|Sebastien Erard (1752-1831) was born in Strasbourg, where his family, of Swiss
origin, became established c.1725. His family context obviously had a strong
influence on his future career : his father and elder brother were both cabinet-
makers, and other members of the Erard family were gilders or wood sculptors. As
in the case of Broadwood, possessing wood-working knowledge was a good start
to building pianos.
Lack of direct archive information means we have to rely on later sources to study
Erard’s first steps in Paris. According to Pierre Erard (1794-1855), Sebastien’s
nephew, « Sebastien and Jean-Baptiste Erard […] set up as instrument-makers in
Paris in 1770-75. Very soon, the pianoforte became a serious rival to the
harpsichord. The Erards were amongst the first to be interested in the new
instrument, the harp only came later ».
According to Fétis, who seems to hold his information directly from Erard himself,
the young Sebastien arrived in Paris c.1768, and served an apprenticeship as a
harpsichord maker. A few years later, he was ready to make his own instruments :
a mechanical harpsichord, made for Mr de la Blancherie, established his
reputation. The support of the Duchess of Villeroy was a major stepping stone in
his early carreer : she provided him with a workshop in the Hotel de Villeroy,
where he made her a square based on English models in 1777. Erard was
obviously very good at getting protection in important places : in 1785 he gained
the protection of Louis XVI against the guild of instrument-makers who were trying
to stop him making pianos, and he supplied several instruments to Marie-
Antoinette : a square piano, a combination piano, and a transposing piano.
The earliest known instruments are a clavecin mécanique, dated 1779, with
pedals allowing crescendo effects, and a square dated 1781, the year Erard
established himself at n° 13 rue du Mail.
The first grand pianos were probably built shortly before 1790 : the Erard archives
mention five « pianos forme clavecin » in 1791. The earliest extant, dated 1791, is
in the Paris museum of La Villette (another instrument in a private collection with
an apocryphal label dated 1790 appears to be a few years later).
According to Fétis, Jean-Baptiste Erard (1749-1826) came to help his brother
while he was at the Hotel de Villeroy (Pierre says he was there from the very
beginning), and the two brothers established the Société Erard in 1786.
In 1792, if we follow Pierre Erard, Sebastien was in London to establish the
English factory, at 18 Marlborough Street (it is possible that he went several times
to England before this date). The London Erard factory seems to have specialized
in harps : the earliest piano I know of is c.1830.
Although some of the early instruments made by Erard already show every sign of
inventive genius (mechanical harpsichord, combination piano, transposing piano),
the run of the mill production prior to 1800 is more remarkable for it’s refinement
and build quality than for it’s novelty of design.
Erard’s genius really came to the fore during the thirty odd years he had left to live
in the XIX th century, with a series of brilliant inventions that were to mark the
history of piano and harp construction. He first of all concentrated on the harp,
and created the double movement in 1810, after several years of research. This
invention, to quote Pierre Erard’s words « gave undisputable proof of the
mechanical genius of Sebastien Erard, as it is difficult to imagine anything more
complex than the mechanism of the harp double movement ».
According to Pierre, after successfully resolving this difficult problem, Sebastian
moved on to that of the rapid repetition of notes on the grand piano action.
Sebastian had actually been thinking about this problem since 1796 at least, as he
wrote that year a description of a grand action with an intermediary check allowing
the pilot to go back under the hammer butt without lifting the key right up. This
research first came to fruition in 1809, date of the patent for the very ingenious «
mécanique à étrier » that can be studied on several extant pianos (Paris and
Brussels instrument museums).
But this was only a first step towards the definitive solution, the utterly brilliant
double escapement action, patented in 1821, still used today in a slightly modified
form in modern concert grands.
Another major patent was that of the metal agrafes, in 1808, that prevent the string
from rising up with the blow of the hammer.
It is important to note that the double escapement patent was taken out by Pierre
Erard, in London (the London factory from now built pianos as well as harps, and
probably specialized in the new concert grand), and not by his uncle.
Sebastien was by now an old man, and didn’t want to face the same « difficulties
and disappointments » that had accompanied the introduction of the double
And it is a fact that Erard’s invention wasn’t accepted easily : although Liszt
adopted it from 1824 onwards, for several years Erard carried on making both old
and new type actions. In 1834, when Pierre Erard asked for a renewal of the
patent, he claimed that his instruments « weren’t very well known to the general
public », and that rumours had been spread as to their lack of solidity.
It was only after Sebastian’s death (1831) that his great invention started bringing
in money for his nephew and successor Pierre. At his death in 1855, Erard had
become the greatest maker of pianos in the world, dominating the concert scene
Although Sebastien didn’t live to see this Erard heyday, he didn’t really have
reason to complain : after starting off as a poor workman, he finished his life with
the Légion d’Honneur (1827), living in a beautiful château full of exceptional works
of art. His collection of paintings, sold after his death by Pierre in Paris (1832) and
London (1834) brought in 750 000 francs, money that was used by his nephew to
invest in the development of the new double repetition concert grand.
Sebastien actually had several successive collections, buying or selling according
to the financial situation of his harp and piano business : in 1813, he sent a lot of
paintings to England to be sold to help get out of the difficulties caused by the
Napoleon wars. Unfortunately the boat transporting his paintings sunk, leading to
the bankruptcy of Erard Paris : the firm was allowed to carry on making pianos,
and thanks to the profits of the London branch, the bankruptcy was lifted in 1824.
Between Sebastien’s death and that of Pierre, there were few inventions of note
(the one exception was the barre d’harmonie precursor to the capo dastro, in
1839), and the firm concentrated on developing and improving the double
escapement action grand piano : with the increase in string tensions, and bigger
hammers, the harpsichord type structure of the early type of piano wasn’t good
enough, and the action had to be made more sturdy. Metal hitchpin plates were
fitted from the mid-1830’s, solving an inherent structural fault in the early type,
heavier pin blocks were fitted to a much heavier structure, and hammer shanks
were made of one piece rather than the very elegant but fragile « ladder » type.
The end result, the king of the concert hall in the 1850’s, was so accomplished
that Erard carried on making it right up into the 1920’s, only bringing in slight
improvements (more sturdy lyres, better finished bars, etc)…..