I wish to share with you all my excitement on recently finding a splendid piano museum.
I had been invited to visit a friend in SW France. On driving through a market town close to my destination, I noticed a small sign indicating ‘Piano museum’. Almost in disbelief, and breaking hard to get a longer glimpse at the signpost, there was a immediate screeching of tyres just behind me. I pulled over to the side, and a disgruntled motorist passed me, swearing under his breath and making a sign indicating he had a long and useful index finger - for more effective piano performances no doubt........
That signpost, had I imagined it? I looked again. It was there, although small, was for real. It pointed towards the town center, slightly off my main route. My excitement increased, but the sightseeing would have to wait. I drove on.
A short while later, comfortably installed with a fine glass of the local white ‘Blanquette de Limoux’ wine, I learnt from my guest - a lover of military band music - that he knew little about the piano museum, although he’d lived nearby for many years.
Early next day I took off in earnest for the town center of Limoux.
The museum building itself was an immediate surprise. A church located within the grounds of a hospital complex!
Wow, this must be it then. Humming merrily, I approach what I think is the main entrance.
Hmm! No way in here apparently. Let’s have a closer look at that sign...........
Looks impressive. I wonder what’s inside?
It looks like I have to go through the hospital entrance to the left.
(I don’t think I’m an emergency case, although my ‘significant other’ often thinks otherwise)..........
I walked through the main hospital gate to the inner side entrance of the museum. Closed. The massive oak door was firmly locked with nobody on site. Curses! The sonata I had been merrily humming, changed to a minor key. The adjacent hospital was very strategically situated. I suddenly felt positively ill. I began to wonder when was the last time they administered care to a heartbroken patient. ‘Visitors Lament’ - now there’s an original title to an opus if ever I should compose one.
I retreated to the hospital entrance and in a side office asked the receptionist when the museum would be open.
I learnt it was usually by appointment only, and was given a number to contact. Somewhat surprised that the hospital receptionist had not taken my shaken and pale appearance as a sign for a major emergency, I returned to the car and dialed the given number. An appointment was made to visit after lunch.
The young lady I had spoken to arrived promptly, and with a monster bunch of keys which would have done justice to the Bastille prison, admitted us to the museum.
Once inside, I stared in wonder! A veritable Aladdin’s cave!
Opened in 2002, the museum claims to be the only one of it’s kind in France dedicated to pianos. Two centuries of French piano history in fact. A collection of some 100 examples – of which about 60 are currently on display - showing the evolution of the piano: uprights, grands, square, pianolas, models that open sideways or with tilting keyboards, harmoniums and other unique curiosities. Some of the models exhibited are very rare. A few are listed as having been donated by private individuals, most however have been given by professionals.
I read that in 1983 there was no museum in which to house the then modest collection of 15 pianos. Several towns in France and abroad were solicited to house the collection. None were reactive.
Eventually an association in the Aude region of SW France offered the old church of Saint Jacques to be designated in a cultural role, and the museum was inaugurated in 2002.
As visitors are not normally allowed to photograph the exhibits in French museums, the following is a brief overview of the layout and instruments that I remember:
The museum is laid out in 4 dedicated areas or ‘chapels’ around the central floor area of the church.
Chapel 1. The evolution of an upright’s harmonic structure, from wooden frame through to today’s modern piano. A cymbalum is displayed as a centerpiece.
One piano has been skillfully sectioned through to clearly detail the cabinet, frame and mechanism.
To the right of this display is a fascinating view into a master piano restorer’s workshop, complete with all associated equipment and tools. This apparently was bequeathed by the widow of Henri Daraud, a renowned local piano restorer and technician. (A visit to the museum would be worth while just to see this display alone. Truly wonderful).
Chapel 2. Dedicated to the constructor Jean Henri Pape, a German expatriate who’s first pianos were the conventional square models. 1826/27 saw him registering many interesting patents, i.e. down striking action; felt hammers replacing hide-faced.
By 1827 Pape had well overtaken Pleyel in terms of production, although both were behind the French industry leader Erard at that time. The three Pape pianos on display show superb build quality.
Chapel 3. Features pianos of contrasting sizes. On display is a 1961 Klein ‘Junior’ model, 100cms high with 65 keys; a Pleyel ‘Scolaire’ of 1890; a missionaries piano (so-called for it’s ease of transport). All engulfed by a pneumatic piano some 2,12 meters in height.
Chapel 4. Highlights keyboard instruments associated with religious worship: piano/organs & harmoniums.
In the central floor area, the golden age of French piano manufacture is represented by some wonderful examples of Pleyel and Erard. There is a rare and very beautiful upright 78 notes/ 6 octaves ½ model in flame mahogany by Gabriel Pleyel dated 1831. (Ignace Pleyel had formed a partnership with his son Camille in 1822). Gabriel was the second son, who having fallen out with his elder brother Camille, went his own way with piano manufacture before forming his own association.
Of particular note is one of the oldest pianos in the collection. A square Johannes Erhard Wolder dated 1784, believed to have been manufactured in eastern France.
There are some stunning Boisselet pianos in the museum. One is an 80 note large square piano, the other an 82 note grand dated 1845 in splendid Wenga wood with brass inlays.
