SQUARE PIANOS - a short history

 

In an age when domestic music making was usually accompanied by the harpsichord or spinnet, the advent of the square piano caused quite a stir. Examples like the one shown here were first noticed in London in 1766. They were designed and made by John Zumpe and sold from his house and workshop in Princes Street, at the north-east corner of Hanover Square.

Many harpsichord players took to them immediately – their treble tones sounded so charming to ears that had known nothing but the harpsichord and organ – and these 'small Piano-fortes' were so inexpensive! Plain examples sold for as little as £18: this was half the asking price for a basic harpsichord from Jacob Kirckman or Burkat Shudi (the two leading makers who dominated the market). For several decades thereafter the harpsichord and piano-forte existed side by side, rated as equally useful instruments, depending on what music you were playing. Consequently, in many homes you might see both instruments, often in the same room, their owners finding that a 'small Piano-forte' could be easily accommodated. It took up little space, and when closed it looked much like a side table.

The novelty of such instruments created a new fashion almost overnight. Ladies who saw them in the homes of their friends found them to be ideal for accompaniments for the latest songs heard at Ranelagh or Vauxhall. And the ability to accent and express with various shades of loud and soft within a phrase was something quite new. Composers of the era who owned and used them included John Christian Bach, Gluck, Paisiello, Cimarosa, and Clementi, not to mention music historian Charles Burney, who also bought several for his friends and pupils.

But if the pupils of the above-mentioned composers would become trend setters, their most influential devotees were high society women such as Queen Charlotte of England (formerly Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) and Marie Antoinette of France. Both loved music and, like many of their contemporaries, they were charmed by these little pianos. Music-making in a domestic setting was a fashionable activity at any supper party and in this context vocal items, accompanied by pianos like these, were much valued. Empress Catherine of Russia had several such pianos dispatched for St Petersburg, of which there is a surviving example at Pavlovsk, in an elaborately veneered and enlarged case designed, it is believed, by Robert Adam.

In the period before 1780 the leading makers in London were John Zumpe and Gabriel Buntebart, Adam Beyer, John Pohlman. Others who deserve mention with the dates of their earliest known pianos include Frederick Beck (1769), Thomas Garbutt (1772), George Fröschle (1772), Christopher Ganer (1775) and John Geib (1777). It can be readily seen that many of them appear to be of German origin, and all worked in a small part of London centred on Broad Street, Soho. If Garbutt was the first native English maker among this group, another who gained a high reputation in the 1770s was Thomas Haxby, resident in York.

From 1768 onwards square pianos from Zumpe's workshop were fitted with three hand-operated stops in the compartment at the left of the keyboard. This innovation was swiftly adopted by other makers too.

  • The first stop lifts the treble dampers (from middle C upwards);
  • the second stop lifts the bass dampers;
  • the third presses buff leather against the end of each string, sounding like a gut-strung harp.

For country dances, or for extemporary music making you might use the continuous sustaining mode by raising the first two stops. If your music did not stray far from the opening key, this could make a lively sound and was very popular. Such reverberation was a great novelty, as nothing of this kind had ever been heard from a harpsichord, and indeed it would have been overwhelming, and unwelcome. You can hear something similar today when Tyrolean folkmusic groups make use of a hammered dulcimer. (Listen when the music stops, and hear the reverberation from the dulcimer strings!) Charles Burney complained that on a visit to Paris his hostess, Madame Brillon, would not play any music on her English pianoforte without this continuous sustaining tone. When they were playing some of Burney's own recently-composed music he tried to suggest that they might play it without this reverberation, but she declined. 'C'est sec' she said. Such insensitive over-use was probably what lay behind Voltaire's put down, describing the new pianoforte as a 'tin-smith's instrument'.

These were by far the most popular pianos throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century. Though these simple 5-octave pianos were superseded within thirty years, leading to high attrition rates, many hundreds of examples survive from France, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. They were equally popular in Sweden and Russia — and in North America. Taking his cue from some contemporary newspaper notices, Laurence Libin has suggested that imported pianos from London were renowned for not surviving well in the American climate – and that's certainly what some would-be instrument makers there claimed. However, it is just as likely that insufficient care was taken in London to send their best work over the ocean where, if there was any fault on arrival, the exporters would not be answerable. An inspection of surviving examples from East Coast America, made before 1800, shows that the very makers who disparaged English pianos made very faulty instruments themselves. Dodds & Claus of New York produced a very inferior imitation of Broadwood's patented design, while the best of those made by Bachman in Pennsylvania were ambitious, but inferior copies of Longman & Broderip.

While many German makers copied these 'English Piano-fortes', others preferred a design that stayed closer to the clavichord. Notably, from the middle Rhine area local craftsmen used a lower string tension, more like a clavichord, and a different type of hammer mechanism (with hammers attached to the keys click here for picture), setting up their instruments to give a very light and shallow touch. Such pianos were widely admired in German-speaking areas during the 1770s. Some were fitted with knee levers to disengage the dampers, or operate the moderator and harp stops to change the tone. Christian Baumann of Zweibrucken, whose square pianos were approved by Mozart, made instruments of this type, while by contrast C.G.Hubert, court instrument maker at Ansbach, and J.C.Steinbruck, from Gotha copied the much-admired 'English' model, as did J.C.Krogmann in Hamburg.

