The full title of this book is Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution. It was written by Madeline Goold, an artist and pianist who purchased a dilapidated square piano at an auction in England some years ago. While she was having the piano restored, she embarked upon a quest to discover its history. This book is the story of her quest.
As she traces the history of this single piano, Ms. Goold also tells a fascinating tale of how the pianoforte overtook the harpsichord as the instrument of choice in most homes in both England and North America over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Now, a few chords of the tune …
The square pianoforte which was eventually acquired by Ms. Goold was originally purchased by Mr. Langshaw from the famous Broadwood manufactory of London. The "square" was manufactured in 1807, and it was given the serial number of 10651. It was shipped out of London by horse and cart to Pickfords’ dock at Paddington, where it was loaded aboard one of their fly-boats for its two-hundred thirty-five mile journey north, along the English canal system to Lancaster. Once it arrived in Lancaster, it would have been loaded onto another cart and delivered to the man who had ordered it, Mr. John Langshaw.
And so begins the story of Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano. But as she traces square piano #10651 though history, Ms. Goold also tells the story of the origins and growth of the Broadwood manufactory, which actually began making harpsichords. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, they had transitioned to the manufacture of pianofortes, both in square and grand form. Some time ago, I published an article here entitled Pianoforte vs. Harpsichord, which explains the difference between these two keyboard instruments, and why the pianoforte eventually won out. There were other piano makers in England at this time, but Broadwoods not only made a superior instrument, they developed a most ingenious marketing scheme, by which they could sell to the very highest social classes, as well as the low to middling sorts, without alienating either. They also cultivated a number of "friends" or agents in all the corners of the British empire, who sold pianofortes for them to those who wanted a bit of culture, however far they might have traveled from the metropolis.
Nor are Mr. Langshaw or his family ignored by Ms. Goold. She traces his line from his parents through his children and grandchildren, right through the generations to the present day. Like his father before him, Mr. John Langshaw was church organist, who supplemented his income by giving piano lessons, and occassionally acting as an agent for Broadwood in his community, most often ordering pianofortes for his students. But unlike most church organists, Mr. Langshaw had been taught to build barrel organs by his father, and occasionally built a barrel organ, or "pinned" barrels for such organs. Mr. Langshaw translated music to pins and staples in wooden barrels, which when rotated in a barrel organ, would play the tune. His father was employed for twelve years pinning the barrels for the largest barrel organ ever built in England, for the Earl of Bute. Ms. Goold provides a very lucid explanation of the technology of barrel organ construction as well as their use during this time. Such organs would have been in use right through the Regency. This portion of the story is fascinating all on its own, a definite bonus to the story of square piano #10651.
This grand adventure began for Ms. Goold when she purchased a very dilapidated Broadwood square at an auction. Once she had acquired the square, she inquired of a number of people who did piano tuning and repairs about what to do next. Fortunately, David Winston, one of the most noted restorers of keyboard instruments, was recommended to her. He agreed to see her piano, but told her he would not consider restoring it if anyone else had already tinkered with it. It was he who assured her that the number, 10651, which was inked inside it, was most likely the correct serial number. More importantly, he advised her that the Broadwood archives had survived and with that number she would be able to determine when the square was made, and to whom it was sold. That was how she was able to discover that the square she now owned had been made in 1807 and had been sold to Mr. John Langshaw of Lancaster.
Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano is a well-researched and well-written book. However, Ms. Goold does occassionally depart from the standard style of academic writing by interjecting passages in which she narrates events in the life of the piano or its owners. Though these passages are part speculation, they are based on the facts of her research, and they are distinguished by being printed in italics, so they are not confused with the rest of the book. These speculative passages may not be precise historical fact, but they enhance the story of this piano and the people who owned and played it, giving the reader a glimpse of moments in its time. This is a delightful tale, not only of Mr. Langshaw and his square piano, but also of the musical community of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. If you are interested in either the cultural or musical history of that period, you will enjoy this book.
Square pianoforte #10651 was ultimately restored, and could once again be played. Ms. Goold did play it, and in one of the latter chapters, she described not only how it sounded, but what it felt like to play it, as opposed to a modern-day piano. Those who play the piano will no doubt appreciate her descriptions of her experience with this square pianoforte. However, recently I discovered that Madeline Goold has created a web site devoted to Mr. Langshaw and his piano. At her dedicated web site, http://www.mrlangshawssquarepiano.co.uk/, not only can you see colored versions of some of the photos which were printed in black and white in the book, and read more about the piano and its erstwhile owners, best of all, you can hear recordings of Mr. Langshaw’s actual square piano being played. Not being a piano player myself, I did not really get her descriptions of the differences in the sound of the square as opposed to a modern piano. But listening to those recordings of the square being played, I was able to hear the difference very well. If you want to hear music which would have been played during the Regency, on a pianoforte which was actually in use during the Regency, take some time to listen to these recordings. You will be hearing the same sounds Jane Austen herself might have heard in a Regency drawing or music room.
I highly recommend both the book and the web site which tell the tale of Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano. Perhaps the most difficult thing to capture are the sounds of times past. The book will tell you how square pianofortes were made and distributed, as well as who bought them and what they meant to their new owners. And on the web site you can see pictures of both the square and one of the barrel organs which was made by the square’s first owner. Even better, you can hear the sounds of that very square pianoforte as it is played. A musical Regency time capsule. Enjoy!