Return to home page (of whole site)
Ordering Music
About Adlais
Contacting Adlais
Click here for an index of Adlais Music set in ABRSM, LCM & Trinity Music Exams
Return to Catalogue home page
View Index of new editions and new publications Return to Catalogue home page
Exercises and Sudies
View our scores for solo harp
View our scores for two harps
View our scores for flute and harp
view our scores for voice and harp
View our scores for Harp & Other Instrument
Browse the rest of our web site
Harps and Harpists
Lady Llanover
Web Site Designer


Find us on Facebook
Text graphic: Adlais
Sébastien Erard
A Dynasty of Harpmakers
by Ann Griffiths
First published in World Harp Congress Review - Spring 2002
Sébastien Erard
Sébastien Erard, aged about 50.

An important anniversary has come, and an important anniversary has gone—seemingly unnoticed. Was I the only person in this whole wide harp world who, on 5 April 2002, was celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sébastien Erard?

In response to this question, I wonder how many non-European harpists have said “Of whom?” Indeed, many of today’s younger generation of European harpists—brought up on Salvi, Obermayer, Horngacher, David and Camac harps—might well have responded similarly. Yet had it not been for the truly revolutionary genius of Sébastien Erard, Salvi, Obermayer, Horngacher, David, Camac and even the Lyon & Healy harps would simply not exist. We harpists would all still be struggling with fragile little eighteenth-century harps by Cousineau or Naderman, completely unable to play even one chordal glissando,(1) and forever stuck in the key of E-flat major.

Who then was this genius that changed the harp forever? It is well known that Sébastien Erard was French and that he was born in Strasbourg on 5 April 1752, as the fourth child of the second marriage of Louis-Antoine Erard (1685-1758). What is far less well-known is that his father, was born, not in France, but in Switzerland. Bassecourt, near Porrentruy in the Swiss Jura, is a tiny, rather drab and oppressive little village, set on a narrow plain bounded by two mountain ranges, the peak on the right hand side of the valley rising to a height of 1,029 metres. Little wonder that Louis-Antoine Erard should choose to leave such a depressing place. When he finally left the valley, in around 1726, the young joiner-cabinetmaker’s route was probably along the banks of the river Sorne to Délémont, then, through Basel, via the Rhine to Strasbourg, where he settled as a member of the Catholic guild of master joiners.(2)

Sébastien Erard was only six years old when his father died, and romanticised accounts of his having acquired his woodworking skills in his father’s workshop cannot be substantiated. He was, however, brought up within a community of skilled artisans, with uncles, cousins, his godfather and his older brother all being employed as joiners, cabinetmakers and gilders, for the most part in an ecclesiastical context, as makers of church furniture.(3) What led to his becoming an instrument maker is not known, nor is it known where he was trained, though it is fascinating to conjecture that he may have known and worked with the Strasbourg-based members of the famous Silbermann dynasty. Its younger members Johann Andreas (1712-1783), Johann Daniel (1717-1760) and Johann Heinrich (Jean Henri) (1727-1799) attracted to their Strasbourg workshops many of the new generation of keyboard instrument makers who subsequently became established both in Germany and in London.

Sébastien Erard most probably reached Paris in 1768, at the age of sixteen or so, but again it has been impossible to verify the account of his beginnings there. However, the Duchesse de Villeroy (1731-1816) was an early patron, providing Erard with workshop premises at her mansion in the rue de Bourbon; in 1777 he made her a fortepiano based on a square piano made in London by Johannes Zumpe, a former disciple of the Silbermann workshops in Strasbourg. In 1779 he built the only known Erard harpsichord,(4) and then began to exploit the new market for five-octave fortepianos, so successfully overcoming the fashionable preference for‘ English’ pianos that he was obliged to call on the help of an older brother, Jean-Baptiste Erard (b Strasbourg, 7 July 1749; d Passy, 10 April 1826). Together they moved first to 109 rue de Bourbon, and in November 1781 to 13 rue du Mail, which remained the headquarters of the company until its eventual closure. In 1784, the jealously conservative guild of Parisian luthiers attempted to block the brothers’ enterprise, but their efforts were overcome by the personal intervention of the King, who awarded Sébastien Erard a special dispensation dated 5 February 1785. In 1786 Erard made a special transposing fortepiano to accompany Queen Marie Antoinette’s singing voice,(5) and in 1786-87 he made another fortepiano for her.(6) In January 1788, the brothers formed a business partnership, operating thenceforth as Erard frères, and in January 1791 they became owners of the rue du Mail premises they had previously rented. Their sales registers for 1788 show an annual production of 254 fortepianos, and those for 1789 show an annual production of 410.

