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Music Media Review Print

The Finest Pianos Ever Made

September 2, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:

Robert Adelson, b. 1967, Erard; A Passion for the Piano, New York, NY, Oxford University Press, © 2021, Pp. xviii + 238, $74.00 via Amazon.com.

This is the simplified definitive book about the Erard piano business, at least until some new documents are found, and in view of those existing, this appears to be highly unlikely any time soon. From the notes that occupy pp.161-215, all of which I read, including those with the original French texts (some of which have out-of-date spellings and words, as well as incorrect spellings and typos, all carefully preserved [p. 1], I assume, as are those from unpublished sources [p. xv]), because I speak the language fluently, Adelson appears to have looked at all that are currently known. He, like me, is American, but lives in Nice, and teaches at the Conservatoire there. Many of the notes refer to 'HERH' that is his earlier 2-volume, 1100 words The History of the Erard Piano and harp in letters and documents, 1785-1959, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, completed just six years earlier. Click on its link and read the "Summary" of its text to understand the universal importance of this company. It will also tell you the importance of this book!

It has 15 chapters sandwiched between an Introduction and an Afterword, both brief, in the first 160 pages that follow the usual 18 Roman-numeral numbered pp., five of which are blank behind ones with texts of organizational information, that include a "family tree." This tells you that a considerable number of the chapters are quite short, under 10 pages, but not without very important information! – they're 'chock-a-block' full of details. However, it is very easy to read, albeit it not inattentively or by speed-reading, even for the layman who doesn't have my level of background of knowledge, reading, and research in period instruments, pianos and other keyboard ones in particular. Some of the information is culled and deduced from letters, and supported by citations from published articles on the topics, such as the packing materials used for the shipping of the instruments (pp. 34-35 + notes) to ensure the instruments arrived undamaged – we are talking about over 200 years ago at the outset, after all, and they were shipped all over Europe, and even across the Atlantic, to Guadeloupe, for example. You'll also learn some things that you didn't know about the French Revolution (p. 36).

The four Erards who ran the firm from the beginning through the 19th century (1788 [p. 9; pianos were made in earlier years: the earliest extant is a square from 1785 (photo on p. 20)]-1900), were astute businessmen, except that the third and fourth were women!: Sébastien, the founder, who invented the double escapement (double échappement) key mechanism (1752-1831), his son, Orphée, (called Pierre, 1794-1855), his sister (Marie) Céleste (1790-1878), who married Italian composer Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851) and lived in Berlin (helping her brother via correspondence until his death), and Elise Laure Camille Février (called Camille,1813-1889), who passed it on to her adopted daughter, Marie Eugénie Schaeffer (1844-1900), daughter of her older sister, Elisabeth Laure Février (1806-1877), so it was out of the family for its last 59 years, rested on its laurels (p. 120), and was no longer as innovative (pp. 156-58). The family members are buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Division 11 (pp. 131, 143, 210). Pierre was homosexual (pp. 114-17), and married Camille, his first cousin once removed, on 13 October 1838 (p. 120); they were childless, hence the adoption. Camille is always a challenging name, because it can be that of a female (as here) or a male; think Camille Saint-Saëns, for example, and Ignace Pleyel's short-lived (three years) successor, his son Camille (p. 118), close friend of Frédéric Chopin, but women who ran businesses of a kind in which you'd not expect to find one involved in the 19th century may well surprise you, although there is another famous one, Nanette Streicher (1769-1833; pp. 71, 145), daughter of Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792; maker of Mozart's first piano), b. in Augsburg, moved to Vienna in more or less the same time frame, and made fine instruments, too, but their mechanism is very different. The records of the firm are in the Musée de musique in the Philharmonie de Paris, as arranged in 2009 by the author, when he was curator of its collection of historical instruments (p. 1); the Erard Family archives and correspondence are still in the hands of the descendants/heirs in the Château de Bourbilly in the Côte-d'Or (area around Dijon); this is the first publication to draw from both (p. 1); His next book will be: Erard: Empire of the Harp, due out in the fall, I believe.

