The London Piano Scene

by Sylvia Berry


In this age of hyper-connectivity and rapid travel, it is easy to forget that our forbears achieved their own impressive levels of connectedness via letters and extensive travel via ship and horse-drawn carriage. Much like today, musicians traveled frequently to musically important cities for work and study. Indeed, it is said that Johann Sebastian Bach walked 250 miles from Arnstadt to Lübeck to study with Buxtehude in 1705. People got around! And music got around too. There was a lively exchange of scores being sent across borders by composers and music publishers, and thus, there was a truly international music scene long before instant file sharing.


When Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) arrived in London on New Year’s Day 1791, he was an internationally renowned composer despite the fact that he’d never left his native Austria; his music long preceded him. For decades his professional life revolved around two places roughly 40 miles apart: the opulent Esterháza Palace in the small town of Eisenstadt, and the bustling musical metropolis of Vienna. Suddenly, at 59 years old, he was invited to take the longest road trip of his life, capped off by a small sea voyage. Before that day, Haydn had never seen the ocean. He wrote to a friend about crossing the English Channel: “I remained on deck during the whole passage, so as to gaze my fill at that mighty monster, the ocean. So long as it was calm, I wasn’t afraid at all, but towards the end, when the wind grew stronger and stronger and I saw the monstrous high waves rushing at us, I became a little frightened, and a little indisposed, too.”


Haydn must have been a bit afraid of what he’d find on land as well. He didn’t speak English, but as a fluent speaker of German and Italian, he was surely relieved to find a lively and extensive community of musicians of German and Italian extraction. However, Haydn knew, as we do, that the language of music is universal. England’s music lovers already knew his work and couldn’t wait to see him, and it is not an exaggeration to say that he was treated like a rock star upon his arrival. (He showed up to one family’s house to find them wearing clothes emblazed with his name!) His two London sojourns (1791-72 and 1794-95) yielded some of his most beloved works, and in addition to being given an honorary doctorate at Oxford, he was invited by the king and queen to stay there if he wished. For many Londoners the arrival of Haydn must have felt like the Second Coming of Handel, and they wanted to keep him. Though he clearly loved being there, Haydn decided to return home.


The London music scene was filled with expatriates throughout the 18th century. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a north German composer who made his way to London in 1712 after working in Italy. (Ironically, it could be said that he is England’s most famous composer – the Hallelujah chorus seems imprinted upon everyone’s DNA by now.) Just three years after Handel’s death, another north German appeared on the scene: one Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), the youngest son of Johann Sebastian. Like Handel, J.C. Bach (also known as “The London Bach”) spent time working in Italy and studying the art of Italian opera. Also like Handel, both were virtuoso keyboardists, but Bach seems to have spent more time on the concert stage than Handel did. He ran a concert series with a fellow German expat, C.F. Abel, and was music master to Queen Charlotte (also of German descent) and her daughters. By the time Bach arrived in 1762, a seismic shift in music-making was taking place in England and continental Europe; namely, members of the middle class joined members of the nobility and upper classes in making music at home. The piano started to overtake the harpsichord as the instrument of choice, partly because small “square” pianos could be made cheaply, giving more people the ability to make music at home. More music publishing firms sprang up as well, and composers churned out works for an eager public that wanted to play and hear the latest music. J.C. Bach was an early champion of the piano, and his music is the most “classical” of all the Bach sons. The Italian influence is strong in his music, and one of his biggest fans was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who got to meet Bach during his childhood trips throughout Europe and England. As evidenced in his letters and in his music itself, he studied Bach’s work assiduously; when Bach passed away Mozart declared it “a loss for the world of music.”


The Italian-born Muzio Clementi (1752-1832) arrived in England under odd circumstances. During a visit to Rome in 1766, an English nobleman named Sir Peter Beckford heard Clementi play the harpsichord and was so awestruck that he essentially bought the 14 year-old from his father and brought him to his home in Dorset. Beckford drew up a contract in which he agreed to make quarterly payments to Clementi’s father until the boy turned 21. Not much is known about Clementi’s time in Dorset, but it is said that he spent 8 hours a day playing the harpsichord and providing entertainment for the home. He studied the music of Handel, J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, Scarlatti, and Pasquini. At the age of 21 he moved to London where he went on to become one of the premiere pianists and composers of his day, touring throughout England, Europe, and Russia. Though he is mostly known for his short, pedagogical Sonatinas, many of his large-scale works are quite forward looking, and his brand of composition and pianism point directly to the romantic school of piano playing. One of his students, the Irishman John Field, invented the Nocturne, a form that was beloved by Chopin.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the north German titan of music who spent his professional life in Vienna, doesn’t need much of an introduction. Like Haydn, Beethoven didn’t travel far but his music did. While Beethoven never made it to England, his music and reputation were well known there, so much so that in 1817 Thomas Broadwood, son of the famed Scottish piano builder John Broadwood visited him in Vienna. Beethoven was in poor health and quite deaf by then, but Broadwood decided to send him a piano as a gift later that year. Beethoven was immensely honored by this gesture, and proudly showed visitors the piano. Though he’d already composed most of his piano music by then, the influence of London-based composers Clementi, J.C. Cramer, and J.L. Dussek is quite apparent in his work, and these composers were also influenced by the English pianos of their time.





