The FIRST PIANO in ENGLAND

 

In 1744 Charles Burney, aged eighteen, arrived in London from Chester with what seemed to be a promising opportunity – an apprenticeship with Thomas Arne, the man who is most often remembered for ‘Rule Britannia’. This didn't work out well, but young Burney gained a great deal of experience, playing on the back row in theatre orchestras, and teaching many pupils whom Arne was too busy to attend. He even rehearsed some of Handel's opera soloists.

 

William Jackson arrived from Exeter in 1745, similarly set on a path of learning — at fifteen years old becoming a pupil of John Travers, organist of the Chapel Royal. Unlike Burney he was not properly an apprentice, only a pupil, which his father could ill afford, so he also had a tough time, returning to Devon and scraping a living as a musician, though very inexperienced. But while in London he too made every effort to improve his skill and knowledge by joining in Handel's oratorio peformances, as an extra, unpaid chorus member.

In later decades Burney had some small success with theatre music, but Jackson gained far more acclaim with numerous compositions, notably a ballad opera Lord of the Manor, staged in London in 1780.

So, both had wide experience in musical matters, and both have left a written account of how they encountered 'the first pianoforte in England'. But they are very much in conflict.

Burney’s Memoirs were almost completely destroyed by his daughter, the famous novelist, apparently because she disapproved of some of his recollections. They did not fit well with her desire to portray him as an eminent man of learning. But, a small fragment she spared dating from 1747 described his delight in playing the recently imported piano owned by his friend Samuel Crisp. It was made in Italy by a mystery man reported only as an English monk named Wood. His identity has only recently been established by Patrizio Barbieri as the Abbate Louis Wood, an inventor and man of many talents, born at St. Germain-en-Laye where his father, a physician, served James Stuart, the deposed king in exile. This piano was acquired by Crisp in Rome about 1738, and installed in Crisp’s house at Hampton (on the River Thames) on his return to England in 1740. (Burney's knowledge of it comes some seven or eight years later.) Recalling his encounter with this instrument when writing for Abraham Rees’ Cyclopedia in 1803, Burney says that it was ‘the first that was brought into England ... [and] remained unique in this country until Plenius ... made a piano-forte in imitation of [it]’. This improved copy by Plenius can be dated to 1749/1750.

Jackson’s Memoirs fared little better than Burney’s. He wrote them in 1802, aged seventy-two, but his declining health caused them to be unpublished. When he died the following year his manuscript remained with his family. Thus when Burney’s unchallenged narrative was belatedly published in 1819 (in Rees’ Cyclopedia) this was taken as the authoritative account concerning the ‘First Piano’ in England. Jackson’s conflicting account waited even longer for publication. It was unknown until it appeared in print in 1882. The brief extract transcribed below, from his intended Autobiography, was quoted in a light-weight periodical, Leisure Hour, where again it might have continued in oblivion had it not been picked up by an anonymous journalist and reprinted in many provincial newspapers throughout Britain. It was used basically as a column filler. Copied by many newspaper editors, the text appeared as follows:

THE FIRST PIANO IN ENGLAND – Kirkman, the harpsichord maker, showed me at Mr. Jennings’s, in Great Ormond-street, the first pianoforte that was ever seen in England. It came from Portugal, a country not famous for mechanical inventions, and was about the shape and size of a Rucker harpsichord. The instrument was exceedingly imperfect, but as it afforded to the performer an opportunity of expression which the harpsichord had not, nor could have, I was much delighted with it, and recommended it strongly to Kirkman’s attention, at the same time assuring him that the period was not remote when the harpsichord would be disused. My prophecy has been fulfilled. If I rightly remember, Backers was the first maker of the grand pianoforte, and Zumpe of the small square one. To trace the improvement to the present time is not my purpose.

A more complete transcript of Jackson's Memoirs was published in the Gainsborough House Review in 1997, where again it went more or less unnoticed. [My thanks to Prof. Peter Holman for alerting me to this publication.] In this augmented narrative we see that William Jackson, immediately before the quoted passage, apologizes for being unable to give an exact date, because he is writing from memory many years later. But the text itself gives us some clues.

