While not much is known about the 18th century English harpsichord and piano maker George Pether, plenty is known about square pianos.
The German-born, Londonbased Johannes Zumpe is credited with inventing the English square piano; his oldest surviving instrument dates from 1766.
The square piano is not square, but rectangular, and it’s strings obliquely cross the instrument above the hammers. It’s distinguishing feature is its size: the first square pianos were barely four feet long and eighteen inches wide – considerably smaller than even a contemporary spinet.
Zumpe’s genius was to create a small, practical, reliable and relatively inexpensive keyboard instrument. The square piano captured the imagination of the English music-loving public, and Zumpe’s instruments became widely sought after and were exported all over Europe. He became the first piano maker in history to achieve international success.
This rapid popularity was aided in no small part by the endorsement of Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach. The ‘London Bach’, as Johann Christian is sometimes called, arrived in the English capital in 1762 and quickly established his reputation.
He became Music Master to Queen Charlotte, and in June 1768 gave the first documented public performance of the square piano as a solo instrument in England. At that time, Johann Christian Bach’s fame and success exceeded that achieved by any other member of his family, and his music was performed throughout Europe.
Before long, Zumpe’s workshop in Hanover Square was unable to meet the huge demand for square pianos. A number of harpsichord makers, looking to cash in on the rage for pianos that swept through England during the late eighteenth century, also began producing square pianos.
George Pether was one of these. By the time the last square pianos were made, the piano had essentially displaced the harpsichord from its formerly predominant position.
The finely-made square piano in the Stewart Symonds Collection, built only 13 years after Zumpe’s innovative piano design changed forever English keyboard instruments, reveals that Pether was a craftsman of enormous skill.
The soundboard is still ‘alive’ and therefore, as ‘the beating heart’ of the instrument, will provide modern music lovers with a compelling and accurate indication of the sound world of late eighteenth-century London.