The oldest known square pianos that have been reliably authenticated were made in London in 1766 by 'Johannes Zumpe'. Shown here is typical specimen. It has no pedals and only one hand stop, inside at the left, raising all the dampers – and it is very plain externally.
Photo copyright CWF
John Christopher Zumpé (as he wished to be known) was born in June 1726 in Fürth, a small market town a few miles from Nuremberg. He arrived in London in the early 1750s, not as an economic migrant from Saxony, as widely stated, but as a qualified cabinet maker, having previously served an apprenticeship in his home town. (There is no evidence that he ever visited Saxony, and no evidence that he ever worked for Gottfried Silbermann.)
In London he found employment with Swiss-born harpsichord maker Burkat Shudi, in Great Pulteney Street (where John Broadwood was to work later). The precise year of his arrival is not known, but happily we have the witness of an acquaintance in musician and teacher Charles Burney, who was on the scene at the time and bought several pianos from Zumpe. He later wrote that 'Zumpé ... had long worked under Tschudi' (before he opened his own workshop) implying, we must presume, not less than five years, probably about ten. A small guide book printed in his home town in 1792, 'von und für Franken' is in agreement, saying he left Fürth 'about forty years ago and settled in London', suggesting that his arrival in London was about 1752. He was then in his mid twenties.
While working for Shudi he integrated well into English society. He never returned to live in Germany, contrary to what you may read in some Victorian histories of the piano, and unfortunately often repeated since. The truth is that in 1760 he made a happy and long-lasting marriage with twenty-six year old Elizabeth Beeston, and they lived together in London until he died. From the date of this marriage Zumpé was able to quit his employment and set up his own business at 7 Princes Street, Hanover Square, a fashionable location in west London, just south of Oxford Street. This was on an annual lease, renewable at Michaelmas (end of September). For this he would have needed more money than he could have ever earned working for Shudi, so the probability is that he received help from his bride's family. (They were not wealthy, but they did own property in Hampshire.)
Leopold Mozart visited 'John Zumpe' in 1764/5, with seven-year-old Wolfgang and his sister Anna Maria, but whether they saw any keyboard instruments in Zumpe's house is uncertain. An entry in Leopold's travel notebooks records the trade sign hanging in front of the house was 'The Golden Guittar'. This corresponds exactly with his known output from the 1761-65 period, comprising citterns or English Guittars, very similar to those used today by Portuguese fado singers. These instruments, having a pear-shaped body fitted with metal strings, were very fashionable for ladies in England around 1760. Such clients would be important for Zumpe's future prosperity.
However, owing to the runaway success of his square pianos, by 1768 the Guittar was abandoned; Gabriel Buntebart joined the business; and the sign hanging in front of the house was changed to 'The Queen's Arms'.
Today there are only four houses in Princes Street that remain largely as they were in the eighteenth century, but happily one of them is No. 7, Zumpe's home and workplace. In the picture below it is the white-painted house regrettably disfigured by a twentieth-century dark glass window at street level. Such thoughtless alteration is unfortunate because this is indeed a historic house: the first building in the world devoted wholly to piano manufacture. The red brick house next door, with white doors, probably gives a better idea of its likely appearance in the 1760s. Behind the house there was a stable yard and a timber-framed workshop.
In 1763, or soon afterwards, Zumpé had made a firm friendship with John Christian Bach, music master to Queen Charlotte, who was then even more popular than Princess Diana was to become in the twentieth century. Gabriel Buntebart, was another invaluable associate. He arrived from Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761 — at the same time as Princess Charlotte. The teenaged queen-to-be was a good keyboard player, and often sang to her own accompaniment. For this purpose contemporary accounts record that she brought a harpsichord with her when she travelled to meet her intended husband (King George III), and even sang and played in her cabin on the ship that carried her to England. Horace Walpole reports that she obligingly left the door slightly open when the ship was becalmed so that the curious might hear her music. Clearly someone must have transported and maintained this instrument during her long journey to London, so it seems very probable that Gabriel Buntebart undertook this task. In later years, notably when writing his Last Will & Testament, he described himself as 'Pianoforte Maker to her Majesty'. A grand piano by Buntebart is specifically remembered by lady-in-waiting Charlotte Papendiek in her memoirs.
It is not sure exactly when Zumpé made his first pianos (probably 1765), but with friends like Bach and Buntebart, with their connections to the queen's music at Buckingham House, he had a discerning audience who could give plenty of useful advice. The instrument that he created was sure to appeal to the right people. In fact there is much documentary evidence to suggest that London's busiest and most influential music teachers, Charles Burney and J.C.Bach, thought so highly of Zumpe's little pianos that they effectively acted as agents, recommending them to their pupils and acquaintances everywhere, and sometimes visiting the workshop to select specific instruments. In public notices in 1779/80 Zumpé describes himself as 'maker to Her Majesty and the Royal family'.
Zumpe's earliest pianos set the pattern for future developments throughout Europe and America. Their clear articulation and novel tone made them ideal for the kind of galant sonatas — solos as well as 'accompanied' – composed in the Italian style, by J.C.Bach, C.P.E.Bach, Boccherini, Galuppi and dozens of lesser masters. The soundboard is small, but the success of their distinctive tone originated chiefly in robust string tensions (probably greater than on any earlier piano) and the voicing of their tiny hammers by covering them with soft goatskin or hair sheep, wrapped tightly, skin side out, around a small piece of limewood.
Through the recommendations of their friends and admirers, the business partners Zumpe & Buntebart sold large numbers of these pianos in France and Germany, and probably elsewhere too. An elaborately decorated example (shown below) has survived in St Petersburg, dated 1774, at the Palace of Pavlovsk, originally provided for the Empress Catherine.
