Michael's Blog

 

 

25 July 2022

A visit to one of the major collections of musical instruments, such as the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, or the MFA in Boston, is often the starting point for a life-long interest in old pianos and harpsichords — but it can be, unintentionally, a very misleading foundational experience. It puts the visitor on a prescribed path, which is not especially helpful. Curators try to be informative. They give visitors all the factual information that they perceive to be relevant – materials used and their geographic origins, the date of manufacture etc. But it is very rare for museums to make any serious effort to place these instruments in their social context. By the very act of collecting and displaying old instruments, the agenda becomes one of comparisons within the field, observing the differing constructions of Italian and Flemish harpsichords, for example, which often migrates into an admiration for luxuriantly decorative French instruments. The same process occurs with archaeological items. We compare old pots with one another, unearthed in widely different locations, which at best places the object in a timeframe, while giving the observer little understanding of the historic context of the object itself – its status or non-utilitarian function.

It is much the same with paintings in a picture gallery. It seems to be enough when viewing 'art' that we can identify the 'school' and the national origins, with rarely any consideration of the genre, or original status of the painting as an artifact. By placing a picture within an eclectic collection of notionally similar items we have robbed the piece of its original context and function. This is noticeably true of the well-known portrait of Burkat Shudi and his family in the National Portrait Gallery, as I have remarked before, because the painting, by Marcus Tuscher, as we believe, had a context when it was newly finished, and hung above the fireplace in the front parlour at 33 Great Pulteney Street. Taken from there, and exhibited with unrelated items, its special significance is lost on the great majority of visitors who see it in the gallery.

Regarding keyboard instruments in museum collections – spinets, harpsichords and early pianos arranged in rows for an exhibition – the first thing to recognise, unspoken and probably unrecognised by most, is that the overwhelming majority of these instruments were originally owned and played by women. Female players outnumbered males by at least four to one, as I have demonstrated before [paper read at Kloster Michaelstein, 2004]. In the 1760s and 70s, at least 80 percent of pianoforte players were women or girls. What function did the instrument have in their lives? What did it mean for them? For example, when we see an 18th-century spinet we need to understand that it was probably bought by a father for his daughter, usually when she was about seven years old. What might this imply with regard to its significance for her?

If she progressed no further than the level of ordinary musical competence, it may be that for many women daily practice eventually becomes a thing of the past, sacrificed to household responsibilities as an adult. Yet the likelihood is that her spinet (or her square piano) stays with her, as a special personal possession. She may play it tolerably well, in pieces that she learned long ago, though regretting that her skill is not what it once was. It is by this first step that a great many of the instruments that we see in museums have come down to us. Sometimes (maybe quite frequently) an outdated spinet survived for a few generations within the wider family because the original player was fondly remembered or because bequeathed it to her niece, or her granddaughter. It is preserved even though obsolete because it was Aunt Jane's spinet (or grandmother's square piano, or whatever). But ultimately the connection is broken. An antiquated 'spinet' eventually appears in an auction sale, when nobody remembers who owned it. An interesting example of this process beginning is the Broadwood square piano owned and played by Martha Greatorex, sometime organist of Leicester cathedral — an excellent musician by all accounts. She left the piano in her will to her niece in 1829. But subsequent links in the chain of ownership are lost. To take another example, there are some delightful inscriptions inside an eighteenth-century spinet at Packwood House (National Trust) showing that around 1738 it was played by children of a family in Oswestry, when it was still quite new, and fashionable. But despite this secretly recorded history inside the instrument, there is no subsequent provenance until it was bought as an antique by Mr. Baron Ashe, to furnish his newly acquired historic house near Birmingham in the 1920s. Broken provenance – this is the almost invariable rule. But it is not so much names that we ought to wish for, but function (in a social sense) and signification for the owner within its original context.

 

14 July 2022

In 1732 Charles Jennens had a fortepiano [or harpsichord Piano-forte as they called it] dispatched from Italy. The ship's captain was given special instructions to store it carefully, and is reported to have placed in his cabin. He could do no more. But a voyage by sea, across the notoriously stormy waters of the Bay of Biscay was always going to be problematic. And sure enough, when it arrived in London, it was hopelessly out of order, despite all the care that the maker took, and the proving trial that Jennens' friend in Italy arranged before shipment. But someone, very likely sent by Jacob Kirckman, was able to put the instrument in order. Jennens and this piano were at the forefront of musical fashions and later Handel played it at Jennens home.

What a contrast forty-six years later when Thomas Kelly, a Dublin wine merchant and businessman bought a new, much-improved pianoforte from the leading maker in London. I suspect he means Robert Stodart. In 1779 it was carefully packed and sent on board a Swedish merchant ship bound for Naples, along with Kelly's son Michael. What a fabulous narrative the son's Reminiscences provide - of the voyage, when the piano was nearly ruined by American privateers boarding the ship (their excuse being that they thought it might be British!), and the wonderful impression that their arrival in the Bay of Naples had on the young, trainee musician. Kelly was asked to give them a sample of his singing, which he did, playing the pianoforte to accompany himself. Neapolitan musicians were delighted with this piano. It far exceeded their expectations of what a pianoforte could do.

What a reversal!

