October - November 2005
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The Broadwood Story
You’ll probably recall that at the end of the last newsletter, I guiltily admitted that we had brought another stray into the family, that is, we bought another keyboard instrument in sorry condition, to be restored to its former glory. In this case we bought a Broadwood grand piano from 1809. This particular instrument is actually in what might be called “good restorable condition”. It has not been seriously harmed by unsympathetic or anachronistic repairs or additions, always a pitfall when considering anything from another era, whether it’s cars or houses. In fact it looked at first glance as if no one had touched it, except for polishing with wax, in its lifetime. Closer examination showed that the hitchpin rail (which anchors the bass strings) had been repaired, that the instrument had been partly re-strung (with some wrongly-sized wire), and the original leather hammer covering had been replaced by felt. Judging by the condition of the hammers, the moths thought that was a good idea. All of this would probably have taken place within the first fifty years of the piano's useful life. After that, nothing. Just the way we like it.
The instrument was purchased at auction in London, brought to Vancouver, where we purchased it from a dealer who has restored and imported numerous fine instruments, from Blüthners to Steinways. At the moment the instrument is in the capable hands of Marinus van Prattenburg, who restored the Bechstein (more on this later), where it will undergo a transformation, righting its warped case, renovating its action and finally stringing and musical finishing. I’ll be documenting that process for you as it takes place, but first I thought it might be interesting and informative to provide some background information about Broadwoods, the firm that produced some of the finest pianos of the early nineteenth century, and influenced so many important composers’ music. In that way it might be possible for the reader to appreciate the remarkable journey that brought this instrument back to life, and to understand its importance as a tool of music-making. My account will be spread over several of these letters…
(the Broadwood 1809 at the auction room)
(A rat's nest! The split bridge seen here was a recent design improvement suggested by research undertaken by Dr. Edward Whitaker Gray, who determined the optimal striking point for the bass strings by experiment. Broadwood altered the design accordingly and set a trend among other makers.)
The piano or piano-forte, (it has become convention to refer to Viennese-style pianos as “fortepianos”) as it would have been called in its own time, was made only four years after one of the decisive events of the history of the Europe, one that was to shape the future of not only that region, but the Americas as well, and that event was the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805.
That battle saw the defeat of the combined Spanish and French armadas off Gibraltar by Admiral Horatio Nelson, foiling the territorial ambitions of a resurgent Napoleon. His Grande Armée was encamped across the channel, bent on invading England, but Nelson's victory crushed the power of both of those formerly great navies. While this is a story of military victory, there is an underlying social and political victory. The expansive commercial empire of Britain, formed during the previous Georgian and Regency periods, contributed to a convincing superiority of tactics and armament and reflected a flexibility and confidence of the English state and its military.
Compared to the backward, centralized and exhausted absolutist economies of Spain and France, Britain was a model of the new industrial state, in which a far larger proportion of its population lived in urban centres. The trade and success of its legal and commercial system was giving England a clear advantage over the tired, war-depressed economies of Germany, France and Spain. But there was turmoil and uncertainty too, as Napoleon embargoed Britain, driving up prices and creating the neccessity for the first Corn Laws, controlling the price of food.
Britain's naval officers were intensely competitive, filled with a spirit of adventure and a desire for personal success. It gunnery and ship designs were superior, driven by increasing industrial expansion. The seamen who manned Nelson's ships worked in a different atmosphere in comparison with the nepotism of the officer corps of the opponents. For the most part, the officers and crews of the British navy depended for advancement on merit in naval skill, not the size of their purses. They effectively ensured the flow of goods and raw materials into Britain, creating the conditions for the markets and factories of the early Industrial Revolution. Napleon's embargo ultimately proved to be ineffective as a weapon of war. He lost control of shipping lanes and what remained of the French colonies.
But what has this to do with piano building? The freedom of trade, the wealth of the middle class, the active shipping of a marine nation and the relative ease of assimilation into society created a perfect environment for the development of the piano. During in the Georgian period, the late 18th century, London became the musical centre of Europe, attracting Handel, later Haydn and a host of his German speaking, piano-playing composer compatriots. The demand for pianos was very great. Newly wealthy merchants, factory owners, shipping magnates, insurers and traders all wanted the hottest item in contemporary home entertainment, the wide-screen TV of its period.
It was the social climate of the latter part of the 18th century that made the extroverted piano the sine qua non of the English household. And it was the beginning of the Romantic period, first seen in the literary style of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Byron. The hero archetype was reborn, enlightened by words and music. Liberal, classical and rhetorical education was celebrated, and that included skill in music and the ability to shine in social circles.
