A History of Sebastian Erard, Piano and Harp Maker

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Erard, Piano and Harp Maker

Sebastian Erard was born in Strasbourg on 5th April 1752, and his name was originally spelled Erhard. He moved to Paris in 1768 and worked for an unknown harpsichord maker.Erard wanted to explore the fundamentals of instrument making, and it soon became apparent that he was a genius at finding ways around mechanical problems, a skill which came to the attention of the Abbe Roussier. His success as an instrument maker caused envy among his rivals who accused him of working outside the corporation without a licence. Louis XVI protected him and granted him a licence on his own authority. In 1777 Erard made his first square piano; it was probably a copy of an English Zumpe piano. A portrait of Erard was shown at the International Inventions Exhibition of 1885. Once his reputation was established, Erard persuaded his brother-in-law to join him in Paris. Their first pianos were squares with bichords throughout, and a five-octave compass. Erard made a combination of piano and organ with two keyboards for Marie Antoinette.

The revolution of 1789 destroyed his business in Paris and in 1792 he opened a factory in Great Marlborough Street, London. Apparently he left his brother Jean-Baptiste to carry on the French branch. According to the London Post Office Directory, he opened an English branch as early as 1786, at 18 Great Marlborough Street, London. However, this may have been just for selling instruments at first. In 1902 they moved to 189 Regent Street, and then in 1904 to 158a New Bond Street, London.

According to popular belief, Sebastian returned to Paris in 1796, leaving his nephew Pierre to carry on the London firm. This cannot be correct, however, as Pierre was not born until 1796. He died in 1855. Sebastian appears to have come back to London in 1801, as he took out a patent in England (number 2502) on 16th May 1801, for an improvement on the piano action. However, the bulk of this patent submission is taken up mainly with the harp. This represented some of the groundwork for his double-action harp.

The harp seemed to be more important to him than the piano. If you look at most of the patent registrations from Sebastian, the harp comes first and the piano is just added on in the patent submission. There are exceptions to this in the cases when he took out patents for musical instruments only. On the covers of the submissions it says pianoforte and harp. Yet, when one reads the contents of any of these the harp is given preference over the piano. Perhaps this should not be so suprising, since Sebastian sold £25,000.00 worth of harps in the first year of the release of the new double-action harp.

Finally, in June 1810, after eight years of working on it, Sebastian Erard patented the double-action harp with seven pedals (number 3332). This is regarded by most people as the date of the invention of the concert harp. The instrument had one pedal for each note. Each pedal had three positions or two notches, which raised the pitch of the note by a semitone for one notch, or a tone for both notches, by moving the top bridges to shorten the speaking length of the strings. This harp could be considered more versatile than the piano, since with the use of the pedals a player could get 21 pitches to the octave, while with the piano 12 was the limit. It is reported that Erard did not undress for three months before his harp was finished, snatching meals with pencil in hand and sleeping for an hour now and again. The concert harp of today basically maintains his design, as does the roller action for grands. He also had an eighth pedal for opening the back of the sound box, to work as a swell. At this time the harp was almost as popular in the home as the piano, and Erard made large numbers of both. He was also regarded as a master organ repairer.

Erard was the first maker in Paris to fit pedals on the piano, and his instrument, like other continental pianos, had several pedals. There was the usual sustaining pedal, an action shift, a celeste, and a bassoon pedal, the latter putting leather against the strings to make them buzz. A knee lever moved the action further than the action-shift pedal, making the hammers strike only one string.

According to various sources he patented a piano in the shape of a secretaire, with two soundboards, one above the other. He also invented a transposing piano, with a wooden cylindrical soundboard moved by four rollers, so that the strings of the higher or lower notes were struck by the same hammers. This patent must have been in France.

In France, Sebastian Erard patented an improved version of his double-escapement action, while his nephew Pierre took out a patent for the same action in London (number 4631, dated 22 December 1821). This was also the first patent that Pierre took out. Pierre took out nine patents in England, as follows:

Erard Patents in England

Name: Number: Date: Description:
ERARD PIERRE 8631 22nd Dec 1821 Pianofortes and other keyed instruments.
ERARD PIERRE 4670 24th April 1822 Harp.
ERARD PIERRE 5065 5th Jan. 1825 Pianofortes.
ERARD PIERRE 5468 20th Feb. 1827 Construction of pianofortes.
ERARD PIERRE 6962 18th Dec. 1835 Harps.
ERARD PIERRE 6971 31st Dec. 1835 Pianofortes and other keyed instruments.
ERARD PIERRE 8643 24th Sept. 1840 Pianofortes.
ERARD PIERRE 13,252 12th Sept. 1850 Construction of pianofortes.
ERARD PIERRE 13,816 15th Nov. 1851 Pianofortes.

At the same time, Sebastian took out only six patents in England:

ERARD SEBASTIAN 2016 17th Oct. 1794 Construction of harps and pianofortes.
ERARD SEBASTIAN 2502 16th May 1801 Construction of harps and pianofortes.
ERARD SEBASTIAN 2595 29th March l802 Construction of the harp.
ERARD SEBASTIAN 3170 24th Sept. 1808 Pianofortes and harps.
ERARD SEBASTIAN 3332 2nd May 1810 Pianofortes and harps.
ERARD SEBASTIAN 3835 4th Aug. 1814 Musical instruments.

