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Family secrets and the demise of Erard pianos and harps

Musicians from Haydn to Liszt were captivated by the rich tone and mechanical refinement of the pianos and harps invented by Sébastien Erard, whose firm dominated nineteenth-century musical life. Erard was the first piano builder in France to prioritise the grand piano model, a crucial step towards creating a modern pianistic sonority. His 1822 invention of the double-escapement action allowed pianists to repeat notes more rapidly and improved the instrument’s response while at the same time producing a more powerful sound. This invention was adopted or imitated by many subsequent builders, thus revolutionising both piano construction and repertoire. From that moment on, the speed at which pianists could repeat notes was limited only by their own technique. The virtuosic repertoire of the romantic era would have been unthinkable without this invention.

Sébastien’s innovative spirit was kept alive by his nephew Pierre, whose own inventions and shrewd marketing sense assured the superiority of Erard at virtually every international exhibition. After Pierre’s death, however, the direction of the firm passed to his widow Camille, but neither she nor the trusted managers who assisted her were inventors. The Erard firm thus experienced a steady decline, unable to compete with foreign builders such as Steinway, Bechstein, and Blüthner.

Many great instrument-making families, from the Amatis and Guarneris to the Broadwoods, were dynastic, allowing them to transmit their trademark techniques from one generation to another. For this reason, the abrupt end of the Erard line was remarked upon even in the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, for example, when Steinway led the American onslaught against the old-world piano makers, one French critic opined: “Oh! Pierre Erard, where are you? You would never have backed down in the face of American antagonists! In your shroud of stone, you must be trembling with shame, faced with the spinelessness of the masters of old-world craftsmanship, who seem to be declaring defeat without even having fought.”

Erard had been a family enterprise. Pierre’s uncle Sébastien and his father Jean-Baptiste had founded and directed the business, and two of their nieces ran the music publishing wing. Pierre understood that the workers he trained would never be as motivated as a member of his family to invest their efforts and capital in the firm. In his voluminous correspondence, he repeatedly expressed his fears for the future of the enterprise, which makes it all the more surprising that he never founded a family of his own to prepare a successor. For years he reassured his father and uncle that matrimonial prospects were on the horizon, but always found excuses about being too busy to pursue his plans. He finally got married, late in life, to one of his cousins, but the couple never had any children, and there is not even the slightest mention of a pregnancy in the extensive and frank correspondence that Pierre’s wife maintained with her mother and sister.

The reason behind Pierre’s perplexing reluctance to start a family may lie in a secret that would have remained unknown were it not for the record-keeping zeal of the nineteenth-century Paris police force: he was homosexual. In the 1840s the Paris police began keeping detailed records of the homosexual activities of famous men: ministers, diplomats and senior officials, aristocrats, priests, actors, doctors, and businessmen. In a recently discovered ledger entitled “pederasts” we find the notes the police informants took on Pierre Erard, who was observed frequenting a brothel where young male prostitutes were procured for wealthy customers.

Throughout history, homosexual men and women have married and had children. Moreover, even if Pierre had had children it is not sure that they would have continued the family business or would have inherited their father’s innovative drive, patenting inventions that would be embraced by the world’s leading pianists. Nevertheless, Pierre’s hidden sexual orientation may well have been a factor that contributed to the demise of the family business, and one cannot help but speculate as to what impact at least one more generation of Erards would have had on the course of instrument-making and music history.

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