First, Charles Jennens (whom Jackson misreports as 'Jennings') resided in Queen’s Square until 1752, in a house owned by his brother-in-law. He moved to Great Ormond Street in 1753. That year must be the terminus a quo for the meeting with Kirckman. A terminus in the other direction would be in the mid 1760s, because after 1765 there would be no credit whatever in prophesying the rise of the pianoforte and the decline of the harpsichord, with which Jackson credits himself, retrospectively. Taking a median position then, we might propose circa 1760 as the date of the encounter. His description, telling how he tried the Pianoforte, and comments on its advantages, suggests that he was unfaimilar with any other such instruments – which he surely would have seen before 1770. so agian we are led to the conclusion that about 1760 would be a probable date.

It is no surprise that there was an early piano in Great Ormond Street. The owner, Charles Jennens, is remembered most often as the man who provided Handel with the word-books for many oratorios, including the ever popular Messiah. His ownership of a pianoforte is fortuitously confirmed by a letter written to him from Italy by his friend Edward Holdsworth. [This letter is now in the Gerald Coke Collection at London's Foundling Museum.]

Inclosed is a bill of loading for your Harpsichord, which as my Banker Mr. Blackwell informs me, was put into the Cabbin of the Ship that it might be less exposed to damage, and was by him particularly recommended to the care of the Captain. Upon receipt of this ‘twill be necessary that you send the bill to some friend in London, who may be ready to take charge of the Harpsichord immediately upon the arrival of the ship, and pay the fifty shillings freight and customs. It will be proper that you give directions to have it carried to your house from the Custom House by Porters, and not jumbled in a Cart. I wish that it may answer your expectations and that you may find a great deal of pleasure from it. [August, 1732] [1]

A ‘Harpsichord’, we observe — but there is no doubt that it was indeed a pianoforte. Holdsworth implies this in his supplementary note to the same letter: ‘I have bought for you here a book of Sonatas composed purposely for the Piano-forte’, and further endorsed in a follow-up letter on 8 November; ‘I hope the Piano-forte Harpsichord is arrived safe’.

Another feature we ought to observe, confirmed by other letters, is that Holdsworth was not acting on his own initiative but largely following Jennens’ instructions, buying up the latest music, and often having copies transcribed of recent compositions by Italian masters. The purchase of this novel type of harpsichord, which we would recognize as a pianoforte, was apparently on the instructions of Jennens, with the proviso, implied in an earlier letter, that it should not be outrageously expensive. Jennens’ letters to Holdsworth are not known to have survived, so we have only one side of the correspondence, but there seems to be a subplot in which Holdsworth has been requested specifically to visit the workshop of Bartolomeo Cristofori when he arrived in Florence. Holdsworth’s reference to this errand misreports the maker’s name as Botro, most likely a corruption of the maker’s name commonly said as Bortolo. Cristofori died in January that year, so Holdsworth did not meet the inventor himself, and it remains unclear whether the name on the instrument inscribed over the keys would have been his or that of his assistant Giovanni Ferrini. For the curious mind, the imponderable question concerns the circumstances in London: from whom did Jennens hear about these new ‘Cembali col Piano e forte’? Was it some written report? Or was it from some conversation with a musician in England?

Despite the precautions mentioned by Holdsworth, and the care he suggested in transporting the piano from the Custom House to Jennens’ home, it was a great disappointment to find that it was unplayable on arrival. In consequence, Jennens wrote to his friend with the bad news [as we deduce]. Holdsworth, ever the faithful friend, went to see the maker and also reveals that the instrument was given a thorough trial, arranged by the English resident, Mr. Meynell, before it was packed and sent off to begin its sea passage to Gibraltar and then north across the notoriously stormy Bay of Biscay. However, if Jennens was initiatlly frustrated, he was able to find a harpsichord tuner in London who put it in good order. Who this was we do not discover. But it is clear that this was not Plenius, previously mentioned and given credit by Burney as the first man to make a pianoforte in London. Plenius did not set up in England until 1736.[2] Most probably Jennens would have spoken to Herman Tabel, the most prestigious harpsichord maker of the period, so it is possible that Jacob Kirckman, Tabel's apprentice, and later foreman, may have assisted, then or subsequently. This is the only connection we can suggest to link Jackson’s anecdote with the Kirckman family of harpsichord makers.

Whoever it was that attended to it, the pianoforte was tuned and regulated to good effect, as may be deduced from an independent source. Thomas Harris, in London, wrote to his brother James in Salisbury on 17 May 1740, that 'Handel ... played finely on the Piano-forte’. The context indicates that this was at the house of their mutual friend Charles Jennens. It is noteworthy that Harris does not explain to his brother what a Piano-forte is, leaving the clear implication that they had both encountered it before. Nor does he need to explain who owned this instrument, implying that the Harris brothers had seen and heard the pianoforte during earlier meetings at Jennens’ home, presumably in the late 1730s.

