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  • The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 1785–1959 ed. by Robert Adelson, et al.
  • Emily Laurance
The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 1785–1959. Edited by Robert Adelson, Alain Roudier, Jenny Nex, Laure Barthel, and Michel Foussard. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. [xxiv, 1134 p. ISBN 9781107092914 (hardcover), $250; ISBN 9781316407653 (e-book), $200.] Illustrations, original French text, bibliography, index.

The Swiss-Alsatian instrument maker Sébastien Erard arrived in Paris in 1768. It was a fertile time for an aspiring keyboard builder: the amateur music market was on the cusp of enormous expansion, attested to by the rapid increase in sheet music sales and circulating music libraries. By 1777, Erard had launched a workshop on the property of a wealthy patron, the Duchesse de Villeroy, building for her one of his first pianos. A little more than a decade later, he and his older brother Jean-Baptiste established themselves as Erard Frères, inaugurating a company history notable for its technological invention and longevity. Upon Sébastien’s death in 1831, Erard Frères passed to his nephew, Pierre, and subsequently to Pierre’s wife Camille. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, under the direction of first Amédée Blondel and then his son Alfred, the firm became the largest instrument maker in France, serving the expanding needs of the era’s piano virtuosos. The company’s fortunes declined in the twentieth century, and Erard ceased operation as an independent entity in 1959 when it merged first with the Gaveau Company, and then with Pleyel. By 1995, all three brands had been absorbed into Pianos of France.

This almost 200-year history closely intertwined with the careers of numerous composers and musicians and, by extension, with major developments in Western art music. “The entire musical landscape of Europe during this period is reflected in its documents,” writes Robert Adelson in his introduction to the present work (I, p. 1). Reflecting this rich history, Adelson and his expert editorial team have compiled an exemplary collection of the Erard Company’s archival documents, presenting them in an attractive and highly usable pair of volumes.

While the comprehensive scope and elegant critical commentary are first-rate, the quality of presentation also deserves praise. In the first volume, the documents are organized into four parts: “Inventions” (primarily patent documentation); “Business” (royal privileges, documentation related to the French Revolution and, most importantly, the Erard firm’s letter copybook); “Com posers” (including letters from Auber, Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Busoni, and Fauré); and “Performers” (correspondence from Dalvimare, Bertini, Thalberg, et al.). The second volume comprises all of the extant correspondence of the Erard family, mainly letters written by Pierre in London to his uncle in Paris over a span of sixteen years. In addition to the readable English translations, both volumes also provide all of the original French text. There are informative notes throughout to guide the reader through a diverse cast of players, and the publication provides name and place indexes and an extensive bibliography. The paper, fonts, and binding are all handsome and of high quality.

The importance of Erard in the technological history of both the piano and harp is undisputed, but Erard’s contributions to harp development in particular were so pivotal—and occurred within such a circumscribed market—that until recently, harp-related scholarship has dominated the literature. Erard’s early years, after all, saw the invention of both the fourchette and the fully double-action pedal mechanism, defining features of the harp to this day. In terms of international harp production, the Erard Company held an almost monopolistic position into the twentieth century.

But Erard’s place in the history of the piano is no less crucial: although frequently overshadowed by the instrument makers of Italy, Austria, Germany, and England, and by its own reputation as a harp builder, Erard’s technological innovations in piano building were also definitive. It was the Erard firm that developed the double escapement in the early nineteenth century, making it possible to play repeated notes with increased facility; moreover, Erard pianos defined and...


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