I’d like to take this opportunity to wish Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II a very Happy Platinum Jubilee. Whether or not you follow the Royal Family, the Queen’s achievement is nothing short of extraordinary. I have enjoyed observing many of this weekend’s events, and, as I live in Windsor, have been able to feel a part of these memorable celebrations.
The Queen, as one might expect, owns a fairly extensive collection of pianos. I’ve been teaching at Windsor Castle for the past few months and can attest to the large variety of instruments it houses. However, there are two notable ‘royal’ pianos which stick prominently in my mind, and, perhaps, in the minds of those who admire historic instruments; the gold-cased beauty housed at Buckingham Palace in London and the equally impressive piano at Osborne House, which is situated on the Isle of Wight. Their background is indeed interesting.
Buckingham Palace and Obsorne House were both favourites residencies of another much-loved Monarch, Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901). Queen Victoria, and her husband, Prince Albert, were keen pianists, who apparently liked to play through piano duet arrangements of overtures and symphonies together. Composer Felix Mendelssohn was a regular guest at Buckingham Palace, even arranging four-handed versions of some of his famous Song Without Words, a collection of short lyrical piano pieces, for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Mendelssohn was Queen Victoria’s favourite composer.
Both instruments were built for Queen Victoria by the renowned French company Érard, which was founded by Sébastien Érard (1752-1831). Trained in Strasbourg, Érard moved to Paris in 1768 and began making pianos for the French nobility. Royal commissions from Marie-Antoinette (Queen of France) helped his business flourish, although it suffered during the French Revolution. A London outlet was opened in 1790/1, which concentrated on the production of harps.
Sébastien is famous for making a great number of technical improvements and inventions and took out between fifteen and twenty patents in England alone. After his death, his brother’s son Pierre (1794-1855) took over the business in Paris and London, winning a gold medal at the 1824 Paris Exposition and later becoming piano maker for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Many illustrious pianists were fond of Érard instruments, including Mendelssohn, Chopin, Moscheles, Paderewski, Wagner, and Liszt, to name a few. Chopin purportedly described the Érard piano as “the last word in perfection”. Franz Liszt is said to have played a six-octave Érard piano in Paris in 1824, and Érard then put him under contract from about this time until 1825, so when he toured England they sponsored him and he played their instruments.
The piano at Osborne House (pictured above), placed in the Queen’s Drawing Room, was built in 1849 especially for Prince Albert and it is said that he designed the elaborate case himself. Consisting of tulipwood-veneered case; corners and legs with mounted porcelain plaques painted with floral borders. Nine Berlin porcelain plaques, after Old Master paintings, are mounted in gilt bronze on the case.
A few years later, Érard built another new piano for Victoria and Albert in 1856. At the cutting edge of piano design, the instrument for Queen Victoria incorporated a recent invention by Sébastien Érard which he called the double escapement action. This invention allowed for rapid repetition of a single key; a feature which paved the way for more virtuosic performances by solo pianists. You can see and hear this particular instrument played by pianist Sir Stephen Hough at a BBC Prom concert in August 2019, where he performs Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2:
In addition to revolutionary technology, the new piano was also a vessel for tradition, and the gilded case was apparently requested by Queen Victoria. The casing features motifs of cherubs and monkeys playing musical instruments, and was enlarged in order to encase the slightly bigger new piano. This piano is now kept at Buckingham Palace, and you can find out more about it from this fascinating short film linked below:
These priceless historic instruments demonstrate the value attached to music and the arts by previous royal generations. We can only hope that Queen Elizabeth II, who plays the piano, has spent some time relishing them too.
Find out more about the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, here.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
For more information, please visit the publications page, here.