The FIRST PIANO in ENGLAND

PART TWO

Edward Holdsworth's letter to Charles Jennens, dated August 1732, contains an overlooked paragraph which leads to a forgotten musician, sheds new light on one of the most significant chapters in the history of music in England, and importantly in the present context, suggests a much stronger candidate for 'the first piano in England' than either of those proposed by Burney or Jackson, or indeed Jennens' Italian piano that Handel played.

After describing the care taken when packing and loading Jennens' piano on the sailing ship bound for England, and advising him to send a friend to collect it from the custom house, Holdsworth adds, very informatively:

Mr. Willoughby Bertie took one of these instruments with him to England when he went from hence, [i.e. from Florence] and as I am informed has instructed a man to put it in tune when out of order [in London]. You may apply to the same person to tune yours, whenever there shall be occasion.

Here then is a contemporary and unambiguous report of a pianoforte made in Florence that was taken to England some years before Charles Jennens' purchase. This is an invaluable piece of information as this instrument is unknown from any other source, as yet discovered.

Holdsworth assumes that his friend Jennens will find Bertie quite readily and so get the name of the man who could attend to such a novel instrument.[1] Fortunately, for us, Willloughby Bertie can be easily traced. [Incidentally, his desendants pronounce the first syllable as BAR, just as the residents of Derby say the name of their town]. He was a gentleman landowner from Oxfordshire whose chief claim to social status (when Holdsworth wrote) was that he was the nephew, and potentially heir of the childless Earl of Abingdon. However, it would be wise to notice that Willoughby Bertie in Florence does not fit the stereotype of an English ‘Milord’ making ‘the Grand Tour’. He travelled to Italy in 1722, for health reasons, when he was twenty-nine or thirty years old. And rather than making the usual one year excursion on the classical agenda, he stayed far longer – probably about five years. In Florence he associated with other expatriates, notably John Collins, who kept an albergo or hostelry on the Via Ghibellina, much patronized by British visitors.[2] Said to be of Scottish extraction, and a Catholic, Collins was inevitably loyal to the deposed Stuart dynasty. He may have participated in or supported the rebellion of 1715, led by the Earl of Mar (though there is no proof of this). Later in life he was accorded the doubtful soubriquet ‘Sir’ John Collins, under which title he is listed in some genealogies, but this was certainly not a knighthood recognized in England. It was either conferred by the deposed James Stuart in Rome, or was simply an invention intended to give some status to an otherwise impecunious fugitive. However, an important event followed from this friendship between John Collins and Willoughby Bertie: Bertie married Collins’ eldest daughter, Anna Maria in Florence in August 1727. She was eighteen, he was thirty-five years old. [3]


Caption: a Florentine Piano-forte by Bartolomeo Cristofori, dated 1726. The outer case with Chinoiserie ornament on red lacquer is 18th-century work, but the legs are modern replacements. Musikinstrumenten Museum, Leipzig.

As Holdsworth’s letter reports, they returned to England, taking with them the pianoforte they had acquired in Florence. There is every reason to believe that it was made in Cristofori’s workshop in the same period as the most complete surviving example, dated 1726, now in Leipzig (showing here). Bertie’s piano cannot be later than 1727, if we are to reconcile it with his family’s report that their return to England followed soon after the marriage. This would agree also with Holdsworth, who must have obtained the information from a mutual acquaintance in England, presumably someone within the social circle of his pupil Mr. Herbert. After the lapse of at least a year, and by this circuitous route through correspondence, Holdsworth heard that [Bertie] 'has instructed a man to put it in tune when out of order'. This clearly indicates that the piano was in musical use after arrival in England in 1727/8. Given this date, the unidentified workman was most likely someone from the workshop of Herman Tabel, the most eminent maker of the period. Jacob Kirckman (already mentioned) was perhaps not old enough to have been a candidate to undertake this work in 1728, being then only eighteen years of age, but may possibly have assisted, then or later, in maintaining the Florentine pianoforte.

However that may be, tuned and put to rights, the Florentine pianoforte would probably have been kept by the newly-wed Berties at their London home rather than at their much less accessible country estate at Wytham, near Oxford. If in London, the pianoforte was very likely at Bertie’s house in Upper Grosvenor Street, in Mayfair, just to the west of Grosvenor Square. [4] Perhaps it is significant that this was just two or three minutes walk from Handel’s house in Brook Street? If so, how likely is it that Handel, living nearby, would have been unaware of a newly made Florentine pianoforte in the home of known musical people? And, if we are permitted to speculate, how likely is it that Anna-Maria, who spent her formative years in Italy, was a patron of Handel's Italian opera promotion in London?