French followers of fashion sometimes met with German square pianos from the middle Rhine region, but they preferred the English imports. However, they were not impressed with the basic trestle stands usually provided for such instruments. So when London-made pianos arrived in Paris their stands were routinely replaced with screw-in conically tapered legs, often fluted in typical Louis XVI style, popular with French musicians for several decades. In Paris however, the use of multiple registrations, by means of pedals, became very popular, leading to the local manufacture of a distinctly different piano. Shown below is an example by Sebastien Erard, Paris, 1793. The use of four pedals was standard: Steibelt's directions to players of his very popular piano pieces give examples of their use, singly or in combinations, to enhance the mood of the music. In this example there are five pedals, providing: buff [harp], moderator [celeste], sustain (bass) sustain (treble), and swell. Detailed information about their use can be found in David Rowland's History of Pianoforte Pedalling (Cambridge, 1993).

Although many players were apparently satisfied with Zumpe's basic design up to 1800, significant improvements were introduced by a number of craftsmen during the 1780s and 1790s. Principally these focused on making the touch more expressive – with a two-lever action or, even better, by providing an escapement mechanism, similar to that found in grand pianos. The voicing of the hammers also received attention from some makers, using softer leather covering to produce a more dulcet tone. There was also, concurrently, a desire to extend the keyboard from five to five-and-a-half octaves, for which William Southwell of Dublin is often remembered. Leading makers in London at this time were Longman & Broderip, (their best instruments made by John Geib), brothers Frederick & Christian Schoene, and John Broadwood, and in Paris, Sebastien Erard. Pianos bearing the name of Muzio Clementi emerged after the collapse of Longman & Broderip's business in 1796, relaunched under the name of Longman, Clementi & Company. However, from 1801 he took a bigger, controlling stake, when the firm was rebranded 'Muzio Clementi & Co'.

Here is a typical square piano of 1820, showing how far the design had developed, compared with the early examples above. This one is by John Broadwood & Sons, London. It has the usual five-and-a-half octaves, an escapement action for 'grand piano touch' and a sustaining pedal. Notice that the pedal is under the left foot, not the right. This was customary at that period with all makers, even though contemporary grand pianos had the sustaining pedal under the right foot, as expected today. After 1800 most English square pianos had just this one pedal, but German pianos, and many American ones, often had a second pedal for the soft-sounding 'moderator' effect. French square pianos continued to be supplied with a row of four pedals, until about 1820.


Hear this piano in music by Beethoven.

 

In the following decades square pianos were constantly redesigned for a more powerful tone. The keyboard was extended upwards again, to six octaves, and afterwards in both directions to reach seven octaves. To achieve a stronger tone string gauges were progressively increased, until the strain was almost four times greater than on eighteenth-century pianos. To match these taut, high-tension strings the hammers were made larger and heavier, so in consequence the touch lost much of its former lightness and facility. To prevent structural collapse these later square pianos were fitted with an iron hitch plate (from around 1825) and afterwards, in American pianos, full metal framing (from about 1845). Such instruments are aptly named 'grand square pianos', or 'square grand pianos'. (Although Babcock obtained a patent for a full metal frame in 1825, there are no examples from the 1820s).

Square Piano by Mathuschek, about 1875

Shown here is the ultimate square piano, for sophistication and quality of workmanship. (Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA). It was made by Mathuschek & Co., about 1875. It has a full iron frame, with over-stringing on three levels. The tone is very strong, resembling late nineteenth-century grand pianos, and the treble tones are very clear and bell-like. Here the elaborately carved casework, in a pseudo-baroque style, has a polished ebonised finish, probably applied by an over-enthusiastic piano repair shop; most examples by this maker have rosewood veneered exteriors. Richard Burnett has made an impressive recording on such a piano by Mathuschek.


Hear the piano by Mathuschek at Finchcocks.

 

In England and France the last square pianos were made about 1866. By then the modern style of compact uprights, called 'cottage pianos' or 'cabinet pianos' had become more popular for small rooms, though their touch was never equal to a good square piano. The last American examples were made c.1905. Thereafter square pianos, particularly the earlier types, were regarded with wistful nostalgia as something quaint and old-fashioned, featured by many artists of genre scenes to evoke 'bygone times', usually played by a lady in Regency-style dress. Only in recent years has there been a renaissance when these much-neglected instruments have been appreciated for their fine craftsmanship and the beautiful effects that they can impart to classical period keyboard music.

Further Reading

  • To read more about the earliest square pianos of German manufacture
    and some possible antecedents for Zumpe (takes you to a supplementary page on this site).

  • See also Michael Cole's book, Broadwood Square Pianos.

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