Erard patents registered in France:

ERARD 975 1809 For the agraffe.
ERARD 1332 1812 Octave couplers, hammer heads.
ERARD 1334 1812 Springs for strings.
ERARD 3512 1822 Action.
ERARD 3345 1821 Duoclav, a double piano.
ERARD SEBASTIAN 5086 1826 Sordino.
ERARD PIERRE 9572 1838 Pressure bar.
ERARD PIERRE 12340 1843 Action.

In 1840, under patent number 8643, plate number nine, he describes his patent for the front bat pin with a key bushing. This is a simple component, now standard on all pianos today, that is great for minimizing wear on the key bushing. It was little things like this that the Erards were so good at. Not only did they want to improve the sound and flexibility of the action and piano, they tried to make the tuner's life easier.

Pierre made some other modifications to the piano, to make life easier for those who worked on them. However, not all were taken up for very long. Patent number 13,816, from 1851, shows some of Pierre's work, this one being for a tuning device.

"Figures 3 and 4 show a plan and section of a new screw apparatus for tuning the wires of a grand piano. In Figure 4 the tuning end of the string (a) is represented as passing through a groove or hole, and coming out at (b), then turning round the stem of a screw (c), and also round the stem of the screw (d). These two screws (c) and (d), by the pressure of their beads, keep the wire down tight upon the surface of the metal slides (g) in the guides or sockets (h), and passing under a bridge or rest (i). Behind each of the slides (g) is a screw (j) abutting with a shoulder (k) against a metal standard (i), forming part of the socket (h). The screws (j) may be turned with a key fitting on their square heads, shown in the end view, Figure 5. These said screws (j), by screwing up into the sliders (g), draw them under the bridge (i) towards the standard (i), and tune up the string to the proper pitch. By a contrary motion of the screws the wires can be slackened at pleasure."

(Drawings to follow later.)

This is all he had to say on the matter. Personally I have not come across one of these tuning devices yet. On the same paper he went on to describe his new flange for grands. It is like the Billings flange we all love to work on, but instead of brass it is made of wood.

"Figures 6 and 7 show a plan and a side view of a newly invented hammer butt for Erard's Patent Action, with the improvement of a regulating screw (m) to every separate hammer centre. This arrangement is of great importance, inasmuch as it admits of every separate hammer centre being regulated with the requisite degree of tightness, one screw only being required for each butt. Another advantage in these improved hammer centres is that they may be left very free when finishing the instrument. This greatly facilitates producing a light touch. The screws (m) are also useful to tighten the hammers should they become too free from the effects of a warm atmosphere, or to loosen them should they become too tight from the effects of a moist atmosphere. At (n) is shown a slit in the butt in which the pin (o) is inserted at the end, and this is of sufficient size to give the slit (n) a tendency to open."

(Drawings to follow.)

And finally, the bulk of this patent was taken up by his improvement to the bridge. I have see a similar device on Broadwood pianos. On this submission he is not modest about their pianos:

NOW KNOW YE, that in compliance with the said proviso, I, the said Pierre Erard, do hereby declare that the nature of my said Invention, and the manner in which the same is to be performed, are fully described and ascertained in and by the following statement thereof, reference being had to the Drawing hereunto attached, and to the figures and letters marked thereon, that is to say: -

The comparison made in regard to pianofortes of all nations at the Great Exhibition has established more fully than ever the reputation and superiority of my pianofortes over those of the old principle. My original repetition action, my new proportions in stringing the instruments, and the more solid construction of the frame have rendered the modern pianofortes so perfect as to leave nothing to be wished for in mechanical action, tone, and durability. There is, however, one point which, in my mind, may leave room for improvement; that is, the pressure of the wires on the sounding board. It has been hitherto a general practice in pianoforte making to lay the strings or wires on the bridge of the sounding board with a pressure tending to press away the sound board, and it follows, that in course of time, the power of resistance which the sounding board is capable of opposing to that pressure of the wires upon it becomes lessened, and its power to produce free and pure vibrations reduced. These alterations from the original construction obviously prove injurious to the vibrations of the sounding board, and consequently tend to alter the quality of the tone of the instrument. In order to remedy such defect, I adopt a different principle of laying the wires on or against the sounding board, such principle consisting in making some of the wires or strings to press with a tendency to force the bridge in one direction, and an equal number of others to force the bridge in an opposite direction. And I would here state, that I am aware that it has before been proposed to have wires on either side of the bridge, with a view to counteract or balance the pressure on either side of the bridge; but such plan, in addition in some cases having a double quantity of strings or wires, has other objections, and I consider the plan of construction employed hitherto is inefficient. An explanation of such former mode is shown by the Diagram No. 1, the strings being in two planes (b) (a), (b) (c). The Diagram No. 2 shows the principle of my improved plan, in which all the strings between the points of vibration (b) and (a) being in one plane, the mechanical arrangements for adjusting the pressure of the wires towards and away from the sounding board according to my invention may be varied.

