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MMD > Archives > November 1999 > 1999.11.29 > 11Prev  Next

Square Pianos
By D. L. Bullock

I would like to take mild exception to some things said about square
pianos by Hal Davis.  No, I am not incensed; I am used to folks
perpetuating these ideas.  The main problem with square pianos is they
are ALL more than 110 years old, and most of them have not been tuned
or kept well for over 50 years.

There are two distinct kinds of square piano.  The very early historic
square piano may have a pedestal leg in the middle, or six or eight
legs, or just the usual four.  You have probably not seen such an
instrument.  There is also the square grand which is notable for its
cast iron plate and hulking size.  These were usually 80 to 85 inches
long, while the earlier pianos were much smaller.

The older original square piano descended from the clavichord,
virginal, and spinet, all of which were rectangular in shape.  When
hammers were added to wing shaped harpsichords they also had to add
hammers to square shaped instruments as well.  The reason for this
is because the wing shaped harpsichord was considered the concert
instrument that was used in the churches and performance halls.  The
smaller, softer, rectangular clavichord, virginal, and spinet were
considered home instruments.  Very few musicians could afford a full
sized wing shaped harpsichord in their home.  For one thing, homes were
so small that the common people had to have the smaller instruments.

The same was true for the square pianos.  The early ones which date all
the way back to the earliest pianos (pre 1800) were wood framed and low
tension -- but not low enough.  There are very few of these nowadays as
most of them collapsed from the force.  The diagonal corners tend to
attempt to pull together and fold up the instrument.

This is why often such early instruments (if still around) usually will
not sit flat.  The corners closest to the tuning pins and hitch pins of
the bass strings are up off the ground so the instrument rocks on its
two lower corner legs.  When restoring these we have to decide whether
to add reinforcement or just leave it.  If the instrument is still in
existence then it is probably well enough built to withstand another
hundred years of being strung.

Chickering seems to have been the earliest maker of square pianos with
cast iron plates.  I have restored several of them dating to 1830s to
1850s  They have cast iron and they seem to be the brand most often
found from this era.  Their hammers are leather, not felt.  (We have to
completely recover them, too.)  They are small, but slightly larger
than the "T Gilbert" pianos or other early squares.

Mr. Mathushek is reputed to have built the first real square grand, and
it was revolutionary in its time.  He made it very large, with a heavy
cast iron plate that prevented the "folding up" tendency.  This design
caught on, and the hulking, heavy square grand is the square piano most
people are acquainted with, if they have ever seen one at all.

The square grand also has some disadvantages like the triangular sound-
board.  Most soundboards are glued all the way around to heavy timbers,
as in a grand rim or an upright frame.  The square grand soundboard is
glued on two sides of the triangle, but the third side is glued to a
1-inch thick rail which flies through space from corner to corner.  It
is also curved.  This is the weakest point of these pianos, and often
must be rebuilt well to restore the instrument.

These pianos require special parts that must be made, or the restorer
must recover originals with felt and leather.  The hammer butts have
not been available recently, so we have had to releather and refelt all
the butts when we restore squares.  Regulating is an absolute
nightmare, as each time you regulate one key you must pull the action
out to do so and put it back in to test it.  You usually pull it in and
out at least a thousand times or so it seems.  Pulling the action in
and out is very likely to break shanks or hammers, so it must be done
very carefully.

The squares do have several strikes against them; however, if you can
find someone to restore them correctly, they do hold a tuning and the
concert pianists just go crazy for them.  They are the pianos most like
those played by Beethoven, Brahms, and other composers for the piano
who lived before the modern piano was developed sometime in the very
late 1800s.  Many of the instruments I have restored belong to museums,
and schools where they use the pianos for chamber music and art song
recitals.  They are perfect for accompanying singers doing Hugo Wolf
and other art songs.  The tone of these instruments is distinctive,
with a large Lisztian Bass and a tinkly Mozartian treble.  The bass
strings are as long as a 7 or 8 foot grand piano.  I checked that.

I would say that the reason the square grands were discontinued is
not because of their inherent problems, but because piano evolution
surpassed them.  There was something newer, better, and different with
a bigger sound.  The modern piano had much higher tension scale and the
higher crown in the soundboard made for a larger sound.  (Liszt was
responsible for much of this evolution because he ruined so many pianos
when he played.)

The wing grand and uprights got cheaper.  The homes got bigger for big
grands.  More people had money for pianos.  The media promoted wing
grands and uprights.  The concert halls got bigger so more people could
buy tickets to concerts.

The modern piano also had a double escapement action while the squares
had many varieties of the slower-repeating single escapement also found
in the modern upright.  Musicians left square grands in the dust as
obsolete, just like they left player pianos for obsolete in a later

When properly restored, square grands can be as good as any piano, and
will stay in tune, and will perform for several decades.  They will
also be coveted by concert pianists who take an interest in the history
of piano music.  Many pianists rightfully play Bach on the harpsichord,
Mozart on the fortepiano, and use period instruments when possible.
The square grand is such a period instrument.  It is closer to a
fortepiano than a modern piano.

The drawback is that restoring square grands is expensive.  Our shop
charges $10K and up for such a restoration.  Like a player piano job,
we cannot do a half job.  It is all or nothing.

D. L. Bullock    Piano World    St. Louis

(Message sent Mon 29 Nov 1999, 18:15:31 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Pianos, Square

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