In 1747 Jennens’ father died, and since all his siblings had passed away, except one sister, the immense wealth of the family, founded on their industrial enterprises in Birmingham, passed to Charles as the only surviving son. With his newly-augmented resources, Charles Jennens soon afterwards replaced the ancient timber-framed manor house at Gopsall (Leicestershire) with a grand mansion in the Palladian style, fronted with an impressive colonnade. The park surrounding it was landscaped, and the new owner took personal interest in designing many features of the interior decor. A detailed account of the result is to be found in a Journal written by John Grundy, an itinerant engineer from Lincolnshire. [3] On 13 July 1750 Grundy called at Gopsall, and as the owner was not at home he was shown around by the housekeeper. His journal suggests that he was particularly impressed by the new music room, describing in some detail its richly detailed plaster work, fluted pilasters, and festoons on a ceiling featuring the portrait heads of eminent musicians. To either side of the marble fireplace were two ‘Harpsichords’ – one by ‘Tabercer’ (evidently misheard or wrongly transcribed) and the other made in Italy, which curiously, instead of conventional jacks and quill plectra had ‘small Hammers covered with Leather which makes the tone infinitely softer and more melodious’. This instrument, he was told, ‘was sent from Italy by an acquaintance of Mr. Jennens’.

The conclusion must be that Jennens’ pianoforte, made in Florence, had been transferred to a place of honour in the new music room at Gopsall, together with everything that might be wanted for future musical gatherings, including a vast supply of music books, a specially commissioned music desk for many players, a conventional harpsichord, and a pipe organ – the latter not yet installed when Grundy toured the house. As Brenda Sumner remarks: ‘Grundy’s account raises the question as to whether Jennens took the piano with him when he moved between Gopsall and London or whether he had more than one instrument.’ It was the social convention of that time for wealthy landowners to spend the summer months at their country homes, but travel to London as the days grew darker at the end of the year, staying there during ‘The Season’ – and of course, journeying back again when the weather improved in the following April or May. In view of the unhappy results of transporting his piano in 1732 (when despite the precautions taken it was unplayable on arrival) it would not be surprising if Jennens were reluctant to allow this precious instrument to be jolted and jarred on needless journeys. Sumner’s conjecture will be recalled later.

In addition to his rebuilding at Gopsall, Jennens’ schemes also included a new house for himself in the capital. He transferred from Queen’s Square to his spacious town house, very nearby in Great Ormond Street, then located on the northern fringe of London, with distant views of Highgate and Hampstead across the fields. The site is now covered by the Children’s Hospital, but old photographs show it having three floors above street level, each having six tall sash windows, attic rooms above (for servants) and a basement below for the kitchen and other domestic arrangements. In this house William Jackson must have seen the pianoforte he recalled in his manuscript memoir, evidently recollecting his meeting with Kirckman, many years afterwards. Which brings us to inevitable questions that Jackson’s brief narrative does not elucidate. When he speaks of ‘Kirkman, the harpsichord maker’, whom does he mean? There is some ambiguity. Many harpsichords by Kirckman that survive from the eighteenth century are signed above the keys Jacobus et Abraham Kirckman Londini fecerunt.

The key to the answers lies in Jackson’s boast of having predicted the harpsichord’s ‘disuse’, and his apparently gratuitous advice to a very famous instrument maker. When he writes of ‘Kirkman the harpsichord maker’ it is natural to assume that this would be Jacob Kirckman, the senior figure whose fame extended throughout Europe. His harpsichords were the first choice of innumerable upper class gentlemen and even of Queen Charlotte herself. He was a phenomenally prosperous business man, ultimately living in a grand house on Croom’s Hill, Greenwich, where he had a fine picture collection and kept his own carriage and stables. Could it be that Jackson, then quite young and inexperienced, would have the vanity to proffer gratuitous advice to the most astute and prosperous harpsichord maker in London, a man twenty years his senior? [4] More likely, the harpsichord maker whom Jackson met, and spoke to so freely, was Abraham, the nephew of Jacob, given a full partnership in the business from 1772. They were near contemporaries: William Jackson was born 1730: Abraham Kirckman in 1737. Abraham, born in Bischweiler like his uncle, was certainly in England from about 1756.

