Thursday, 1 January 2015

Back to life: A Regency square piano

I was lucky enough to acquire my very own square piano a few years ago, which needed some TLC to bring it back to working order - and luckily for me we were able to find a wonderful piano restorer in Somerset who has almost finished his amazing work! In just a few weeks we shall have it returned to our living room, so that the songs of period composers such as Hook, Storace and Dibdin can be played and sung to once more.

My square piano - restoration almost completed

Square pianos were a fundamental domestic instrument from the 1760s until well into the early nineteenth century, when they were replaced by piano fortes. At first they were expensive and elite, but by the turn of the nineteenth century (when my piano was built, in 1808) they were affordable for many British families. As the musicologist Charles Burney noted:

The tone was very sweet, and the touch...equal to any degree of rapidity. These, [with] their low price and the convenience of their form, as well as the power of expression, suddenly grew into such short [they could not be made] fast enough to satisfy the craving of the public.

Female music making in 1810 (courtesy of Albion

Played primarily by young women, they offered the latest in home entertainment of the era, with the small size of the square piano making it ideal for any sized drawing room. And unlike the harpsichord before them which were plucked, the square pianos' little hammers allowed the young lady to play loudly or softly, staccato or smoothly.

Our hammers with the original leather hinges still intact.
The 1960s felt is being replaced with leather to create an authentic sound

As befitted the performance style of the songs she would sing, expressivity and stirring emotionality were paramount. In a guide to singing of 1765, Jonas Hanway noted how "music may fire the mind with martial ardour...warm the breast with a religious zeal, or sooth[e] it into tears of penitence".

And indeed, when you examine the music collections of girls of this era, they are filled with stirring songs telling tales of dangerous naval battles or compassion for fallen women pleading for pity.

Another innovative way to play expressively was to use the square piano's sustain pedal. Our little piano had lost its pedal, so our talented restorer has turned a new one for us and reattached it. The sustain system is very straight-forward with a simple string pulling the dampers up to allow the strings to ring.

The newly turned pedal, replete with hook for the string to go through

It is also an exceptional instrument to play. The action of the keys is very shallow and light, so it is much easier to play fast runs, making the experience very different to a modern piano. In fact, at the time many music guide books encouraged women to hide any appearance of effort or virtuosity, to ensure their performances looked natural and modest. Music making for women should have no sense of having required hours of strenuous toil - music was simply one of many accomplishments. A light touch on the keys would surely have aided this representation of ease.

Although Broadwood was one of the most popular makers of square pianos, the musician Muzio Clementi also became a keen producer of these instruments in London from the 1790s. My piano comes from his Cheapside workshop and we can tell from its handwritten serial number that it was made in 1808.

My only concern now is the tuning. Unlike iron-framed modern pianos, the wood in square pianos moves and shifts with humidity, meaning the strings require regular tuning. I have been warned that to tune my piano will take around an hour. Now I just need to find an authentic Regency stool to sit on, practice my Regency repertoire, and ensure the piano returns in one piece.

The spaces for the pegs for strings - all neatly labelled