Jean Luis Boisselet together with his son, established his piano manufacturing business in Marseille around 1830-31. He started with square pianos, then grands, followed by uprights in 1836. His pianos were a great success, particularly patronized by Franz Litzt, and were awarded a gold medal at the 1844 Paris exposition. A Boisselet piano at this exposition is claimed to be the first ever to have a sostenuto pedal.
Also of note are rare Montel pianos dated 1836 and 1845. Beautifully crafted, these are apparently the only two on public display in the world.
Claude Montel – blind at a very early age, had a passion for music, especially the principal of acoustics and harmony. He wrote in 1834/5 two detailed works on piano tuning, one entitled L’art d’accorder soi-même son piano - ‘The art of tuning one’s piano’. This was followed by him opening his own piano workshop, which led to awards at universal exhibitions in London and Paris.
I also learnt during this visit that there was much activity in electronic music, and construction of associated instruments in Germany during the 1930's. One notable project was by Dr Walther Nernst who together with the Berlin University and collaboration with Siemens produced a Neo Bechstein electric grand piano.
There is Neo-Bechstein 88 note electronic grand displayed, dated 1932. From the written description I understood this to be an electro-acoustic adaptation of a Bechstein grand. The soundboard replaced by a series of 18 electromagnetic pickups in groups of 4&5 strings to amplify the sound. I also noted that this example even had a large fitted radio, not unlike some early examples seen in a car’s dashboard!
Unfortunately the piano and its electronic entrails are in a rather sorry condition, and certainly not playable. But being able to view this rare hybrid was an unexpected surprise.
My scribbled notes go on and on.
Roller & Blanchet: There are several on display. One of the earliest French uprights dated 1822 with bridge-type cabinet that swings opens at 180 degrees. The other is an upright dated 1834.
Mercier: Upright dated 1845, with a similar cabinet that swings open at 180 degrees.
Blondel: A 7 octave upright dated 1860.
Debain: 1860 upright.
Colin: One of the earliest French metal frame uprights, 82 keys dated 1850.
Rousselot: Grand, 1834.
Soufleto: ‘Niche de chien’ or ‘dog kennel’ piano – so named due to it’s lower central shape. Where the modern pedals would be located is a semi-circular hollow space where the player’s feet would rest. A very cute piano! (I’d love one, but would my dog)?
Kriegelstein: A 5 ½ octave Square piano of 1844, and a 6 ¾ octave upright dated 1851. These too display remarkable workmanship.
Jean George Kriegelstein initially worked for Blanchet & Mercier, later becoming a foreman at Pape before creating his own piano workshop in Paris. In the early 1900’s a 1.50 meter grand from this manufacturer was a big success due to its reduced size.
Aucher Freres: Upright 18 ? One of the first makers to have a folding keyboard.
Broadwood: Square piano.
There was so much to see in this wonderful location, and I was alone to discover at my leisurely pace - the young girl who had allowed access to the museum, had retreated to a seat near the entrance and was lost in the pages of her French fashion magazine. (On entering I had asked if she was a pianist or piano-lover, to which I received a slightly embarrassed “Non Monsieur” on both counts).
Having almost completed the tour, close to the exit is a unique curiosities section. A Giraffe piano dated 1825-30 towers over visitors.
For those who have never seen a Lindner (and I’m sure there are many tuner/techs who wish they never had), there is a mint example from the sixties on display. The top is open, which clearly shows the plastic keyboard and mechanism, and unusual light metal frame. Also known as the Rippen Plastic Piano. (I don’t know about R.P.P, but R.I.P. is perhaps more appropriate).
When commencing the visit, I knew there were approx 60 exhibits, and that I would need a very minimum of 2 minutes to view and savor each. Also, I had gone back to the ‘starting post’ to check out a few non-French exhibits- for example a wonderful Broadwood square piano that I had skipped over.
When I eventually looked down at my watch, WOW! could that really be the correct time! I had been there 2 ½ hours. I quickened my pace back to the where the young guardian had remained. The magazine she had been reading was slumped at her feet, and she looked to be in a comatose state from extreme boredom. I apologized at having kept her waiting so long, and added that as it was so interesting I could easily spend more time there. At this comment she suddenly came awake with a start, certainly convinced that I was an escaped piano lunatic on the run.
As I’m not French, to stay longer – especially without my piano embroidered straight-jacket - could have created a mini international crisis. I again thanked her for the patience shown, and wished her au-revoir.
Exiting, I heard behind me those huge keys re-securing this delightful museum, together with a charming sigh of relief. And whilst walking away I couldn’t help wondering what Erard, Pleyel and their contemporaries would be manufacturing today if they were still around. And just what would they have thought of that ply-wood and plastic Lindner!
A link to the museum site follows, where one can enjoy the official photos and read additional information on the exhibits. (Best viewed with Internet Explorer rather than Firefox). http://www.musiques-vivantes.com/le-musee-de-limoux-5.html
Please note:- the above information is correct to the best of my knowledge and translating ability. Any necessary correction (if required) or additional information would certainly be appreciated.