She was, I am bound to suggest, the player for whom Bertie bought the pianoforte. The extravagant purchase of this instrument, coming in the same year as their marriage, suggests a wedding present, like the pianoforte bought in 1749 by Charles Watson-Wentworth, later Marquess of Rockingham, for his intended and future bride, Mary Bright. [5]

In England Willoughby and Anna-Maria were to have nine children. (The chart showing here appeared on Wikipedia in December 2022). It is worthwhile to look into records of this family – what we will see is that these children had an enormously significant role in the history of music in England in the eighteenth century. But first, an important event that we need to record is that in 1743, on the death of his uncle without issue, Mr. Willoughby Bertie inherited the title and estates of the Earl of Abingdon. Thereafter he resided (at least officially) at the Earl's traditional home, Rycote, near Thame, in Oxfordshire. This was a Tudor-period mansion with typical octagonal towers at the four corners surmounted by onion-like roofs of lead or copper, similar to Madingley Hall.[6]

Nothing now remains of this mansion. The losses began in 1745 when a fire at Rycote damaged the house, and took the life of ten-year-old James Bertie, the eldest son and heir. The boy's father, Willoughby, died in 1760. This left his second son, Willoughby junior, as inheritor of the titles and estates, aged just twenty. As the Fourth Earl of Abingdon he is remembered today chiefly as the friend and patron of Joseph Haydn, during the composer's visits to London in the 1790s, but he was not a good steward of the family's wealth. He made extended visits to Italy in the 1760s and 70s where those who met him observed that he was poorly equipped for his role as a lord, and that his education and enthusiasm was apparently restricted to hunting and music.

By 1778 his financial position was so desperate that the whole contents of Rycote, together with most of the oak timber in the park, and the contents of the other family home at Wytham, near Oxford, were put up for auction.[7] Copies of the auction catalogues were preserved by his brother-in-law, Philip Wenman, MP, who apparently bought several items, judging by the hand-written annotations, but the only musical instrument in the Rycote sale was a harpsichord by Kirckman (buyer unknown). At Wytham the auction catalogue lists only 'A Harpsichord', with no further information.

Bertie's slithering finances were steadied for a time by his marriage to Charlotte Warren, the daughter and heiress of Admiral Sir Peter Warren, scion of an Irish Jacobite family, who owned real estate on Manhattan Island, and much other property acquired during the course of his successful naval career.[8] In all other matters Willoughby junior is remembered as headstrong and extravagant, yet surprisingly active in the House of Lords. He was also, controversially, a supporter of the American colonists when their fight for independence divided opinions on both sides of the ocean. An indication of his devil-may-care attitude was his publication in 1794 of an ill-considered defamation against an attorney named Thomas Sermon, with whom he had a grievance, with the result that you would expect: the lawyer took him to court, and as no rival lawyer was willing to defend Bertie, he had to take on the whole legal establishment in court – and predictably lost. More positively, he was deeply involved in the efforts of the Professional Concert to tempt Haydn to visit London in the 1780s (which were initially unsuccessful) and again as a financial backer of J. P. Salomon’s triumph in bringing Haydn to England in 1791. Such liberality has its cost. When he died in 1799 Willoughby Bertie left the estate nearly bankrupt. The ultimate result was that Montagu, his son and successor, determined to sell every stick and stone of Rycote to the highest bidder, piece by piece. An unprecedented sale took place on site in 1807, when buyers were able to carry away windows, doors, stone blocks and wooden floors from the Tudor manor house. All that now stands at Rycote, aside from the former stable blocks, is the beautifully preserved chapel in the care of English Heritage where Anna-Maria and her father ‘Sir’ John Collins were laid to rest.

Anna-Maria’s son, Willoughby, is not the only reminder of a devotion to music, among her children. In 1763, three years after she became a widow, her eldest daughter Lady Elizabeth Bertie married a Swiss-Italian dancing master, Giovanni Gallini – not the sort of match normally countenanced for the daughter of an earl. He was, for the purposes of a readier acceptance in the social strata to which he aspired, known as ‘Sir John Gallini’ but, like Anna-Maria’s father, he had no claim to any knighthood in England. He either conferred the honour on himself, a fiction, or, as some sources suggest, he may have received a nominal title from the Pope. Gallini was always ambitious, but his marriage to the eldest daughter of an earl seems to have given him access to considerable financial resources, and status, which he used to good effect. In 1774 with the support of several wealthy backers, and the German-born musicians John Christian Bach (music master to Queen Charlotte) and Carl Friedrich Abel, he formed a syndicate or a formal partnership, to build the famous Hanover Square Concert Rooms.

The site for this was a large plot of land at the corner of Hanover Street and Hanover Square, owned by Lord Weymouth. It was sold by him to Philip Wenman, husband of another of Anna-Maria’s daughters, Lady Anne. (This was a much more 'suitable match' than Lady Elizabeth, her sister, as Wenman owned a country estate at Thame in Oxfordhsire, was an MP, and in Ireland, a Viscount.) As soon as possible after securing the land, Wenman transferred the deeds to his brother-in-law, ‘Sir’ John Gallini. The concert rooms were built with surprising rapidity and opened in February 1775, hosting the famous Bach-Abel concerts, in which the foremost players in Europe featured, together with singers of the first rank, heard by an eager audience of the highest society. This concert venue saw Haydn conduct his newly composed symphonies in 1791/2 and 1794, with additional symphonic works by Pleyel and Gyrowetz, the interspersed vocal items featuring such soloists as Madame Mara and Nancy Storace – who had sung for Mozart in Vienna.