2 July 2022

Now that June is past I like to think that the peak season for clothes moths is over. We have seen fewer than usual this year, but any sight of them is unwelcome. My wife is as eager as I am to exterminate these flying 'guests'. Some of them seem to regard our old house as their home, but there are a couple of 80-year-old residents springing to their feet whenever one of these little pests flies past. These pests are not fast through the air, but they are erratic in flight, and often settle where they are hard to see. So we don't always get them at first. But we persist. Manual compression is the preferred method.

In ancient harpsichords and square pianos you sometimes see that many generations of these creatures have had a feast. Green woollen touch cloths under the keys are particularly prone. If the instrument has sat unused for a couple of centuries we often find that the cloth is fragmented, with holes everywhere, and white egg cases, and dark-coloured grit, composed I suppose of digested wool. There's no choice but to replace such cloths, and of course, thereby lies the potential for setting up the action incorrectly with too much or too little key dip. It's not unusual to find old harpsichords fitted with fat felt washers designed for modern pianos. (Raymond Russell even shows them in some of his illustrations.)

Wool is always vulnerable. So too is walnut. Woodworm damage to old instruments can be a horror — invisible larvae chewing away and digesting the nutritious cellulose. They love walnut; it's their favourite. But mahogany they will not touch. I guess it tastes unpleasant. All timbers have their own distinctive odour, so if you've spent many years in a woodworking environment you can easily recognise which timber has been recently sawn or planed, just from the smell lingering in the air. Flying beetles, the parents of woodworm, are adept at such recognition too.

I can lament the shocking history of exploitation by British colonials in the Caribbean, stripping natural forests of their precious timbers, but the vast supplies of mahogany they shipped over the ocean are an enduring benefit.

 

 

19 June 2022

Many people who come to this website will have a copy of The Pianoforte - its history by Rosamond Harding – whose portrait showing here dates from about 1920, that is, before she began her studies at Newnham College, Cambridge. Now regarded as a text of enduring value, it was published originally in 1933 but only because her father, Ambrose Harding, was able and willing to finance the venture. The title page shows 'Cambridge University Press', but that is misleading. It was Ambrose who paid for it, and retained the copyright. Only 220 copies were bound, but many of those lingered on the shelf at CUP. Sales were very slow.

Very few reviews were truly favourable, chiefly I think because the people who wrote them were pianists – familiar only with the modern iron-framed instruments they played daily. Their comments lamented the timeframe Harding chose – up to 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition in London – an easy criticism to make, and very parochial in its outlook. But, to be truthful, it's not an easy read, written by a rather timid student, to be submitted for a Cambridge degree.

Not so her later book, An Anatomy of Inspiration (1940), which is engaging throughout, and sold out the initial print run within a year. Her choice of title 'An Anatomy' may be confusing for modern readers, but was I think prompted by Robert Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' (1621) - 'anatomy' here meaning the process of dissecting and analysing. I have commented before on the astonishing range of her reading and collection of materials, ranging over so many diverse areas of study. The success of this venture was such that reprints and a new edition followed. Ultimately the university awarded her a D. Litt on the basis of this work.

It was all the more poignant to discover a hand-written note she left among her papers at Newnham College. 'It was refused by about half a dozen of the best London publishers, and by Cambridge University Press. I was about to throw it away, but my father was interested in it and persuaded me to show it to Prof. Bartlett.'* So again, it was Ambrose Harding who intervened to save his daughter's work. The outcome was that on Prof. Bartlett's recommendation and with Ambrose Harding's financial support, a Cambridge printer, William Heffer, helped out by putting aside a small supply of paper, which in wartime was hard to acquire. Thus 'An Anatomy of Inspiration' was published in 1940. The initial print run sold out within a year, but Rosamond, as author, was rather embarrassed by some small errors, and was glad of the opportunity to make corrections for a 'second edition' in 1942. There was a third edition in 1948, by which time any hurt and peevishness she felt at so many rejections had subsided. Her book is still readily available in several editions. My copy of her 1940 edition, on wartime economy paper, was easily acquired for £5.

Sad to say, I too have felt similar disappointment recently. Cambridge University Press has declined my Blameless Pleasure, a comprehensive account of instruments and music-making in Georgian society that features not simply the harpsichords, spinets and pianos that people bought and played, but the context, both social and commercial, in which so much of the music we now cherish was first played and heard – teachers, lessons, songs, and the social and physical realities of the rooms where the music was performed. Harding says of her Anatomy that she was ready to 'throw it away' after rejections, but I am not so inclined – as yet. My text contains so much material that has never been considered in print, to the best of my knowledge. Some of the editors report that they found it enjoyable reading – I scrupulously avoid a pedantic style – but hint that their rejection is because it does not conform to the dry, mono-thematic template that academic books are expected to have. They are somewhat puzzled that I do not marshall my materials to pursue a consistent theme, but deliberately switch viewpoints in consecutive chapters. One editor described it as a 'mosaic' which is not unfair, though 'collage' might be better. It is an attempt to look at the subject from many angles, 'in the round' as they say.

* Sir Frederic Bartlett, was the first Professor of Psychology at Cambridge.

 

10 June 2022

Corsham, near Bath, is a beautiful old town – 'quaint' is perhaps the most evocative and truthful description of its varied and quirky old buildings. The added attraction provided by the splendid mansion of the Methuen family, Corsham Court, with its hugely impressive picture gallery is well worth a visit. But instrument sellers and buyers see none of this, because the auction rooms of Gardiner Houlgate are about two miles off, located at the end of one of those depressingly functional industrial estates that can be found outside any town, anywhere. It will draw many harpsichord and piano collectors this month for the very rare opportunities provided by the sale of instruments from the executors of a deceased collector.

