A legendary instrument whose sonorities reputedly have no equal anywhere, praised by musicians such as Liszt and Saint-Saëns, the Siena piano is surrounded by an aura of mystery due to its astonishing history.
Its soundboard was supposedly made of wooden pillars from the ancient Temple of Solomon in Israel. Stolen by German soldiers during World War II, it was discovered half buried in the sands of the African desert.
The instrument was saved from destruction in the nick of time and restored by an Israeli craftsman; subsequently it aroused enormous media attention before being largely forgotten.
This according to La légende du piano de Sienne: Récit instrumental by Florent Ploquin (Plouharnel: Menhir, 2017).
Anyone who saw the PBS Masterpiece series Victoria last year knows that Prince Albert was an avid music lover and a pretty good pianist. There are quite a few scenes in which the romantic feelings of both Albert and Victoria (not a bad pianist herself) are expressed at the piano. In this light, the gift of Victoria of a grand piano to her husband means more than just any gift of a precious object; the piano represented the emotional bond between them, which lasted until Albert’s untimely death in 1861. They often played piano duets together and, in the tradition of pre-recording times, this included four-hand arrangements of symphonies, operas, and overtures. Whenever they travelled, they brought a pile of sheet music for their own entertainment, and in each one of their palaces there was at least one piano. In addition, they frequently hosted chamber music concerts or piano recitals by all the famous artists of their time.
Victoria and Albert owned no less than three grand pianos made by the Erard firm: apart from the above instrument, Victoria commissioned an 18th-century-style gilded instrument in 1856, similar to one she had owned in the 1830s at Buckingham Palace, as well as the 1848 Erard piano, which was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1849. Reportedly, Prince Albert had designed the case: a tulip-veneer design with nine porcelain depictions of famous old paintings.
Why did the royal couple seem to have a preference for Erard pianos? The Erard firm was the most forward-looking piano firm of its time, in line with Prince Albert’s interest in the crossroads between art and industrial progress. The founder of the firm, Sébastian Érard (1752–1831), was born in Strasbourg and settled in Paris in 1768. In 1779 he first travelled to London with the intention of setting up a piano firm, a plan he realized in 1792, while at the same time running a flourishing piano factory in Paris where he sold hundreds of instruments each year. Most of the pianos he sold were square pianos, but he also built grand pianos from 1790 or even earlier. Initially, the piano actions Erard used were based on the so-called “English action” used by John Broadwood in London, but Erard modified it to create a lighter touch. In 1821 he revolutionized piano building with the invention of his “double-escapement action,” which allowed for a greater ease of playing and louder sound. In addition, Érard was famous for the wood artistry and decorations of the cases of his most expensive models, such as were found in palaces around Europe. There were some differences between Erard’s pianos made in London and those made in Paris: the London pianos (such as the 1854 piano) tended to be plainer and sturdier, and there were also subtle differences in stringing and hammer-covering. As one can see in the illustration, it does not yet have the full-size iron frame, but rather iron bars across the length of the instrument to help withstand the string tension.
Written and compiled by Maria Rose, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Budds, Michael Joe. Music of the court of Queen Victoria: A study of music in the life of the Queen and her participation in the musical life of her time (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1987). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1987-2692]
Victoria was a patroness and an enthusiastic consumer of music. An accomplished amateur, she was known for her appreciation of opera and opera singers. Her understanding was broadened, though not defined—as is generally thought—by Prince Albert. (author)
Clarke, Christopher. “Érard and Broadwood in the Classical era: Two schools of piano making.” Musique, images, instruments: Revue française d’organologie et d’iconographie musicale 11 (2009) 98–125. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2009-9536]
French pianos of the Classical period have long been considered as having been copied from English models. While it is undeniable that there was a strong English influence on the French school, the inventive genius of Sébastien Érard led him to design both grand and square pianos that were ideally suited to the requirements of French musicians. Their demands for rapid repetition and a bright, powerful tone led him not only to invent a revolutionary series of piano actions which culminated in the famous double-escapement actions of 1821 and 1822, but also to re-think the structure and the tone-producing aspects of his instruments. Érard’s work is compared with his sources of inspiration; particularly the work of John Broadwood, but also that of Robert Stodart, the firm Crang & Hancock, Schoene, and others. In particular, two grand pianos and two squares, one each from Broadwood’s and Érard’s workshops, are discussed and compared. (author)
Epenhuysen Rose, Maria van. L’art de bien chanter: French pianos and their music before 1820 (Ph.D. diss., New York University, New York, 2006). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2006-13693]
