The 1884 Grand Piano by Pleyel, Wolff & Cie

Discover the story behind a grand piano by one of the most famous historical builders.

By Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Grand piano (1884) by Pleyel, Wolff & CieMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The piano

In 1884 Parisian piano manufacturer Pleyel completed a concert grand with serial number 86193. Eleven years later the instrument came to Antwerp. However, by the middle of the 20th century the instrument had become unplayable. In 2021 a meticulous restoration was completed.

Grand piano (1884) by Pleyel, Wolff & CieMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The instrument

The instrument is a concert grand. This makes it the largest instrument built by Pleyel, Wolff & Cie: the piano is almost 2.60 meters long.

It is a piano that is not quite a modern piano in terms of construction. Although it has 88 keys, like a modern grand, the construction and appearance are typical of the Pleyel instruments of the late 1870s to the early 1890s.

The frame is not cast in one piece, as in a modern piano, but consists of various separate parts that fit together like a lock. Such a frame is called a "cadre serrurier" (litterally, a locksmith frame).

Grand piano (1884) by Pleyel, Wolff & CieMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The maker

In 1807 the composer Ignace Pleyel (1857-1831) founded a piano workshop in Paris. At that time, (forte)pianos were relatively new, but they quickly replaced the old-fashioned harpsichords and became increasingly popular with the middle class.

The Pleyel, Wolff & Cie factory (1870) by Michel-Charles FichotMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Within a few decades, Pleyel's modest workshop would grow into a factory with over 200 employees producing about 1,000 pianos each year. Pleyel built grand pianos, square pianos and upright pianos (the latter shown here) in various sizes.

Camille Pleyel (1788-1855) succeeded his father in 1831, and he was succeeded in 1855 by his collaborator Auguste Wolff (1821-1887). Wolff was arguably the most ambitious director to date. Around 1865, he had a huge, state of the art factory built in Saint-Denis, near Paris.

The Pleyel, Wolff & Cie factory (1870) by Michel-Charles FichotMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

In 1884, Auguste Wolff employed more than 600 factory workers, and the company that bore his name produced almost 2,700 pianos in all shapes and sizes. 

Publicity for the Pleyel, Wollf & Cie piano brand (1875/1880)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

In the course of the 19th century, Pleyel became one of the most respected piano brands in the world. Chopin,  Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Massenet and Ravel, among others, played and preferred Pleyel's instruments. And pianos by Pleyel were advertised and sold around the globe.

"Autour d'une Partition" (1903) by Albert AubletMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Paris

In the 19th century, the piano conquered both the bourgeois living room and the large concert hall. Among the many dozens of Parisian builders of square, upright and grand pianos, Pleyel's instruments were among the most sought-after. 

A Pleyel grand can be seen in this image.

Publicity for Le Figaro Musical, from Le Grand Almanach Paul Dupont (1892)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Cheap publishing techniques allowed for the widespread distribution of piano music. The well-known French newspaper Le Figaro even published a supplement with musical scores. The cover was, for a time, decorated with a Pleyel grand piano.

Postcard "De Vlaamsche Muziekhandel John Bode-Vinck St-Jacobsmarkt, 12 - Antwerpen" (1900/1925) by Billard, G.Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Antwerp

In 1895 the Pleyel grand with serial number 86193 was sent to Antwerp at the request of Louis Anthonis, the exclusive Antwerp distributor of Pleyel pianos. (Pictured here is one of Anthonis's Antwerp colleagues.)

The Concert Hall of the Antwerp Zoo (1898)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Louis Anthonis

Distributor Louis Anthonis was a shrewd businessman. He bet on clever publicity: he lent Pleyel concert grand pianos to all major Antwerp concert venues, such as the Société Royale d'Harmonie, or the concert hall of the Zoo (shown here), which had opened its doors in 1897.

At the Antwerp World's Fair of 1894, Anthonis made sure that important musicians, such as Vincent d'Indy, played his pianos. 

The music that was performed on his Pleyel pianos throughout Antwerp varied from Bach, Handel, Mozart and Schubert to Grieg, Fauré and Hahn.

Photo of, amont others, the composers Peter Benoit (front left) and Franz Liszt (front center), in the garden of Victor Lynen, Antwerp (1885)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Peter Benoit

The Pleyel grand with serial number 86193 has since the early 20th century been linked with the Flemish composer Peter Benoit (1834-1901). It is said that Benoit composed some of his music on this instrument and that he later gave it to the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp.

Benoit was born in the small town of Harelbeke, he spent several years working in Paris and he eventually settled in Antwerp. He was not just an important composer, he was also the founder of the Flemish Opera in Antwerp and of the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp.

In this photo Benoit can be seen with the famous Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who visited Antwerp on the occasion of the Antwerp World's Fair of 1884.

Grand piano (1884) by Pleyel, Wolff & CieMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

By 1939 (but probably much earlier) the Pleyel grand piano with serial number 86193 was part of the collection of the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. And it was said that Benoit composed some of his music on the instrument.

(In this photo, taken in the permanent exhibit of Museum Vleeshuis, Peter Benoit can be seen in the painting behind the piano.)

Restoration of the Pleyel, Wolff & Cie grand piano, by Yannick Wijnants (2020)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The restoration

Restoring the piano was a long and arduous process, successfully undertaken by restorer Yannick Wijnants.

First the piano had to be completely disassembled. In this way dust could be removed and the cracks in the soundboard could be repaired.

Restorer Yannick Wijnants at work.

Restoration of the Pleyel, Wolff & Cie grand piano, by Yannick Wijnants (2020)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Among other things, the old varnish had to be repaired and the brass had to be polished...

Restoration of the Pleyel, Wolff & Cie grand piano, by Yannick Wijnants (2020)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

... often with striking results.

Restoration of the Pleyel, Wolff & Cie grand piano, by Yannick Wijnants (2020)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Whenever possible the original parts and materials were reused. However, sometimes elements were missing. These were faithfully recreated. Including for example the original felt.

Restoration of the Pleyel, Wolff & Cie grand piano, by Yannick Wijnants (2020)Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

It was never the intention to make the piano look brand new. The piano is almost 140 years old, and its age should not be hidden. The aim of the restoration was to remove all dirt, to protect the instrument from further decay and to make the mechanism ready to play.

Grand piano (1884) by Pleyel, Wolff & CieMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Peter Benoit, Fantaisie for piano N°3, Opus 18, performed by Nicolas Callot
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Thanks to the restoration, the piano regained its original 19th-century, French charm, both in visual appearance and in sound. 


Pianist Nicolas Callot performs a "Fantaisie" which Peter Benoit composed during his time in Paris.

Credits: Story

The team of Museum Vleeshuis would like to thank the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, and the Peter Benoit Fund and its many benefactors.

Yannick Wijnants, Atelier Herkenrode
Peter Benoit Fonds
Royal Conservatoire Antwerp

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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