So far, no harps! Indeed, when Erard left revolutionary Paris for London, he left no harps behind. He had, however, already addressed the problem of the harp, observing in a letter that ‘the mechanism is too complicated; I have changed and much simplified it; this means it doesn’t break strings like before. Once I have obtained the right to show my discovery, I will bring out my harps.’ Although it is probable that he had made previous exploratory visits to London as early as 1779, and again in both 1786 and 1788, it was in 1790 or 1791 that he made his definitive departure for London, where, in 1792 he founded an establishment at 18 Great Marlborough Street. There he concentrated on the manufacture of harps, which previously had almost all been imported from France, and in November 1794 he acknowledged the first-ever British patent for a harp.

Replacing the unsatisfactory crochets and béquilles systems of string shortening with a mechanism à fourchettes,(7) Erard strengthened the neck of the harp by laminating the wood with the grain running in the same direction, and his new rounded soundbox replaced the previous staved construction. The mechanism, instead of being enclosed within the neck, was placed between two brass plates and attached to it, thus giving the instrument additional rigidity.

Most remarkable, of course, was the new fork mechanism, which, when engaged by the pedal, brought two forked pins into contact with the strings, thus shortening them the degree of a semitone; the sharpened strings remained parallel with the others, so that there were fewer string breakages, and accuracy of intonation was greatly improved.(8) The harp was tuned in E-flat major, and could be played in eight major and five minor keys. Erard moved back to Paris in the summer of 1795, when he bought a house at Sèvres, and introduced his new single action harp; his first French patent, however, dates only from 1798.

Mechanism à béquilles and à fourchettes (drawn by C. Barlow).
Mechanism à béquilles and à fourchettes (drawn by C. Barlow).

In London, the harp had remarkable success. Erard’s London Stock Books show that aristocratic patronage came early, but that more than an element of social emulation played its role, with sales really taking off from November 1800, when Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales paid the sum of £75-12-0 for harp no. 357. Décor—influenced by the recent architectural discoveries in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Athens—appears to have been standardised early; a circle of rams heads decorated the capital of the fluted column, and the most popular harp, as noted in the Order Books, was ‘noire, bordures etrusques’. The brass plate was engraved with the harp’s serial number, the address at Great Marlborough Street and the anglicised form of the maker’s Christian name. The three London Order Books cover the activities of the firm from about 1798 to 1917, during which time 6,862 harps are listed as sold. There are particularly fascinating detailed accounts for the period from 2 February 1807 to 24 April 1809, during which time, starting at harp no. 867, £20,512-14-8 worth of singleaction harps were sold. By September 1810, Erard’s London outlet had sold 1,374 harps. His agents included Mesdames Dussek and Krumpholtz, and many French refugees such as Dizi, Meyer and the Vicomte de Marin.

The Order Books reveal a distinguished clientele. In 1807, a harp cost £83-7-0, and a set of strings would set you back £1-18-0. Day to day running expenses are noted (he seems to have used many pints of brown varnish!) as are the workmen’s weekly wages. For instance, on 23 February 1807, he ‘paid to the workmen’ the sum of £39-6-10; on 21 March the bill amounted to £42-16-0. At the end of the year, the workmen would be rewarded with a ‘bean-feast’. There are several notes of payments to a ‘Mr Tillier, the gilder’, and a Mr Collier was paid £5-0-0 whenever he carved a decorative eagle intended to be fixed on the top of the column of the harp.

Erard paid extremely generous funeral expenses amounting to £42-3-6 for the funeral of one of his workmen, a Mr Fiesinger, and there are payments for other things like picture frames—initially more puzzling until one realises the extent of Erard’s collection of paintings, already famous at the beginning of the nineteenth century.(9)

In 1807, a new business agreement was drawn up between Sébastien and Jean-Baptiste Erard, and afterwards Sébastien regained London, where he stayed for five years, concentrating on the development of the harp. As stated previously, his single-action harp, despite the revolutionary improvement in its mechanical functioning, was limited to playing in only thirteen keys (E-flat, Bb, F, C, G, D, A and E majors, with three of their relative minors). Erard had taken out several successive patents in both England (1801 and 1808) and France (1802 and 1806), but it was May 1810 (London patent no. 3332) before he was able to perfect and patent a double-action mechanism based on the fork principle, thus enabling the harp to play in all keys.