German-speaking musicians had become prominent in Georgian London: Ignaz Moscheles and J. B. Salomon (who was impresario to Haydn) lived there. Before them came Johann Christoph Bach, one of the first important composers to perform and write for the piano. Not only was London home to composers and players, but the piano-making business was booming. Though the English had an indigenous keyboard making tradition, with the Hitchcocks, Baker Harris, Stephen Keene and John Player making spinets and harpsichords, German-speaking crafters streamed into London during the mid-18th century from the continent, driven out the 30 years war, and with their copious soft-wood working experience, established keyboard-manufacturing dynasties. The so-called “Twelve Apostles” of the piano, German makers who had immigrated to England had established successful manufactories and produced technologically forward-looking designs.
These were the makers who developed the methods of construction, the basic action and architecture of the pianos of the period, laying the groundwork for Broadwood's eventual market supremacy
Hermann Tabel, who had learned his harpsichord-making trade in the Ruckers workshop, took Shudi in and with Jacob Kirkman, they built the instruments which became known for their high quality. The harpsichords of the day were characterized by expensively veneered cases with banding and stringing, also seen on Broadwood pianos, smoothly working actions with multiple stops, including pearwood jacks, dogleg jacks from the Flemish tradition, (the latter allowed for complex registrations), lute stops (a rail of jacks that bisected the pin-block with a close-plucking sonority) and machine actions that featured pedals and later, Venetian swell mechanisms. These features are rarely seen in French and Italian harpsichord designs. Fashions changed, and that eventually resulted in harpsichords being manufactured alongside pianos in the late 18th century, competing directly with them for markets, and resulting in compositions that were equivocally written to take advantage of their unique voices. By the time John Broadwood built his last harpsichord for market in 1793, the two instruments were built in the very same case, with different actions.
From John Broadwood’s point of view, the most important of the immigrants making pianos in 18th century London would be his father-in-law, the Swiss, Burkat Tschudi (later Shudi). When John Broadwood came to London from Oldhamstocks in Scotland in 1761, he was a young man skilled in carpentry and joinery, ready to take his position at Shudi’s workshop. Shudi would make harpsichords for the rich and famous, including Frederick the Great; the young Mozart would play one. He was pre-eminent in his field, and Broadwood was fortunate to have landed such a plum job. A great friendship was built up, and eventually John Broadwood married Shudi’s second daughter, Barbara, in 1769, at the age of 33. Thereafter the instruments produced were inscribed “Burkat Shudi et Johannes Broadwood”.
(A Burkat Shudi and John Broadwood double-manual harpsichord, 1770, the year of Beethoven's birth, now part of the Benton Fletcher collection at Fenton House in Hampstead, London. I visited this instrument several times as a student.)
Most of the instruments produced in Britain at the time, and indeed well into the 19th century were “squares”, smaller, strung obliquely to the player, with the tuning pins right or left of the keyboard, made on a carcass which was essentially a box. This type of instrument later made Broadwoods rich and famous. These instruments, at first built with a simple action and no pedal damper, later using the Stodart action developed at Shudi/Broadwood, were made beginning in the 1770’s until well into the second half of the 1800’s. They were sturdy and stable, unfailingly bright, sonorous and fluty. Unveneered and specially tropic-hardened models were made for export.
(A Broadwood square from 1774, one of the earliest extant instruments from the shop, with a simple single-jack action. In this instrument one sees the resemblance to the large clavichords of the North German makers of the the late 18th c., and Broadwood's clear debt to the Apostles.)
Among our downloads we have recorded music originally written for guitar and piano by Carulli (one movement for free) and Giuliani, and a Haydn Sonata in D, on a Broadwood square from c. 1817. A photo of the piano is found in the instrument gallery on the website.
Of the Broadwood grands, made on the basic harpsichord frames in smaller numbers than the squares, it may be said that they were the future of the piano. Haydn owned one; so did Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary. Even though Viennese instruments had dominated the market on the continent, the English action (in which the key is mounted on a separate frame, activated by a jack) and stiff framing was thought by many composers to be superior. Broadwood grands were more powerful, more heavily strung (tri-chord, while most Viennese were still bi-chord), more stable and undoubtedly louder and more penetrating, with longer sustain and a more “modern” sound colour. John Broadwood’s son, Thomas, sent Beethoven a grand piano as a gift in 1817. It was signed by German pianists resident in London, Kalkbrenner, Ferdinand Ries, J. B. Cramer. This was a stroke of marketing genius, as it turned out.
