Pianos have also seemed magical to me. I grew up with a baby grand in our living room, its three wheeled feet resting on a goldenrod shag carpet that was all the rage in the 1970s. I would lie underneath sometimes, listening to my father play Beethoven and Mozart and Schubert. All I could see were his feet in Hush Puppy shoes, black socks, and the bottom of his JC Penney blue jeans; his right shoe moved among the three brass pedals.
As the presence of both black and white keys suggests, the piano dissolves a range of distinctions. A piano is both a percussion and a string instrument, and to play it one uses both feet and hands. A piano reaches across a range of almost seven octaves, permits the playing of multiple notes simultaneously, and accommodates a range of volumes. The low notes make my chest vibrate, and the high ones sing in my ear.
What follows is a brief history of the piano, and some portraits of Victorian women pianists and composers. Regrettably, many of these brilliant pianists have been historically overlooked, but in my heroine Nell Hallam, I incorporated some bits of their stories.
I. A brief history of pianos
The invention of the piano is credited to the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofi (1655-1731), born in Padua and later employed in Florence as the Keeper of the Instruments for Ferdinando de Medici. Cristofi was originally a harpsichord maker, but harpsichords do not permit a range of volumes; the modifications Cristofi made enabled players to achieve different volumes with changing pressure on the keys, and his new instrument was called “gravicembalo col piano e forte”—that is, “a harpsichord that plays soft and loud.” (You see where “piano” comes from.) Although Cristofi’s wooden frames were not capable of sustaining the string tension that would give later pianos, which had metal frames, a more resonant tone, by 1726, Cristofi had developed the key’s piano action that has remained largely unmodified up to the present day.
The modern piano usually has eighty-eight keys; for each, the action is the same. The pianist presses the front of the key, which lifts the back of the key, which causes a hammer to strike against the two or three strings that correspond to the note. Simultaneously, a damper is lifted from those strings, allowing them to vibrate. The modern piano has three pedals: from left to right, the soft pedal (or una corda) which softens a note; the sostenuto pedal, which holds one note only, allowing it to be held through succeeding notes; and the sustaining pedal (or damper pedal) which holds all notes played until its release.
Beginning in the 19th century, piano manufacture was centered in the large cities in the US (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago), in Ontario, and in cities all over Europe. From around 1810, London had its share of piano manufacturers, eventually including Allen Brook, Brinsmead, Broadwood and Sons (this is the type of instrument that Nell has at home), Challen, Chappell, and Wornum. Paris was a significant site of manufacture and invention; there, in 1806, Petzold established his workshops, which were later directed by Jean-Henri Pape (born Johann Heinrich Pape, in Sarstedt, Germany) who, in 1815, opened his own Paris workshops and continually worked to improve the design of square and grand pianos, particularly the action of the hammers. The piano that Nell plays at the music hall is a Pleyel. Ignace (also Ignaz) Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831), an Austrian-born French piano builder and composer, studied with Joseph Haydn. He and his son Camille formed a company, Pleyel et Cie, that produced pianos for Chopin, and ran a concert hall Salle Pleyel, where Chopin performed his first Paris concert.
Pianos were also made in cities all over Germany, by Christian Baumann in Zweibrucken (est. 1740); Alexander Herrmann in Sangerhausen (established 1803); and August Förster in Löbau (est. 1859), among others. The German piano maker most familiar to many of us is Henry Steinway (born Heinrich Steinweg; 1797-1871) who was by turns an orphan, a soldier, carpenter, apprentice to an organ builder, and an organist. He built guitars, zithers, and finally a square piano in 1835, eventually manufacturing 482 pianos out of his house in Seesen before emigrating to America in 1850 and setting up his first shop on Varick Street in Manhattan. Later, in the 1860s, he opened a much larger workshop at Park Avenue and 52nd Street. Other 19th-century European manufacturers included Schweighofer in Vienna (est. 1792); Muir, Wood and Co in Edinburgh (est. 1798); and Hornung & Moller in Copenhagen (est. 1827).
