Read this article to the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), interpreted by Andreas Staier and Alexander Melnikov on the Erard piano: Marche en si mineur, op. 40 No. 3, D.819 (Six Grandes Marches, 1818 or 1824).
The Erard piano company
Born in Strasbourg in 1752 to a father who was a cabinetmaker, Sébastien Erard moved to Paris in about 1768 to begin an apprenticeship with a harpsichord builder. His innovative techniques and impressive skills drew immediate attention, notably from the powerful Duchess of Villeroy. With her assistance, in 1777 Erard set up an independent workshop. There, he built his first pianoforte, which would be played in the salon of his benefactress. Through this experience, he developed a name for himself among the French nobility, which enabled him to establish his own factory several years later. In 1785, he obtained royal protection from Louis XVI, authorizing him to design musical instruments despite not being a member of the fan makers guild (the éventaillistes), which governed the activities of Paris instrument builders.
Erard notably custom-built an instrument for Queen Marie-Antoinette that was specifically adapted to her vocal abilities. It was a hybrid instrument with two keyboards, one for the harpsichord and one for the organ, which could be transposed up or down by a one and a half tones.
In 1788, he and his brother Jean-Baptiste founded the Erard Frères company in Paris, which enjoyed rapid growth. Fleeing the French Revolution, he relocated some years later to London, where he opened a workshop that soon achieved an equal level of success. Indeed, Haydn and Beethoven were among those to acquire Erard pianos in the early 1800s.
Leaving his London business in the capable hands of his nephew Pierre, Sébastien Erard returned to Paris in 1821. He continued to make technical improvements to his instruments, which he systematically patented. It is during this period that he developed his most famous invention, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the French Legion of Honour in 1834: the piano with double escapement action, a direct antecedent of the modern grand piano. This new mechanism allowed for a rapid repetition of notes and remarkable expressive subtlety. Today’s pianos still bear this feature.
This new instrument, which fostered virtuosity, was readily appreciated by prominent musicians of the day. Franz Liszt enjoyed its robust, striking sound and composed his Huit Variations on this model, entrusting its publication (about 1825) to Erard as a tribute to him.1 Chopin also regularly played an Erard piano, which he admired for its tuneful sound and mechanical responsiveness.
When Sébastien Erard died in 1831, Pierre Erard took over the Paris and London businesses and perfected the double escapement action. In the ensuing years, the Erard factory’s artisanal production grew to industrial proportions. The workshop located on Rue du Mail in Paris, which had employed 80 specialized workers in 1831, opened a second location on Rue Saint-Maur in 1844 and expanded its workforce to 300. At the time, the piano house was selling roughly 1,500 pianos each year. Crowning this achievement, in 1839, Queen Victoria named Pierre “Pianoforte Maker to Her Majesty,” securing his reputation and the firm’s royal connections.
Following the death of Pierre Erard in 1855, his widow and stepbrother continued to develop the business. They opened a concert hall a short distance from their workshops, which exists to this day. After Pierre’s widow died, fellow piano builder Amédée Blondel joined the company and took over its leadership.
By 1903, the company’s name had changed to Erard – A. Blondel et Cie, successeurs. While its period of innovations had passed, Erard, along with Pleyel and Gaveau, remained one of the most prominent piano makers in France.
Over the years, the company was bought and sold several times, and the Erard brand is no longer in production, making these instruments even rarer and more valuable. They are highly sought after today for the lightness of their touch, evenness in their registers and subtle nuances in their tonal colours – characteristics that enable pianists to faithfully reproduce the 19th-century style of playing and allow audiences to experience the spirit of music from the Romantic period.
Bourgie Hall’s Erard piano, model No. 5974, made in London in 1859. Photo Maxime Brunet
Bourgie Hall’s Erard piano
The Erard piano at Bourgie Hall was built in London in 1859. It is a Model 2 grand piano, measuring 2.48 m in length and 1.43 m in width, with 85 keys, from A to A. It is one of 3,790 such pianos in existence, all of which were produced in the London Erard workshops between 1851 and 1903.
Shipped by a French antiques dealer, the piano arrived in Montreal in the early 2000s, in very poor condition, having crossed the Atlantic in a container filled with old objects. Deemed unsalvageable, it had been set aside in an antiques shop before ending up at Westend Piano, in Montreal West. This was how it was discovered in 2009 by Claude Thompson, a Montreal piano tuner and technician with more than 40 years’ experience.
After careful examination of its structure, mechanics and components, I offered to buy it and completely reassemble it, given the rarity of 19th-century instruments and the potential its restoration offered, with the proper investment of time, money and effort. Nothing was spared to reinstate the instrument to a condition worthy of the reputation of Erard pianos.2
– Claude Thompson
Bourgie Hall’s Erard piano before and after restoration
The piano was dismantled piece by piece, and each component was restored or rebuilt using period techniques and materials. To appreciate the magnitude of this undertaking, it is helpful to consider that a single leg is made up of ten pieces. The soundboard was repaired, the strings and pins were replaced with the help of specialists from Toronto and France, and a satin black varnish was applied to the case during the restoration. The ivory keyboard and mechanism are original.
It took two years to rebuild the instrument, but the results surpassed all expectations and the piano sounded magnificent. The news spread quickly throughout the Montreal music community and caught the attention of General and Artistic Director of Bourgie Hall, Isolde Lagacé. In 2015, she had the piano shipped to Bourgie Hall to assess how it resonated with the hall’s acoustics. The instrument was instantly beguiling, and the Arte Musica Foundation proceeded with its acquisition.
Bourgie Hall’s Erard piano was officially inaugurated on February 10, 2016, in a recital given by celebrated Vietnamese-born pianist Dang Thai Son – a specialist of the Romantic repertoire who has developed an approach adapted to the very particular touch required for 19th-century pianos. To mark the occasion, he performed works by Schubert and Chopin. This concert won an Opus Award for Concert of the Year in the Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic, and Impressionist Music category.
Journaux intimes au féminin
Tuesday March 8, 2022 at 07:30 pm
Presented in French
For International Women’s Day, Jeanne Amièle will share the stage with actor Pascale Montpetit, who will recite texts by 19th-century French and Quebec women writers. These readings will be accompanied by musical works by women composers of the same era.
Photos Frank Desgagnés and Kelly Jacob
1 Cité de la musique – Philharmonie de Paris, “Maison Érard. Portraits de facteurs d’instruments,” https://collectionsdumusee.philharmoniedeparis.fr/0705863-portrait-maison-erard.aspx. Consulted on December 21, 2021.
2 From an interview conducted in December 2014 in Montreal.
René Beaupain, La maison Érard : manufacture de pianos, 1780-1959 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007).
Centre Sébastien Erard, https://www.sebastienerard.org/fr/. Consulted on December 20, 2021.
Mario Girard, “La fabuleuse épopée d’un piano,” La Presse, April 21, 2016, https://www.lapresse.ca/arts/musique/201604/21/01-4973504-la-fabuleuse-epopee-dun-piano.php. Consulted on December 20, 2021.
Serge Harel, Évaluation de la valeur du piano à queue Érard de la salle Bourgie (Montreal: Piano Perfecto, 2020).
Musical Instrument Museum, “Musical History of the Erard Piano,” http://mim.org/musical-history-of-the-erard-piano/. Consulted on December 22, 2021.
Pianos Esther, “Erard – Manufacture de pianos fondée à Paris en 1780,” http://www.pianosesther.be/Erard.htm. Consulted on December 21, 2021.