Thursday 11 April 2013

The first piano in England

A 1720 fortepiano by Cristofori in  the Metropolitan Museum, New York
A 1720 fortepiano by Cristofori in
the Metropolitan Museum, New York
In 1749 an English engineer called John Grundy visited Charles Jennens' house, Gopsall Hall in Leicestershire. The new Palladian house was in the process of being built and Grundy provided a design for the grounds (never actually executed). In 1750 Grundy returned, to be entertained at the house. In his travel diary he describes the interior, with the particularly grand music room complete with stucco ceiling and carved marble fireplace. Luckily for us Grundy was inquisitive about things (as engineers might be expected to be). He describes Jennens' grand mahogany music desk, which had music stands (and associated candles) enabling 14 players to play at once. He also talks about the two keyboard instruments, a harpsichord and another made by a Venetian maker in which the strings were hit by small hammers covered with leather, making the tone softer and more melodious than a harpsichord, and with further small hammers to dampen the strings. Grundy had no idea what the instrument was called, but he gives us a very clear description. This was the first piano to appear in England.

The first pianos were made by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 - 1731) in 1700 for the ruling Medici family in Florence. Cristofori continued to develop the instrument until the 1720's (from whence the first surviving instruments date) and continued making the instruments until his death. Only three survive and all are either too decrepit to play, or have been zealously restored. But modern replicas suggest that sound was something between a harpsichord and modern piano. This is not surprising, the general construction and stringing of the instruments are based on the harpsichord. But the sound is not as sharp as a harpsichord and the instrument is responsive to the touch in a way that the harpsichord isn't. (See the web page of maker Tony Chinnery for images of a modern replica, sound files of it playing)

It was a Cristofori piano which Jennens' friend Holdsworth sent from Italy in 1732. It arrived rather worse for its journey. Jennens instrument seems to have lived for some of its life in his London house. Rather tantalisingly we have record of Handel playing the instrument after dinners there in 1740 and 1756.

The music room at Gopsall Hall contained one further instrument, an organ, whose specification had been requested from Handel by Jennens. The combination of instruments and music desk provides additional background colour our knowledge that Jennens and his friends used to meet and play music together.And in fact, Handel's Jephtha might have had a run through there before its London premiere in 1752. I wonder if they used the piano!

Much of the information for this article came from Ruth Smith's admirable little book Charles Jennens: The Man behind Handel's Messiah which accompanied the Handel House Museum's exhibition of that name.

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