The ‘grand’ achievement of English instrument-making

The ‘grand’ achievement of English instrument-making

The Cranbrook History Centre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Royal College of Music Museum (London), and the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian, Washington D.C.)… What do they have in common? Aside from being excellent institutions, they all have at least one John Broadwood (& Sons) grand piano living in their collections.

The Cranbrook History Centre is finally giving its beautiful historic instrument some recognition and care. The museum’s instrument, built in 1864 by Broadwood & Sons (piano-maker) for Paterson & Sons (piano-maker and dealer), was lovingly and thoughtfully donated to the museum in 2003 by Dr. Helmut Brauss and wife, mezzo-soprano Kuniko Furuhata-Brauss.

An explosion of design

John Broadwood (1732-1812) hugely contributed to a piano design boom. Keyboard instruments experienced massive development from 1770 to 1830. Pianos (formerly called pianofortes or fortepianos) had to evolve quickly to accommodate more expressive and technical music, larger ensembles, and a bigger variety of musical forms being pumped out by the likes of Mozart. In a short period of time, pianos went from being modified harpsichords, which functioned as basic accompaniment, to taking on the modern piano form capable of solo virtuosity. Very early pianos had around 1500 parts, while the modern piano has roughly 12,000 parts! During this shift from Baroque (think Bach, Telemann) to Classical (Haydn, early Beethoven) music, serious musicians were expected to learn piano and the instrument became an artistic focus. While the upright piano became a middle- and upper-class household object, the grand piano was reserved for the most serious musicians in the Western world.

Broadwood heavily influenced the English piano sound. He refined mechanisms such as the soundboard, bracing, and action (the string-hitting hammer mechanism activated by the finger depressing the piano key). His action was inspired by Cristofori’s (1655-1731, inventor of the piano and maker to the Medicis). ‘English action’ propelled London into becoming an international piano-making centre. The modern piano is a crowning achievement of English instrument making. Their instruments overtook Viennese pianos, their biggest competitor during the design boom. Broadwood helped English pianos support a bigger range (low to high pitch), more volume, and provided more consistent tone and tuning. Following the 1850s, pianos became more homogenous in design and less decorative to suit changing tastes and growing functionality of the piano. American piano-makers like Steinway improved on English-style pianos and came to dominate the international market. The Broadwood company in its latest form is a tuner and manufacturer for the royal family in England.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Eileen Kosasih

Our Broadwood & Sons is on display at the museum
“Ice cream cone” legs

Our instrument

Broadwood’s descendants continued to make small innovations and produce good pianos. Our Broadwood & Sons grand features what would have been considered older functional designs (straight stringing, wood soundboard) and contemporary decorative elements. The regal “ice cream cone” leg was a popular design form during the Victorian era into the early 1900s. The case (outer shell), lyre (pedal support), and sectional lid are veneered with an intricately grained rosewood, natural (white) keys are an ivory veneer, and accidentals keys are an ebonized (painted black) wood. The fallboard (rectangular piece above and perpendicular to the keys) is painted black and inlaid with maker and dealer marks. Each of the three legs is crowned by a capital formed by a pair of carved, scrolled acanthuses (classical design forms). Immediately supporting is exaggerated turning that continues down into fluted, octagonal legs with turned feet. The saboted feet rest in wheeled castors. We can safely assume, like pianos of our Broadwood’s age, parts have been rebuilt or replaced, such as the stringing, pads, hammers, action parts, and parts of the case. With special care, the instrument is playable and in pretty good condition. The 1864 Broadwood and Sons’ sound is mellower than that of typical Broadwood & Sons pianos.

Source: Arne Sahlen and Eileen Kosasih

As Beethoven’s hearing suffered, he particularly cherished his Broadwood & Sons. The instrument could emit so much sound and take a hammering. Beethoven’s Broadwood is at the Hungarian National Museum