Johann Ludwig Hellen    Bern   ca.1760

An early square piano, also called ''Kleines Forte-Piano'' or ''Zwerg Forte-Piano'' in German in the second of the 18th century. Or Also called ''Fortbien'' by Friederici from Gera.


Compass: AA-f'''

Johann Ludwig Hellen (1716-1781)

He was born near Bern (boltigen in simmental) and worked as a harpsichord and piano maker there. The earliest record we have from him is from 1761 but he must have made harpsichords or even piano earlier. He made also combi grands (harpsichord-pianos). The latest instrument from him was made in 1780. He made grand and square pianos with different action but very similar furniture work which you can see photos of various instruments from him below.


This amazing piano is for sure one of the oldest known square pianos in the world. Zumpe and probably Mercken (from both there are early examples in this collection) started making square pianos (and only square pianos! no grands!)  in the late 1760s. (of course in England Zumpe was not the only piano maker in 1760s) and we do not have such a record of anyone in the continent making square pianos earlier than this date except of a very similar square piano (as the one in this collection) which is made by Söcher and is located in the GMN in Nuremberg which is dated 1742 and some specialists doubt about that. But there is no wonder because Friederici was already making amazing upright grand pianos and square pianos which he called fortpien in 1740s! 

Ferrini (Cristofori's pupil) and Silbermann who copied Cristofori's action with his own German style body of the fortepiano...but also Helen and a few others were making grands already in 1740s to 1760s.

But there were always masters who were making such instruments that were very new in those days...spinet or clavichord like instruments that had hammers instead of jacks. One can imagine how this new sound ideal was finding its place in the heart of listeners and ''Musik Liebhaber'' who could afford buying them. Their sound was /is very delightful and the volume (which is even more than a clavichord) was totally acceptable. They didn't necessarily look for big sound for making music at home for their own pleasure or friend/family's delight.


This small piano is one of the very few surviving examples of this period.


Square pianos were not making so much noise as grands and powerful uprights could do and that's why there were not made anywhere after ca.1870. The louder ones made in the 19th century could still be kept in many apartments or houses as a decoration or an instrument that one could sometimes play some simple tunes... and most of these early ones made around Mozart's birth year or Scarlatti's death year were mostly ignored and lost...these could not serve the musical needs of people in 1850s and thereafter...up to this date (that the attention to original instruments and performance practice of the music of 18th century is raised).


Its compass is also limited in the bass (AA instead of FF) which was quite normal in 1760s specially from this maker.

The similar compass of a piano in this period is by the same maker! a grand fortepiano in Giulini collection near Milan.


The dampers are missing and it seems that it has had dampers lift...either added later or original. Most probably added later.

Soon there will be more research about it which is almost only possible through the cooperation of the GMN and Metropolitan Museums. 

Simple Prellmechanik which are usually to be found on pre 1780 square pianos in the German speaking countries, but also in Italy. For instance the 3 Italian square pianos of this collection have all simple Prellmechanik but of course each has its own very design. This one has wooden Kapsels and like many other south German square pianos the hammer head is connected with a screwed piece of metal which enables the restorer or player to place the hammer head in exactly the right position with extrem ease!

It has no escapement mechanism (that is why it is called simple Prellmechanik) which was probably invented by the famous German organ and clavier-instrument maker Johann Andreas Stein.

Mozart writes to his father ( the letter and more information can be found on the page of Melchior Guante square piano ca.1795 in this collection) and he says that ''Stein uses escapement mechanism on his pianos which is rather very rarely done by any other maker''! (if any!?)

So this is a very early example of such an action that was known to Mozart and all south German, Austria Italian area! 

Also the Baumann square pianos from Zweibrücken are made similar to this.

Extraordinary gold leaf ornamentation applied on a piece of leather for key arcades! very unusual and rarely seen for pianos!

Most of these ornaments are still preserved.

On the right side you see keys of a 1779 Hellen square piano in private collection. 


Two photos above show the 1779 square piano by Hellen. Several obvious similarities are easy to see. The flap in the front, curved candle holder (wooden), veneer (also interior) , the exact details of arcades, exactly the same form of nameboard (brass simple ornament on blacked wood) and several other things like painted soundboards (which share more similarities with the grand pianos of earlier and later dates (of this 1779 square piano) but there are also some differences between these Hellens which is no wonder.
It is also possible that the Hellen from Radbon collection is the oldest Hellen instrument.

Photos taken when the piano arrived.

This piano along with Carlo Arnoldi fortepiano are among the most inspiring pianos of this collection which connect me on one side to their past (baroque music) and to their future (classical) and therefore I would call them ''transitional'' pianos which have their own very strong and by no means unstable charackter which suits the best for the music of C.P.E Bach, Benda, Platti, Scarlatti and even Händel and Bach! 

There is for sure no sin to play Bach's music on an instrument that existed in his time and he liked it (though truly most of his keyboard music were written for Clavichord, Harpsichord and Organ) but since there is no policy and restricted dry rules and we in the early music want to play the music in its most inspiring way, I believe this little square piano which has some clavichord influences in its sound, can be very well for pieces like the well tempered clavier, Toccatas, English and French suits and all miscelanous works etc.! 

The very small but lovely and beautifully painted soundboard which is the heart of the instrument produces a very warm, resonant and attractive sound which can be compared to clavichord and no other later piano! for instance in comparison to the delicately made Guante 1795 or Malleck 1790 which suit Mozart very well, this one produces a sound which is unique in its own way! I do not know of any similar instrument being owned in a private collection or museum in playing condition, let alone expecting videos on you tube etc.

So it is a good chance to start recording solo music of pre 1780 masters with it...

Restored in August 2014 

Square piano by Söcher...probably the oldest known square piano. Now in Germanisches National Museum in Nürnberg.

A Harpsichord-Piano made by Hellen in Berlin museum for original instruments.