I must apologize for writing about Pleyel because my experiences
with that instrument are so few. Especially when there are many people
on this list who have worked with Pleyel harpsichords for years both as
performing artists and as maintenance professionals.
I have only played two Pleyels in my life, but they were both
rather famous instruments and both have been heard by many people. The
first belonged to Mme. Alice Ehlers and I played it in her home in
California. She loved the instrument and having purchased it in 1927 or
28 carried it with her all over the world. In 1938 she used it on a Bing
Crosby radio show that was heard throughout North America. Shortly after
that she was asked to use the instrument in a film called "Wuthering
Heights" that starred Sir Lawrence Oliver. As I recall she played
Mozart's Turkish March, or some such, at an impossible speed. The sound
was fine, but they had to have used a shotgun microphone because it was
recorded at a high volume. Thirty five years later when I played that
same instrument in a very "live" room, it seemed but a whisper. Mme.
Ehlers played for me and while the Pleyel was very large physically, the
sound was not clear or clean and seemed almost shy.
The second Pleyel I played belonged to Wanda Landowska and was
used by her for all her recordings. She had other Pleyels but this one
instrument was the one she preferred. It was in her home in Lakeville,
Connecticut. I was there at the invitation of Denise Restout who had
lived with Landowska for many, many years and was with her when she died.
When I arrived, the instrument was covered over with a pile of blankets
and coverlets stacked about a foot high. As Denise slowly removed each
blanket with great pride, it was like watching a magic act, until "The
Instrument" was finally revealed. It seemed almost like a shrine. In
fact, when Landowska lie in state, her coffin was next to the bent side
of her beloved Pleyel. While I was not permitted to play this instrument
at any length, the arpeggios I did play did not produce the full rich
sounds I was accustomed to. Denise was very protective of the instrument
(students never played it) because she wanted to preserve it in the
condition that Landowska left it. "Landowska did her own voicing" Denise
told me, "and her own quilling so I want those jacks to be available for
study for future harpsichordists."
I don't think we should be too down on the Pleyel company, any
more than we should be down on Henry Ford for making a car without an
automatic starter, or air conditioning, or stereophonic sound. The first
harpsichords that Pleyel made were after study of the Taskin design and
in 1889 they exhibited at the Paris Exposition. Early Pleyels had no
metal bracing, the jacks were wooden with traditional dampers.
It was Landowska, in 1912, the encouraged Pleyel to use an iron frame
holding thick strings at high tension. The barring was almost identical
to our modern grand piano. Even the touch depth and the dimensions of
the five-octave keyboard were those of the piano.
Since Pleyel (later to have several name changes) continued to
make harps, chromatic timpani, chimes, practice keyboards and two-manual
pianos, we can't blame them for experimenting with "improving" the
harpsichord, especially since this suggestion (read order) came from the
world's most famous harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska.
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