This article is about the development of the English square piano; their ownership in the late 18th and during the 19th centuries and their survival and preservation in recent time. It also provides information about early keyboard instrument collections in the UK and the United States that include these instruments.
The development of the English square piano
Square pianos in England were made during a period of just over 100 years. The earliest surviving English square piano was made by Johannes Zumpe in1766.1 The last square piano made by John Broadwood & Sons was in 1866 but Collard & Collard continued to make these instruments into the 1870’s. During this period the square piano developed dramatically from a small lightly strung instrument meeting the needs of musicians of the classical era to one of large proportion with iron plate and greatly increased string mass and tension. These changes gave increased volume and dynamics required for later romantic period music. Continuous change was made to the technical design and the appearance of case changed in line with furniture style and fashion.
The ownership of square pianos in the late 18th and during the19th centuries
Square pianos would have been considered old-fashioned a few years after they were made and fall short in meeting changes in musical expectations. Many were sold by their original owners for a more up-to-date example.
A Broadwood square piano of 1791 in my possession recently was inscribed on the inner cover showing that it had changed hands many times up to 1840. The first change of ownership was in 1806. By 1840, this instrument would have been considered to have little value. Fortunately, it survived as a piano probably fulfilling a purpose as a side table but many others were less fortunate and were converted into desks, sideboards or dressing tables in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The output of square pianos declined after 1850 in preference to the upright piano as the domestic instrument.
A minority of square pianos remained in the ownership of the family who first bought them. One such example was made by Adam Beyer in 1779 and was purchased for Cusworth Hall, Doncaster where it remained until the contents were auctioned in 1952. This instrument is now in The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Faculty of Music, Oxford.
Some square pianos were available with added ornamentation at extra cost that reflected the wealth and social status of their owners. Contrasting veneers and neoclassical style inlay in the late 18th century gave way to gilt brass mouldings by about 1810. In the Victorian period fewer square pianos were decorated and some were very basic and plain making them more affordable to people with less financial means .
The revival of interest in the square piano
From the mid-Victorian period until the 1970’s square pianos were generally discounted as musical instruments and were viewed as having little antique value. Their survival depended on their use as a piece of furniture. Others were abandoned and kept in unfavourable conditions resulting in their deterioration. Interest in square pianos has gradually increased since the 1970’s and they are now appreciated by many as an historical musical instrument in their own right that demonstrate the music of their period. Later square pianos of larger proportions still remain less desirable but earlier examples are receiving more respect and are being repaired more authentically than they were previously.
Their survival, condition and restoration
It is considered that the survival rate of square pianos on average is between 3% and 5% of total production. This may seem a relatively high figure but has occurred because of their convenient use as an alternative piece of furniture. Early grand pianos were less fortunate in this respect.
A significant number of the surviving square pianos have received some repair over the past 60 years and therefore a square piano in good original well-preserved condition is rare. If an instrument has survived substantially in original condition, there is a good argument to conserve only and not to put back into playing condition. It is important that we are able to show instruments that are in an original state with all materials as used by their makers for current and future research and provide a benchmark for those that are restored.
The question whether to restore an early piano may depend on who has acquired the instrument. For museums it is often considered necessary only to conserve and not restore unless the museum specialises in having instruments for public performance. If an early piano has been acquired by a private individual, it is more likely that the owner wishes to have the instrument restored to playing condition.
There is merit for restoring many square pianos. This will enable their continuing survival and allow their musical performance to be appreciated. However, if an instrument is to be put back into playing order, one of the golden rules of conservation has to be broken as some of the original material will need to be replaced. Materials should only be replaced if it is absolutely essential for bringing the instrument back into playing condition. Replacement materials such as leather, cloth and music wire should be as close as possible in composition to the original material. The case should not be re-polished even if it does have marks and stains but this is more likely to happen where the instrument is a privately owned.
Keyboard instrument collections that include square pianos
In discussing the preservation of square pianos it is worth mentioning two important collections in the UK. In 1944, Mr C. F. Colt, a timber frame building manufacturer, started to acquire instruments and house them at Bethersden in Kent. This collection is known as the Colt Clavier Collection.2 In 1944 early keyboard instruments were relatively easy to find and Mr Colt acquired about 160 including many square pianos. His collection includes more Broadwood pianos than are held in any other single collection. Mr Colt died in 1985 but his collection survives. About 1971, Mr. Richard Burnett acquired Finchcocks, an eighteenth century manor house in Goudhurst, Kent and brought together a large collection of early keyboard instruments. The Finchcocks Musical Museum.3 is open to the public and is very much appreciated for the services it provides and access it offers to its early keyboard instruments.