Pianos corresponding exactly to Zumpe & Buntebart's usual design, in plain mahogany, are known from documents in north America as early as 1770. Instrument makers in Switzerland, Spain, Scandinavia and north Germany saw them, admired them, and soon set about copying them.
There may be as many as sixty specimens still surviving, dating from 1766 through to 1782, signed either by Zumpé alone, or jointly with his partner: from 1768 the instruments are inscribed Johannes Zumpe et Buntebart Londini fecerunt until 1778. But then at Michaelmas the partnership broke up — by mutual consent. Zumpé established a new workshop two hundred metres away in a pair of newly-built houses next to Cavendish Square. In 1782/3 he assigned this lease and the piano-making business to the brothers Frederick and Christian Schoene whom he recruited from his home town Fürth: like him they had previously served apprenticeships there. Presumably the brothers paid him royalties because the inscription of their pianos reads Schoene & Co[mpany] Successors to / Johannes Zumpe etc. As can be seen, the name Zumpe is purposely written much bolder than Schoene, which has sometimes led to mistaken identifications, including in Harding's book.
Buntebart meanwhile occupied the old address in Princes Street, Hanover Square, and took a new partner, Christoph Julius Ludwig Sievers, who presumably brought new capital into the business. Their instruments are inscribed Gabriel Buntebart et Sievers Londini fecerunt usually followed by the year of manufacture. Most of them, like many pianos from Schoene's establishment, are equipped with three pedals, rather than handstops.
For over a decade Buntebart's foreman was John Henry Schrader, and it was he who took over the Princes Street workshop with the remaining stock in 1795. Meanwhile the Schoene brothers' business at the southern end of Cavendish Square continued with great success, at least until 1789 when Revolution in France put an end to Schoene's best market. Sebastien Erard and other Parisian makers thereafter replicated Schoene's design, adding a few distinctively Parisian features, through until 1800. About 1794 Frederick Schoene took a new partner named Thomas Vinsen, who from 1799 continued the business with Frederick's son, George Frederick, at new premises in Paddington Street. There are some excellent late eighteenth-century pianos in existence bearing the inscription Schoene & Vinsen, some having a unique escapement action. The last known instrument from Schoene is dated 1805 and now belongs to Easton Historical Society in Pennsylvania. It is inscribed: Georgius Fredericus Schoene / No. 45 Paddington Street, Marylebone / London 1805. However, soon after this he turned his back on piano making and became a successful artist and engraver.
An interesting feature of some surviving pianos by Buntebart is the presence of J.C.Bach's endorsement which appears as a faint but legible signature at the far edge of the soundboard. There can be no doubt that his many published keyboard sonatas 'for Harpsichord or Piano-forte' were chiefly played by his pupils and admirers on pianos supplied by Zumpe & Buntebart. An interesting recent discovery inside the square piano by Schoene & Co., whose nameboard is shown above, is a neatly written signature of Charles Rouseau Burney (Dr. Burney's nephew & son-in-law) showing a continuing family patronage of 'the successors to Johannes Zumpe'.
John Zumpé, as he was known (pronouncing his name to rhyme with 'lumpy') may have been already in declining health when he transferred his business to the Schoene brothers. He drafted his will in 1784 and died at home, in London, six years later. It reveals that he had invested in long leases on six houses on the northern edge of the city, near the Oxford Road, and had further wealth in bonds and chattels. His wife was well provided for, and in addition his will included bequests to the St Marylebone Charity for Needy Children, and to the Orphan & Charity School in Fürth. These funds provided purchase money for a field and some woodland nearby, giving the school sufficient income to buy shoes or boots for destitute pupils for the next hundred years. He also left money for his nephews in Fürth to be apprenticed to some useful trade, a sure indication of the value he placed on the early training he received.
'John Christopher Zumpie' as he is recorded in the church registers, was buried at St Marylebone church on December 5, 1790. His grave was near to Rev. Charles Wesley, the hymn writer, and Stephen Storace, the opera composer and friend of Mozart. The burial ground has been lost, due to major church rebuilding at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but a small garden with a memorial tablet names some of the people interred there — but unhappily not John Zumpe who was presumably unknown to those who erected the collective monument long after his pianos had been superseded.
Gabriel Buntebart, residing in nearby Lisson Grove, died in 1794 and was buried next to his wife several miles away in Hendon churchyard. Neither man had any surviving child. Elizabeth Zumpey [sic] continued to reside at the former marital home in Edgware Road until 1804. On her death the remaining property was split between a large number of nephews, nieces and family friends so it is likely that if any portrait of the 'inventor of the small pianoforte' existed it was eventually lost or sold by some later generation, long after his fame was forgotten.
Further research is ongoing whenever opportunities arise, and already some new information on the life and work of Johannes Zumpe and Gabriel Buntebart has been uncovered. It is Michael Cole's intention to publish some of this later.
Pianos by Zumpe (or Zumpe & Buntebart) can be seen at the following museums: Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart; Russell Collection of Musical Instruments, Edinburgh; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.; National History Museum, St Fagans, Cardiff; Museo degli Strumenti Musicali, Rome; Historisches Museum, Basle; National Music Museum (Vermillion, SD), and at Hatchlands Park, Surrey (National Trust). (Note: this is not an exhaustive list)
Pianos by Schoene & Co. can be seen at: Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg; Conservatoire Collection, Paris; Musical Instrument Museum, Brussels; Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid; Easton Historical Society, Easton, Pennsylvania.
Michael Cole, Cheltenham, 2016