Influenced by vocal styles, the development of French pianos and their music followed a different path from that in other regions of Europe. The Viennese-style piano, used in Paris concerts in 1784, was criticized for its lack of harmonie; the English piano for its heavy action. Sébastien Érard achieved a successful fusion of both types of piano in 1809 with the étrier-action piano. The reception of the piano in France is traced, using a variety of sources, including Antonio Bartolomeo Bruni’s 1794 list of confiscated instruments. Piano styles are analyzed in the works of Johann Schobert, Johann Gottfried Eckard, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Edelmann, Louis Adam, and others. Ca. 1790 a densely textured piano style became the norm, which relied on overlapping legato, rather than the pedal to create sustained sounds. After 1795, the focus on technique at the Conservatoire contrasted increasingly with the application of bel canto singing styles in private music making. (author)
Roudier, Alain. “Les pianos Érard en forme de clavecin (1790–1797)/The Érard grand pianos in the shape of a harpsichord/Die Érard-Flügel in Cembaloform”, Sébastien Érard: Ein europäischer Pionier des Instrumentenbaus: Internationales Érard-Symposium, Michaelstein, 13.–14. November 1994, ed. by Rudolf Frick. (Blankenburg: Kultur- und Forschungsstätte Michaelstein, 1995) 12–14. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1995-3167]
It appears certain that the Érard firm made grand pianos before they patented them in 1794. The concept of this instrument and its English escapement mechanism reveal the influence of Broadwood, who had in fact been a source of inspiration to Sébastian Érard since 1779. The existence of an Érard grand piano from around 1790 is also confirmed by the firm’s register book, which lists numbered grand pianos, and by its sales books, which lists unnumbered instruments. Seventeen of these instruments—13 of them numbered—have been identified so far. A list of grand pianos made before April 1797 is included. (author)
The lightweight aluminum alloy grand piano weighed only 162 kg (356 lbs). The frame, rim, fallboard, and top lid were made of duralumin, and the legs, back bracing, and lyre were made of hollow duralumin tubing.
The piano was a prominent feature of the Hindenburg’s first flight to America in 1936, during which the pianist Franz Wagner gave several concerts for the passengers, playing works by Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms as well as popular music.
The instrument was not on board for the Hindenburg’s fatal flight in 1937; it was removed before the beginning of that season and put on display at the Blüthner factory, which was destroyed during an air raid in 1943.
The 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth in 2010 inspired the launch of a new Russian-language quaterly dedicated to piano, PianоФорум (PianoForum). Published by Международная Муызкально-Техническая Компания (International Music-Technical Company) and edited by the musicologist, pianist, and pedagogue Vsevolod Zaderackij, the journal covers diverse aspects of contemporary pianism, including instrument building, piano repertoire and interpretation, piano competitions and festivals, and piano pedagogy from the beginning level to professional training. A description of the contents of issue no. 3 (2010) in Russian is here.
Throughout the nineteenth century, parallels between the forms and contents of individual compositions and a variety of poems and prose tales were discussed. Liszt, Strauss, and other composers cited literary classics in the titles of their works and even published excerpts in their scores. As a consequence, certain critics came out in favor of musical programmism, while others advocated musical absolutism.
More recently, such discussions have been amplified by suggestions that certain works of fiction themselves employ musical structural principles, particularly sonata form. Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann (above) can be viewed in relation to Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 111, and several of Jane Austen’s novels can be compared with Mozart concerto movements. This approach suggests new ways in which musicologists might acquire a deeper understanding of such issues as musical representations of gender, the ways in which instrumental compositions may be said to embody character, and the problem of music and narrativity.
“Playing the piano with a rifle” in The Strand magazine 28 (December 1904, pp. 580–8) describes a performance by Colonel Gaston Bordeverry, who learned the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana by ear and, having devised a system of bull’s-eyes to indicate the correct notes on a specially-built piano, performed the tune by firing 66 shots at the instrument with a rifle. The specially-made bullets were powderless and noiseless when they struck, which they did with enough force to pierce through a one–inch-thick plank.
Carlo Minasi (1817–91) was a London-based pianist and concertina player who also taught both instruments, a prolific composer and arranger for the concertina and other instruments, the author of 21 instrumental tutors (13 for the concertina), and a talented inventor. He produced 42 albums of songs and tunes—22 for the English concertina, 10 for the German concertina, and 10 for general use—and he obtained patents on concertinas of his own design and on several specific improvements. He also patented improvements in firearm and furniture design, as well as one for a poultry incubator.
Despite his accomplishments, Minasi is not profiled in any of the standard music encyclopedias; as far as we know, the only comprehensive source for information about him is Randall C. Merris’s Carlo Minasi: Composer, arranger, and teacher, concertina and piano in Papers of the International Concertina Association volume 6 (2009), pp. 17–45.
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