John Broadwood was not only a superb crafter, but he was a brilliant industrialist as well. He ordered huge quantities of lumber, wire, built a large factory, perhaps one of the largest in London, on Horseferry Road (it later burned down), and employed a large workforce of experienced workers: sawyers, joiners, finishers, and tuners. But he did not leave all the work to his employees. On his trips to tune and maintain his instruments he was to observe the inner workings of the society of London, able to see and foresee its whims and fashions. As a result, he sold more and more of his work. In 1784, nearly 900 instruments were made. By 1834 the business, in the hands of Thomas Broadwood and James Shudi, was worth over 250,000 pounds. Millions, in modern values.
(Keyboard of the 1809 Broadwood, still in good shape. Note that the compass is C' to c'''', a rare model, usually the compass was F' to f'''. The case has been extended somewhat from earlier models to lower the tessitura of the instrument.)
That brings us to our new old piano. Why is it so important as a historic instrument? The association of this particular model with Beethoven obviously gives it great historical worth as a medium for the interpretation of the music of that composer. He is the man who probably more than any other put the piano on the Romantic map, establishing it as the vehicle of the concerto, the foundation of chamber music and music education, the definitive composer-as-hero, still the man who defines more than any other the universal understanding of the concept of the composer apart from his persona as executant.
The Broadwood piano has the capacity to enliven the performance of composers from Haydn to Schumann, even Schubert. Imagine having that sound heard as it was intended, to hear the clarity, dynamics and sonority of the original concept, without its Post-Romantic baggage. It’s also an opportunity to save a great instrument from destruction at the hands of ignorance and neglect.
If you haven’t visited the site lately, you’ll find a new feature, a photo-essay detailing the building of four vihuelas, 16th century guitars, that I undertook beginning in June. The vihuela is an unusual instrument in many ways, but especially because of the circumstances of its history: There are only three extant instruments, only seven books of printed music from 1536-76, by a handful of composer-arrangers, then, the complete disappearance of the instrument and its literature. Though it looks like a guitar, and technically it is, there are qualifications. The real guitar at this time had only four, not six, courses, in a different tuning, leading directly and through a printed literature to the modern instrument.
So the vihuela (whose name comes from the same root as viol, viola, and the Portuguese word “violaõ”) is a guitar, but a form which died out. Its literature however, gives it a life which transcends its physical manifestation. This is a body of work of unusual beauty, strict adherence to the highest of musical standards, a combination of vocal and then-incipient instrumental style, the first variation forms, the earliest books of vocal/instrumental pieces in one staff printed with rubricated (printed in red) voice notation, some of the best abstract writing of the period (in the form of Fantasias and Tientos). Lute players are happy because it has the same tuning as the lute and one can easily play lute music on it. The literature calls for effects and use of the positions that are beyond the lute, so it demands a dedicated instrument which takes these differences into account.
I built my first vihuela after only a few lutes, intent on being able to play the wonderful music at last on the proper instrument. But without suitable models to copy, the first attempt was interesting, but a bit too large and not resonant enough. Later, I made the mould smaller, with shorter strings, and incorporated some ornamentation seen in iconographic sources of the period. Better, but still not entirely satisfactory. Yet another attempt four years later, even smaller, but now it seemed not to have the resources I felt were necessary. That brings us to the most recent version, once again a bit larger, with a design influenced by a newly re-discovered instrument now at the Cité de Musique in Paris, the Chambure vihuela.
Finally I feel that I have succeeded in producing an instrument with a resonant voice, but one which adapts to the often-difficult music. The decoration is about right, the lightness and responsiveness excellent. The materials and joinery are simple, to keep the price reasonable and yet produce and instrument which works as it is supposed to, looks good and sounds right for the music. If you know anyone who would like one, send them a link to my website.
The last newsletter contained some restoration shots from the rehabilitation of the 1910 Bechstein we found on consignment at Carillon Music in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, B. C. but no pictures of the re-finishing, one of the largest chores of the whole job, requiring great patience, refined skill and much time. Buddy Tavares was our man, and he took some interesting photos the show some of the process. Thanks to him for these:
(masked and sprayed)
(keywell area needs lots of building up and carful attention)
(ready for first spraying; there's a lot of large flat surface area on a grand piano!)
The pictures and some of the story of historic Broadwoods came from Broadwood By Appointment, by David Wainwright, Quiller Press 1982. The pictures of the 1809 Broadwood were taken by Clive Titmuss, as was the vihuela picture. The Bechstein re-finishing pictures were taken by Trudi Tavares in her husband's shop. Thanks to Marinus van Prattenburg for supplying me with the names of the Twelve Apostles of English piano making in the 18th century.
Next newsletter stay tuned for a complete report on the restoration proceedings, more on building vihuelas and their repertoire, and Arnold Dolmetsch, lute pioneer.
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