(Page updated June 2020)
“Grand” is, of course, a French word meaning “big” or “large” but we routinely use it to describe many things that are special in some other way, and although we are clear what we mean by a “grand piano” nowadays, earlier references were not always so precise. We can all make mistakes, but I really don’t understand why so many people who know nothing about piano history feel it is alright to set up web pages on the subject.
WHO INVENTED THE PIANO? AND WHEN?
In the 1600s, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, and the gunpowder plot, in the wake of the English Civil War, London suffered the double trauma of the Great Plague and the Great Fire, then Europe suffered the worst of the Little Ice Age. At the end of that tormented century, in the reign of King William III, shortly after the death of Henry Purcell, the piano was invented by Bartolommeo Cristofori in Florence, Italy. (Technically, it was not always known as Italy then, it was split into several city states.) There were various other claims to the invention or even precursor of the piano, but they have no value because there is no evidence that they were successful.
Did you know that I invented the idea of the 3D printer back in the eighties? Of course you didn’t - because I didn’t have a clue how to make one, so the idea had to wait for someone who had more than just an idea of the basic principle, and knew how to actually achieve it. Shame though, I never make any money!
Cristofori’s instruments were based on the shape of a harpsichord, which we would recognise as a “grand piano”, although that particular term was not used until much later, as a way of comparing to later, smaller types. The idea that Broadwoods invented the grand piano in the 1770s is difficult to understand. In spite of various pictures appearing to be different designs, with different colours, stands or legs, only 3 Cristofori pianofortes are known to have survived. Details of the invention were first published in 1711, written in 1709, but Cristofori’s pianos existed before that, and his ARPICEMBALO, a somewhat similar instrument, had been documented in 1698.
As far as we know, no other Cristofori pianos survive, but someone, in a little village somewhere in Italy, could be using an original Cristofori as a workbench, or eating their breakfast off it, and the internet would not necessarily know.
According to planethugill.com the first piano in England was a Cristofori sent from Italy in 1732 (the year after Cristofori died) by Charles Jennen's friend Holdsworth, to Jennens' home in London, and Handel is said to have played it there. It was later moved to Gopsall Hall, in Leicestershire, but we don’t know what happened to it.
Cristofori’s new instrument differed from the harpsichord in that instead of plucking the strings, it struck them with hammers, and this meant that, as well as being a more powerful instrument, it had the facility of allowing the player to control the dynamics of the music by variations in the way the keys were played. This facility is not just about playing “soft and loud” overall, it means that one hand can play louder than the other, or one finger can play a melody louder than the other notes, or any note in a handful can be made more prominent. This is something we take for granted now, and regard as essential in a musical instrument, but in 1742, people were more used to organs and harpfichords, and the Ipswich Journal reported on the strange novelty of an instrument that allowed one to…
The clavichord was an even earlier keyboard instrument, but if you have ever played a solid electric guitar without plugging it in, you will have some idea how quiet a clavichord is. You could practise in the middle of the night, and the neighbours would not hear, so although it is a very expressive instrument, it is not suitable for public performance. Nowadays, we can overcome this with electronic amplification.
PIANO E FORTE
Cristofori called his invention “gravicembalo col piano e forte”, which we shorten to “pianoforte” or even just “piano”. The word “gravicembalo” means a harpsichord, and he obviously thought of his wonderful invention as just a new type of harpsichord. Strictly speaking, the Italian “piano e forte” does not mean “soft and loud”. Forte does not actually mean “loud”, it means “strong”, but we still understand it in the same way.
The correct Italian meaning of “Piano” is a plane or level, such as the decks of a ship, as I discovered to my cost when I went on board an Italian liner on the Thames to tune the pianos. Incredibly, none of the crew spoke English, and they couldn’t understand why I kept wiggling my fingers and saying “piano”, so they kept asking what seemed to be “which piano?” and took me all the way up to the bridge, to speak to the captain. He said “Ah! Technizioni!” and explained that I was to be shown where the ship’s pianofortes were. On the way down, we passed deck signs labelled “Piano 5”, “Piano 4” etc.. Even then, my work was interrupted by waiters telling me in garbled English that I was not allowed to play the pianos, so I repeated “technizioni”.
