivors date from 1787. Like his square pianos these early grands had exactly five octaves. However, from 1792 five-and-a-half octaves became the norm for these larger instruments, though five octave examples were still often supplied. A very fine grand piano of John Broadwood's make is shown below.
From 1795 onwards Broadwood's square pianos could also be supplied with a keyboard of five-and-a-half octaves, although simple five octave examples continued in production up to 1802. A distinctive method by which the keys for "additional notes" operated underneath the soundboard had been patented by William Southwell in 1794, and he had sold exclusive rights to Longman & Broderip. Resident in Ireland, Southwell did not at first respond when his system was used without authority in 1796, but in 1803 he took John Broadwood and his son James Shudi Broadwood to court. Unhappily for him, a clever lawyer engaged to defend Broadwood seized upon some needlessly extravagant claims in the patent, thus undermining the credibility of the whole document. (After this miscarriage of justice it became a free-for-all. Soon every pianomaker in London was making use of Southwell's ideas without paying him a penny.) Nevertheless, writing in 1838 James Shudi Broadwood admitted that Southwell's innovations were 'a manifest improvement'.
In 1805/6 Broadwood's patented brass under-dampers were abandoned in favour of the type developed from another of Southwell's ideas. These are the so-called 'dolly dampers'; silent in action, easy to adjust, and readily suited to a legato pedal technique. In the same period Broadwood square pianos gained an escapement action — again not an original idea but developed from a design patented by John Geib in 1786 — the patent having expired in 1800. This gave a much more expressive touch — 'grand piano touch' as Broadwood's catalogues of the period say. These instruments are the most frequently encountered Broadwood square pianos today. Properly restored and maintained they make excellent instruments with a reliable touch and a very pleasant tone.
By 1808 John Broadwood, then in his seventies, had been joined in the business by two of his sons — James from his first marriage to Barbara Shudi, and Thomas from his second marriage to Mary Kitson. Together these half brothers, with complementary talents, developed the business so that it became the biggest piano manufacturing firm the world has ever seen. They became very prosperous, enjoying the lifestyle of wealthy country gentlemen. Yet, until 1850 square pianos were always Broadwood's best-selling product. The later ones had six-and-a-half octaves and a metal plate inside. Many hundreds survive. One of the most basic yet most cherished examples is the plain six-octave piano of 1844 that Edward Elgar acquired in the 1890s as a reconditioned instrument for use in his hideaway cottage at Birchwood Lodge, on the Malvern Hills. On that instrument he composed several of his most celebrated works, listing them on the soundboard, in his own hand. It is now displayed at Hatchlands, Surrey.
A new biography of John Broadwood, describing his progress as perhaps the most eminent piano maker ever, and emphasising the important role of square pianos as his principal product line. In a quality hardback binding of 205 pages, with more than 60 illustrations, it incorporates significantly revised biographical information, social and musical contexts for these pianos, details of construction and production figures, and serial numbers etc.
Dr Alastair Laurence, CEO of John Broadwood & Sons Ltd., writes: 'your publication is very much appreciated, and will continue to be so for many years to come.'
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