The firm was founded in Paris just 1.5 years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, so had to hastily move to London, and maintained that location after it reopened in Paris, so always had to manage both simultaneously. I had a bit of a surprise, however, when I read that the British Isles are a "continent" rather than part of Europe (p. 105)! The business was conducted very differently from a modern corporation; it had two main thrusts throughout its family members' ownership: improvement of the mechanism and the sound of the instruments, and the varieties available, and the pleasure and satisfaction of the customer(s), that helped the firm last so long. Chapter 9 (pp. 82-87) focuses on Sébastien's most important feature, the double escapement, that was improved later by Pierre (p.133). They also catered to major pianists (both in performance and fame) who lived all over Europe. They were warmly accommodated and even given instruments: Chapters 7, 13, & 15 (pp. 58-72, 121-30, & 144-58) inventory them, the first famous one being Haydn's, serial # 28, sent to Vienna on 20 November 1800, now lost, last seen in the early 1930s (pp. 58-9, n. 4, p. 176). The most famous one is Beethoven's, serial # 133, shipped on 8 August 1803, arrived "by October" (pp. 59-66, nn. pp. 177-82; photo on p. 60), still in existence in the Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, but not in playable condition (pp. 71-72) because of the alterations made by Viennese makers, including Stein and/or the Streichers, at Beethoven's request because of his loss of hearing. Other pianists, such as Hérold, Kalkbrenner, Spontini, and Steibelt, and family friends in the upper classes, were given significant discounts (pp. 67-8); many of them had works published by the Erard publishing division (p. 68). The most famous of those was Liszt, who, for all practical purposes, became its salesman (Chapter 10, pp. 88-103); he owned several of different models; some of them remain.

Felix Mendelssohn (pp. 121-30, nn. 201-6), of Berlin and later Leipzig, was also an Erard lover, but was slower to adopt them; he met the instrument on his first trip to Paris in 1825 at age 15 (and the Erards themselves, Céleste in Berlin, Jean-Baptiste [Sébastien's brother, father of Céleste and Pierre] in Paris, and Pierre in London, when he went there in 1829), and his first instrument came from there. He spent time in Paris in 1832, and became more accustomed to them then, when he performed his own Concerto No. 1 in their salons, and the Paris première of Beethoven's Concerto No. 4 with the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, likely on one (p. 122). He went on to London, where he grew closer to Pierre, after which they "corresponded regularly." (p. 122) Pierre gave him an instrument on which he had played. "Before shipping Mendelssohn's piano to Berlin, Pierre inscribed the following dedication on the wrest plank: 'Offered to Mendelssohn, as a souvenir of our friendship, by Pierre Erard, London, 22 June 1832'." (p. 123) When it finally arrived on 2 October, Mendelssohn wrote this "Thank You" letter the next day:

I want to at least express to you the joy that I experienced upon receiving your superb gift and thank you for it. The piano arrived last night and since that moment I have almost not stopped playing it and admiring it; it seemed to me brand new and infinitely more beautiful than when I played it at your home the evening before my departure. Since that day I have not seen any instrument comparable to yours. If you had only witnessed our joy and how the entire family hastened to hear the instrument and the pride with which we tell ourselves that we now own the best piano in Berlin and probably in Germany – if only you could have witnessed all of that I would not need to tell you how much I am grateful and the thanks that my entire family would like to convey to you.[…] The difference between an instrument like yours and those that are made here is too great; it is as if one were hearing an entire orchestra compared to just a little piano […] now I can get back to making music and the pleasure that I will have in doing so will be thanks to you. (p. 124)

He lent this piano to Ignaz Moscheles to play its première in Berlin; he was given one in 1828, too, and by 1830 felt that it was superior (p. 108). It also influenced his composing itself (p. 125). However, he, like Beethoven, experienced some deterioration of its performance, & struggled with getting it corrected (pp. 127-8), but it did not occur before he died. It was the only piano he owned then; it became "one of the prized pianos of the Berlin Musikinstrumenten Museum, only to be destroyed during the second world war." (p. 128, n. p. 205). [The definitive biographies of both Felix and Fanny are by R. Larry Todd, of Duke University in Durham, NC; I have read both.]

Richard Wagner owned one, that he enlisted Liszt to advocate for, and that became his favorite piano, composing four of his operas on it and taking it on his travels (pp. 127-8): "Wagner seemed to particularly appreciate the gentler qualities of his Erard piano. When the instrument arrived at his home in Zurich on 3 May 1858, Wagner wrote to Camille to thank her, explaining that the piano helped him resume work after a period of inactivity: 'when I opened it and first touched its keys, it suddenly fell from my soul like a mist; the soft, gentle tones suddenly lured me back into the realm of my art.'" (p. 147, n. p. 212) Clara Wieck Schumann also knew the make from age 12 when she tried one in Paris in 1832; she performed on one there in 1839: "'It is impossible to express more faithfully the intentions of the composer, to make the piano sing with more refinement, to play difficult passages more brilliantly, to resolve the thrill more clearly, to play with a more even tone, to phrase more elegantly, to give more power and force to the octaves, to play with more momentum, restrained passion and to deploy more energy.'" Like Mendelssohn, she had a close relationship with Pierre and Camille (p. 148, n. p. 213), with whom Wagner also had a friendship, dedicating the first French version of Tannhäuser to her.