You might imagine that this harpsichord is probably by Kirckman – the mahogany veneer, the brassware, and the pedal at the left are all in fact misleading. For when you open the lid you see that it has a polished gilded name batten with lettering: ANDREAS RUCKERS ME FECIT ANTVERPIAE. Many people will remember this as the puzzling instrument sold at Sotheby's London salerooms in 2004, at the staggering hammer price of £88,000 (quite a lot more when commission is heaped on). No one should believe that this is a Flemish harpsichord in anything like its original state, but are any of the much lauded Parisian refurbishments any closer to the original? Their painted exteriors, usually with gold leaf embellishment; their five octave keyboards beginning on FF; their reverse-colour keyplates: delightful as many people find their tone, it is emphatically not the famed Ruckers sound of the seventeenth century, but the French ideal of a century later.

This mahogany veneered instrument has a long provenance, extending back into the 19th century, but that is of little help when trying to reconstruct its past history (rather than past ownership). Auctioneer Jamie South has done a commendable thing by offering with the harpsichord a dosier, reporting the work of Ann & Peter MacTaggart (interior lid painting), and Martin Scholz's comprehensive restructuring of the interior bracing in Basel, 1964. David Leigh of Oxford made a neat job of revoicing (though with black turkey quills!). But who did the English conversion in the 18th century? It's a mystery. The keys look much like Kirckman's work, but only superficially. Pine keylevers, cranked to the right, hardwood sockets at the balance rail, lined with leather, but front rail guide pins point in other directions. The interior springs and levers for the machine stop are very similar to Kirckman's, but they're very shiny and not convincing [for me at least]. Being very familiar with the Kirckman harpsichord at Berrington Hall, sold last year, I see several deviations in the design, though it's clearly of the same period.

But whoever it was in the late 18th century who refurbished this harpsichord, adding extra notes in the bass and treble, replacing the wrestplank, and making new jacks, has left an instrument much closer to the Ruckers' original in the sense that it still has the modest dimensions of a 17th century instrument, only 79 cm wide. To fit the extra notes the case has not been widened. Compare with the ruinous, unrestored relic in the Vleeshuis Museum (Andreas Ruckers, 1615?): the width, length and height are as near identical as a handcrafted item ever can be. Rather than widening the case, the English 18th century refurbishment squeezed in extra notes by eliminating the keyboard end blocks, making space for extra keys up to the inner walls of the case, but not (in my opinion) increasing the overall width of the instrument, nor its length. So the shape, with its characteristic bentside (so unlike English instruments), and interior volume are as they were – unlike the great majority of 'Ruckers harpsichords' in museum displays.

Note added 17 June 2022: there were bidders on the day who shared none of my reservations concerning this harpsichord. In possession of an apparently open ended commission, auctioneer Jamie South solicited bids from the room, and the internet, but for each bid submitted he responded with a further five thousand with no hesitation. Consequently the winning bid was submitted for £180,000, plus a hefty surcharge, making approximately £200,000 — maybe a record auction price for a harpsichord in the UK.

 

3 June 2022

The Horniman Museum, under the guidance of curator Mimi Waitzman, is showing great enterprise in having frequent demonstrations on their historic instruments. Young people who have never heard such music, and might never have heard it through any other means, can simply turn up and hear some really interesting and handsome instruments from past ages. The museum's Kirckman harpsichord [1772] sounds very good indeed. Here you see it being played by Callum Anderson who has migrated from modern piano (which he began at 6), to organ (at 13) and then harpsichord (at university). He plays so convincingly, with dextrous fingers and no needless movement. His recital is on Youtube if you can access it - https://youtu.be/pzIN777HBQ0

 

25 May 2022

News just in concerns one of several Ruckers harpsichords modified, 'refurbished' some say, in the eighteenth century. Gardiner Houlgate is offering the 1614 Andreas Ruckers, rebuilt in London about 1780 by unidentifed hands, but sporting a basic pedal attached to the left leg as commonly fitted in Kirckman's workshop. It has been consigned by the executors of the late Derek Gibson who bought it at Sotheby's in 2004, I recall. What an interesting specimen it is. With the lid down you could easily mistake it for a standard English harpsichord though its identity is presented to you on the namebatten as 'ANDREAS RUCKERS ME FECIT ANTWERPIAE' — though this is very obviously a much later fixture, not only from the lettering style, neat though it may be, but because the width of the keyboard (and thus of the whole instrument) would have been so much less when and if it left Antwerp at the date '1614' painted on the soundboard.

Nevertheless, it is not nearly so bizarre as the '1623' Andreas Ruckers harpsichord sold by Sotheby's in 1995. That one, also veneered in the English manner, has a keyboard compass of 60 notes, down to Kirckman's usual FF, with FF sharp omitted. It likewise has the basic machine pedal at the left. Both attracted some vigorous bidding when they last appeared. Perhaps we shall see something similar this time.

I look forward to seeing this in the saleroom at Corsham.

