The early English square piano 1760-1800

We associate the name of Johannes Zumpe with the first English square pianos and his design of instrument become the blueprint for a new competitive industry of square piano making in the latter part of the 18th century. The square piano had become established by about 1770 and continued to gain much popularity within high society. The demand for these small instruments continued to increase dramatically and this attracted many new makers to the join the trade. The earliest extant English square pianos were made by Zumpe in 1766 and four of these instruments survive. (Note 1)  It is not known when Zumpe first started to make square pianos but it is thought that it is unlikely to be much before 1766.

Harman Vietor, of Porter Street Newport Market St Ann’s Soho, claimed to be the inventor of small fortepianos in 1761 making them in three different sizes and constructions. He referred to them as “Coelestin d’Amour” or “Forte ex Piano”. Only one of his small pianos is known to have survived and it is dated 1767. (Note 2) The pianos made by Vietor cost between 15 and 20 guineas each and therefore were considerably cheaper that a fine harpsichord. Despite this attraction, it appears that his pianos failed to win favour. Vietor was also an organist and a music teacher and sold a range of second-hand musical instruments from his shop in Porter Street. It is believed that he emigrated from England to Philadelphia in about 1770. The design of Vietor’s small piano was derived from the case of a clavichord and internally showed the influence of the Pantalon. It is possible that Zumpe was aware of Vietor’s Colestin d’Amour and that this influenced him when designing his square piano.

Another maker who claimed in 1764 to be making “piano fortes” was Frederick Neubauer of Compton Street, St Ann’s Soho. (Note 3) It is uncertain whether he actually made any pianos and, if so, whether any of these were square pianos. If he had made any pianos, none are known to have survived.

Many previous accounts about the early English square piano of this period refer to a group of keyboard instrument makers, known as the twelve apostles descending on London from the Low Countries to escape the seven years war after 1756, but it is unlikely that this was the case. It is true that several makers came to London from the Low Counties but these were at different times and probably for different reasons, and there is no doubt that piano making in London offered an attractive opportunity. Another misconception is that the first known recital given on the pianoforte in May 1767 (most likely on a Zumpe square piano) by Charles Dibdin at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and that the recital given on a Zumpe square piano on 2nd June 1768 by Johann Christian Bach at the Thatched House, St. James’s Street Westminster, led to the success of the piano.

While these concerts would have promoted the instrument, the emergence of the piano and the significant demand for these instruments during the 1770’s was due to the change in music composition and performance from baroque to early classical. This required the use of dynamics rather than ornamentation and the harpsichord could not provide this facility despite the addition of a lid swell. Kirckman patented a Venetian lid swell in 1769 where wooden shutters inside the lid opened and closed to change the volume of the instrument. This could not compete with varying the touch on the keyboard of a piano to give expression and change in dynamics. Another reason for the success of the piano was social change following the “age of enlightenment”. There was also a general increase in manufactured goods towards the end of the 18th century. Therefore, it was the opportune time for the pianoforte to flourish. However, harpsichords continued to be sold and often a harpsichord and a square piano would be found in the same household until the end of the 18th century. It became a social requirement within high society to have a pianoforte and, in particular, playing this instrument became a highly regarded accomplishment for young ladies.

Zumpe’s basic design of instrument was copied by many other makers with minor changes including a gradual increase in size through the 1770’s. Instruments had plain mahogany cases on simple trestle stands. Each maker would produce about 50 instruments a year. A change started to occur in about 1778 where the case became more decorative. The simple trestle stand was changed to an elegant table stand on the most expensive instruments known as the “French” stand. One maker who is particularly noted for elegantly inlaid and decorated cases is Christopher Ganer, Broad Street, Soho. Ganer was not only a pianoforte maker but also an inlayer. (Note 4)  The pianos that he made from 1779 and into the early 1780’s are among the most elegant ever made and display Georgian furniture decoration and inlay at its very best.

There are three notable patents for the pianoforte in the late 18th century that gave improvements for the square piano: The first patent was taken out in 1783 by John Broadwood. This included the use of brass under-dampers; the transfer of the wrest pins from the left-hand side of the instrument to the back adjacent to the spine, reversing the position of the hitch pins; and the use of a foot pedal for sustain. (Note 5)  Although this gave significant improvements to the square piano, the brass under-dampers were abandoned by Broadwood in 1806 but continued to be used by some makers in Edinburgh until about 1812. There is no doubt that this patent was important for the success of Broadwood and Sons and the company still exist today at Finchcocks Musical Museum, Goudhurst, Kent, making modern pianos and restoring period instruments.