The other question that must arise concerns the veracity of Jackson’s report that the pianoforte in Jennen’s house came from Portugal. Given the date circa 1760, is it possible that there could have been a piano from Portugal in London? The answer must be ‘Yes’.

The instrument shown here was purchased at auction in London by William Randolph Hearst in 1927, for £200.[5] Arnold Dolmetsch had previously converted it from a fortepiano to a harpsichord, in 1919.[6] Yet a fortepiano it certainly was. The distal part of the keys, normally hidden inside the instrument, are very similar to Cristofori’s Florentine pianoforte, characteristically carved by whittling away the sides of the levers, and cutting rectangular mortices vertically through the wood to accept the necessary piano-action jacks. Also the wrestplank is elevated much higher than a harpsichord would require, to provide space for the piano hammers and action stands to pass underneath. So, although the original hammer mechanism is lost, there remains clear evidence of a piano-action instrument, closely modeled on those made in Florence. There is no maker’s inscription or date, but the best clue may be the exterior decoration – its green and red paintwork divided into horizontal bands, reminiscent of the antique Flemish style.[7] The keyboard has only 51 notes, C to d3. To any English musician of the mid eighteenth century this would appear inconveniently small. If Jackson saw an instrument like this we can easily see why he might say ‘the shape and size of a Rucker harpsichord’ seeing that it so strongly resembles the Flemish harpsichords that appear in paintings of the seventeenth century, for example ‘The Music Lesson’ by Jan Steen in the National Gallery, London. Additionally, the interior treatment of the soundboard is most surprising ... painted with flowers and birds in the Ruckers’ manner.

SUMMARY concerning Jackson’s Testimony

Two hypotheses can be proposed:

1. Jackson was mistaken regarding the origins of the instrument. What he saw was Jennens’ Italian pianoforte, but observing no inscription, he misattributed the piano to Portugal. If this were so it is difficult to account for his likening it to a Ruckers harpsichord. Pianos made in Florence were provided with an outer case, not all resembling antique Flemish harpsichords.

One such pianoforte survives, in Leipzig’s Musikinstrumenten Museum, signed by Cristofori and dated 1726. Its outer case is decorated in red lacquer, embellished with Chinoiserie figures. (Two other pianos from Cristofori’s workshop give a misleading impression visually as they have lost their original outer cases. But other Florentine keyboard instruments confirm that outer cases were customary, with the lid articulating from that, not from to the instrument itself (as shown in photos of the 1720 piano now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.)

Jackson himself seems to express surprise, regarding the origins, when he says of Portugal, ‘a country not famous for mechanical inventions’.

OR

2. Incorporating all the data from primary sources – Holdsworth, 1732; Grundy, 1750; Jackson c.1760; and an anonymous fortepiano from Portugal – we propose that Sumner’s speculation may well be correct: Jennens moved his Italian pianoforte to Leicestershire in or before 1750, to grace his splendid new music room. Thereafter, rather than hazard repeated journeys by road to and from London, he acquired a second pianoforte which he installed in Great Ormond Street.

BROADWOOD’S JOURNAL

Supplementary information is provided by the Journal of John Broadwood, now in the Bodleian Library, in which he recorded work carried out after September 1771 – the date when he took over a flourishing harpsichord-making business from his father-in-law, Burkat Shudi.[8] On 1 November Broadwood writes tersely: Mr. Jennens Orman Street. This is a note that he [Broadwood] or an assistant, visited Jennens’ house for a tuning. The fact that no sum of money is recorded indicates that it was ‘on account’ – the bill to be settled later.

On 19 January 1772 he writes: Mr. Jennens Harp’d, then on 6 February, Mr. Jennens Piano-forte. This appears to confirm that there were two instruments in the house in Great Ormond Street, and in five subsequent entries the Journal records Mr. Jennens Harp’d & Piano-forte, removing any possible ambiguity.

This then provides confirmation that there was both a harpsichord and a pianoforte in Jennens’ London home, both of these being maintained in good order, under a regular contract with one of the leading instrument makers. Jennens paid his bill on 8 March 1773, and had one more tuning, but his health declined and he died in November, so there are no further records. Regrettably Broadwood gives no indication of the origin of the pianoforte, as he did with the 'Italian Harpsichord' he repaired for the 'Dutchess of Marlbury'. Consequently, there is no confirmation as to whether the pianoforte tuned on these visits to Jennens' house was the Italian instrument, acquired in 1732, or a second instrument, from Portugal, as reported by Jackson.