 

15 May 2022

The outcome of the sale at Vichy, I can now report, was that the extraordinary early grand piano did not go as many had expected to the Cité de la Musique. Though their agent was active in the bidding up to 80,000 euros, a huge intervention from the Bechstein Stiftung saw the piano sold at 180,000 euros, with plans for its restoration and further research from Kerstin Schwarz. Moreover, in another happy result, the square piano by Mercken, dated 1781, went to an active musician – the hammer price being 2800 euros. Perhaps some of the unfortunate alterations can be reversed or made less conspicuous. Certainly, it is a rare item. Very few pianos were made in Paris at an earlier date. Wealthy French citizens much preferred to buy pianos from London – Beck, Zumpe and Schoene, were the most frequent choices, though Pohlman was popular in the early 1770s.

I was surprised to discover recently that in 1790 the widow, fifty-nine year old Princess Kinsky, had in her house on Rue Dominique, three London-made pianos – surprisingly all made in 1788, so they were quite new. One was by Schoene 'successors to Johannes Zumpe', another is described as 'forte-piano Anglais' but not identified further, and the third was an organized piano (a square piano with organ pipes in a cabinet underneath) from Adam Beyer — painted white (can you believe it!). She also had two harspichords from Pascal Taskin both dated 1778 – one painted white with gold bands, the other grey. Presumably the harpsichords were bought first, and her liking for the piano came later.

Despite her compliance with the Revolutionaries' tiresome demands, including paying a large sum required for their war efforts, she felt herself under a continuing threat and fled from France, or rather, 'disappeared'. Gallay could find no trace of her after 1793. This allowed the authorities to purloin her instruments 'for the nation'. Very likely most of them were added to the bonfires in the winter of 1816.

 

10 May 2022

It is readily accepted among most musicologists that Mozart's first experience of the pianoforte was in 1777, when he visited Augsburg, his father's hometown on the way to Paris. Salzburg's Archbishop would not allow Leopold Mozart yet more leave of absence, so in desperation he arranged for Wolfgang to be accompanied by his mother – a fateful decision for Leopold never saw his wife again. After their arrival in the French capital Wolfgang was constantly on the move trying to establish musical contacts, and make a name for himself – to little avail – while mother spent lonely days in their lack-lustre lodgings. There she died in July 1778.

Short of funds, and bereft at the death of his mother, Mozart was befriended by Baron Grimm, allowing him a room in his house, and urging him to greater efforts. It was in this house, Baron Grimm's residence in Paris, that we find documentary record of two keyboard instruments. One was a harpsichord made in Paris by Valther [alias Vater], and the other an English pianoforte made by 'Johannes Pohlman' of London, 1771. Both instruments were still in Grimm's house in 1792 when Antonio Bruni listed them in his Inventory of instruments to be confiscated from absent or condemned citizens. (Grimm had wisely left Paris a year earlier.)

 

 

25 April 2022

The appearance of eighteenth-century Parisian pianos in auctions is not so frequent nowadays. So it is worth regarding the upcoming sale at Vichy Enchères on 7 May, where a piano carré by Mercken is to be sold, dating from 1781. Evidently over-restored to most connoisseurs, it is still nevertheless an interesting item. So few examples survive from the period before Sebastien Erard began making square pianos from the mid 1780s. [Yes, I know that they claim that he made his first piano in 1777 – we are still waiting to see some evidence to support this.]

mercken

Aside from the new soundboard, what I notice is that the restraint for the dampers (probably a replacement) extends across to the left hand side of the piano where it is morticed into the side wall. This is a feature that was about to be modified in the following years. The design of the damper levers and their springs is much closer to the London-made instruments he was copying than was usual in France. To the player, however, it presents the traditional appearance of French harpsichords, with ebony keys and pearwood arcades at the front. Other examples from Mercken also have these features, though most Continental makers of pianos in the 'English' style go the whole way with ivory keys. (The calligraphy is very nearly as poor as on the example below.)

 

18 April 2022

mercken

Twenty-five years ago, in The Pianoforte in the Classical Era [p.81], I wrote that 'The first of Zumpe's copiers in Paris were Balthazar Peronard (1771) and Johann Kilian Mercken, whose oldest known instrument is believed to date from 1770.' It appears that I chose my words carefully. There are grounds for doubt about the year 1770, which you can see above. The very small size of the final digit may suggest that it was originally a 9. Then there are statistical improbablities. So if I had doubts then, there are ample reasons to be sceptical now. Many more instruments by Mercken are now known (see Clinkscale online) and they range from 1778 to 1805.

Piano manufacture in Paris made a late start compared with London, though a few very wealthy connoisseurs had grand pianos from Strasbourg as early as 1761. These were made by Jean Henri Silbermann, otherwise Johann Heinrich, nephew to the famous Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg, Saxony. But ultimately they were not a great success. There may have been reservations regarding the touch, and very likely there were problems with maintaining the playability of them, owing to the fine adjustments needed, and the inexperience of harpsichord tuners in the French capital. There is little evidence that other makers followed this lead – in Paris.

But now there is a strongly argued assessment from Christopher Clarke that Mercken, the maker whose square piano is shown above, made a fortepiano similar to J. H. Silbermann's, as early as 1768. Fascinating!

mercken

This is to be sold at auction by Vichy Enchères on 7 May. You see immediately that it doesn't look the least bit French, as we would normally think of it. German work is srongly suggested by the exterior veneer work. Internally there are intriguing clues as to its history. If you lift out the foreboard and look on the back you find a hand-written inscription: Johannes Kilianus Mercken / Parisiis. Christopher Clarke accepts this, but I have serious doubts. For sure, it was NOT written by the incompetent scribe whose hand is shown on his square pianos.

