This is the story of an early Victorian wooden framed piano. It is seen here minding its own business in a house where I used to live in Finchley, North London in the late 70s.
Having presumably done sterling service during it’s long and blameless life [originally made in about 1850 or so], Sue, my partner at the time, and I saw it taking its ease in an antique/junk shop in East Barnet. We bought it for £10 and it cost around £30 to have it delivered to our flat.
Little did it know that it was soon to be subjected to a number of humiliating and life-changing transformations that would have given even the most well balanced piano a severe identity crisis.
Any instrument of this great age would justifiably expect some peace and quiet in its twilight years – but, no such luck. This was just after my time studying flute and guitar at the Royal College of Music in London and I fancied my chances at being able to tune it. I bought a tuning hammer, tightened all the tuning pegs, struggled with my fatally fuzzy understanding of piano tuning and completely failed. For a while the poor thing was left alone in the bedroom – but then I had another bright idea how I could disturb its dotage.
When we bought it its keys were graced with a dreadful set of ‘plastic’ ivories – the sort of really cheap ones that you would use to replace the original ivory ones when they get all chipped and start to fall off … Well, these bright white plastic ones had reached the chipped and falling off stage, too – so I decided to cheer them up a bit. Of course … paint them!
But what colour? I thought long and hard and couldn’t decide, so I thought I would use all of them – a rainbow, in fact. ‘ROYGBIV‘ – I recited dutifully to myself – so I bought little tins of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet Humbrol enamel paints, the ones much beloved of model makers. There then followed some feverish calculations to try to work out how many drops of each paint I needed to mix just the right colour for each and every key to arrive at a perfectly graduated effect. Well, it worked, mostly – the bass were deep red and the high treble a sort of muddy pale violet. It was a work of art! – but sadly [or thankfully, depending on your point of view] I do not have any photos of this abominable disfigurement.
Around the early 80s we had to move from the house in Finchley and the piano had be lugged to my parent’s house where it was to spend the next 2 years of its increasingly chequered life. If it was expecting some repose there it was very much mistaken – the next and most dramatic, and it must be said the most productive, changes were about to take place.
My love of Baroque music and the pure and clean sounds that are its characteristic features led me to attempt to convert this perfectly good [well, actually almost completely useless] piano into a … harpsichord. I had in mind something akin to the drawing pin in the hammers approach, an interesting project to keep me out of mischief for, say, a few days. A week tops. But I made the fatal mistake of buying a book, an excellent and learned one as it happened, called ‘Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making‘ by Frank Hubbard.
… 2 years later, having removed and drastically thinned the sound board, removed and replaced the bridge twice, completely restrung it, added a new bridge for 4′ strings, restrung it again, moved all the tension bars [?] made entirely from scratch a strange, spring loaded, 2 way, gravity-defying jack system plucking 8′ to the right, 4′ to the left [patents not pending], devised a method to switch on and off the registers by moving the strings and not the jacks [patents definitely not pending], fitted a split buff stop and 2 extra pedals so that I could operate it and the registers … I had something that wasn’t even remotely like a harpsichord.
The multi-coloured rainbow keyboard had to go, of course. The keyboard was shortened, the actual keys were shortened and covered with boxwood, with ‘arcades’, ‘skunktail’ sharps. Its real name, or the name of it’s closest ‘real’ musical instrument relative is probably ‘clavicytherium’.
So, this good-natured and long suffering instrument [christened ‘Henrietta’ by a friend who used to come and play it, sorry – her] had changed from a self-respecting early Victorian piano – into a harpsichord. And it actually worked – the sound was very sweet and it did play like a real harpsichord. Almost. It’s true that the strings were too short to give a really full sound at the bass end and it was strictly more akin to a spinet than a full blown harpsichord, but my dipping into the Frank Hubbard book allowed me, I think, to make the most out of very unpromising material. The terms ‘sow’s ear’ and ‘silk purse’ spring to mind for some reason.
And the word ‘why?’.
This was a truly insane project – anyone who understands anything about the fundamental differences between a piano and a harpsichord will comprehend the ludicrous changes necessary to bring about this unlikely transformation and will realise that it was somewhat akin to changing a clarinet into, say, a lawnmower. It was a nightmare to keep in playing condition and my ability to tune it, although much better than my early attempts, were unreliable at best. I could never play very well, anyway, so it was a spectacularly pointless project right from the start. In 1983 I moved to a flat in Acton, West London, where I lived until 2004 – and for some considerable time Henrietta was left alone. She sat in the spare room, the dust settled – and a period of repose ensued.
Around 1993 my partner at the time, Rachel Hayward [European Pan Woman] moved in. It was not a large flat and at the time I had collected 3 harpsichords: dear Henrietta, a big Clayson and Garrett which I was looking after for a friend and a De Blaise which I’d bought when I wasn’t really paying attention. None of these was serving any remotely useful function as I’m a flute player and rehearsals always happen elsewhere. So, the fact that steelpan playing Rachel was then also a double bass player meant that space was at a premium and something definitely had to go!
The De Blaise was sold, the Clayson and Garratt was deemed to be a write off by a friend who knows about such things [there were all manner of major structural things wrong with it] – and that just left Henrietta. I considered the options, but there was nothing for it – she had to go, and the scene was set for the final indignity.
As all I had was a car and I didn’t want to have to hire a van I armed myself with a large rip saw and set to work – yes, right down the middle. The sounds were awful – apart from the rasping sound as the saw did its deadly work there were groans and creakings, tired sort of drooping squeaks, twangings and plinks, splintering noises and finally a sickening stereo thud as the two parts were finally separated. After nearly 150 years united! – I was gutted, and ashamed at my callous treatment of this innocent, pleasure giving contrivance.
And who knows how much pleasure it had given during its life – it had no doubt entertained families in soirees and sing-songs right through the Victorian and Edwardian eras, lived though two world wars, scores of other major conflicts and the swinging sixties.
All that, only to be sawn in half in a flat in Acton.
I did keep a couple of pieces – the keyboard [below] and front now grace the music room in our house in Shropshire. Sadly she was never used in a concert [probably a good thing] although she did get used to accompany a few of my modern flute pupils from time to time.
It was all good experience – and I guess I learned a lot from the various ridiculous and tedious woodworking tasks I had, by default, set myself along the way. And all this when I should have been out there doing something useful … making boxes or playing the flute perhaps?
And yes, I’m afraid a piano was harmed in the pursuit of this project. I would like to take this opportunity to formally apologise to this instrument for the pain and indignity, both physical and mental, that I caused it.
Please don’t call the RSPCIKI – it is far, far too late for that, and anyway I would deny everything!