SEBASTIEN ERARD

Latest revision: 12 April 2016.

Showing above: a remarkable piano from Sébastien Erard. The date 1793 is clearly inscribed above the keys and repeated on the soundboard. An exceptionally fine example made in Paris during a very turbulent period in French history, this piano is notable for a number of features, mentioned in the description below. Perhaps the most unusual innovation is the number of pedals.

According to information circulated by the Erard company, after Sebastien's death, he made his first piano in 1777, but you are permitted to be sceptical. Among the numerous Erard square pianos known to survive, most date from around 1800 and none is reliably dated earlier than 1784*. The earliest ones, though notable for their quality craftsmanship, exhibit technical details derived from London-made instruments of that time. Erard's mutation stops provided sustaining tone and 'harp', operated by two pedals splaying outward from the base of the rear left leg, as shown below. This is similar to the system used by Adam Beyer in the 1770s (for example, the pianos at the Händelhaus in Halle, and another in Berlin). Erard's hammer mechanism in these pianos was also closely modelled on London pianos – the near ubiquitous 'English single action' introduced by J. C. Zumpe.

An early five-octave Erard with 2 pedals. Photo Leopoldo Perez Robledo [by permission]

*A piano inscribed 'Sebastianus Erard Parisiis' in the Cité de la Musique, Paris, has the date 1780 squeezed in at the end in a very unconvincing manner. It has also been much 'restored' and sits on very strange legs. Not reliable evidence.

About 1790 Erard added further pedals, but they could not be attached conveniently in the same fashion so they were fitted to a horizontal bar as shown in the first photo above. Four is the usual number for Erard (and many other Parisian makers who followed his example). These usually operated the damper lift [sustain], the buff stop [or harp], a moderator [shown below], and a bassoon. The specification could be varied to meet clients' wishes. But in this piano we see something more sophisticated. The sustain is divided, for treble or bass (or both if you carefully position your foot on two pedals). Next, two pedals in the middle operate the jeu de luth (or buff stop), again divided at middle C. On the right is the fifth pedal to work the moderator, generally styled jeu celeste when used with the sustain. This swings a thin lath of mahogany over the hammers so that tabs of soft leather interpose between the hammers and the strings.

The essence of this is that the basic tone is softened to give a dulcet sound. If there is to be a perceptible change then the basic tone has to be a little on the percusive side, as compared with the pianos made by John Geib for Longman & Broderip at the same period. Consequently, Erard's hammers are leathered like Zumpe's pianos from around 1770, wrapped like a swiss roll, with the skin side out. Geib's hammers are more complex and have the soft flesh side out. Note also, in this photo, that the pressure on the dampers is carefully graduated by the variable length of Erard's brass springs with the point of application precisely determined.

What is not so easily appreciated from a photograph on the internet is the fabulously precise cabinet work, and overall high standard of this piano: beautifully cut mouldings, and precision-made metal parts. Observe that even the hammer shank mortices have been lined with thin leather to ensure that they make no noise, rubbing against their guide pins. Externally it has mahogany casework bordered with satinwood, and at the back it is veneered exactly the same. The evident care with which Erard has selected only the best materials is impressive. So too the quality of the calligraphy (somewhat lacking in earlier examples).

It is evident that this is a superior example, so it seems likely that this piano was made for a wealthy and discerning client: it really is not just average run-of-the-mill production work. So who might have bought it? Most of the aristocracy were by then disposessed, exiled or sentenced to death by Republican fanatics so it is not easy to guess who may have had sufficient wealth and such confidence in their own future. King Louis had been led to the guillotine in January, just months before this piano was made. What may have been particularly unsettling was that Sebastien Erard was known to have received a Privilege from the ill-fated King and Queen, which fact was often included in the inscription above the keys - until 1793.

At Hatchlands, the Cobbe Collection includes a Sebastien Erard square piano dated 1787 which is believed to have been owned by Queen Marie Antoinette. The Erard company bought it back in the post-Revolution dispersal sales at the Trianon. Erard's descendents eventually sold it to William Waldorf Astor who kept it at Hever Castle in Kent. It is on the earlier, more petite, 148 cm wide, but with the basic Zumpe action and only two stops.

Technical data for our featured piano: the compass is the standard 61 note, five octaves; FF to f3. (Most Erard square pianos have this compass until about 1800). Retro lever over dampers have brass springs, and multi-layered buff leather pads. There are two strings for each note. The action is the 2-lever variety, without escapement, which Erard styled 'Mechanism á double Pilotes'. The keys are front-guided, made from limewood [Tilia] plated with good quality ivory and ebony. There is a damper for every note.