The implication is that piano means playing at the normal level, an alien concept to many modern musicians. In other words, a pianoforte is capable of playing at the normal level, or more strongly, whereas a harpsichord, which plucks the strings, has no touch response or means of expression from the keyboard, and a note always sounds the same no matter how it is played. This was also true of organs at the time, and their swell pedals would be tried out on pianos before they became a vital part of organs. Somewhere at the back of my mind there is the glimmer of an idea about making a harpsichord that can be played “piano and forte” but it is hardly worth the effort when it is already so easily available in electronic versions. Often, choirs and orchestras find it easier to use an electronic harpsichord sound, rather than try to procure a real one.
The keyboard compass (range) of Cristofori’s first pianos was only 4 octaves, or 49 notes, from C to C, little more than the vocal range of a choir. Some of his later instruments had a few more notes at either end.
See our Keys page.
Despite the modern application of this term by Wikipedia, the Daily Mirror and others, “fortepiano” is not the original name for early pianos, and the first pianos were certainly NOT known as fortepianos. This name did not arise until shortly after Cristofori’s death in 1731, when the German makers such as Gottfried Silbermann (organ builder) and Balthasar Schiedmayer (clavichord maker) began producing these new instruments. The only problem with this is that technically “Germany” did not exist as it does now. Some people now use the term “fortepiano” for early grands with no iron frame, but this is their choice, a modern one, and not the original meaning.
If I decided that zebras would henceforth be called elephants, would other people do the same?
And what’s the point of being able to edit Wikipedia if it keeps un-editing itself?
Without the efforts of German makers, the piano would not have survived to become what it is today, because in the 1740s and 1750s, pianos were almost exclusively made and played in Germany, although Vienna (Austria) soon caught up. I have no hands-on experience of working on early German fortepianos, but over the years, various people, books and websites have given the impression that Silbermann developed his instrument quite independently, and that the action was on a different principle to Cristofori’s, the “German Action”, following on from Schroter’s model…
THIS SEEMS TO BE A COMPLETE FICTION.
Now, online photographs clearly demonstrate that Silbermann’s action was not different, and not just similar, it was IDENTICAL to Cristofori’s, to such an extent that we can only assume that he was so impressed by Cristofori’s invention, he made or procured detailed drawings of the original, and copied them faithfully. I would love to hear from anyone who has worked on one of these early German pianos with a “German Action”. Confusion with the very different “Viennese Action” may be connected with the complicated history of Vienna and Austria, and although the Austrian people are sometimes said to be “Germans”, Austria has not always been part of Germany, and it is not now.
Silbermann made very few pianos, but many of the different photos and drawings are of the same piano, or copies of it. It is suggested that there were no square pianos then, yet Helen Rice Hollis says that apart from Silbermann’s, no other grands existed in Germany until 1773, a statement that is difficult to reconcile when we have the impression that grands were almost the only type made until the mid-1700s. Anyway, 1773 refers in this instance to an Austrian piano, not a German one. J.A. Stein studied under Silbermann for about a year, then he and other Viennese makers followed on with their own adapted versions of the fortepiano, and used the Viennese Action, which was closer to Schroter’s model.
Grands only represent about a quarter of the surviving pianos from the 1700s. In the business records of Ferdinand Weber, Dublin, who was apprenticed in Germany, the first reference to "Piano Forte" is in 1780. Previously, he referred to "Forte Piano". By the 1830s, advertisements still tended to refer to “Piano Fortes” with a space or a hyphen. By the 1850s, the 2 words had merged in most instances. If you want to search online, “pianoforte” will get you more useful results than “piano”, especially in Google Images.