A large number of early keyboard instruments in the UK including square pianos are in the care of the National Trust and dispersed between its many properties. A register of these instruments is in preparation but information about some instruments can be found in the “National Trust Collections” published on the Internet. At Hatchlands Park, a National Trust property in Surrey UK, there is the Cobbe Collection of Keyboard Instruments with Composer Associations.4 At Fenton House, Hampstead, London, another property of the National Trust The Benton Fletcher Collection of Keyboard Instruments is held.5 Collections of musical instruments including square pianos are held by some universities and colleges including the Edinburgh University Collection of Musical Instruments (Russell and Mirrey collections of early keyboard instruments) 6 ; The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Faculty of Music, Oxford;7 the Royal College of Music, Museum of Music, London.8 and the Royal Academy of Music, London.9 There are a number of small private collections that include square pianos such as the Kenneth Mobbs Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments formally in Bristol but now in New Zealand.
In the United States, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia hold a collection of early keyboard instruments and a selection of these instruments including English square pianos have been brought together for special exhibit between 22 November 2012 and 7 September 2014. This exhibition is known as “Changing Keys”, Keyboard Instruments of America 1700-1830.10 It shows the transition from the harpsichord to the piano and the standard of presentation is exemplary.
There are many other collections around the world that include English square pianos.
The availability of English square pianos today
The number of square pianos coming onto the market or sale appears to have decreased over the past few years. One reason for this may be that more instruments than ever before are being exported to overseas buyers. The availability of online fine art auction sales has increased the visibility of these instruments to potential buyers. I am aware of a significant demand from overseas buyers not only across Europe and the United States but also from the countries in the Far East. Fortunately, square pianos are no longer being converted into furniture but some are being broken up because they are undesirable or are in a very poor state.
The importance of English square piano
Piano making in the late 18th and 19th centuries was very competitive and potentially a very lucrative business which grew from just a handful of square pianos made by Johannes Zumpe to a major business sector in which a piano was owned in the majority of households. Many thousands of people were in its employ during the 19th century and therefore the production of pianos was very important to the UK economy. Piano manufacture was the most mechanised industry of the 19th century in England.
The merit for a national collection of early keyboard instruments in the UK
Although we have a number of excellent early keyboard collections in the UK, there is not one that could be considered as a national collection. There was a small collection of early keyboard instruments at the V&A Museum in London until recently but this has been disbanded in favour of other exhibits. There may be sufficient interest and incentive for a national collection of early keyboard instruments that brings together a single collection of original and well-preserved instruments and also those with special merit or rarity. This should be managed in a controlled environment for the purpose of public exhibition and academic study. The square piano was the domestic keyboard instrument for over 100 years and should be represented in this collection.
There is a danger that the heritage of early keyboard instruments in the UK will become dispersed and, as time goes by, it will be increasingly difficult establish a national collection for both present and future generations should there be a will to do so.
An international database of surviving early pianos
An international register of early pianos is maintained by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the United States. www.earlypianos.org This database was established by Professor Martha Clinkscale a few years ago who undertook a considerable amount of research in setting up the register. Her aim was to catalogue all surviving early pianos together with information about their makers. There are two books by her published by the Oxford University Press: Makers of Piano 1720-1820 and Makers of the Piano 1820-1860. Her work is continued today by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in the United States, and all owners of early pianos whether held by institutions or privately are encouraged to register on this early piano website and give basic information about their instruments. This has proved to be an invaluable source of information and has broadened our knowledge and understanding.
Dorset, England, UK
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- There are four surviving square pianos by Johannes Zumpe dated 1766.
- The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, Faculty of Music, St. Aldate’s, Oxford OX1 1DB. 01865 276139.
- Colt Clavier Collection, Bethersden, Nr. Ashford, Kent. TN26 3DD (open by appointment only)
- Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent. TN17 1HH. 01580 211702.
- Cobbe Collection of Keyboard Instruments with Composer Associations, Hatchlands Park, East Clandon, Guildford, Surrey GU4 7RT 01483 211474.
- The Benton Fletcher Collection of Keyboard Instruments, Fenton House (National trust) Hampstead Grove, Hampstead, London, NW3 6SP. 020 7435 3471
- Edinburgh University Collection of Musical Instruments (Russell and Mirrey collections of early keyboard instruments) St Cecilia’s Hall, Niddry Street, Cowgate, Edinburgh EH1 1UL.
- Royal College of Music, Museum of Music, Prince Consort Rd, London SW7 2BS 020 7591 4300
- The Royal Academy of Music, Museum, Marylebone Road, London NW1 5HT 020 7873 7443
- Changing Keys”, Keyboard Instruments of America 1700-1830, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, United States.