About the music and the piano

The program opens with an ebullient sonata from Haydn’s early career. Though it’s listed as the first sonata in Haydn’s catalog (Hob. XVI: 1), it is almost certainly not his first keyboard work. Written during a time when both the harpsichord and fortepiano were played in equal measure, it is effective on both instruments. This work, like many sonatas from the period, ends with a charming Menuet & Trio rather than a fiery Finale. The Sonata in C minor (Op. 17, No. 2) by J.C. Bach is a dramatic tour de force. Unlike some of Bach’s more lyrical and jovial works, this one is full of darkness and tempestuousness, revealing that neither Beethoven nor Mozart were the first to employ the key of C minor to this effect. The first movement has occasional dashes of the Empfindsamer Stil (“Sensitive Style”) and Sturm and Drang (“Storm and Stress”) found in the music of Bach’s older brother and teacher Carl Philipp Emanuel, but the second movement abounds with the gorgeous lyricism one would find in an Italian aria. The last movement also points towards Italy with its Tarantella-like triple meter and constant forward motion. Brief passages of imitative writing remind us who his father was.


Haydn’s grand Sonata in E-flat (Hob. XVI: 52) is on par with his late symphonies and string quartets in terms of scope. It is also some of the most daring music he ever wrote. A reviewer at the time noted with surprise Haydn’s almost heretical use of E major for the second movement rather than a key more tonally related to E-flat, and basically told young composers that while Haydn could get away this, it was not something that youngsters should try! Its incredible virtuosity and harmonic daring is a nod towards the performer he wrote it for, a woman named Therese Jansen-Bartolozzi, a well-known student of Clementi who was regarded as one of the best pianists in London. Her father was a German violinist, and she and Haydn seemed to have shared a close musical kinship and friendship. He wrote two of his best sonatas (this, and Hob. XVI: 50) for her, as well as three stunning piano trios (Hob. XV: 27-29). He also wrote an “inside joke” piece for piano trio now nicknamed “Jacob’s Ladder” (Hob. XV: 31) that forced her violinist friend play increasingly higher on the fingerboard where he was known to play out of tune. He was also a witness at her wedding.


Clementi’s Sonata in G minor (Op. 34, No. 2) is a far cry from the little Sonatinas many of us played during our formative years at the piano. The first movement alone is a work of high drama, from its slow introduction to its fiery principal section that takes the theme of the introduction and runs with it. Like Haydn, Clementi makes constant use of a small rhtymic motives mined from the principal theme, which creates tight thematic cohesion. A surprise “Largo” in the middle of the fireworks turns the theme into an Italian opera aria before seamlessly going back into the Allegro in a stroke of compositional genius. The lyrical second movement seems idyllic, but there is tension under surface that eventually comes to the fore. The Finale is not just a brilliant showstopper pianistically, but a work of brilliant ingenuity. As in the first movement, small rhythmic and melodic fragments from the opening find their way into every section of the work, including a canon at the octave in the very remote key of B minor. His ability to get from B minor to G minor in just 28 bars feels akin to a deft emergency landing or a stunning magic trick.


Written eight years later, and well after some of his own masterful and innovative sonatas, Beethoven’s Variations on “God Save the King” (WoO 78) at first feel staid in comparison to the Clementi. The first two variations are beautiful but feel a bit academic; the third variation is a bit more playful, but the fourth feels cheeky with its constant jumping from the low end to the high end of the piano. The fifth variation is cast in a lyrically tragic and fully operatic C minor, but the sixth variation brings a military march, evoking a grand parade. The seventh and final variation changes time signature, a clue to audiences of the time that this would be the last variation in this improvisational journey. However, in a surprise move that a master improviser like Beethoven knew would shock, he goes off on a cadenza-like tangent that features the theme in a tragicomedic D minor before ending in a showy burst of fireworks. What started off feeling reined in and regal ends up feeling like a raucous party.


The fortepiano used in tonight’s performance (Maker’s number 3448) was built by John Broadwood & Son in London in 1806, and restored by historical keyboard restorer Dale Munschy in Somerville, MA in 2011. John Broadwood (1732-1812) was born in Scotland and was a furniture maker by trade. After inheriting the family business he decided to leave it all behind, walking roughly 400 miles to London where he ended up apprenticing with a Swiss harpsichord builder named Burkat Shudi. They became business partners, and Broadwood eventually took over the shop after Shudi’s death. He increasingly built more pianos, but built harpsichords as well until 1793, exporting them around the globe. His many innovations and patents are almost too numerous to list here. He patented the piano pedal in 1783, and tonight’s piano features another pedal innovation that creates a “split damping” system. This feature was first introduced in 1806, making the piano you hear tonight one of the first grand pianos Broadwood built with this system. It allows the player to undamp either the treble or the bass independently while leaving the other side damped. The pedal on the right lifts the treble dampers from Middle C up, and the middle pedal lifts them from Middle B down. In order to “undamp” the whole piano, one must depress these two pedals at once. Later models revised this system so that a single pedal on the right is split in half, which allows for easier undamping of the whole piano, but still leaves the option for “split damping.” The pedal on the far left shifts the action to the right to provide options for both una and due corda - one string or two strings. The compass is five and a half octaves, FF-c4. This piano was featured in Ernest Closson's History of the Piano, first published in 1944. Dale Munschy is extremely fortunate to own this living piece of history. In 2013 Sylvia Berry made a critically acclaimed recording of Haydn’s “London Sonatas” on this piano, which was released on the Acis label.