Those of the German piano makers who brought their craft to London around 1760 mainly made square pianos and although there were grand-shaped fortepianos produced in Germany and Austria, very few were made in London at this time, the bulk of the trade was square pianos, there being no proper uprights then.
This trade card for John Broadwood describes him as “Harpsichord, Grand & Small Piano Forte Maker”, and he is thought to have made his first grands in 1781. (“Small” refers to square pianos – querpianos.) Broadwood is said to have coined the term “Grand Piano Forte”, but the earliest published use of the term is thought to be in Robert Stodart’s patent of 1777. By 1781, there were already references in The Times to “Grand Piano Forte”, and Broadwood made an “Improved Grand Piano Forte” in 1782.
Claims in an 1839 book that someone named Bacchus made the first horizontal grand pianoforte in 1777 suggest a little too much wine, and we have so far found no record of such a maker, unless they meant Backers, in which case the date is still wrong. Very few British grands survive from the 1700s, and the earliest, thought to have been made by Americus Backers in 1772 for the Duke of Wellington, is now in the Russell Collection, Edinburgh, which we visited in 2011. It has been suggested that this was the first English-made piano to have pedals, but we can’t prove this, although it is the earliest surviving English-made piano with pedals. They work in exactly the same way as modern grand pedals. By the 1780s, increasing numbers of pianos had pedals, although they were still not an essential part of a piano. Now, pedals are known as “the soul of the piano”.
Syrinx (Pan Pipes) - Xylophone - Zither
The German word FLÜGEL (meaning wing) is applied to the shape of a harpsichord or grand piano, although it is sometimes difficult to picture grands as being wing-shaped: the design is influenced by the varying lengths of strings, the shorter strings of the high notes being on the right, and resulting in what is known as a BENTSIDE. In the sketches above, we can see much the same effect in the pipes of the Syrinx, (which was the earliest known musical scale) and the bars of the Xylophone, as well as the strings of the Zither.
Why do so many people find it so difficult to get piano pictures, ornaments and models the right way round? David Martin sent me this photo of his 1899 Pleyel grand, which was actually made with the bentside on the left. It is difficult to imagine what advantage this very unusual design offered, apart from allowing the piano to be placed on the other side of a room, and this particular bentside is purely decorative, the stringing inside is quite conventional. Bluthners kindly confirmed that they really did make a “left-handed” grand, but the images online are fake, the piano has been flipped, then the name flipped back. Whenever I see a back-to-front grand on the internet, I tend to just assume that the image was flipped by someone who doesn’t have a basic understanding of pianos, there are plenty of those, but the worst is Alamy, whose whole business is supposed to be pictures, so I asked them if it was too much to ask that they should display pictures of pianos the right way round, without flipping them? Grand pianos are supposed to have the straight side on the left of the keyboard, the bentside is on the right, where the shorter strings are.
Mangeot produced “Renversé” grands which require a particular kind of mind to play them, because all the notes are reversed, so the low notes are on the right-hand end!
When “The Works” opened in Yarmouth, I went in to see if they had any interesting books, there was one which claimed to be about pianos, but the only picture of a piano in it was back-to-front. They also offered a music notation book, but the staves only had 4 lines!
If you think of the piano keys as teeth, you will understand where the CHEEKS are. The cheeks of these early grands were squared-off, just like a simple rectangular box when closed, a harpsichord style which still persisted in Beethoven’s time. This is useful to know if you have a Broadwood with ambiguous serial numbers. We had a look at an 1813 Broadwood at Hardwick Hall that is almost identical to Beethoven’s.
Strange then, that “The Morning Amufements of her Royal Highnefs the Princefs Royal & her 4 Sifters”, 1782, shows an unspecified instrument with the keys sticking out oddly, and there are no cheeks. Either that, or the action is pulled out to a position where it wouldn’t have worked. Perhaps that’s where the amusement came in. Artistic license? Two websites that show the full picture were unable to verify the date, source or accuracy.