The most interesting clues revealed inside are that the maker originally provided a close copy of J. H. Silbermann's hammer action, the hammers having round hollow heads faced with buff leather, propelled by an intermediate lever very like Cristofori's, lifted by an escapement hopper (or jack), mounted in a mortice in the key lever. But the very surprising fact is that the mechanism for the notes above middle C has been replaced (apparently at an early date) with a simple intro Prellmechanik, that has no escapement and smaller, solid limewood hammer heads – though faced with the same oil-tanned buff leather. Why would you do this? Christopher explains this by quoting historic sources that suggest that ease of repetition and lightness of touch was desired. Installing this action in a grand piano presents problems, even though it has an inverted wrestplank, in the Cristofori and Silbermann style. (I have only seen this action previously in square pianos.)

Another surprise is that (as you can see above) the compass exceeds the usual five octaves, having F sharp and G above. Again, this requires some explanation, but Christopher cites anomalies in music from the 1760s suggesting that these notes were available to some Parisian composers, notably Eckhardt. In the end, he suggests that this piano was initially constructed perhaps, as early as 1767, and later taken to Paris when Mercken moved there. There are noteworthy resemblances in the Prellmechanik to the work of Baumann of Zweibrucken. Whatever your final judgment, this is an interesting instrument that might throw new light on the earliest phase of piano-making in France.

Adding further to the level of interest a square piano by Mercken, 1781, is also entered for this forthcoming sale. More on that later.

 

11 April 2022

Sounds of summer are returning to Gloucestershire. Chiff-chaffs, flying back from warmer regions are caling from the tree tops, and blackcaps sing from the hedgerows. As Easter is near this is the second busiest time of the year for musicians. So it is good to see that choirs have been meeting for rehearsals, and tympani, trumpets and chamber organs are booked for the usual repertoire – baroque and classical period works that can be relied upon to attract an audience.

Writing in his Introduction to The Present State of Music in Germany, in 1773, Charles Burney remarks 'I am unwilling to allow the knowledge of a science which diffuses so much blameless pleasure, though a circle of such vast extent, to be of small importance. He was thinking no doubt of the countless convivial hours he had spent with musical friends; of the many evenings when Handel conducted his oratorios while Burney himself played a humble viola part in the orchestra; of charming music played with extraordinary facility by Madame Brillon in Paris, before her guests adjourned to the dining room for a splendid supper; and of innumerable gatherings on a much more modest scale at home, playing through sonatas with his highly talented daughter Hester.

Burney’s remarks have been wholly vindicated; the study of music is NOT of small importance. Two hundred and fifty years later, the compositions that he and his friends enjoyed are as popular as ever. The music of Handel and Haydn continues to fill concert halls, and the harmonies he cherished in baroque concertos are used subliminally to sell all manner of products.

Blameless Pleasure, as he says, and an enduring legacy. So this quirky phrase is what I have chosen as a provisional title for my social history of music in Georgian society. It is presently under consideration by Oxford University Press. There is no competing literature that I know of. Richard Leppert thought of attempting something of this kind in the 1980s, but as he writes in the opening pages of his 'Music and Image' (the best-known publication in this field) his intention was ‘to write a social history of non-professional domestic music-making among the English upper classes in the eighteenth century’. But, as he then explains, he gave up that quest. Thereafter his book degenerates into a highly contentious, quasi-feminist polemic, founded entirely on his personal [mis]understanding of portraits showing ladies in what he interprets as the subjection of women under male domination. We could do without that.

Arthur Loesser seems to promise much with 'Men, Women and Pianos' re-issued by Dover (New York) in 1991, but it is very superficial, as readers soon discover, and his role as a concert pianist leads him astray into a panegyric on Steinway pianos. Any pianos made before 1850 he dismisses in a few words. And women, though they appear in his title, get very little attention.

So I hope, and wait – and as Easter approaches I am still watching for the first swallows.

 

4 April 2022

beck

When the 'First Fleet piano' was shown to me [a few years ago] I confess that I was sceptical about the legs. Cabriole legs under a square piano by Frederick Beck wasn't at all what we expected. It was, allegedly, the first piano in Australia, so of course it attracted a lot of interest 'down under'. This piano, showing left (present location unknown) validates the Australian instrument, and adds much extra information that is very welcome. Whereas the First Fleet Piano was missing a few items, this one appears to be absolutely intact. The pedals appear to be original, and the brackets to either side of the name cartouche correspond very closely with the empty 'witness holes' in its sister instrument in Australia. Both date from the 1780s and have the same type of chequer framing inside the stand.

Nevertheless, it was quite a surprise this week to see that Dreweatt's April 21st Auction at Donnington Priory has a much earlier specimen, dated 1778. [showing right] It is clearly in a bad state, but worthy of rescue. The knee lever is a matter for investigation. Is it really what Beck intended? Or is it a later accretion?

Certainly, the Australian piano can now be seen as belonging to a family, with at least three siblings. And since the first piano (above) is dated 1789 we can see that it was a long-lasting style. Beck's pianos always seem to be a bit 'skimpy' to me - a bit fragile, not robustly engineered. But it is good to see that he maintained a good quality of calligraphy when so many makers let such matters slip.

 

28 March 2022

When someone buys a harpsichord in the twenty-first century it's a simple matter. The musician visits the showroom or workshop and speaks to the maker. There the intending player usually tries out a finished instrument, a transaction is agreed, and the buyer decides either to have the instrument they have tried, or orders another to be made. It seems needless to say that there are only two people involved in this process – the buyer and the seller, or more accurately, the musician and the maker. It was not so in times gone by.

