This article provides a background to the recent interest in square pianos, comments on their musical capabilities and provides guidance on buying an instrument.
Rise to respectability
Many Georgian and Victorian square pianos have survived but until recently they have not been considered serious musical instruments. Most of them have been kept as a piece of furniture and not used recently for their original purpose. They have not been considered to have much value and due respect has not necessarily been given to them. In the early part of the 20th century many were converted into desks or sideboards to give them more use as a functional piece of furniture. Square pianos that were restored were generally not done well and professional standards of restoration were not as high as they are today.
Interest in square pianos was noticed in the 1970’s at which time the major auction houses began to see an increase in the value of very early examples. Kenneth Ullyett F.R.S.A. writing in 1975 said that a 1772 Pohlmann had fetched £400 and a 1777 Zumpe and Buntebart £700 at a major London auction house whereas a decade earlier few square pianos fetched more than £25. He forecast that musicologists and dealers had good reason to believe that this appreciation would continue and collectors would see the same sort of boom that had come to clocks and watches. Perhaps this has not happened to the extent that he anticipated but over the past 40 years there has been a gradual increase in interest and more understanding of these instruments. The provision of online auctions in recent years has provided better visibility to potential purchasers and there has been a further increase in their value. Fine 18th century examples by early makers have fetched in excess of £3000 at provincial auction houses and a Zumpe and Buntebart of 1770 fetched £8,800 in 2011 at a specialist auction house in London. Today they are appreciated for their elegance, musical capabilities and technical merit and are owned by collectors and musicians.
Improved standards of restoration and the use of authentic replacement materials have led to instruments being better restored than they were previously. This has influenced our perception of their musical capabilities and together with a growing interest in performance, using period instruments, it is now appreciated that they have a rightful place in the historical performance of the music of their period.
The tonal characteristics of 18th century square pianos are very different to the modern piano and it is easy to appreciate their individual tonal quality. The sound is of low volume and very sweet, having a narrow dynamic range but still enabling a degree of expression. The action of these early square pianos is very responsive and direct. The music that can be played is only up to the early classical period. The limiting factors for playing later compositions are the keyboard compass of five octaves or five and half octaves at the end of the 18th century and the absence of a pedal for sustain. Most 18th century square pianos are not fitted with a pedal but use hand stops to raise the dampers. Therefore it is only possible to raise the dampers when the left-hand can be released from playing the music.
Most Broadwood square pianos of the 18th century and early 19th century up to 1806 do not have the capability to raise the dampers for sustain and are not provided with a pedal or hand-stop but conversely, the very earliest square pianos were played with dampers raised as their normal position, allowing the sound from the strings to resonate through an entire movement of the music. During the 1790’s the square piano began to develop from its earliest form and the harpsichord was finally out of favour. The tonal characteristics took one step forward but still remained very different to the modern piano.
In the early 19th century five and half octave compass was standard and occasionally six octave instruments were seen. A more dependable action was universally adopted known as the “double action” and the pedal for sustain became standard. The sound had become a little more pianistic with a wider dynamic range and most classical period music can be played on these instruments.
The arrival of romantic period music demanded much more from the piano. The iron plate and iron bars were introduced enabling thicker strings to be used that were strung at a higher tension but perhaps for a while an increase in volume of sound was achieved at the expense of tonal quality in the treble. The sound was still very different to the modern piano but by the middle of the 19th century the square piano had become too large to grace a normal size room. The tonal quality of the later square pianos were better than the small upright pianos of the period that was winning favour. However, our familiarity with the sound of modern piano may make it more difficult for us to appreciate the tonal characteristics of later square pianos. This together with the large proportions of later instruments makes them less desirable and consequently their value is considerably less than early examples.
Buying a square piano
Most square pianos that come onto the market, particularly at auction, are in relatively poor condition and will need specialist restoration to bring them into satisfactory and reliable performance standard playing condition. Even an example that appears to be almost in working order invariably will require a significant amount of work.
Examples that were restored in the 1970’s or 1980’s may have been treasured at the time but may not have been played or maintained in recent years and therefore they are no longer serviceable without attention. Restoration standards have improved and more authentic materials are available today and therefore it is not unusual that an example that was restored a few years ago is restored again to meet current standards and expectation for playing performance.
If you are thinking of buying a square piano from auction or privately, you will need to consider the amount of work that may be required to bring the instrument into good playing condition and whether you can do this yourself or will have it professionally restored. If you wish to consider a professional restoration, the work required is likely to take a considerable amount of time and skill and this will be reflected in the cost. The complete restoration of a square piano by a professional restorer is likely to cost several thousand pounds.
Most square pianos can be restored but it is not always appropriate or financially viable to do so. There are some that are of historical importance that should not be restored but conserved in their current state for future study. If you have inherited a square piano you may consider that it has sentimental value and you are prepared to spend the amount of money required to completely restore the instrument. If you are buying from auction or privately it is better to purchase an example in reasonable rather than poor condition. Differences in the condition of instruments are not always reflected in the prices realised at auction.
What to look for when buying a square piano
It is not possible in this article to comment on all factors to look for when buying a square piano and if in doubt it is recommended that you seek professional advice but the key considerations are as follows:
Many square pianos have developed a twist in the case over time caused by the tension of the strings. A small twist may not be of concern but avoid buying an example that is severely twisted. To make an assessment, kneel on the floor at the left-hand side of the instrument and look to see whether the opposite end is parallel. If there is a twist you will see that the right-hand side front corner is higher the left-hand side front corner. Also if there is a twist, the instrument may not sit firmly on the floor with a gap under one or more legs. It is not usually possible to correct a twist in the case and a severe twist is likely to have related internal structural issues.
Look at the condition of the soundboard and bridge. Observe whether the soundboard has sunk and is split and whether the bridge is lifting from the soundboard or is split. These issues are more likely to occur with earlier instruments than later examples. It is usually possible to restore the soundboard and bridge but remember that these issues are structural and require skill and knowledge to restore yourself. In the past, soundboards were often replaced by professional restorers but every effort is made today to repair and retain a damaged soundboard.
Hammers and dampers are sometimes detached but often remain loose within the instrument. It is not difficult to make to pattern any that are missing but assess how complete the instrument is internally. Often the pedal is missing, if the instrument was fitted with one, and therefore a pedal from another instrument will be required or a replacement made to pattern.
Another common issue is that the tension of the strings has caused the wrest-plank to rise up (if the wrest pins are fitted on the right) or the hitch-pin plank to rise up (if the wrest pins are along the spine of the instrument). This will require structural repair including the removal of the soundboard. Sometimes it is advisable to replace the top of the wrest plank and re-drill for the wrest pins. If you wish to restore a square piano yourself, it will be more easily achieved if you buy an example that does not require structural repair unless you have the necessary knowledge and skills.
Most square pianos are not found in their original state and have received some form of intervention, particularly over the past 50 years. Not all intervention has been good and generally the most desirable examples are those that show a minimal amount of intervention unless the quality of the work undertaken is very good.
Square pianos made from about 1795 to 1820 may be considered to have the most favourable attributes. These include a dependable double action, a reasonably pianistic sound that it noticeably different to the modern piano, a pedal for sustain and acceptable physical proportions with elegant case decoration. This is not to say that square pianos from other periods are not worthy. Your choice of instrument will depend on the music you wish to play and your preference for case style and appearance.
If you are buying a square piano, you will need to appreciate the true condition of the instrument and assess the amount of work required to bring it into playing condition. If you intend to restore an instrument yourself, you will need to know that you have the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve the restoration. If you intend to have an instrument professionally restored, you will need to budget several thousand pounds for a complete restoration.