A Tale of Two Pianos
The Firs has recently been donated two musical items of interest these are now temporarily on display in our Carice room doubling as a performance and exhibition space.
Both pianos passed through the Elgar Brothers Music shop situated in Worcester by the Cathedral where H&M is situated today. In his youth Edward Elgar made the most of his father’s shop, taking every opportunity to play and tinker with every instrument he could.
‘I saw and learnt a great deal about music from the stream of music that passed through my father’s establishment. I read everything, played everything, and heard everything that I possibly could’ – Edward Elgar
This smaller upright piano seems a very humble and unassuming instrument to have belonged to one of the best-known composers of the twentieth century. Manufactured in Paris by Antoine Bord in 1874, it seems the piano soon found its way across the channel to become part of the retail stock of the Elgar Brothers Music Shop in the City of Worcester.
Whilst we’re not exactly certain how this piano came in to the possession of Elgar, it’s entirely possible that he was gifted or perhaps purchased it from his father’s shop in his youth. In 1931, he took it down from his attic room at Marl Bank and gifted the instrument to the young daughter of his Chauffeur, Richard Mountford.
We simply don’t know the complete biography of the piano but it’s a wonder to imagine all that might have been played or even conceived upon its keys.
Richard Mountford’s daughter’s name was Bettey. Elgar seems to have been very fond of her. As well as gifting the young girl his piano; he also gave her family the care of Meg, one of his beloved dogs.
Bettey kept the piano for her entire life. When she passed away she left it in her will to her friend and neighbour. Last year the piano was kindly donated to the care of the National Trust at The Firs, Elgar’s Birthplace, alongside some charming objects that help us explore Elgar’s caring personality.
Under the care of the National Trust, the piano has been lovingly restored. Piano restoration expert Chris Farthing travelled to The Firs from his home town of Bristol especially to work on the piece. With up to ten tonnes of pressure exerted on the small wooden frame, tuning the century-and-a-half old strings was a delicate process. The idea was to bring the piano to a playable standard without losing the original strings to breakages. As well as this, the internal mechanisms and frame were given a thorough clean out and new castor wheels were fitted to the bottom.
‘In a property where much of the collection is behind glass, it’s really exciting to be able to offer our visitors the opportunity to engage with an item so special. It’s fantastic to have the experience of hearing music flowing through the visitor centre on an instrument that we can be certain belonged to and was played by Elgar himself.’ Joe Tierney, House Steward.
In contrast the Allison piano is in quite a different state. Made between 1885 and 1890 by Ralph Allison and Sons of Wardour Street, London, then purchased by the Elgar Brothers Music shop and sold there.
Although we don’t know much about the instrument’s biography, save its origins, we can see from its condition that it has suffered a great deal more than Elgar’s own piano.
It’s not certain what caused the deterioration of this piano. It is likely that a variety of factors contributed to its sad demise. Over-playing and environmental conditions have caused the weakening and eventual breakage of several components, most notably the brittle stems of the hammers used to strike the strings.
The Elgar Brothers Music shop traded from 1860 until its closure in 1928. As Elgar’s father William Henry grew older, the running of the shop was taken over by the youngest son Frank. Frank’s death in 1928 saw the closure of the shop for good. Sadly it was demolished during renovation of Worcester City Centre during the 1960s. Although nothing of the original building now remains, many instruments bearing the shop’s label exist in private and museum collections, some in better condition than others.
So we invite you to come along and play a tune on the same keys once touched by the hands of Sir Edward Elgar.