When you see a historic harpsichord (or piano) in a museum it may be one of a dozen or more keyboard instruments. If you visit a major collection, such as the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, you may see twenty or more arrayed in a spacious gallery. The curators often take care that you shall have plenty of information about the instruments – the materials especially, and their source countries, also the date and place of manufacture, but arguably the most important information is missing. Who owned this instrument? And what did it mean to that person? What was the social context? A few of the historic instruments you see may have been purchased by the end user, i.e. the player, but that is rarely so.

I can demonstrate from primary source data that more than 80% of eighteenth-century pianos, harpsichords and spinets were owned by women. Ladies constitute the overwhelming majority of players/owners. Nevertheless, the context involves other people. The person who paid for the instrument is nearly always male. He will be most often the husband or father of the lady [or girl] whose instrument this will be. Look at Broadwood's sales ledgers: the buyers are usually men. But if you look carefully at the names of clients who paid for tuning, and you will see that they are mostly women. Even then you are not seeing the true extent of female dominance [numerically] because girls or young women did not settle financial matters themselves – fathers or husbands paid the bill for juveniles, or unmarried daughters.

There is a whole 'backstory' missing. The social context was typically of a female player; her mother who was usually the instigator of the business; the father who paid the bills but usually knew very little about musical matters; and the teacher who may have given good advice, if asked, though it was not always followed. The tutor was of course nearly always male.

Even more interesting, and surprising, is the continuing history that enabled a historic instrument to survive. Those you see in the museum – what was the process by which a redundant instrument was preserved? Why did someone save it from destruction? These are questions worth pondering, though there is rarely a definitive answer. Consider, for example, the spinet on which a young girl began her lessons, probably about seven years of age. Her mother kept the child to her daily practice. Her father, who bought the instrument for her, was probably delighted when she achieved a good standard so as to play for guests. But if the girl never marries, not infrequently the spinet would stay with her — an elderly spinster with an old-fashioned spinet. So when she passes away perhaps her niece will inherit the instrument (it often happened). She preserves it because it belonged to her aunt, whose memory is precious to her. But in time, after a few more generations, the spinet passes out of the family, and the historic thread is broken. No one knows who the original owner was, and like a silver bracelet dug up in a ploughed field, the spinet (or piano) can only be regarded as an object, with no context but the name of the maker and the date.

 

14 March 2022

A well-meaning friend recently sent me a copy of W.H. Grattan Flood's article on Dublin harpsichord and piano makers, published in 1909. [Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, pp. 137-145.] It begins with an apology: I intend this paper to be merely tentative ...if it does nothing else but stimulating an interest in Irish manufactured keyboard instruments of the eighteenth century I shall feel well repaid. Unhappily, there follows eight pages of speculative and erroneous statements that have served only to mislead researchers for a century. And in the absence of any better resource, a hundred years of confusion followed. For example, his statement that William Southwell died in 1842 and was buried at Glasnevin might be taken for fact. The result is that I and many others accepted it as true. Consequently you will find a rubbish sentence in The Pianorte in the Classical Era, saying that Southwell returned to Ireland at the end of his life. Untrue. You would assume that Flood had good reason for such a statement, but apparently not.

'William Southwell was a Dublin genius to whose memory but scant justice has hitherto been rendered', he wrote. And then immediately followed with 'Born in 1756 ... he became apprentice to Weber in 1772.' And that was where things lay until Margaret Debenham rectified matters. He was in fact born in 1736/7 making an apprenticeship in 1772 incredible. It is good that the Dictionary of Irish Biography has now published Margaret's findings. I see that the same DIB now has a frank appraisal of Flood's incompetence. His patriotism, they suggest, is largely to blame for his attempts to claim John Dowland and Henry Purcell as Irish-born composers. And they admit that he manipuated his sources and even invented facts to fill gaps in his information.

 

6 March 2022

shiff

Hopeful signs at last. In the last ten days I have twice tuned double manual harpsichords for concert use, and better news still, about 240 people turned out on a stormy night to hear Bach's keyboard concerto in D, perfomed by Gordon Busbridge and friends, before an audience who were NOT required to wear face masks.

Here, on the left, you see evidence of an even more momentous event – something I had never expected to see – Sir Andras Schiff playing a fortepiano in a public concert. Here he plays superbly on an excellent Longman & Broderip piano from the Cobbe Collection. Congratulations to everyone concerned. The music was Haydn, on what is said to be the very instrument he took back to Vienna after his second visit to London in 1794/5. How good it sounds after listening to similar music on a Walter-style piano. If you care to listen it continues to be available on YouTube - sadly withdrawn, but not the less atractive one featuring a Walter copy! [1 May]. What is specially welcome is the much wider range of dynamics, with a delicate pianissimo, and warmer tone, compared with the dry sounds and restricted dynamic range of the regrettably ubiquitous Walter-style fortepianos. (There seems to be an insatiable appetite for copies of them, in Europe and America, presumably because players believe that Mozart endorsed them. However, Haydn found faults with Walter's work, and it's not hard to see why.) Other uploads to YouTube have recently featured duets – harpsichord and fortepiano, by Emmanuel Bach and John Christian – in which I find it very frustrating that players of the Walter-style fortepianos (which, incidentally, neither of the Bach brothers would have known) seem unable to find a soft enough pianissimo to echo the harpsichord. The softer sounds that Stein's instruments possess are nearly always missing from the brittle Viennese ones.

