Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano by Madeline Goold

Many of you know that I do book reviews mostly children's books and some fiction on my other blogs besides teach piano.

I have always loved children's books especially ones that include music whether it's CDs or just posting melody notes in the book such as "The Ants Go Marching One By One"! lol

Today's blog post is going to be a bit different because I discovered an article online by Alexandra Mullen called Discovering the Keys to a Musical Past. Are you familiar with the book "Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano" by Madeline Goold? Here is this great and very informative article in its entirety:

Alexandra Mullen reviews Madeline Goold's Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution.

"Madeline Goold is a British sculptor who trained as a lawyer. She has also played the piano since childhood—and it was this avocation that sparked her interest, a few years ago, to look into buying a historical instrument. In her search, she heard about "square pianos," early-19th-century instruments that were produced during the transition from harpsichords to modern pianos. She had wondered about this musical curiosity but had never seen one. Then, idly surveying the listings for an antique auction one day, she saw this entry: "Two Square Pianos."

At the auction house, Ms. Goold was disheartened to find that the first lot was a large rectangular wooden box that had been gutted and converted into a chicken coop. Then she stumbled across a "dusty coffin" about six feet long. She was able to lift the lid a few inches, enough to catch sight of a small keyboard. She reached in and pressed a key. Nothing. Then another: "This time a muffled, sour little note came out. It was the oldest voice I had ever heard." It was also a coup de foudre, a love out of the blue that changed her life.

As she recounts in "Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano," thanks to that dusty discovery Ms. Goold became a detective-resurrectionist, giving the silent keys new life. She arranged for the piano's bodily restoration, but—more important—she also embarked on a mission to find the piano's history. The piano had a maker: Broadwood, the most famous and long-lived English piano-manufacturer. The instrument had a date: 1807. Also: a number that she could look up in Broadwood's ledgers, which had been moved out of London for safekeeping during World War II. In the dispatch records for 1807, she found what she was looking for: Broadwood square piano no. 10651 was taken by canal from London, north to Lancaster, and delivered to Mr. J. Langshaw, organist.

Uncovering these basic facts led Ms. Goold to a wealth of fascinating stories and characters. I suspect that many readers will be pleased, for starters, just to make the acquaintance of the square piano itself. As her description of its coffin-like shape suggests, the instrument was actually rectangular—definitely not the harp-like shape of the harpsichord or the modern grand piano. Square pianos work on a simple lever system: Depressing the key raises its other end, which strikes the underside of metal strings. (The innards of a modern piano have been compared to a Rube Goldberg contraption: The pivot point of the lever has been subdivided into the wippen, jack, repetition lever, knuckle, hammer shank, underlever, let-off button, drop screw, repetition spring, and backcheck.) With a square piano, the pianist can communicate shades of feeling directly from the fingers to the strings. The instruments, according to Ms. Goold, have a "light, bell-like tone."

Composers and performers were captivated by the square piano, and in the 18th century it changed the way music was written and performed. Pinning down the co-evolution of music and instrument presents a chicken-and-egg problem, but I think Ms. Goold is right that "by the time Beethoven was writing his revolutionary keyboard sonatas at the end of the century it was he, the composer, who was pushing the inventiveness of piano makers rather than simply responding to the possibilities they offered."

In 1761 a young Scottish furniture maker named John Broadwood moved to London and, as Ms. Goold relates, joined up with a renowned Swiss √©migr√© harpsichord maker named Burkat Shudi. The Shudi reputation for quality only grew with Broadwood's contributions— in 1765, a 9-year-old wunderkind named Mozart played a Shudi during a visit to London. Broadwood eventually married Shudi's daughter, took over the business and began making the square pianos that were coming into vogue on the Continent. He sent one to Beethoven, who was then inspired to write the Hammer klavier sonata.

Broadwood produced square pianos in handsome cases for the drawing rooms of Georgian London, but the manufacturer also built more modest instruments for ordinary people in the provinces. As Ms. Goold says: "Prince and country girl were essentially playing the same instrument." Soon, and for the next two centuries, the piano would be given pride of place in countless households as a sign of a family's prosperity and culture.

In the novel "Emma," Jane Austen sends her scallywag lover, Frank Churchill, to arrange the anonymous delivery of a Broadwood square piano to the poor but refined Jane Fairfax. Churchill, typically in too much of a hurry, goes to London rather than follow the custom of ordering the instrument through a local music master acting as an agent—a music master like the real-life John Langshaw.

As Ms. Goold discovers, Langshaw was a church organist in a country town, which meant he supported his large family by playing the organ at services, rehearsing the choir, teaching piano lessons and composing. (His greatest hit was based on a popular poem of the day, "Dear Boy, Throw That Icicle Down.") Langshaw's annual church salary in the late 18th century was only £100, "this at a time," Ms. Goold notes, "when Mrs. Muttlebury, the royal wet nurse, was paid £200 and a £100 annual pension for life." Langshaw added to his income by getting commissions from Broadwood for selling their pianos. The relationship lasted for almost 50 years.

One of the strengths of Ms. Goold's fine book is showing us how the presence of pianos expanded and deepened the cultural life of Langshaw's circle—and similar circles wherever Broadwoods were imported, from Copenhagen to Madras. The author has a gift for gathering charming and peculiar historical details, from the niceties of producing ornate copperplate handwriting to the trained bear who guarded Broadwood's premises.

"Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano" handsomely brings to life people like John Langshaw, who have been forgotten by history, but the book also features several star turns, including one from Thomas Jefferson, who visited the Broadwood offices in 1785 to discuss musical instruments. The Wesley clan, its members famous for preaching and composing, figures prominently in the story after Langshaw, at age 15, studied music with Charles Wesley and began a lifelong family friendship. Ms. Goold's researches take her from graveyards in Lancashire to archives at Emory University in Atlanta, and her narrative touches on the American and French revolutions, the British diaspora in India and Australia, and the Victorian-era Age of Mahogany. But no matter how far afield the author's interests take her, she maintains her focus on one culture-changing development that has only in recent decades lost is force: the piano in the parlor.

A striking aspect of "Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano" is the sense of how the sounds of the past can be heard today in the instruments made two centuries ago by the craftsmen of Broadwood (a company, by the way, that's still in business— though its pianos are now made in Norway). We can also still hear the hand of John Langshaw. One of his many musical skills was the crafting of barrel organs—giant music boxes, really, with rotating metal barrels pierced by nails to signal which tone should sound, whether a single note or four-part harmony. Although the tune is mechanically generated, the taste and judgment of the maker are permanently recorded. Ms. Goold found one of Langshaw's barrel organs. "When it plays 'See the Conquering Hero Comes' it is probably as authentic a Handelian sound as one can hear. Few people then or now, armed only with hammer, nails and pliers, could produce music so delightful, so enchanting." Ms. Goold has herself produced an enchanting work."
—Ms. Mullen writes for The New Criterion and the B&N Review.

Whether your piano is Grand, Upright or Square, I hope you enjoy playing on yours each and everyday. I know I am so very thankful for my piano and keyboard, too!

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers. I appreciate you stopping by!

Warmest Regards,
~ D.

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