SQUARE PIANOS - a short history


Square pianos like the one shown here first appeared in London in 1766. Harpsichord players loved them - their treble tones sounded so much sweeter than contemporary grand pianos - and these 'small Piano Fortes' were so inexpensive! Plain examples like this one sold for as little as 18 pounds: about half the asking price for a new harpsichord from Kirckman or from Shudi (the two leading makers). Also, their small size and convenient shape made them suitable for any room. In fact they were so portable they could be carried from room to room with ease. However, until c.1790 the harpsichord and piano existed side by side, rated as equally useful instruments, depending on what music you were playing. Consequently many wealthy home owners had both instruments, finding that a small pianoforte could be easily accommodated, and visitors would readily see that you were up-to-date with the latest musical fashions.

Their novelty created a new fashion almost overnight. Celebrated composers of the era who owned and used such Piano-fortes included Johann Christian Bach, Gluck, Paisiello, Cimarosa, and Clementi, not to mention music historian Charles Burney, who bought several for his family, friends and pupils. It is absolutely certain that Mozart would have played on such instruments too, especially during his ill-fated trip to Paris (1777-8).

But their most influential devotees were high society women such as Queen Charlotte of England (formerly Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) and Marie Antoinette of France (daughter of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa). Both were fond of music and, like many of their contemporaries, they were charmed by the tone of these pianos, not simply in solo pieces but most importantly, in accompaniments for songs. Music-making in a domestic setting was a very frequent and fashionable activity and in this context songs, with a suitable accompaniment from pianos like this one, were of great importance. Empress Catherine of Russia had several such pianos dispatched for St Petersburg, of which her favourite was reportedly one by Zumpé & Buntebart fitted with organ stops in a cabinet beneath, coupled so that both instruments were heard at the same time.

The most prestigious makers in the pre-1780 period were Johannes Zumpe and Gabriel Buntebart, Adam Beyer, John Pohlman and Frederick Beck. The piano at Colonial Williamsburg shown above is one of four surviving specimens inscribed Johannes Zumpe Londini fecit 1766. Its keyboard begins on GG, with 58 notes up to f above the treble cleff. It has one handstop inside at the left, lifting the dampers to create a dulcimer-like tone.

Hear this sound

Hear this sound - Old Browser Version

From 1769 onwards square pianos from Zumpe & Buntebart were fitted with three hand-operated stops in the compartment at the left of the keyboard.

  • The first stop lifts the treble dampers (from middle C upwards);
  • the second stop lifts the bass dampers;
  • the third presses buff leather against the end of each string so that used with the other stops it imitates the sound of a gut-strung harp.

For country dances, or for extemporary music making you might use the continuous sustaining mode by raising the dampers throughout. If your music did not stray far from the opening key, this would be an enjoyable, lively sound and was very popular. You can hear something similar today in Tyrolean folkmusic groups incorporating a hammered dulcimer. (Listen when the music stops, and hear the reverberation from the dulcimer strings!) Charles Burney complained that on a visit to Paris his hostess , Madame Brillon, would not play any music on her English pianoforte without this sustaining stop. When they were playing some of his own music he suggested tactfully that she might try it without this reverberation, but she declined. 'C'est sec' she said.

These were by far the most popular pianos throughout Europe in the late eighteenth century. Hundreds of examples survive, from France, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. They were equally popular in Sweden and Russia, and in North America. Some were fitted with pedals (the earliest known is dated 1774) either to work the stops already mentioned, or as an addition that opened part of the lid (the so-called 'swell' making greater contrasts of piano and forte). Another, much rarer pedal, sometimes fitted by Adam Beyer, moved the keyboard to sound a delicate una corda, activating one string of each unison pair. An example survives at Heaton Hall, Manchester, but not in working order.

While some German makers copied the design of these 'English Pianofortes', others favoured a concept that stayed closer to the clavichord. In the middle Rhine area local craftsmen used a lower string tension, more like a clavichord, a different type of hammer mechanism (with hammers attached to the keys [click here for picture]), and a shallower touch. The earliest detailed representation of this design dates from 1772, showing the distinctive mechanism, lever over dampers, and hammers with hollow heads. [See The Pianoforte in the Classical Era, Plate 12.] Such pianos were widely admired in German-speaking areas throughout the 1770s, often equipped with knee levers to change resgistrations, lifting the dampers, and operating the moderator and harp stops. Christian Baumann of Zweibrucken whose square pianos were approved by Mozart made instruments of this type, while by contrast Hubert, court instrument maker at Ansbach, and Steinbruck, from Gotha copied the Zumpe model.