Seeing how many positive comments there were on Andras Schiff's performance on the Longman & Broderip piano we may hope that students and keyboard players generally will understand what they have been missing.

 

12 February 2022

People who bought instruments from the Colt Collection in 2018 will not need a reminder that the business that Mr. Colt ran was making and selling wooden houses. Inevitably in England there is much resistance to such constructions. People prefer the seeming durability of 'bricks and mortar' or better still, houses built with quarried stone. There was only one Colt house in Prestbury (where I live), but this week it has been unceremoniously demolished – smashed and carted off by the truck-load.

So the house is gone, and presumably also the Broadwood square piano that resided there! It was almost identical with the one at Kenwood House, showing right. I knew exactly what it was, as soon as I saw it two years ago, even though the lid was closed. From across the room the distinctive 'ladder' type banding that Broadwoods featured on their square pianos in 1791 and 1792 was very prominent. As ever, the owners were too hopeful. They thought it might be valuable, but lifting the lid revealed the usual sorry tale of missing dampers (there were about ten left) and structural deterioration. The people who called me in were, I believe, brother and sister, joint heirs of the recently deceased owner. So I never did get to hear how it came into the family possession. I am still wondering whether it had passed through the hands of Mr. Colt. He liked to place them in the display houses at Bethersden. That's often what prospective customers remembered most readily – as you would if you had never seen such an instrument before.

Well, on my walk today along Mill Lane I stopped awhile at 'Brookside' to see the result of the demolition – a half-acre of barren ground where there was once a pretty garden with the Mill Stream running through. When summer comes there will doubtless arise a new house (a concrete and glass box?). It was gratifying to see how well Colt's house with cedar cladding had survived. It was in very good condition a month ago.

 

1 February 2022

Insomnia is one of the perils of old age. So when I find myself awake in the middle of the night, reading is part of the remedy. And no book gives me greater pleasure, and unexpected insights, than Burney's travels in Europe. I think myself very fortunate to have his books beautifully bound in leather, with every page clean and well-presented in such a comfortable typeface. Just to hold such a book in the hand is a pleasure in itself. Last night it was his Italian Tour that came off the bookshelf. And opening at random I found him in Milan.

He had met and had long conversations with J.B. Sammartini, Maestro di Capella, and heard many of the leading performers. He had attended the opera, and was present in the cathedral for Sunday Mass. But the best singer he heard he did not see. Nor could he give her a name. This was at Santa Maria Maddalena, a convent where he heard several motets performed by the nuns. It was the feast day of their patron saint, and after earlier disappointments he writes: Sammartini made me ample amends for the want of slow movements in his mass [setting] on Friday, by an Adagio in the motet of today which was truly divine, and divinely sung by one of the sisters, accompanied, on the organ only, by another [sister]. It was by far the best singing, in every respect, that I had heard since my arrival in Italy. Several of the nuns sung, some indifferently, but one of them had an excellent voice; full, rich and sweet, and flexible, with a true shake, and exquisite expression; it was delightful, and left nothing to wish for.

He continues: In this convent there was an organ for the choruses, and an organ and harpsichord together, [i.e. a compound instrument] which was likewise played by the nuns. The accompaniment of that instrument alone with the heavenly voice abovementioned, pleased me beyond description... surely one cannot hear too much of such a mellifluous voice... If a voice be coarse, or otherwise displeasing, then tumultuous accompaniments and artful contrivances may have their use; but a single note from such a voice as [this] penetrates deeper into the soul than the same note from the most perfect instrument on earth ... The music this morning was entirely performed by the nuns themselves, who were invisible to the congregation.

But having heard such music he could not forget it. Later that evening, he left a very agreeable meal on the table before the second course was served and writes: 'I ran to the convent, arriving just in time to hear the same motet repeated by the same nun – with double delight'.

With such pleasing thoughts I was able to return to my bed and soon fell asleep.

 

 

21 January 2022

Readers who have played historic harpsichords may recognise the tuning pins and the distinctive form of the nut in this photograph. 'Kirckman', I hear you say. But what are those hammers in the top left corner? Joseph Merlin's patent Piano-forte Stop, of course. This instrument in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is the only known specimen, so my guess is that I have accidentally discovered more about its prior history. When searching for 'Shudi' in newspaper archives I came across an advertisement in the Morning Herald, 26 March 1801, which begins: BARGAIN - Piano-fortes by the most eminent makers to be sold cheap. An almost new Longman & Broderip, of five-and-a-half octaves, with Irish dampers, only eighteen guineas. Another by Schoene & Vinsen, very fine tone, with three pedals only twelve guineas. These I think are offered at about half their original price.

But the most extraordinary bargains seem to be the harpsichords. This double-keyed harpsichord by 'Old Kirckman' with its Piano-forte stop has 5 handstops, and 2 pedals, we are told, and originally cost a hundred guineas - price 18 guineas. Quite a discount! But I suspect that Merlin's wonderful invention, that he offered to fit to any harpsichord, by any maker, was not such a great idea. As Jeremy Bentham observed: 'the complexity renders it proportionately more liable to be out of order'. He had one on trial at his house in 1788, but reports that it was made in 1781, when it cost 110 guineas. Very likely this indicates that some previous owner found it did not live up to expectations. It was entirely of Merlin's make, with four sets of strings, viz. 2 x 8', 1 x 4' and 1 x 16'. Therefore it is not the one mentioned in this advert, made by Jacob Kirckman at an unspecified date.