Around the 1820s, various makers, including Astor, Erard, Mott, Pleyel, and Tomkison cut away the cheeks on some models to make the keyboard more open, but the curved grand cheeks that we are used to seeing were not created until later, and Broadwood was one of the makers who brought them nearer to their more familiar shape around the 1830s. Apart from the bentside, English makers tended to stay away from curves, whereas Viennese fortepianos were much more inclined to have curves around the cheeks and tail.
Around the 1830s, some London grands made by Broadwood, Collard, Dettmer and others had a decorative frill around the cheeks, almost like an animal’s mane.
“Empire Style” is a Napoleonic style that was most popular around 1805-1825, or “circa 1815”, but as far as pianos are concerned, it is difficult to define it consistently by anything other than the legs, which are usually thick, smooth cylinders, tapering slightly towards the top, and sometimes with thicker cylinders at the base.
The diagram on your left was kindly sent to me by Erards, and shows their 1821 patent for a grand action which was so successful, it has become the basis of almost all modern grand actions, but there are many examples on the internet of the wrong diagrams being attributed to 1821. The middle picture is a slightly improved Erard from Tomlinson’s 1853 Cyclopaedia. On the right, we see Kaps’ version of the Erard action, from about 1875. Instead of a hammer rest rail running right across the action, each note has a separate hammer rest.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are thought to have had a large collection of pianos, but the present location of most of them is unknown. Here, we see the 1829 Erard grand on which the young Princess Victoria learned to play. It has an unusual decoration on the cheeks, resembling ships’ wheels, and was illustrated by permission of Erards in a 1901 book we have about the life of Queen Victoria. This piano is apparently in a museum in Calcutta (Kolkatta) now, but its distinctive appearance is not evident in some internet pictures of it. The pianosromantique website
shows Erard #12964, which looks exactly like Victoria’s, and is now in an American collection.
The lyre is an ancient instrument that has often been used as an emblem for all kinds of musical situations. By the 1830s, more and more makers were starting to use a lyre-shaped pedal unit, which became so popular in grands and square pianos that the unit is now known in the trade as a “PEDAL LYRE” regardless of its shape.
BEGINNINGS OF THE IRON FRAME
In the pursuit of better tonal quality, piano makers wanted more string tension, and this meant using stronger structures, especially after improvements in the telegraph led to the development of stronger wire. Stephen Fry is promoting the idea that when Liszt started playing pianos more forcefully, suddenly all the pianos were made with iron frames. This is nonsense. There are many misleading generalisations and over-simplified statements made, especially on the internet, about the invention of iron frames, known in the states as “plates”. This was not a sudden, single event. Better tone requires higher tensions, and as wire-drawing techniques improved (especially for use in the telegraph) string tensions on pianos increased, the structure had to be strengthened, so what started with very small pieces of iron reinforcement gradually grew into something much larger, growing from a few ounces of iron to 10 stones. It happened differently, at different times, with different models and makes.
In England, Joseph Smith was aware that the use of multiple pedals for Turkish percussion effects was causing extra strain on the structure of pianos, so in 1799, he patented metal bracings to strengthen them. Around 1801, Hawkins made a few experimental upright instruments with iron running around the outer edge, in the manner of a picture frame. In 1808, Broadwood applied 3 steel tension bars, but little bits of iron were becoming more common to reinforce weak areas such as the edges of the soundboard.
By 1823, Erards used quite advanced iron bars, but their pianos hardly progressed from that for the rest of the century.
STODART’S COMPENSATING FRAME
In 1825, Allen and Thom (working for Stodart) patented a more exotic metal framework that aimed to compensate for the variations in pitch caused by temperature changes, on much the same principle as the compensating pendulum created for clocks a century earlier. Allen and Thom used brass tubes above the brass strings, and iron tubes above the iron strings.
