John Broadwood and the Evolution of the Piano

When I was a student I was ignorant about early pianos, dismissing the sound as honky-tonk. This was until I attended lectures by my harpsichord teacher-to-be, Ruth Dyson, who opened my mind and my ears to the charms of instruments considered neither inferior nor lacking by the composers, players or audiences of the time. Now I have come to appreciate what historical instruments can offer by way of sound possibilities, and listening to them (played well!) is endlessly fascinating. Listen to Malcolm Bilson speak about articulation in Mozart on an early piano versus our modern instrument. Bilson points out that even in his sketchiest manuscripts, Mozart always included articulation marks – to Mozart, music was like speech and needed to be inflected properly.

As a young professional pianist, I had the good fortune to play Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata, op. 35, on the Broadwood piano Chopin himself used when he was in London (now in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands). It took me a while to adjust to the feel of the keyboard and the different level of resonance between this piano and those I was used to. To my surprise, I found I could follow Chopin’s pedal marks at the opening of the Sonata without affecting the clarity. On our modern machines, it is necessary to adjust the pedal either by fluttering it or by having it only partially down, because the resonance is so much greater. Remember this when trying to make sense of pedal markings from music written for earlier pianos!


op  35

Here is Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Chopin on this very instrument:

The piano firm of John Broadwood and Sons, Ltd. has been around almost as long as the piano itself. Founded in 1728, here is a short history of the firm and its place in the evolution of the piano. Those of us who live in the UK will still come across ancient and delapidated Broadwoods in churches and homes. In 1791, Josef Haydn lodged in rooms provided by the Broadwood firm and was taken aback by the different quality of the English pianos from the Viennese instruments he was used to – much gutsier and with less efficient damping. In Haydn’s C major sonata, Hob. 50, we can hear how he mimicked the sound of the Broadwood with his “open pedal” invitation in the first movement (bars 73-4 and 12–123). I play these passages with a quarter pedal, adjusting if necessary. 

Going back even further, here is a recording on a 1795 Broadwood of a sonata by Asioli by Vladimir Pleshakov. You’ll notice a nasal twang to the sound, but also a richness and fullness even then.

From about 1815 – 1820 pianos were changing almost daily. Another very famous Broadwood from this period (made in 1817) was sent as a gift to Beethoven by Thomas Broadwood. The piano was sent by sea and then cart to Vienna. When it arrived, there was nothing like it in the city – it was the most advanced piano of its day. Beethoven said of it:

I shall look upon it as an altar, on which I shall place the most beautiful offerings of my spirit to the divine Apollo.

As we know, he promptly wore it out! On Beethoven’s death, his furniture was sold and in 1846, the piano ended up with Liszt. He never used it (it was a valuable relic for him), and so for 150 years afterwards it was in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. I will leave you with the first part of a documentary on the history and restoration of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano, which you can hear played.

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If you want to learn more about the history of the piano, Part 2 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano is now available. Please see below for details of how to get your copy.

Practising the Piano Part 2

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