The first double-action Erard harp was no. 1387, sold at Great Marlborough Street on 11 December 1811, and still existing in a private collection in England. This harp had 43 strings, giving a range of E-flat’’ to f’’’. As in the harp we know today, each of its seven pedals could be moved twice, from flat, to natural to sharp, and its open key was C-flat major. By means of setting the pedals, this harp could be played in any key, and Erard’s principles have continued to be used by modern harpmakers, with very little modification until quite recent times. The applied plasterwork ‘Grecian’ decoration with its circle of winged caryatids, winged lions, gryphons, Greek masks and acanthus leaves was standardised from an early stage, and some of the necessary moulds have been preserved.(10) Soundboard decoration varied, but this too was stylised, and intaglio transfers were used. 3,500 such harps were sold in London between 1811 and 1820, fully justifying Erard’s enormous expenditure in setting up specialised equipment for their manufacture. It must be remembered that Erard’s London establishment was a product of the new industrial age, and a large-scale ‘manufactory’, rather than the kind of ‘workshop’ establishment formerly associated with harp making.

The double action harp was introduced to Paris in 1811, but it was April 1815 before it received official approval from the commission appointed jointly by the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Beaux-Arts. Meanwhile, Sébastien Erard had moved back to Paris on a permanent basis, and his nephew had taken over direction of the London business.

Erard double-action  Erard
Erard double-action “Grecian” harp decorated with winged caryatids. Erard “Louis XVI” model (1894).

Pierre-Orphée Erard (b 10 March 1794; d 15 August 1855) took over at 18 Great Marlborough Street on 17 May 1814. The son of Jean-Baptiste Erard, he had been born in Paris during the revolutionary period, and orphaned before he was a year old. In preparation for taking over the family firm, his studies had been directed to learning English, music and the harp, which he had studied with Jean-Aimé Vernier (1769-after 1838). The year before Pierre reached London, the Paris concern had been seriously compromised by the imposition of trade and industrial restrictions due to the Napoleonic wars, and on 26 February 1813 it had been declared bankrupt, with a deficit of 1,371,629 francs. By 1820, however, 3,500 double-action ‘Grecian’ harps had been sold in London, and thanks to the profits made by the London branch, all outside debts incurred by the Paris enterprise were reimbursed, and the bankruptcy was discharged by order of the royal court on 12 April 1824.

Pierre Erard remained in London and directed the London establishment until 1829, taking out a patent for an improved harp in 1822. This, however, proved impractical, as it necessitated changing the order of the harp’s pedals, which had been definitively established since the 1770s. Pierre continued to work on the larger, 46-string harp throughout the 1820s, eventually taking out a patent for the so-called ‘Gothic’ harp, which he acknowledged on 18 June 1836. The soundboard was lengthened by four inches so that the harp could accommodate 46 strings, which could be more widely spaced. Heavier wire-wound bass strings were introduced from 6th octave E downwards and the range of the harp was C’’ to f’’’. The lower part of the body shell was strengthened so that it was approximately double the usual thickness, and the notches for the pedals were cut into the actual body of the harp.(11)

Jean-Baptiste Erard had died in March 1827, and Sébastien Erard died on 5 August 1831, aged 79. An inventory after decease at the rue du Mail site discloses the extent of the operation, with 80 specialist workers employed in 19 workshops. Sixteen workshops were devoted to the piano, but only three to the harp, where four workers were employed for woodwork, one for assembly and one for gilding. The stock included 50 completed pianos and 13 harps.

In the early 1820s, Sébastien had bought the Château de la Muette at Passy, and here a separate inventory casts light on unexpected aspects of the life of the instrument maker. It reveals not only a cellar with 2,047 bottles of wine, but also approximately 260 paintings of exceptional quality, many of which now hang in the world’s most famous museums. Death duties, and various other expenses incurred in the launching of the new grand pianos with double escapement, meant that Pierre Erard felt obliged to raise money by selling off his uncle’s collection of paintings. Before the end of 1831, he had already sold the portrait of Philip IV by Velasquez (now at the Hermitage, St Petersburg) and at the first Paris sale in August 1832, paintings were offered for sale by, amongst others, Correggio, Murillo, Rubens, Teniers, Titian and Van Dyck. At the subsequent London sale (June 1833), a further 50 paintings were sold, including Dürer’s “Adoration of the Magi” (Uffizzi Gallery, Florence) and Rembrandt’s 1634 portrait of his mother (National Gallery,London). Strangely, not one musical instrument was inventoried at the Château.