In 1825, Alpheus Babcock made a square piano with an iron frame, but it was not a full iron frame in the modern sense. Suggestions that, for example, the iron frame was invented by Babcock in 1825 ignore the fact that (1) small pieces of cast iron were used in much earlier pianos and (2) his was not a full iron frame as we know it. In 1833 he said “I deem it advisable to inform the public that no person can make them without first purchasing the Patent Right of me, being the original inventor, and having obtaining Letters Patent for the exclusive right of manufacturing them in the United States”. It cannot be possible to reserve rights to every form of iron reinforcement that has appeared in different pianos before and after 1825. I contacted the Smithsonian because they described it as “a cast iron tube surrounding the belly”, but I pointed out that it is not possible to cast a curved tube in one piece. They said they would do an X-ray, but I never heard the outcome.
This picture is a comparison between the iron frames of Bluthner and Bechstein grands in 1867. They are somewhat similar, painted gold, and are COMPOSITE FRAMES, made of separate straight sections of wrought iron fixed together. Kirkman was using similar ones. Later iron frames were cast in one piece, often characterised by smoother, curving shapes. It is said that Conrad Meyer’s 1832 patent was the first full cast iron frame, but William Allen was making grands with an iron frame in a single casting in 1831, and none of these pretenders made frames like modern ones. The statement that Steinway introduced the cast iron frame in 1855 is completely misleading, there were cast frames long before that, as well as wrought iron frames.
The underneath of a grand is perversely known as the BACK. This view of an 1839 Erard from Palace Pianos shows a shape that is not dissimilar to the rims of much earlier grands, although some had a more pointed tail. Twentieth-century grands are sometimes “backless”, meaning that they have no major wooden structure underneath, and rely on the iron frame to take the strain of the strings. As early as the 1830s, Cluesman, Paris, made grands that were totally dependent on iron bars, because there was no wooden structure underneath the soundboard.
Inside a modern grand, you can see that notes on the bottom end have strings which are quite thick and powerful, so the higher notes need more than one string per note, in order to provide a balanced sound. Many pianos made up to the early 1800s had BICHORDS – 2 strings per note. Gradually, TRICHORDS (3 strings per note) were introduced in the extreme treble, and eventually extended downwards to the whole of the tenor and treble, as in modern pianos, an arrangement known as FULL TRICHORD although it does not extend to the bass. There are mathematical and acoustical arguments for having 3 strings, but occasional experiments with 4 strings per note were not found to have any particular value.
As to the design of the so-called "London legs", almost identical ones were made in vast quantities between the 1830s and 1880s, for grand pianos, square pianos, and cottage pianos, virtually the same hexagonal legs in thousands of instruments. The majority of pianos produced by Erards’ London factory in the 1800s had these “London legs”, whereas their Paris models had a great variety of leg designs, and only a few of this type.
CARVED LEG TOP
From about 1855 to 1875, or “circa 1865”, some piano legs had a more ornate, carved top section. At a time in history when ladies didn’t show their legs, it must have been an enjoyable occupation for the men who carved legs for furniture and pianos, often featuring a thigh, calf and ankle. Over the years, I have heard various people suggest that the Victorians made skirts to cover the legs of their pianos, but I have never found any evidence to support this, and there are plenty of period illustrations of showrooms and exhibitions where the piano legs were on public view.
It’s good to get back to original paperwork, and the pointed example on your left is an engraving of a Broadwood piano from one of our catalogues of the Great Exhibition, 1851. A cartoon in Weekend magazine compared its droopsnoot to Concorde - “Your concert in New York has been banned until you reduce the noise level”. However, the old photo on your right, kindly sent to us by the Victoria & Albert Museum, shows that the piano was nowhere near as pointed as the original engraving suggested. Original paperwork is fascinating, but it is not always the most accurate, and engravings are not photographs, they are subject to artistic license.
Straight Oblique (Querflugel) Overstringing Double Overstringing
Here we see the main types of stringing arrangement in grands, but all the early grands were straight-strung like harpsichords.