But I wonder whether we have here in 1801 a record of the MFA Harpsichord-Pianoforte more than a century before its earliest known provenance? Their's was bought by the Boston museum from the Edwin Ripin Collection, its earlier history only going back to 1924.

But, to return to the advertisement, the bargains on offer include two square pianos from Ganer, a Shudi harpsichord [7 guineas] and a single-manual harpsichord by William Harris for 5 guineas. There is no record of a surviving example to match this one. The vendor was a Mr. Cope, teacher of Piano-forte, living at 13 Chester Place, Kennington Cross, Lambeth.

The photo used here comes from John Koster's vastly impressive catalogue of the musical instruments in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where one can also read his lengthy and well considered comments on the instrument.

4 January 2022

Charles Burney – we think of him nowadays as the author of two very readable tours through Europe in the 1770s, and perhaps with less relish, as the author of a four-volume General History of Music, which cost him much effort, yet is often dull reading. Burney was also the author of the musical entries in Rees' Cyclopaedia, compiled about 1800, when he had more or less retired from his onerous teaching commitments. It is from this source that we have the anecdotes of Jacob Kirckman -- his speedy marriage with Tabel's widow, for example. But I was specially interested in what he had to say about the SPINET.

There is an echo of Burney himself as a youth, when he writes of the spinets made by Keene and Slade, from the time of Queen Anne (before 1715) because it was on such an instrument that he taught himself music around 1743. He practiced relentlessly, as noted in this Blog last year, but first he had to put the old spinet in order, replacing many quills in the jacks etc. He remarks that the bass had a short octave, and the long keys were black, with ivory for the sharps. How well we recall our teenage years! But it is his last sentence in the Cyclopaedia that is so relevant to this website: the small piano-forte has supplanted the spinet in public favour, and we believe that very few have been made since the middle of the last century.

The evidence that I have been collecting recently provides a very different narrative. Initially I was interested in investigating the period before 1740, from which at most 10 or 12 English harpsichords survive. Yet from the same period (1700-1740), using the same affirmative criteria, I find 57 surviving spinets, plus many more with incomplete records. The implications of this need to be considered carefully.

But, incidentally, I discovered something rather surprising: that Burney was greatly mistaken. As a very active music teacher you would think that he would have accurate information about the instruments in use in the 1770s and 1780s. Contrary to what he says, spinets were being made and sold in great numbers even after the advent of the square piano. The peak decades for production were in fact the 1760s and 1770s. The advent of the square piano did not of itself sound the death knell for the humble spinet. What we might infer from this is that many parents, presumably taking advice from a reputable music teacher, provided their daughters with a spinet. There is no cost implication. A new spinet or square piano came at roughly the same price.

It may be that Burney, with a select list of pupils, preferred to teach the more fashionable piano-forte, but other musicians chose to have their pupils learn the spinet. This continued right into the 1780s. Maybe, like Richard Wafer who taught Mary Marsh, they wanted to develop their pupils' touch and found the plucking action of a quilled instrument better for the purpose. Thomas Green, who gave music lessons up to 1785, taught his pupls at the harpsichord or spinet, but declined to teach piano. Richard Stevens, taking a new pupil in 1780, was instructed to have a spinet sent to the house.

 

24 December 2021

'Laugh out loud' moments are quite rare when researching old documents. But this was the result of my reading recently. My wife was surprised and puzzled when, after reading quietly for an hour by the fireside I burst out in laughter, which subsided into prolonged merriment for several minutes. A good joke? Well, not intentionally so.

The source was a passage in Charles Avison's 'Essay on Musical Expression' which I bought in a paperback reprint of the 1775 edition. You may have encountered his name in recordings of his compositions, or in the 'Avison Ensemble', named in his honour. I encountered him quite often when searching eighteenth-century newspapers to find information on concerts of that period. Charles Avison was a worthy composer, a concert promoter, and an organist in the thriving northern city of Newcastle-on-Tyne.

He was evidently a well-educated man, quoting from Latin authors, and advancing his arguments with well-constructed, if polemical prose. It was no great surprise to find that, like many musical men of the time, he was not very impressed with pieces in the newest style by Bach and Abel. [John Christian Bach, you understand.] He wanted interesting parts for all the instruments, and so found compositions in the new 'galant' style (as we now call it) rather tedious, depending as they so often do on melodic interest with repetitive accompaniments. He calls attention to the three essential parts of musical compositions: melody, harmony and expression. Then, through page after page he disparages many un-named composers for their reliance on melody, neglecting the second and third elements. He writes of 'vague and unmeaning pieces' in which he finds the composer 'struggling with the difficulties of an extraneous modulation', or tiring the listener with tedious repetitions of some simple melodiic idea. 'Harmonious accompaniments seem generally neglected or forgotten', he writes. And then we get a clue where he is going because he complains of 'extravaganzi, which the unskillful call invention'.

Then, after several more pages on similar lines, he names several modern composers of 'inferior genius' who will be consigned 'to that oblivion to which they are deservedly destined'.

'Of the first and lowest class [is] VIVALDI ... whose compositions, defective in harmony and true invention, are only fit amusement for children'. Oblivion? Vivaldi? .... A merry thought for Christmas !

 

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