French followers of fashion were not over impressed with the clumsy trestle stands usually supplied with London made pianos. So if such pianos arrived in Paris with English stands they were routinely replaced with screw-in conically tapered legs, often with brass collars and feet. These legs were often fluted in typically Louis XV style, popular with French musicians for several decades. Shown below is an example from the Directoire period, inscribed by Leonard Systermans, Paris, 1797. The use of four pedals was standard: Steibelt's directions to players of his very popular piano pieces give examples of their use, singly or in combinations, to enhance the mood of the music. They provide: buff [harp], moderator [celeste], sustain, and swell.

From 1790 onwards many Parisian square pianos, like the one shown here, incorporated an improved action, mentioned above, using an intermediate lever to improve response in the touch. This mechanism seems to have first appeared in pianos by the Schoene brothers in London c.1785, and was later adopted by Sebastien Erard, and other Parisian makers. Harding (1931) erroneously named this 'Zumpe's second action', but the piano she examined (in Paris, catalogued as Steibelt's pianoforte) was in fact made by Schoene & Co. Many modern restorers rely on Harding's outdated scholarship and inexcusably perpetuate this mistake, so it is often wrongly cited.

Although many players were apparently satisfied with Zumpe's basic design up to 1800, which was often reproduced up to 1805, significant improvements were introduced by a number of craftsmen during the 1780s and 1790s. Principally these focused on making the touch more expressive with the Schoene action just mentioned, or by including an escapement mechanism. There was also, concurrently, an upward extension of the keyboard from five to five-and-a-half octaves, for which William Southwell of Dublin is remembered. Leading makers in London at this time were Longman & Broderip, [their best instruments being made by John Geib], brothers Frederick & Christian Schoene, and John Broadwood, and in Paris, Sebastien Erard. All were subsequently eclipsed by the pianos bearing the name of Muzio Clementi who discontinued his concert career to rescue the Longman & Broderip business after its financial collapse in 1796, relaunched under the name of Longman, Clementi & Co. From 1801 he took a bigger, controlling stake, when the firm was renamed 'Muzio Clementi & Co'.

Shown here is a typical square piano of 1820, this one by John Broadwood & Sons, London. It has the usual five-and-a-half octaves, and a sustaining pedal. Notice that the pedal is under the left foot, not the right. This was customary at that period with all makers, even though contemporary grand pianos had the sustaining pedal under the right foot, as we do today. After 1800 most English square pianos had just this one pedal, but German pianos, and many American ones, often had a second pedal for the soft-sounding 'moderator' effect. French square pianos were usually supplied with a row of four pedals, until about 1820.

Hear this piano in music by Beethoven.

Hear this piano- Old Browser Version

After 1820 square pianos were constantly redesigned for a more powerful tone. The keyboard was extended upwards again, to six octaves, and afterwards in both directions to reach seven octaves. To achieve this stronger tone string gauges were progressively increased, until the strain was almost four times greater than on eighteenth-century pianos. To match these high tension strings the hammers were made larger, and heavier, and in consequence the touch lost much of its former lightness and facility. In an effort to prevent structural collapse these later square pianos were fitted with an iron hitch plate (from around 1825) and afterwards, on American pianos, full metal framing (from around 1840).

Square Piano by Mathuschek, about 1875

Shown here is the ultimate square piano, for sophistication and quality of workmanship. It was made by Mathuschek & Co of New York, about 1875. [Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA]. It has a full iron frame, with over-stringing on three levels. The tone is very strong, almost equal to late nineteenth-century grand pianos, and the treble tones are very clear and bell-like. Here the elaborately carved casework, in a pseudo-baroque style, has a polished ebonised finish, probably applied by an over-enthusiastic piano shop; many by this maker have rosewood veneered exteriors. Richard Burnett has made an impressive recording on such a piano by Mathuschek.

Hear this piano by Mathuschek at Finchcocks.

Piano by Mathuschek - Old Browser Version

It is available on CD with his book Company of Pianos featuring more than 30 instruments. In England and France the last square pianos were made about 1866. By then the modern style of compact uprights, called 'cottage pianos' or 'cabinet pianos' had become more popular for small rooms, though their touch was never equal to a good square piano. The last American square pianos were made c.1905. Thereafter square pianos, particularly the earlier examples, were regarded with wistful nostalgia as something quaint and old-fashioned, featured by many artists of genre scenes to evoke 'bygone times', usually played by a young lady in Regency-style dress. Only in recent years has there been a renaissance when these long-neglected instruments have been appreciated for their fine craftsmanship and the beautiful effects that they can impart to classical period music.

Further Reading

  • To read more about early square pianos of German manufacture
    and some possible antecedents for Zumpe (takes you to a supplementary page on this site).

  • See also Michael Cole's book, Broadwood Square Pianos.

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