By the 1870s, when my novel is set, many different manufacturers in Continental Europe and England were making different kinds of pianos. Most were constructed of wood of various kinds, including rich and rare materials such as rosewood and mahogany, but they could also be painted, or covered in ivory, or black lacquered, like the one on the cover of A Dangerous Duet.
II. Women Pianists of the 1800s
There are hundreds of women pianists and composers in Europe and England, beginning with Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), a German Benedictine abbess, writer, and composer. Here, I give a brief history of four women pianists in Victorian England, three of whom it is likely that someone like Nell Hallam might have seen perform or would at least admire. Researching these women allowed me to assemble Nell’s story, as I discovered what might have been logical for her. One aspect that I avoided, however, for Nell, was that many women pianists curtailed or gave up their musical career altogether because of the demands of marriage and motherhood. (I know it was a different era, but every time I saw that, it made me want to scowl.) It surprised me that some of these women became involved with or married men significantly older than they were; and I found it interesting that Schumann and Goddard both were among the first pianists to perform pieces from memory.
One of the earliest women pianists I found in my research was Fanny (Frances) Dickens, Charles Dickens’s older sister, born in 1810. She attended the Royal Academy to study piano with Ignaz Moscheles, who had studied with Beethoven himself. (See the photograph of the page showing both her name and that of her sponsor, Thomas Tomkison, in the roster for the Royal Academy of Music in London, which I visited some years ago. Her name appears fourth from the bottom: Dickens, Frances Elizabeth.) Her tuition was costly—thirty-eight guineas per year—which the Dickens family could ill afford, partly because their father was a spendthrift who enjoyed fine clothing and expensive books, and the strain placed by Fanny’s tuition effectively prevented Charles from receiving an education. (He always insisted he wasn’t jealous, but some of his letters suggest otherwise.) In 1824, Fanny performed for Princess Augusta, the sister of King George IV; but her growing success was cut short in 1827 because her father was in debt yet again. Her tuition had not been paid in months and she was forced to leave. However, she had been such an excellent student that she was later allowed to pay for her studies by part-time teaching; she was paid seven shillings for two hours, three times a week. Self-reliant, energetic, and a talented singer as well as pianist, she was awarded an associate honorary membership at the Academy in 1834. In 1837 she married a fellow musician, Henry Burnett; they moved to Manchester, where she gave birth to her first son, Harry and gave up her musical career. (Harry, who was sickly, provided Charles Dickens with the model for Paul Dombey and Tiny Tim.) Fanny gave birth to a second son, Charles, who was healthy; but Fanny became ill with tuberculosis (known as consumption at the time) and the family returned to London to seek medical care for her. She died on September 2, 1848; her son Harry died soon after, and they are both buried at Highgate Cemetary.
Marie Pleyel née Marie-Félicité-Denise Moke (1811-75) was a Belgian concert pianist. The daughter of a language teacher and a lingerie shopkeeper, she was trilingual and gave her first concert at age eight, astounding people with her talent. She studied with Henri Herz, Moscheles and Kalkbrenner. A beautiful woman, she is said to have driven the composer Berlioz to distraction in the 1830s; she conducted a brief affair with Neville; and she was married briefly to Camille Pleyel, the piano manufacturer. Her concert career survived all these relationships, lasting nearly 40 years, during which she toured with extraordinary success through Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Russia, and England. Near the end of her career, in the 1870s, the music critic François-Joseph Fétis wrote, “I have heard all the celebrated pianists from Hullmandel and Clementi up to the famous ones of today but I say that none of them has given me, as has Mme. Pleyel, the feeling of perfection.”
Some of her contemporary critics, though, often made reference to her beauty; and history has not treated her kindly. As I found myself reading some rather spiteful reviews, I found myself wondering if the fact that she drew comparisons to Liszt make critics long to take her down a peg or two.