CONCLUDING REMARKS:

The ultimate fate of the musical instruments owned by Charles Jennens is unknown. In his Last Will and Testament Jennens bequeathed his mansion at Gopsall in Leicestershire to his nephew, Pen Asheton Curzon, including the furnishings, but apparently excepting musical instruments. These, together with his unequalled collection of Handel scores, he left to his friend, Heneage Finch, the Earl of Aylesford. Jennens’ musical manuscripts have fortunately survived, but not his Italian pianoforte. Of this there is no further trace.

His house in Great Ormond Street he bequeathed to his sister, Mrs. Hanmer, ‘as far as the laws of England allow’, but this was frustrated because his sister predeceased him. (That is, she died between the writing of the will and grant of probate.) The house and its contents, with the exception of a large quantity of books (left to a clergyman friend) would presumably have gone to her heirs. Again, there is no trace.

REVIEW

Charles Burney’s testimony concerning the first pianoforte brought into England was accepted for more than two hundred years but, thanks to the survival of Holdsworth's letters to Charles Jennens, it is clear that he was mistaken. His contemporary William Jackson was equally in error. If the pianoforte he saw in Great Ormond Street was from Portugal it definitely was not ‘the first ever seen in England’.

What is so surprising when reviewing these events is that when Charles Burney returned to London in 1760 (after a nine years in King's Lynn) one of his most important successes professionally was his appointment as visiting music teacher at Mrs. Shiel's School for young ladies in Queen's Square. He must have passed Jennens' House in Great Ormond Street very often, yet he remained blissfully unaware of any pianoforte there. He wrote for posterity that the piano he played in 1747/8 at Wilbury 'remained unique in this country until Plenius ...' In 1770, while he was abroad on his famous tour through France and Italy, his wife [formerly Mrs Allen] bought a house in Queen's Square, and had moved her family there. Thus, during 1771 while Burney wrote up his travels there, Broadwood or his assistant paid many visits to Mr Jennens to tune the pianoforte in Great Ormond Street, just a hundred yards away. To his dying day he knew nothing of this!

We are perhaps fortunate today to know of five very early pianos from the above mentioned sources:

1. A Piano-forte made by Louis Wood in Rome, circa 1735-8

2. A piano-forte made in Florence circa 1732, acquired by Jennens

3. A piano-forte made in Portugal before 1760, maker uknown

4. A Piano-forte made by Roger Plenius in London circa 1750.

5. A Piano-forte made in Rome by Louis Wood c. 1749 and bought by Charles Watson-Wentworth.

But none of these can sustain a claim to be the 'First Piano in England'.

Holdsworth’s letter to Jennens, dated August 1732, contains a further clue to this mystery. The first Piano-forte ever seen in England arrived from Florence before 1730, and the search for information on this instrument opens many other prospects, providing many further insights on the course of music in London in the eighteenth century. This will be treated separately.

View PART TWO

Michael Cole, Cheltenham, December 2022.

NOTES

1. Holdsworth's letter: Gerald Coke Collection, Acc. No. 7603. For a more comprehensive view of all musical references in the Holdsworth-Jennens correspondence see Babington & Chrissochoidis, Royal Musical Assn. Research Chronicle No. 45, pp. 76-129.

2. Debenham & Cole: Pioneer Pianomakers in London, 1737-1770 in Royal Musical Assn. Research Chronicle, 44 (London, 2013).

3. Leeds Univ. Library, Brotherton MS Gen 2, vol.4, pp.3-25. Reported by Brenda Sumner in Handel Institute Newsletter, Vol. 22 No.3, Autumn 2011.

4. In fact, Jacob Kickman’s workshop continued to make harpsichords until the end of the 18th century, the few pianos they sold being the work of other hands, and simply inscribed with the prestigious Kirckman name.
5. The previous owner is reported to have been H. Ernest Crawley, in England.
6. See Kenyon & Law, Another Iberian Grand Piano, in Galpin Society Journal, 48, (1995) 68-93.
7. Four other eighteenth-century fortepianos are known from Portugal, but each exhibits much plainer decor.
8. Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Misc. b107.

 

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