|Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875), b. Johan Heinrich Papen, belongs to that race
of Germanic expatriates who played such an important role in the development
of the French and English piano industry (Pleyel, Shudi, Zumpe to name but a
few of the most important).
We know he was born in 1789 in Sarstedt, but we then lose trace of him until
1819, when he reappears in the Almanach de Commerce of Paris, listed as a
piano-maker installed in the Palais-Royal area.
According to some texts, he arrived in Paris c.1811, after spending some time
in England, and worked for Pleyel, but this information would need to be
The first pianos made by Pape were almost certainly squares, of a
conventional design : like other makers, he needed to establish his reputation
and finances by designing reliable and straightforward instruments, before
launching into anything more adventurous.
The really interesting developments in Pape’s pianos started in 1826 : he
registered that year the first of a series of extraordinary patents, including
felting hammers, down striking action, and fallboard. Despite the fact that Pape
presented a square with down striking action at the 1827 Paris Expo, Fétis
wrote about his instruments there that « Although there is nothing specific in
the design of Pape’s pianos, and they are generally simple imitations of the
instruments of MM Petzold & Pfeiffer, the quality of their sound is pleasant if a
little heavy ». Fétis was obviously basing his judgement on the instruments
made by Pape up till this date, and several extant early instruments confirm
this impression : the design is typical of the instruments of the time, although
the build quality is very high.
The economic figures for this transition period in the Pape production show
that the firm has done extremely well : in 1827, with a turnover of 280 000
francs and 75 workers, Pape is well ahead of Pleyel who started before he did
(180 000 francs for 30 workers), although both men still have a long way to go
to catch up on the well-established Erard (1 169 000 francs, 150 workers).
The following years, that show a regular though not spectacular progression
(by 1834, Pleyel has passed well ahead), are amongst the most interesting in
the whole history of the piano : the pianos built by Pape are in every way
extraordinary. Technological innovation is permanent, the casework is radically
different to anything built by anyone else, and every detail you look at is of
superb quality. The important 1826 patents are put into application, and
followed by a great number of others : Pape registered 102 patents, of which
73 were in direct relation to the piano, although not all were of equal
Pape presented his instruments at most of the Expos until the 1855 Crystal
Palace Universal Expo, and won the Gold medal of the 1834 Paris Expo (he
would almost certainly have won it at the 1827 Expo, if he hadn’t fallen out with
the jury who he accused of being partial). At this time, he is one of the
foremost makers of grand pianos in France, with Pleyel and Erard. His main
production though is squares and uprights, the piano-console being
At a date which is unknown to me, Pape set up a factory in London (several
piano-consoles mention Paris and London) : the fact that Pape and Erard built
pianos in England, and Boisselot in Spain, goes to show that the French piano
industry was particularly successful and dynamic at this time.
At his death in 1875, which seems to have put an end to Pape pianos, it
appears that his production had practically come to a standstill : the inventory
of his belongings mentions « 50 pianos, complete or incomplete, two work
benches and some old tools », the value of the lot only estimated at 300 francs.
Although the archives don’t give much information about Pape’s private life
and character (he married in 1819, and had a son, Frédéric-Eugène who also
built pianos, but went bankrupt, leaving the debt to his parents), he fortunately
published several leaflets about his piano production that give interesting
insights into his personality.
Pape’s passionate interest in innovation and invention is obvious in every line,
as the following description of the evolution of the down striking action shows.
« I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this action, and I abandoned it later for
another, then this one for a third, and so on. In other words, innumerable trials
followed one another over a few years ». Over twenty actions of this type were
experimented : « I aspired to a sort of ideal impossible to reach »…..
This inventor’s obstinacy, as is often the case, went along with a certain
inflexibility of character : he fell out several times with the expo juries (1823
&1827), and in 1849, unhappy about the place he had been given, he pulled
his pianos out of the Expo altogether.
According to his own claims, and we have no reason to disbelieve him, Pape’s
research wasn’t motivated by money : the great variety of shapes he tested for
his pianos was only possible through « the abandon and sacrifice of my own
interests », as the general public are always scared of innovations, and the
final price of the instruments in no way justified the time spent in research.
Pape opposes this purist and disinterested approach of the inventor, whose «
main ambition…. is to be known by useful inventions and realisations », to that
of dealers, whose main aim in life « is to fill their safes quicker and quicker ».
This rather bitter observation is followed by a conclusion in the same vein : «
The way things are, truth finds few defenders amongst those responsible for
publicity, and the piano-maker has to abandon his tools for the pen, to plead
his own cause, however much he hates talking about himself ».