Pleyel died in 1875.
German musician and composer Clara Schumann (1819-1896) was born Clara Josephine Wieck in Germany to two musical parents. Her mother, Marianne (born Tromlitz) was a famous singer; her father Friedrich had studied theology, but later he taught piano, sold musical instruments, and developed a music lending library. Her parents divorced when she was five, and Clara and her four brothers stayed with her father in Leipzig. Controlling and ambitious for his brilliant daughter, Friedrich dictated the shape of Clara’s days and prescribed lessons in piano, violin, singing, theory, composition, and counterpoint. At age eight, Clara gave her first public performance, where she met another musician, Robert Schumann, nine years her senior. At eleven, Clara went on tour to Paris, Weimar, and Vienna, performing to great acclaim. At age twenty, she married Robert Schumann, against her father’s wishes, and after a prolonged court battle. Because of a self-inflicted injury to his hand, Robert would not perform his works in public; so Clara did it for him. She composed her own pieces as well as playing those of eighteenth-century composers. Together, she and Robert mentored and encouraged Joseph Joachim, the violinist and the young pianist Johann Brahms. In 1854, Robert attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine; he was pulled out by some fishermen, but he was placed in an asylum; Clara only saw him again right before his death in 1856. In 1854, she went to London where she was invited to perform with the London Philharmonic by the conductor William Bennett, who was later the Principal at the Royal Academy of Music (at the time when my fictional Mr. Bertault tunes pianos). Her concert career spanned sixty-one years and revolutionized the way concerts were conceived and played; she was one of the first to play pieces by memory, which set a new standard for pianists. As her husband noted, her duties as wife and mother to eight children (four of whom died before she did) limited the time she could spend on composing; still, she managed to write songs, concertos, and a march. (The very thought that she did all of this while mothering eight children boggles my mind.) She was appointed teacher of piano at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt from 1878 until 1892, and she died after a stroke in 1896.
Nell’s idol, Arabella Goddard (1836–1922) was born in France to two English expats living in Brittany. When she was six years old, she was sent to study in Paris with Friedrich Kalkbrenner, who also taught Marie Pleyel. A child prodigy, Goddard played for the French Royal Family, Frédéric Chopin and the novelist George Sand. Goddard’s family returned to England, where Arabella studied with Lucy Anderson, Sigismond Thalberg, and the music critic James William Davison, whom she later married. She made her formal debut on 14 April 1853, with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier Sonata,” after which she left England to make a tour of Germany and Italy, where she was well received by critics and audiences alike.
Like Clara Schumann, Goddard was one of the first pianists to play recitals from memory. When Arabella Goddard returned to England, she gave concerts with the Philharmonic Society, at the Crystal Palace, and at the Monday “Popular Concerts” at St. James’s. In 1857 and 1858 she played all the late Beethoven sonatas in London, most of which were still complete novelties to her audiences, and many other works. In 1859 she married her mentor J. W. Davison. She was twenty-three, he forty-six. In 1871 she was in the first group of recipients of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
In 1873, she left England for a three-year tour, during which she played in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In June 1874, while returning to Queensland from Java, her ship was wrecked, and she had to spend a night in an open boat in torrential rain, with the French tightrope walker and acrobat Charles Blondin, who was also arriving for an Australian tour. (I would love to write a story about that!)
She composed several original piano pieces, including six waltzes and retired from performing in 1880. Three years later, when the Royal College of Music opened (not to be confused with the Royal Academy, which opened in 1822), Goddard was appointed a teacher. In an odd coincidence, like Fanny Dickens Burnett, Goddard gave birth to two sons named Henry and Charles; after they were born, she separated from her husband, who died in 1885. She died at Boulogne-sur-Mer on 6 April 1922, aged eighty-six.
Illustrations above, from left to right: Fanny Dickens, a composition by Clara Schumann, and Arabella Goddard.