DOUBLE OVERSTRINGING with 3 sets of strings - was used in Mathusek’s double-overstrung square piano, and the Neumeyer on your right is one that I worked on in Norfolk. Ernst Kaps is said to have made the first double-overstrung grand in 1865, but when so many websites are repeating the same thing word for word, it places a lot of faith in the anonymous original. Broadwood and Challen also used double overstringing later, to try to compensate for the lack of tone in small grands, especially at a time in the twenties when a 4-foot grand was the ultimate goal.
In 1867, Verner Lassen came up with a very strange idea, and instead of the normal fixed soundboard, he made a grand with a removable soundbox. This is not something that slides out easily or conveniently, it is attached to all the strings. History does not record what he was smoking at the time. I am grateful to Jens Kurt Jensen for the photos.
Without donations, I will be fine, but our collection may not survive for future generations, and it may all end up on a bonfire. If every visitor to this site made a small donation, we would have better displays for our building, and much-improved facilities for research within our own archives. Cheques must be made out to Bill Kibby-Johnson. Foreign cheques are subject to high bank charges, so if you are posting a donation, bills are easier to change without any of your money disappearing on charges.
This very decorative Erard grand, possibly made around 1876, was owned by the actress Fanny Ward and, in more modern times, by the actress Moira Lister, who died in 2007.
Many of the Viennese grands of the late 1800s have almost identical actions, but nobody seems to know who made them, apart from a few labelled by Franz Renner. It is not always obvious to people that “Wien” means Vienna. We receive many enquiries about Viennese pianos, often with huge, bulbous legs, characteristic Viennese dampers, large, round candle-boards and distinctive turned stays (often white) to hold the top open…
We piece together what we can about Bachmann, Bangyula, Blumel, Betsy, Bowitz, Gebauhr, Gossl, Grund, Heitzmann, Henschker, Hofmann & Czerny, Kern, Klein, Kutschera, Lindner, Oeler, Rausch, Schick, Schmid & Kunz, Schneider, Scholtz, Schott, Schrimpf, Schwieghofer, Stelzhammer, Tomaschek, Wasniczek, Wessely, Wolff, Wopaterni, etc., but much as we would love to make research trips to Vienna, we have no funding to cover such luxuries, and although it is interesting to hear about these pianos, there does not seem to be an equivalent to PianoHistory.Info for Austria, or indeed any other country.
Piano keyboards do not normally go beyond 88 notes A to C. For more information see our Keys page.
GRAND RIM SHAPES
Square Tail – Pointed – Fishtail – Double Serpentine – Bent Case - Symmetrical
The end of the piano furthest from the keyboard is known as the TAIL.
The rim of this 1855 Pleyel has two bends and this is sometimes described as “a double serpentine curve”, although that tends to refer to two curves that are more smoothly joined, like this...
1892 Schweighofer example has the 2 curves merged into a “double serpentine curve”. Some auction sources refer to them as a “single curve”.
1905 Broadwood grand with “fishtail” rim, the curve on the tail being symmetrical. The “barless” frame has no iron bars in the area between the strings. Has anyone out there ever seen a Broadwood grand with a concave tail?
Several makers produced grands which were designed to be symmetrical, either semi-circular like Strohemenger’s, or Knake’s 1904 patent, or with a bentside on each side, such as those made by Bluthner, Bosendorfer, Cramer, Ecke, Gunther, Hoelling & Spangenberg, Ibach, etc.. Morley and Emil Pauer made something between the two, rounded, but with the two bentsides.
In 1899, Bechsteins introduced the Model A - a 6'8" grand with 85 notes, based on the Model 5. My old friend and piano enthusiast Rod Watt had both models from 1899, and it was interesting to make direct comparisons: the seductive shape of the Model 5, (on your left) with its "fishtail", was streamlined to a "double serpentine curve", but this resulted in a slight loss of soundboard area, so the keyboard section of the case was enlarged by 2 inches to compensate, making the whole appearance heavier and bulkier by comparison with the more delicate Model 5, with a deeper skirt, and a tendency towards darker finishes.