Figure 1 shows a plan view of strings (a) belonging to four notes in the sixth octave of a grand pianoforte. At (d) are metal studs (originally patented by me) through which the strings pass to be fixed on the wrest plank. Instead of applying pins so arranged or fixed into the bridge on the sounding board as to cause the strings to be bent sideways, as shown in Figures 3 and 4, I so apply studs (f), (e), (c), or suitable instruments, that the wires shall be bent in a direction to and from the bridge, so that in drawing them tight to tune them they shall exert their force partly to draw the bridge, and consequently the sound board, towards the strings, and partly to force the bridge, and consequently the sound board, away from the strings, and so as to keep the vibrating parts of the strings (c), (d), in one plane. The middle stud (e) on the bridge stands higher or lower than the front one (c) and back one (f) and serves to give to the string passing through the perforated holes in these studs a bent or an angular direction, either towards or away from the bridge, as maybe required to adjust or equalise the pressure of the strings on the bridge of the sounding board. The stud (f) is kept on a level with the one (c), so as to give to the string the due tension on the bridge, and insure a pure intonation when the string is put in vibration. These respective positions of the studs and of the 20 wires on the bridge will be more readily understood by reference to Figure 2, representing two sections taken through Figure 1 at the dotted lines 1, 1, and 2, 2, respectively. In order to adjust or equalise the pressure of the wires on or against the bridge of the sounding board, the bends or angles of the three wires of one note are caused to be towards the bridge. (See section taken at 2,2.) whilst in the next note the bands or angles of the wires are caused to be away from the bridge. (See section taken at 1, 1.) The studs may be fixed into the same board by screws or otherwise, and they may be formed as shown, or in any convenient manner, so long as the construction is such that each string or wire may be bent in a direction towards or from the bridge and sound board, and so as to admit of the vibrating parts of the strings to be in the same plane. And I would remark, that although the drawing shows the invention applied only to part of a grand pianoforte, a workman, from the above description, will readily apply the improvements to other construction of pianofortes."

Franz Liszt is said to have played a six-octave Erard piano in Paris in 1824. Erard put him under contract from about this time until 1825, so when he toured England they sponsored him and he played their pianos. (A common practice then and one which still goes on today.) Their grands in 1824 cost 3000 francs, but the price went down 10 years later to 2500 francs. They went up in 1843 from 3000 until they were 3500 francs in 1852, by which time the seven-octave piano was quite common.

In June of 1825 Pierre Erard showed the new action to the pianist Moscheles. Also in that year Pierre obtained in England on the 5th January a patent number 5065 for fixing iron bars to the wooden braces by means of bolts, passing through holes in the soundboard, which is still the method used for fixing the iron frame. Controversy was to arise between Erard and Broadwood as to who first came up with the idea. Also in this submission were improvements to the wrest plank (or tuning pin block) and action. Rarely did piano makers submit just one patent on a submission, probably because of the cost involved. In 1875 it was £0. 1s. 6d. Erard, unlike Brinsmead, produced full-sized scale drawings with his patents.

Stodart, on the 10 May 1851, sent a letter to The Times promoting their patent of 1820 for metal 'compensation' frames composed of plates and tubular braces. This was to increase stability during changes in humidity. The tension of the brass strings was borne by brass tubes and that of the iron strings by iron tubes. Stodart fitted his bars to most of his pianos, and Pierre Erard obtained a related French patent in 1822, but made few instruments with this device. Stodart's successful use of it was due mostly to the greater strength of his tubular bars. Stodart abandoned this by 1860.

Because of the revolution the organ at the Tuilleries in France was destroyed, and in 1830 Sebastian Erard was appointed to restore it, but he was unable to complete the restoration, as he died in August 1831. In 1835 Pierre Erard was petitioning the Privy Council, claiming that in England "certain unfounded notions were circulated to their disadvantage." During the court of inquiry he claimed that Erard's pianos "had a great deal more strength and power than any other instrument and great effect in accompanying the voice."

Three years later Pierre used a metal bridge with holes through which the upper strings passed. In 1839 trouble arose when Erard discovered Broadwood making pianos with studs, which was Erard's invention of 1808. At the exhibition of 1851 the Gold Medal went to Erard. Four years later Erard, with 425 men, turned out 1500 pianos. Their London branch stopped trading in Great Portland Street in 1890, but a hall bearing the firm's name survived until modern times. From 1903 to 1953 the firm traded as Blondelet Cie. In 1960 Erard merged with Gaveau. The two great French firms of Erard and Pleyel amalgamated in 1961. Yet, just years earlier, Erard and Pleyel were trying to outdo each other with a duel of the harps, much to the delight of the concert-going public of the day. Pleyel commissioned Debussy and Erard commissioned Ravel. Sadly, it seems they were wound up in 1971. In late 1971 the name Erard was taken over by the West German maker Schimmel.

Dating Erard pianos

In most piano books the serial numbers shown are for the French pianos. Below are some numbers for pianos made in England, courtesy of Bill Kibby, Piano Gen.

1850  1,100
1855  3,200
1860   7,000
1865  8,900
1870  12,200
1875   14,900
1880    16,300

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