All of this was made possible by the musical enthusiasm and the financial resources of the children of Willoughby Bertie, and of his bride Anna-Maria Collins, but she did not live to see this outcome. She died of a stroke during a visit to the Venetian Ambassador in London, in December 1763, perhaps intending to hear Mass in the chapel, in the style and language of her youth. Regrettably, there is no known portrait of Anna-Maria (though there is of her husband, shown above, location unknown). She, we may deduce, was the great musical influence in the lives of her children, and was almost certainly the owner and player of the first pianoforte known to have arrived in England.

REVIEW

If this narrative seems to have wandered a long way from the subject 'The First Piano in England', then my excuse, if one is needed, is contained in the following thoughts.

  1. For over two hundred years Charles Burney's statement was accepted that the first piano seen in England was the one he played at Wilbury in 1748. But we now understand that there was a Cristofori piano in London, 20 years earlier, probably kept at a house close to Grosvenor Square, only two or three hundred yards from Handel's home in Brook Street.
  2. Some instrument makers in London must have known about this instrument, and also known a very similar piano owned by Charles Jennens. However, the pianoforte per se did not become popular for many years, so it might be instructive to consider why. It certainly cannot be explained away by suggesting that instrument makers in London were ignorant or uninformed. Some of them knew of Bertie's piano, and some also Jennens', but the earliest reported attempt to make one in London was the effort of Roger Plenius circa 1750. Could it be that here also we need to make allowance for Burney's limitations? Maybe there were other makers experimenting with pianos, unknown to Charles Burney?
  3. As I have demonstrated from primary source materials,[9] we can be sure that at least 80% of keyboard players in England were FEMALE. It would therefore be only reasonable to suggest that Anna-Maria [née Collins] was the first pianoforte player in England [and probably in Britain]. Crediting Willoughby, her husband, as the first owner of a piano in England is potentially misleading unless his wife, and their marriage in Florence is given due emphasis.
  4. Women who sang and played the piano were the most important influence on future generations of music makers. When we observe the impact of the Fourth Earl of Abingdon, and his brothers-in-law Viscount Wenman and John Gallini, we must reasonably attribute this to the influence of Anna-Maria. But these are just serendipidous discoveries. What we could also consider is the near certainty that Lady Elizabeth, as the eldest daughter, would have become, under her mother's guidance, at least a competent player, and probably her sisters also, or some of them.
  5. Regarding the instruments themselves, the discoveries reported here demonstrate that instrument makers in London had very ample resources for study, in the form of a Florentine piano with an inverted wrestplank [acquired by Bertie] and at least one from Portugal that had a conventional wrestplank [seen by Jackson]. Both, of course, used the two lever excapement action pioneered by Cristofori, but no such instrument has survived made in England. By 1750 there were also at least two pianos in England made by Louis Wood, though to judge from Burney's report they had an inferior action, with poor repetition (though much admired for their tone). When a successful grand piano appeared in London made (by Americus Backers) it was fitted with a very different mechanism, not because he or his contemporaries had never seen a Cristofori-style piano, but because he [or they] believed that a better design could be devised. The early history of the pianoforte in England needs to be reassessed in the light of these discoveries.

NOTES

1. Gerald Coke Collection, Foundling Museum, acc. no. 7603. — For a full account of all musical references in this correspondence see Babington & Chrissochoidis, Musical References in the Holdsworth-Jennens Correspondence, Royal Musical Assn. Research Chronicle 45, pp. 76-129.

2. Ingamells, John: Dictionary of British and Irish Visitors to Italy, [Yale, 1997] s.v. Colins, John.

3. Ingamells, op.cit. suggests that they were married in Switzerland on their journey home but if this truly happened it was probably a duplicate ceremony, under Protestant rites, replicating an earlier Catholic marriage ceremony in Italy.

4. Willoughby Bertie's Will, National Archives Kew, mentions 'my house in Upper Grosvenor Street', but does not mention any musical item whatsoever.

5. Patrizio Barbieri, Abbate Wood in Rome in Early Music, vol. 46/3 (2018), pp. 501-516. Watson-Wentworth apologises to his father for this extravagant purchase (at 100 guineas), but excuses it as a present for Miss Bright, who he later married.

6. For Madingley Hall, built circa 1543, see 'Harding' on this site.

7. Copies of the catalogues, in the collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, have now been digitized. MS. Top. Oxon. b121, fol. 129-135

8. My thanks to Lord Norreys for this information. Further information: Bodleian Lib. MS. Top. Oxon. c386

9. Kloster Michaelstein 2002, Transistion from Harpsichord to Pianoforte - the important role of women: subsequently published in Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte, Band 68 [2006] pp. 43-60.

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