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Erard pianos shaped the course of 19th-century music

Michael Frederick listens as his wife Patricia plays their Erard 1877 antique grand piano, which was made in Paris, in the former library in Ashburnham.bILL gREENE/gLOBE STAFF/FILE 2003/Boston Globe

Today, Sept. 21, pianist Geoffrey Burleson performs a recital in Ashburnham on an 1877 Erard grand piano from the Frederick Collection of historic pianos. It is part of the Collection’s recital series: opportunities to hear classical repertoire on the instruments that were standard when such repertoire was new — and before piano design and construction converged on their present-day, largely homogenized ideals of brightness and power.

Erard pianos actually accelerated that trend. Sébastien Érard (1752-1831), born in Strasbourg but settled in Paris, began manufacturing larger pianos after the French Revolution forced a temporary relocation to London, where grand pianos were in vogue. The company built its brand around sonic power: stronger frames, greater string tension, more focused sound. (By contrast, Pleyel, another great French piano manufacturer, opted for looser strings that produced a delicate etherealness ideal for intimate salon performances.)


Erard also made innovative use of another feature: endorsements. In the early 1800s, the company sent pianos to both Haydn and Beethoven, influencing Viennese manufacturers to build more robust instruments. Later in the century, Sébastien Érard’s nephew Pierre lined up a host of immortals. Mendelssohn and Liszt played Erards in concert; Chopin, who preferred Pleyels, nonetheless acknowledged the Erard’s forgiving consistency: “You can thump it and bash it, it makes no difference,” he said, “the sound is always beautiful.” By the mid-1800s, Erards were the choice of virtuosi across Europe.

But even with their increased volume, Erard pianos were still more idiosyncratic than modern counterparts. The hammers were intricately layered with felt and leather to emphasize each string’s fundamental more than its upper overtones, giving the sound a unique muscularity. And Erards were strung in parallel — the strings side by side throughout — unlike modern grands, which are cross-strung across the soundboard’s center. Parallel stringing gave each register its own sonic personality, variety that can be heard in the diverse tolling of “La vallée des cloches” (“The Valley of Bells”) from Maurice Ravel’s “Miroirs,” part of Burleson’s program. (Ravel, for the last three decades of his life, composed on a 1902 Erard.)


The Erard firm fell into decline in the 20th century; the name was bought, in 1971, by Schimmel, the German firm. By then, the bright, penetrating sound epitomized by Steinway pianos were dominant. But the old instruments live on as ghosts on the page, qualities woven into scores, encouraging (or demanding) players to approximate their quintessences — or, alternately, to seek them out once more.

Geoffrey Burleson performs music of Rameau, Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Ravel, and Bizet on the Frederick Collection’s 1877 Erard “extra-grand modèle de concert” today, Sept. 21, at
4 p.m. at the Ashburnham Community Church, 84 Main Street in Ashburnham (tickets $10, children and students free; www.frederickcollection.org/events.html).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.