Interesting feature: there is no evidence whatever of an inner cover board or 'passive soundboard' (present in many Erard pianos). Yet it is clear from the provision of a music desk behind the nameboard that the maker expected that the piano would be played with the lid raised. After 1790 Erard's pianos were usually supplied with a lightweight inner board, made with just as much care as the piano itself, which was clearly intended as a sound modifier. There is a partial cover of this kind inside the Marie Antoinette piano (1787) at Hatchlands. It occurs in other square pianos by Erard around that time and later.

Overall size (1793 piano): 164 cm x 58cm x 24cm. The additional width, 164cm compared with 148cm of Erard's earlier model, is mostly taken up by the much enlarged soundboard, allowing much longer bass strings.

The contrast with John Broadwood's square pianos of similar date is striking. Where Broadwood prioritised reliability, aiming at simplicity (hence no mutation stops), Erard aimed at the greatest possible expressive resources through multiple registrations. The disadvantage is that, despite Erard's superb workmanship, the resulting complexity renders his instruments prone to technical malfunctions. For example, so small is the clearance between moderator and strings that it calls for the most exact set-up to avoid jingling sounds when playing fortissimo. For the technician there are also hazards in extracting the keyboard.

However, when adjusted and working in optimal condition these elegant pianos give much pleasure. French musicians must have must have been delighted with their appearance and their changes of registration.

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Erard's subsequent history is so complex and extensive that a full length book could not cover the topic completely. The foundation of his company's success for more than thirty years was their production of fashionable square pianos, in the tradition established by the two examples shown above. Nevertheless, it was the prestige and elevated status of his grand pianos that established Erard's lasting fame. Production of large concert grands with five-and-a-half octave keyboards began in the late 1790s, much influenced by the work of Broadwood & Son in London. Probably the oldest surviving example, an elegant piano still in playing condition, has been used in several recent recitals by Alain Roudier , Pianoforte Ad Libitum, France.

These have an escapement action closely resembling Broadwood's, and come equipped with a minimum of four pedals. However, there is one known five octave grand, now at the Cité de la Musique, Paris, dated 1791, showing a much earlier concept. It has the Mechanism á double Pilotes - i.e. the two lever non-escapement action as used in the square piano at the head of this page. The case is much shallower than later instruments, resembling a single-manual harpsichord, and it stands on six conically tapered legs, so the overall appearance is similar to a late harpsichord by Taskin - but surprisingly with a rounded tail. It is inscribed by Erard Frères above the keys and on the soundboard, seemingly authenticating the work, but it so different from anything else from Erard that its authorship has been questioned. Its pedals or knee lever are missing. As with the Broadwood company whose ledgers are now in the Surrey History Centre in Woking, Sebastien Erard's business records dating from as early as 1787 have been preserved. What is better, they can be read online. Go to www.sebastienerard.org

His seemingly over-ambitious development of a complicated grand piano action proved so refined and useful that it provides the basis for all modern piano actions, contrary to the expectations of Pleyel and J. S. Broadwood, who really thought that such complexity was a sure recipe for failure. His masterpiece, the so-called 'double escapement action' was patented in December 1821.

In Brussels I was kindly shown by conservator Christine Monfort a grand piano signed by Erard and dated 1821 on the soundboard which surprised me in having a buff stop [harp] operated by pedal, which dropped down onto the strings above the wrestplank - an unusual item by that date. Owing to the increased string guages and higher tensions then in use it was much heavier and had a wider contact area with the strings than any eighteenth-century design. This seems to show that even at this late stage, when Erard was nearing the perfection of his famous 'double escapement' action, the great innovator continued with the concept of multiple registrations and pedals, much as they were on the 1803 piano he sent to Beethoven. Sadly, Beethoven was not very satisfied with that piano, not because of his well-known aversion to pianos that were made to sound like a harp, but on account of the touch. He allowed Viennese piano maker and personal friend Andreas Streicher to make very ill-advised alterations to the keys, attempting to give it the shallow (5mm) touch favoured by Streicher and his wife Nannette Stein. This involved moving the balance rail beneath the keys and inserting lead weights to compensate for the changed mechanical leverage. A disaster!

This all seems to sit uneasily with popular notions that Beethoven wanted a piano with a stronger touch and powerful sonority. Erard's somewhat deeper key movement (about 7.5mm) was designed to give the player greater control over a wide range of dynamics, integrating the whole concept with a longer hammer stroke - 50mm as compared with Streicher's 34mm. But this subtlety was wasted. History's preferred view of Beethoven as a lion of the keyboard, pounding the keys for more sound, as if anticipating the modern concert grand, doesn't seem to be consistent with his (or Streicher's) treatment of this splendid piano from Paris!

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