The second patent was taken out in 1786 by John Geib for improvements in the pianoforte and harpsichord that included a “double” action for the square piano. (Note 6)  This action incorporated an intermediate lever that gave greater dependency, accuracy and control. This was not new and was actually used by Bartolomio Cristofori, who was a harpsichord and piano maker in the early part of the 18th century. John Geib was contracted to make square pianos for Longman & Broderip, who were not piano makers but music publishers and retailers of musical instruments. The double action was first used in Longman & Broderip square pianos. In practice, this design was modified from that of the patent and there are three versions evident from surviving Longman & Broderip instruments between 1787 and 1789. It would appear that the patent design was simplified. Also, the modified version was probably easier to regulate.

The third patent was taken out in 1794 by William Southwell a piano maker from Dublin. Southwell was a prolific inventor and the most important features of this patent was the use of “dolly” over-dampers attached to the key levers and a separate action frame that fitted under part of the soundboard to accommodate the “additional keys” increasing octave size from 5 to 5 1/2 . (Note 7)  The dampers are referred to as dolly dampers due to the dolly shape of the damper head.

A combination of the patent features of John Geib, John Broadwood and William Southwell was the foundation for the square piano design that continued through the 19th century. The market leaders in the sales of square pianos towards the end of the 18th century were John Broadwood and Longman & Broderip. However, Longman & Broderip became bankrupt in 1796 and this opened up significant competition for the square piano market and the use of these patents.

The tonal characteristic of the early square piano is very different to the sound of the piano today. It is difficult for us to be impartial in making judgement about the musical and tonal quality of these early instruments because we invariably make a comparison with the sound of the modern piano. The pianist of the 18th century only new the sound of the harpsichord and the piano gave a considerable improvement in meeting the requirements for playing early classical music. The need for increased dynamics led to many square pianos being fitted with a lid swell between about 1775 and the early 1790’s. This enabled part of the lid to be opened while playing to further increase the volume of sound.

The sound of earliest square pianos had an almost lute-like quality with a very narrow dynamic range. This started to change in the 1770’s as the size of the case and soundboard area increased with longer strings. The tonal characteristics continued to change through the 1780’s but the greatest change came about 1795. With a further augmentation of case size, the use of longer and thicker strings; and the larger size of hammers and soundboard there was a need to change the type of leather used for hammer covering. The outer leather hammer coverings were changed from vegetable tanned hair sheep attached grain-side out to oil-tanned deerskin attached flesh-side out.

This gave a softer texture to the hammer surface and together with the other the changes as described above resulted in more roundness to the sound that was very different to the harpsichord. By this time the harpsichord had fallen from favour and very few were made after 1795. The last period harpsichord is believed to have been made in 1809 by Joseph Kirkman. (Note 8)   The increased volume of sound and range of dynamics of the square piano produced from keyboard touch by 1795 made the lid swell feature redundant. A typical square piano at this time would have a 5 ½ octave compass, double or single action, oil-tanned leather hammer coverings and had developed to give a more pianistic sound than earlier instruments.

The performance on a well-restored, regulated and tuned 18th century square piano can be a delight to hear and is very graceful and elegant. The clarity of sound from these instruments enables an interpretation of music of the period that is not possible from the modern piano


1. The present owners and location of the four surviving Zumpe square pianos of 1766 are: 1. Cambridge University, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, 2. Württembergisches Landesgewerbemuseum, Stuttgart, Germany, 3. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, United States, and 4. National Music Centre, Alberta, Canada.
2. The only surviving Colestin D’Amour or square piano by Harman Vietor was in my possession in 2007/8.
3. A newspaper advertisement in the Gazetteer and London Daily Advertiser on 7th January 1764 stated that Ferderick Neubauer had “piano fortes” to be sold at his premises in St. Ann’s, Soho.
4. The fire insurance policy in 1782 for Christopher Ganer’s premises at 47 and 48 Broad Street, Soho, described his occupation as a fortepiano maker and inlayer.
5. Patent No.1379, 18th July 1783. Broadwood also included a double soundboard in the patent but this was only used for a short while on some instruments. One example of a Broadwood square piano with a double soundboard can be found in the Colt Clavier Collection in Kent.
6. Patent No.1571, 7th December 1786.
7. Patent No.2017, 18th October 1794.
8. Joseph Kirkman (the younger) was reported to have said that his father had made the last harpsichord in 1809.