The effect of the Erard harp was crucial to the development of harp-writing in the nineteenth century, and the experiments and innovative techniques of virtuosi such as Parish Alvars (1808-1849) revealed more technical and expressive possibilities for the double-action harp than Sébastien Erard himself could ever have imagined. The most typical of the newly possible effects is the chordal glissando, now ubiquitous, but totally unknown until the mid-1830s. Other effects such as bisbigliando, the combination of harmonics with glissando, pedal glissandi, modulations to remote keys, and the brilliant effect of the rapid reiteration of notes of the same pitch achieved by pre-setting pedals, were all invented by Parish Alvars using an Erard harp. His Fantasia (op.61) is dedicated to Pierre Erard.

Pierre Erard returned to live in Paris in 1834, marrying his second cousin, Camille Février, and after his death in 1855, the business passed into her hands. A Monsieur Bruzaud was nominated successor in London and Madame Erard appointed her brother-in-law Antoine Eugène Schaffer(1802-1873) to direct the Paris enterprise. In 1883 she entered into a business agreement with Amedé Blondel, and the company operated as Erard et Cie. An illustrated trade pamphlet of 1878 shows four grand pianos, four uprights and two models of harp, including the ornately carved Style Louis XVI, and a 47-string Gothic model. Harps made in London and Paris were numbered differently, so that the French-built harp no. 2344, imported in 1894, bore the English number 6610.(12)

Publicity leaflet for English Gothic harp with ornamental twisted column.
Publicity leaflet for English “Gothic” harp with ornamental “twisted” column.
Erard’s London factory was sold by auction on 9 September 1890, and much of the business was acquired by J. George Morley.(13) The remaining part of Erard’s London enterprise was gradually allowed to decline, though a few harps continued to be made at the rear of the Great Marlborough Street premises until the 1930s. In Paris, the firm traded successively as Blondel et Cie (Maison Erard), from 1935 to 1956 as Guichard et Cie (Maison Erard), and from 1956 onwards as Erard et Cie S.A. It amalgamated with Gaveau as Gaveau-Erard in 1959, continuing harp manufacture on a small scale until the early 1960s under the name of Erard. In 1978, the premises of the Salle Gaveau and the goodwill of the harp-manufacturing section of Gaveau-Erard were—very appropriately—acquired by Victor Salvi.
©Ann Griffiths 2002
  1. 1. The single-action harp was tuned in E-flat major. Each pedal could be moved only once, so the only notes obtainable were D, C, Bb, Eb, F, G, Ab, and D#, C#, B, E, F#, G#, A.
  2. A. Roudier, ‘Les origines de la famille Erard’ in Sébastien Erard, 1752-1831, ou la rencontre avec le pianoforte. Exhibition Catalogue, Luxeuil-les-Bains, 1993. Alain Roudier was the first scholar to research the origins of the Erard family by searching church and civic records in Strasbourg, France, and the harp world is deeply indebted to him for the work he has done.
  3. In December 1712, Louis-Antoine Erard was signatory to a contract for carving choir stalls for the rich Cistercian Monastery of St Marie de Lucelle (Roudier, op.cit. p.15). Later ‘authorities’ have called him a furniture maker, and even an upholsterer—a trade very different from his actual area of expertise.
  4. Clavecin mécanique or clavecin à expression. Paris, Musée de la Musique.
  5. This instrument has not survived.
  6. Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands, England.
  7. Registered as the first British patent ever to be awarded for a harp (Patent no. 2016, London, 17 October 1794).
  8. See illustration.
  9. Anik Devriès: Sébastien Erard, un amateur d’art du début du XIXe siècle. Reprinted in Roudier (op. cit.)
  10. Clive Morley Collection, Filkins, Lechlade, England.
  11. Patent no. 6962, London, 18 December 1835.
  12. Private collection, Wales
  13. It is thanks to the perspicacity of the Morley family—now represented by Mr Clive Morley—that many of the Erard records and related material have been preserved. In December 1994, Erard’s Stock Books—originally owned by the Morley family—were acquired at auction by the Instrumental Museum of London’s Royal College of Music (Curator, Elizabeth Wells).