Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fit to be Square

"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." – Plato

My parents purchased the personal estate of my grand-aunt and prolific artist Natalie de Büren–essentially site unseen–in the mid-1980s while on holiday in Switzerland. She was in a nursing home and my father did it in large part to save her artwork, artwork that I have profiled extensively on this site. My father also knew he was preserving other family heirlooms, but was ignorant of all the estate contained.

There were many precious artifacts that emerged from the large steamer crate that finally arrived in California, none more so than the 1793 square piano, built in Bern by Swiss instrument maker Niclaus Kaderli.



“Square pianos first appeared in London in 1766. Harpsichord players loved them - their treble tones sounded so much sweeter than contemporary grand pianos - and these 'small pianofortes' were so much cheaper. Also, their small size and convenient shape made them suitable for any room. In fact they were so portable they could be carried from room to room with ease. Until c.1790 the harpsichord and piano existed side by side, rated as equally useful instruments. Consequently many wealthy home owners had both, finding that a small pianoforte could be easily accommodated.

Their most influential devotees were high society women such as Queen Charlotte of England and Marie Antoinette of France. Both were fond of music and, like many of their contemporaries, they were charmed by the tone of these pianos, not simply in solo pieces but most importantly, in accompaniments for songs. Music-making in a domestic setting was a very frequent and fashionable activity and in this context songs, with a suitable accompaniment from pianos like this one, were of great importance.”

- Square Pianos (A Brief History)

An example of a square piano of the same era can be seen at the Swiss National Museum at the Château de Prangins.


As with many family heirlooms that have perhaps been stored in less than ideal conditions; furniture, documents, and artwork, can arrive in various states of disrepair. This have been the case with many oil portraits and was tragically also the case with the Kaderli piano.

However, this instrument chose the right new home. My father has always been an ardent lover of classical music, opera, ballet, and was a concert pianist as a boy. Once he saw it, he wanted to return this instrument to its former glory. Kaderli's piano that had been played by family members, its music had surely fostered a convivial atmosphere amongst friends and had resided within the walls of the Château de Vaumarcus.



After some research, a restorer was found. The piano was restored by Bjarne “Barney” Dahl (1930-2009) a craftsman and restorer of harpsichords and antique pianos. He worked on the Kaderli square piano for over a year, my father telling him to take all the time he needed. He was also better known as the longtime owner of the Cardinal Hotel in Palo Alto and was responsible for its restoration. The following section comes from Dahl's restoration summary. I have edited his words only for spelling and grammatical errors. The accompanying photos were also taken by Dahl to document his process.

"Upon my first inspection in May 1987, this piano appeared to be complete with exception of the pedal lyre and one pedal. Only one pedal with a broken hinge remained. The bottom of the case and instrument appeared to have shrunk and wood dust from the powderpost beetle was evident. At the time, this condition did not appear to be serious. When I accepted the commission of restoration, I took the precaution of having the instrument fumigated by Dodd Fumigation in San Francisco.

Upon disassembly, the following conditions of the various action parts were noted (aside from being filthy and moth eaten):

1. Terrible warping of the keys with one ivory missing
2. All wool cloth parts totally destroyed by bugs
3. Most of the parchment hinges and leather hinges were fine
4. All tuning pins were rusty but salvageable
5. All damper return springs were bent but salvageable
6. Damper push rods were badly damaged and shortened, all or most needed replacement
7. Tuning block was in good condition
8. All strings were corroded and rusted
9. Many bumper buckskin coatings were worn through and need replacement
10. Many damper pads needed replacement
11. Soundboard split and under ribs loose.







I removed the soundboard and made horrible discovery. I noticed that the bottom board felt spongy and I could poke my finger through. I discovered total disintegration of this member by the powderpost beetle, a 3 inch thick piece of Swiss pine. The damage covered one 10 inch wide section and meant that I had to take apart every member of the instrument. The functional capacity of the piano was very much in jeopardy if this decayed member were to remain. This was a serious setback.

The beetle damage was evident over the entire length of the piano. I also discovered upon complete disassembly of the ease and bottom member that the builder was an economizer. The bottom is composed of 3 by 3 inch lengths of Swiss pine glued together to make a whole bottom board. He apparently was short of material and deliberately cut short the boards and placed a piece of dovetail or tongue in groove piece to complete the required length of the bottom board member. This additional piece is made of mahogany, and as as result the bugs ate up only one half of the board. They tried to invade the other half but somehow this member dissatisfied them and no damage resulted. The whole board did however shrink in width by at least 1/2 of an inch. This caused the upper case to distort and is still slightly visible even with a newly restored bottom.

After much effort I located a fine piece of Ponderosa pine from a private mill near Jamesville, California. Pine of 3 inch thickness is simply not available from any commercial source that I could find in the west. The piece that Mr. Meinert sent to me is quarter cut and has been seasoned for 2 years. The bottom board is now half original and half new. The upper case is beautifully made and veneered. The joining is exceptional and of very high quality.







I cleaned and replaced all of the case members using hide glue. I repaired the soundboard and lined the repaired seems with Irish linen tape, soaked in glue. The soundboard support host was reset and the under ribs reglued. After the case and soundboard were reassembled, I cleaned and repaired the entire action and restrung the instrument. I then repaired the stand and legs.

The lid hinges are original as well as most of the hardware. The pedal hinges are new and the pedal linkage levers are original. The lid appears to have been made originally for a clavichord and then adapted by the builder for this piano. The lid seems to be planed thinner on the bass end and is uneven. Warp damage is evident but not bad enough for any extensive repair or replacement, I did however have to add a 3/8 inch piece of walnut on the rear side of the lid (it simply did not fit without this addition) to compensate for the case warpage that has occurred.

This instrument has been worked on in the past. Red pads were added on under the damper shanks, action cloth parts added here and there, some leather and parchment hinge parts replaced and several veneer repairs made, etc. An antique coin from Neuchâtel of 1 Creut and a key were found, both not related to the instrument and all removed parts and debris have been boxed and labeled for future reference.


This instrument has turned out very well and musically is superb. Finger articulation is essential for the light action and the pedal for the lute or (sordine) should not be pressed down hard. All effort has been made to preserve as such of the original instrument as possible and with exception of the bottom lyre board very little compromise was necessary.

Bjarne B. Dahl, January 6, 1987"

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