In the early 1900s, Chappell made some of the finest British concert grands, with a wonderfully long decay time that gives so much sustain, they almost seem to sing. If you hold a full chord and bass notes, and count seconds until you cannot hear it anymore, this gives a rough but useful guide to the quality of manufacture: a cheap upright sound will decay within 20 seconds, but a really good concert grand such as one of these Chappells may still be audible for 90 seconds, a huge difference, which provides a wonderful flow to the music. Some inferior modern grands with famous names only last 25 seconds, making the tone very brittle.
A lot of venues now have Yamaha grands, and although some of the older ones are fairly average, I have played on some exceptional Yamaha instruments locally, with a wonderfully light touch, and that magic ingredient – a long decay time.
One such example in a restaurant has an automatic facility, and for several years, has only been used to play CDs, but if you ask them, they will say their pianist is me!
This 1889 ad is one of several which demonstrate the idea that, with the demise of the square piano, people were looking for something to fill the gap. In reality, the “Indian Grand” was not “nearly the same”, it was six feet deep, about 3 times the area of a square piano.
Here is another example, from 1883, showing this desperate need to create smaller grands. The term “BABY GRAND” was starting to be used in the late 1800s, but I have found no evidence to support Bernard Brock’s claim to have invented them. They were not substantially different, just smaller. The convention in the modern British trade is to call anything up to five feet a “Baby Grand”, anything over seven feet a “Concert Grand”, and anything between a “Boudoir Grand”, but terms were by no means standard in the 1800s, and Victorian names like grand, semi-grand and short grand or, in America, parlor grand, were not consistently defined. (At a time in history when bedrooms in large houses were surprisingly public, the boudoir was a room for private time alone, perfectly appropriate for piano playing.) In 1910 for example, Westermayer produced a 5’2” Baby Grand, a 6’ Boudoir Grand, and an 8’2” Concert Grand. When small grands were rarely seen, the term “Baby Grand” might be applied to some as long as 5’10”, for example Erard made 88-note examples of that size around 1901. These were not especially small for the period, and Hugo Sohmer had made a 5’ grand in 1884, although it wasn’t called a baby grand.
Around 1918, Keith, Prowse & Co. Ltd. said that their five-foot baby grand was “the smallest ever made”, but this was not true even then, and later grands went down to less than four feet in extreme cases.
This 1918 wartime postcard almost has too much provenance, the date is hand-written, and post-marked by the Field Post Office, as well as being passed by the censor. Look how modern the piano appears to be. Instead of calling their piano the best baby grand, Steck turned the argument around, and justifiably boasted “The smallest High Grade Grand in the world”, because some of them are exceptional for their size.
Many people dream of owning a pretty little baby grand, but have no idea that in these “Vanity Pianos”, the actions are often cheap and unresponsive, and by 1910, Allison’s “Grandette” was a perfect example of the fact that in spite of claiming “the tone of a Full Concert Grand”, by the time a space is allowed for the keys and action, there is only room for a tiny soundboard, and very short strings, so the tonal quality is usually poor, especially in the bass, so even if you like the instrument, it certainly doesn’t compare to larger grands. Baby grands became known in France as “crapaud”, which means toad!
Our 1924 Broadwood 5’ baby grand is conventional in its shape and interior layout. Less conventionally, it was delivered in a box trailer, lying diagonally, because it wouldn’t fit any other way! I recently tuned a Challen baby grand (said to have been owned by Tommy Steele) of similar age to our Broadwood and I feel that the Challen had been a superior instrument in its day, but with a quite “thin” sound in the bass, which would have sounded familiar to the great composers. Another interesting thing is that Challen was one of very few that used a similar soft pedal to the one found in their upright pianos. This “Half-Blow” does not shift the hammers sideways like most grands, it raises them up nearer to the strings, and is much more effective, allowing much softer playing. The normal soft pedal works best when the part of the hammers that normally strikes the strings is worn, and harder.
By 1929, Allisons were advertising their Allisonette model, dubbed “The babiest of baby grands”, or “The Peter Pan of Pianos”, and a mere four feet long… the same as the Grandette. We have a 1932 Cramer which is barely over four feet long, with a tiny soundboard, and although it is a perfectly good instrument to play, it is very much a “Vanity Piano”, and many uprights have longer strings and larger soundboards. Brinkerhoff, Chicago, made grands only 3’9” long.
There have always been designers who decorated pianos in very artistic ways, but by the 1880s, Erards began presenting the illusion of a Napoleonic design from a century earlier, when pianos simply did not look like that. In these ads from our collection of “The Connoisseur” magazines, we almost seem to see Josephine, entranced by Napoleon’s playing.
Bechstein, Brinsmead, Broadwood, Gaveau, Pleyel, Steinway and others soon jumped on the bandwagon, and made very similar “Art Pianos”.
Cramer’s “Louis Style Grand” is shown in a catalogue thought to date from about 1919. It is perhaps worth mentioning that between 1910 and 1922, Cramer baby grand prices rocketed from 84 guineas to 120 pounds.
Interestingly, although pianos are sometimes described as being in the style of Louis XIV or Louis XV, there were no French pianos until the reign of King Louis XVI. Gaveau’s 1927 Louis XVI grand is one of the prettiest pictures in our catalogues…
but some of their later art creations lacked a certain je ne sais quoi.
This harpsichord and more conventional grand designs are from Pleyel’s catalogue of about 1930.
These pictures show the underneath structure used in Monington & Weston’s “Tuplex” double iron frame, which is addition to the normal type of frame that is visible inside the top of the grands.
In 1934, Albert Arthur Dale patented what he presented as “improvements to horizontal pianofortes”, but having occasionally tuned the instrument he described, the “Claviano”, I can tell you that it is an interesting novelty designed for a child, and has small keys, low, short keyboard, tiny pedals, very few strings, and a crude construction that was entirely acceptable as an instrument for a child, but hardly a threat to good pianos.
In 1934, Challen started to make the big brother of the piano family, which has come to be known as THE LARGEST PIANO IN THE WORLD, for the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary. It is 11’8” long. [I have heard reports of 13-foot grands being built, but I have never been able to find any information about them.] "Dear Bill, Here is the photo of the Challen, as promised. The young man sitting at the keyboard is Leslie Lawrence, my father's younger brother. My Dad is on the right - his name was Albert Richard Lawrence. Dee Dealtrey (neé Lawrence)". The piano was auctioned by Bonhams some years ago, but nobody bought it, so we don’t know where it is now. In 2010, Czapiewski built a ridiculously large grand, as tall as a room, and its only purpose seems to have been to achieve a world record. More recently, Adrian Mann built a grand which avoided using heavy copper coverings on the bass strings, by making the piano nearly 19 feet long.
MATURITY AND STANDARDISATION
Modern grands usually have a “bent case” with a curve that continues from one end of the keyboard to the other.
The grands shown here span 9 decades, but look very similar. By the twenties, most of the ordinary grands were so similar, it is difficult to tell them apart, and this means that (unlike uprights) assessing their age by any visible attributes is almost impossible. Furthermore, many old grands have new legs and pedal lyres fitted when they are reconditioned, to make them conform.
In the seventies, Lindner made space-saving grands that worked on the principle of a tilt-top table, so that they could take up less space when not in use, but the whole appeal of a piano is instant access. Just placing a sofa in the way is enough to stop people playing, and the problem with Lindners’ idea is that it discourages people from practising, because it places another barrier in their way. Imagine having to make space, wheel it out from the wall, tip it level, and secure it, before you could play a note.
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