[…] Camille's reign coincided with the ascension of several major rivals from Germany and the United States. These included Steinway in New York, Blüthner in Leipzig, and Bechstein in Berlin, all of which were founded in 1853. German and American pianos were designed to be more easily mass produced, produced a bigger sound, and were also marketed in a variety of less expensive models for an emerging middle-class clientele that the Erard firm had largely ignored.
In addition to their cast iron frames, popularized by Steinway in the 1860s, these rival pianos had bass strings that crossed either over or under the middle register strings, meaning that several octaves in the lower range of the piano effectively shared the same area of the soundboard. Overstringing contributed to increased volume, but also resulted in the medium and bass octaves having a similar timbre, which could muddle certain musical textures. The Erard firm's insistence on parallel stringing stemmed from their (
sic, should be 'its') belief that each part of the piano's compass should have a clear and distinct tonal character, an aesthetic that was on the wane. (p. 155, n. p. 215)

This is the best description of this format/layout that I've ever seen in print. To my ears, Érard's tones, especially in the straight strung ones (they also made overstrung ones in the 20th century), are warmer, more harmonious, melodical, distinctively varied across the registers, less brash and shrill in the treble, with more bell-like than loud percussive sounds in the bass, overall far more musical and pleasing than those of all other makes.

The text is replete with felicitous wordings, such as the above quote, on all subjects. About customer service: "'The Erards were both artisans and merchants, a dual identity that was necessary in late eighteenth-century Paris, when a new customer culture coalesced around the hundreds of boutiques of the capital. In the words of historian Natacha Coquery.' The shop was at the same time the site for selling, for buying[,] and for manufacturing, but it was also a place of credit, of sociability, of conflict, of spectacle, of tourism, of leisure, of fantasy, etc. [Itals], a place where a consumer culture was born." (p. 45, n. p. 151) so the origin of today's shopping malls. This also makes it a very enjoyable, pleasant reading!

English pianist Alice Mangold Diehl (1844-1912) wrote in her 1897 Musical Memories: "'Erard' is a household word wherever music lives in the wide world. No pianist has ever failed to recognize the perfection of the instruments which are stocked in those palatial buildings." (= those at 13 rue du Mai, where the factory and salons were located). It also appears in her 1908 The True Story of My Life [p. 151; n. p. 214]. This says it all for the quality of the instruments, which inspired my title.

The "Afterword" (pp. 159-60) reports on Queen Elizabeth II's December 2018 televised speech that featured the presence of the "astonishingly ornate gilded mahogany piano in the White Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace [photo on back of the page; …] an Erard, the last of several Erard pianos purchased by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert from the London branch of the firm in 1856 (p. 159), "serial number 3985, purchased on 30 April" (n. p. 215) […] Both […] were keen amateur pianists […] This royal order was a turning point in the history of the Erard firm, only months after the death of Pierre Erard, when it was unclear how the family enterprise could survive. Victoria and Albert's instrument is only one of numerous Erard pianos made for royalty, stretching back to the square pianos and piano-organ Sébastien made for Marie-Antoinette. [(pp. 22-23) …] The Royal Trust attempted to diffuse the criticism generated by the Queen's address by allowing the piano, which had been restored by David Winston in 2010, to be played by pianist Stephen Hough [whom I've heard live and met several times] at a concert of the BBC Proms in August 2019. Despite being at an acoustical disadvantage in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, the piano once again revealed the special qualities that had kept Erard pianos at the forefront of the musical world for a century and a half: a large palette of tonal colours and textures, ranging from 'thick and woody' to 'harp-like,' and a surprising clarity of articulation.

The 'gold piano affair' reminds us that Erard pianos are more than just beautiful objects. They are musical instruments that can evoke a lost sound world. They are artefacts that carry traces of a rich history of creativity and inventiveness and the patronage that made such innovation possible. They are relics that remind us of the musicians who played them and who composed for them. And they are precious reminders of one exceptional family and their [its] passion for the piano. (pp. 159 / 60, n. p. 215).

… whence the book's title; you should have a good taste of/for it with the (perhaps excessive?) number of quotes I've given from it to illustrate my statement in the second paragraph.