You might think you know what a piano looks and sounds like, but these designs will make you think again. Here are five of the most unusual piano designs ever to hit the market.

Thanks to Jo Santy of the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, home of the first three instruments here, for the detailed information.

1. The Mangeot double grand piano

Double piano with mirrored keyboards, Mangeot, 1878 © Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Double piano with mirrored keyboards, Mangeot, 1878
© Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
At first glance, this antique instrument by Edouard and Alfred Mangeot seems to take inspiration from the harpsichord, or other early keyboard instruments with multiple keyboards. But this double piano is a lot more interesting than that. The two keyboards are “mirrored”, with the upper keyboard having the highest pitches at the bottom and the lowest at the top.

Only two such instruments were ever built, and the Musical Instruments Museum exhibits the one that survives, which was first performed on in Paris in 1878. Pianist Christopher Seed gave a performance on it at the museum in 2000 – gamely coping not just with the mirrored keyboards, but also with the four (mirrored) pedals underneath!

Back in 1878, Liszt was very taken with it, saying that it offered “inexhaustible possibilities” – “Everything that can be done on the normal piano has been done”, he said, so it was time to look beyond. Certainly, the possibilities the Mangeots’ instrument offers have not yet been exhausted.

2. The Pleyel grand piano with “Luthéal” mechanism

Grand piano, 1911, Pleyel; fitted with Luthéal © Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Grand piano, 1911, Pleyel; fitted with Luthéal
© Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
The luthéal is not an instrument in itself, but a contraption to be added to a piano which alters its timbre, patented by the Belgian inventor George Cloetens in 1919. The pianist has four knobs to turn, which can make the instrument produce a range of contrasting sonorities. This instrument, again on display at the Musical Instruments Museum, fits the only original luthéal which remains to its original piano, a Pleyel dating from 1911. A painstaking restoration job was concluded in 1979, and the instrument has featured on a number of recordings since.

The most famous pieces written for the luthéal are by Ravel: his Tzigane for violin and piano and his opera L’enfant et les sortilèges both call for the instrument. But it’s also inspired new work in the last few years: improvising pianist Veryan Weston composed his piece Tessellations for the instrument.

3. The six-pedal Angst fortepiano

Fortepiano, Joseph Angst, Vienna, 1828 © Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Fortepiano, Joseph Angst, Vienna, 1828
© Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Fortepiano, Joseph Angst, Vienna, 1828: pedals © Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Fortepiano, Joseph Angst, Vienna, 1828: pedals
© Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels

The conventional exterior of this fortepiano by Joseph Angst, dating from 1828 in Vienna, conceals a radical secret which you’ll see if you glance towards the floor: rather than the standard two (or three) pedals, it has six.

The pedals perform a variety of functions – some soften the sound of the strings with felt; one, known as the bassoon pedal, emulates the sound of the bassoon through placing a strip of wood covered with parchment on the lower strings. The Turquerie pedal recalls “Turkish” music with various percussive effects including bells.

 

 

 

4. The “Doppio Borgato” double concert grand

Doppio Borgato piano
Doppio Borgato piano
Unlike the previous three, all of which are exhibited in Brussels, this is a contemporary invention, currently on the market. Combining piano technology with an idea more familiar to organists, the Doppio Borgato has a second keyboard, played with the feet: this operates what is effectively a completely separate piano to the one at the top. The first of designer Luigi Borgato’s instruments was presented in 2000, and numerous compositions have already been written for the instrument, including works by Ennio Morricone and Charlemagne Palestine. Earlier compositions for pianos with pedalboard are surprisingly numerous: Schumann was a champion of the idea, and there are also works by Liszt, Gounod and Saint-Saëns.

5. The Sega grand piano

Sega is not a company primarily known for its pianos, but the Japanese video game giant has, apparently, created the world’s smallest grand piano that actually works. Each key is just four milimetres wide, but it operates in the same way as its larger relatives. If you happen to have an unusually talented hamster, this may be the perfect gift. If you don’t, it has a pianola-style autoplay function, so it may still prove useful.

 

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