Research, Restoration and Performance
There is an oft-repeated quote from Chopin regarding his attitude towards Pleyel and Erard pianos that goes, “When I am somewhat indisposed, I play an Erard piano and I easily find a sound ready to hand. But when I am in form and feel strong enough to find my own sound, I must have a Pleyel.”
The Friends of Chopin Australia see historic instruments and historically informed performance as an integral part of the understanding and appreciation of the music of Chopin. The Friends are fortunate to be associated with two such instruments, a Pleyel concert grand, and an Erard concert grand. The Pleyel dates from 1847, Chopin's own time, and the Erard dates from 1857.
The Pleyel was purchased by the Australian National University School of Music in 2011, after the first edition of the Australian International Chopin Piano Competition, for its historic keyboard collection. and after a legnthy ordeal took delivery in 2013. . In 2014, the Friends of Chopin Australia approached Professor Peter Tregear, then Head of the ANU School of Music, and Dr Erin Helyard, early music specialist and then curator of the ANU Historic Keyboard Collection, with an offer to financially support the maintenance and restoration, where necessary, of the Pleyel, to enable this instrument to engage the public with the music of Chopin. An offer which they gladly accepted, and which was to continue until 2017. The Pleyel was placed under the care of Canberra piano technician Chris Leslie who worked closely with Dr Helyard. Although the lineage of the piano is not known, it does date from Chopin’s own time, and so is an important historic link to the understanding and appreciation of Chopin’s music
The Erard was purchased by the current President of the Friends of Chopin Australia, Ben James, in 2014.
In beginning to trace the pianos provenance, some tantalising potential links to music in the early Australian colony and also, remarkably, to Chopin himself are emerging.
The piano is yielding enough marks so far to provide a skeleton of its history since manufacture. It bears the serial number 4900, which coincides with the numbering system for the factory in England, and it bears the year of manufacture on one of the whippens positively dating it to 1857. Curiously, the marks of the builders indicate that it may have been built in the Paris factory and sent to England as a blank, to be sold under the English factory name.
At some time between 1857 and 1875 it was sold to J Muir Wood and Co in Glasgow. We know this because J Muir Wood's mark is on the piano, and this seemingly prosaic mark is providing the piano with a link to Chopin — a tenuous link, but a link nonetheless. John Muir Wood was the son of piano manufacturer, Andrew Wood, and named after Andrew Wood’s business partner John Muir. John Muir Wood was a gifted pianist, and was for a time a student of Kalkbrenner (Chopin is quoted as wishing he could play like Kalkbrenner, and at one stage was considering becoming his pupil) and Czerny (tuition with Hummel had also been arranged but had fallen through). Muir Wood first met Chopin at the home of a mutual friend (the violinist Karol Lipinsky) in Frankfurt in 1836. It has been reported by Muir Wood’s descendants that they played duets together at this time. The next significant meeting was in 1848 in London where at the request of the London piano manufacturer James Broadwood, Muir Wood organised Chopin’s concerts in Scotland as part of his tour of England, and accompanied him on the train from London to Edinburgh. So, it looks likely that although the Erard was not played by Chopin, it is likely it was played by someone who had played with Chopin.
The next positive mark on the piano is that of tuner John Turner in Paddington (Sydney, Australia). John Turner was active in Paddington between 1875 and 1888. Somewhat beguilingly, the underside of the keyboard has the remnants of what looks like a bill of sale, and the two addresses that can be made out strongly suggest that it was from Palings and Co. This indicates that this piano may have been brought to Australia by Henry Paling in the 1870s, shortly before Palings and Co became the first and only authorised dealer for Erard in Australia. The piano then passes through the workshop of Leonard Hayden a piano and organ tuner in 110 Walker Street in North Sydney, some time before 1900. We then loose the piano for some 70 years until it surfaces in a second-hand shop in Wodonga in 1974, where it was purchased and brought to Canberra, where it spent the next 40 years in a living room in Deakin.
The piano belonged to Margie Heap, having been bought by her husband Graeme from that second-hand shop in Wodonga. Graeme quite liked the look of the piano and thought it might interest the kids in piano lessons. Although ultimately the children were not interested, it did enjoy the company of the family, if not their performance, for the next four decades until circumstances dictated they they needed to part ways. Margie's daughter Amanda approached Chris Leslie to assess the piano for possible sale. After reviewing the piano, Chris contacted Ben to let him know, and after a joint inspection to make an initial determination of restorability, and passing Margie's character test to determine it was going to a good home, an agreement was struck between Ben and Margie.
Although externally the piano was in a bad state of disrepair, the soundboard and pinboard were in excellent condition, and incredibly, the strings and hammer felts were all original. The hammers themselves were all functional and in good condition, and about 90% of the felts were in good order, with the remainder ranging from minor damage to non-existent. The other significant problems were the damper springs and felts, and the pedal mechanism.
The initial work on the Erard was under the care of Chris Leslie. At the time of acquisition, Ben also made contact with Grzegorz Machnacki of in Melbourne. Grzegorz was formerly employed by the National Institute of Fryderyk Chopin, the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, and the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw, and his own restoration of an 1855 Erard is currently in the Chopin Museum in Warsaw and is regularly used for live performances, including most recently in the 1st International Chopin Competition on Historic Instruments. Grzegorz was very interested in the Friends’ Erard and travelled to Canberra on 17 March 2015 to take a closer look.
So far, work carried out on the Erard has been replacing damper felts and damper springs, repairing the pedal mechanism, and an initial tuning.