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piano lesson

George Goodwin Kilburne, “The Piano Lesson”, 1871

I found this interesting article  “The Growth of the Market for Domestic Music” on Lee Jackson’s website “The Victorian Webb“. This article examines the rise of middle class wealth and how “the first musical fruit of middle-class prosperity appeared in the form of a piano.” 


The importance of the piano in the middle class home shouldn’t be under estimated:

It was the acquisition of pianos in large numbers which was to vastly extend the market for drawing-room ballads, and to standardize the genre as a song with piano accompaniment (rather than, say, harp). In the early part of the nineteenth century it was taken for granted that a song published with piano accompaniment was intended for home music-making, or ‘at home’ functions such as soirees, since songs at public concerts were normally performed with an orchestral accompaniment until the 1840s.

The tradition of publishing music heard at concerts in versions aimed at amateurs stretched back into the previous century: then the passion for the German flute among gentleman amateurs had lain behind such remarkable publications as Handel’s complete Messiah arranged for flute. The piano seemed to attract the middle class in its earliest arrival in England: Charles Dibdin introduced it at Covent Garden in 1767, and Drury Lane gained an official pianist in 1770.

By way of contrast, the piano did not replace the harpsichord in the King’s Band for another twenty-five years. In the 1830s there was a great variety of pianos available (grands, squares, upright grands, upright squares, cabinet pianos, table pianos, giraffe pianos, lyre pianos), but the design that won the day was Robert Wornum’s cottage piano. Its small size was not created at the expense of tone quality, and its pleasant shape made it a satisfying piece of furniture. Wornum had been working on his cottage design [45/46] since 1811.

The action on an upright piano is unavoidably more complex than the grand, where the strings lie in the horizontal plane, and he continued to make improvements in the late 1830s: for example, his ‘tape-check’ action, which formed the basis of the upright action used in pianos today. Further improvements were made to upright design in the 1840s, and henceforth the softer-toned square piano began to lose favour. The grand piano, however, continued to be the first choice for the concert platform; the upright was considered a domestic instrument.

As today, pianos back then did not come cheap, although  despite there being more pianos in the home in the 19th century than today, electronic keyboards and pianos can be bought fairly cheaply ( such as second hand) and require little to no maintenance. 

Pianos cost around 25 and 40 guineas in 1856: a lot of money!

The piano became the pre-eminent bourgeois instrument for a variety of reasons. At first, it was a luxury instrument; therefore, its possession indicated worldly success. It was, as already remarked, a pleasing piece of furniture, gleaming in its mahogany or rosewood case. A fondness for excessive ornament emphasized this purely visual appeal; indeed, the decorative parts of pianos were the first to be mass produced: in the second decade of the nineteenth century Broadwood bought cast-brass moulding by the foot and stamped brass ornaments by the dozen. The extremes to which this decorative interest could stretch may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, where there is a satinwood piano decorated with Gothic ornament, inlaid and gilded, with three silk panels at the front (probably the design of Charles Bevan). The piano had established itself as a luxury item of furniture in the 1830s.

The beauty of 19th century pianos still inspire our admiration today, with their beautiful carvings and adornments. They appeal to our sense of nostalgia and romance.  

As public playing was not considered as seemly for women, despite there being concert pianists and composers like Clara Schumann, it tended to be women who were the main home musicians. Domestic music making was often to accompany singing and a lot of sheet music was published ( ballads especially) for home entertainment. In fact, some of the composers of these pieces were women. I attended a Victorian song concert around 4 years ago where a tenor sang Victorian songs/ballads  written by women, accompanied by a pianist. He was even dressed in 19th century style. 

You can find a fascinating article on women ballad composers on “The Victorian Webb” entitled “The Rise of the Woman Ballad Composer“:


The piano too, featured in literature of the time, and women especially could express themselves through piano playing as it was considered an accomplishment for young ladies to be able to play at family gatherings and parties.  

Inspired by my interest in the Victorian era and love of antique pianos I created a circa 1860s Victorian room, complete with hand made miniature piano and paper Victorian doll. Here she is stood by her stool looking in her sheet music book, deciding what she wants to play:


Perusing the sheet music book. “The Victorian Piano room,” made by EdwardianPiano.


And now she sits playing:


The Victorian Piano Room, hand made by EdwardianPiano.


You can see more photos of “The Victorian Piano Room” on my Etsy store: