The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 1785–1959 ed. by Robert Adelson, Alain Roudier, Jenny Nex, et al. (review)
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The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 1785–1959, 2 vols. Ed. By Robert Adelson, Alain Roudier, Jenny Nex, Laure Barthel, and Michel Boussard. pp. 1174 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2015. £150. ISBN 9781-107-09291-4.)

The pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794–1870) gave a series of concerts in Paris in 1830. Extolling him as the 'nec [sic] plus ultra of the art', the reviewer praised the Erard piano on which Moscheles performed, which allowed him to display 'the facility with which he repeats the same notes at the fastest tempo, whether single notes or in octaves' (Mark Kroll, Ignaz Moscheles and the Changing World of Musical Europe (Woodbridge, 2014), 73–4). Moscheles, like his close friend Mendelssohn, was one major performer of the early to mid-nineteenth century who came to appreciate the qualities of Erard pianos. More unequivocally enthusiastic was Franz Liszt, who after his initial encounter with the instruments in 1824, remained closely associated with them thereafter.

The Erard workshop originated in the early 1770s. Sébastien Erard soon formed a partnership with his brother Jean-Baptiste, and in 1781 they established themselves in the rue de Bourbon in Paris. Erard was unusual in building harps as well as pianos; the first harps dated from 1785–6. In 1792 the English firm was established in Great Marlborough Street, London. Sébastien's nephew Pierre became director of the London firm in 1814, and of the Paris firm after Sébastien's death in 1831. Having reached its zenith in the 1870s, as the largest manufacturer of pianos in France (p. 13), in subsequent decades Erard faced increasing competition from makers such as Steinway. In 1961 the firm merged with Gaveau and Pleyel, this group then merging with Schimmel in 1971 to form 'Les grandes marques reúnies'; this, in turn, was acquired by 'Pianos de France' in 1995. Erard's initial rise thus coincided with, and contributed indispensably to, the formative stages of the modern piano and harp; accordingly, the first decades of the nineteenth century were the most crucial in the firm's development and impact.

This publication is the first comprehensive study of the Erard firm. The two volumes are based on selections from a mass of archives of the Erard, Pleyel, and Gaveau firms that form 'perhaps the largest and most complete archive on musical-instrument making conserved anywhere' (p. 1). At the heart of this archive, and the foundation for the study under review, [End Page 653] is the correspondence that passed between the Erard brothers, their descendants and their successors in the firm, and a vast network of composers, performers, publishers, and instrument dealers over a wide geographical expanse, throughout the many years of the firm's operation. Many of the letters have never before been published. The first volume contains letters to Erard from composers and performers; these are preceded by the texts of various of Sébastien Erard's patents and an assortment of documents including 'Denunciation of Sébastien Erard to the Revolutionary authorities' (? 1793) and 'Report of a police search of the Erard firm during the Terror' (1793). Volume 2, containing the complete extant correspondence from Pierre to Sébastien Erard that emerged between March 1814 and 1831, provides a detailed picture of the week-to-week workings of the English firm, and consequently also 'a detailed account of the evolution of the piano and the harp during a critical phase in their histories' (p. 523). The Introduction to volume 1 includes biographical details of the Erard family, with accounts of the major innovations introduced by the firm, in both piano and harp design. In the introduction to volume 2 the editors discuss the sales ledgers of the London firm's harp manufacture, from 1798 through to 1917. These ledgers—consisting of three bound volumes housed at the Royal College of Music in London—disclose a good deal about the types of customer who purchased Erard's harps. There is a preponderance of female names (p. 526) and of people enjoying high financial and social standing (pp. 529, 533). Each volume has appendices that give...