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double piano with mirrored keyboards by les frères Mangeot


In 1878, a young pianist drew all eyes in Paris by championing a new type of piano built two years earlier in the same city by the brothers Edouard and Alfred Mangeot, based on an idea of Polish violinist-composer Joseph Wieniawski. The name of the wonderboy was Juliusz Zarembski, one of Liszt's favorite pupils.

Furnished with its two keyboards, the invention looks like a normal grand piano on which rests another grand piano without legs, with its long side on the right rather than the left. In other words, two pianos are superimposed one above the other in this way, with the top keyboard positioned slightly further back than the bottom one. The lower keyboard, of seven octaves, from G in the first octave to A in the eighth, is laid out in the normal way, while the upper keyboard, with the same tessitura, is built backwards: the bass keys are on the right and the treble keys on the left. The result is that when the pianist's hands each use a different keyboard, but in order to play an identical motive, their position is exactly the same. The fïngering for the passages becomes identical for each hand. Each of the pianist's hands is no longer restricted to moving in only one half of the keyboard; on the contrary, each hand now has seven octaves at its command. Zarembski called it 'the emancipation of both hands and the expansion of their musical territory'. Although composed initially for two pianos, certain pieces can thus be performed comfortably by a solo pianist on the mirrored keyboard piano. Since one has at one's disposal two independent pianos, each served by two pedals, a double sonority ensues, 'with a perfect harmonic purity, a purity so often lacking in our normal piano', Zarembski pointed out.

The first public introduction of the new invention was given on 10 May 1878, in the Institut Musical's rooms at 37 Avenue de l'Opéra in the French capital, before an audience composed of the chief celebrities in the musical field: Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Jules Massenet, Victor Massé, Charles Gounod, Antoine-François Marmontel, Léo Delibes, Oscar Comettant and so on. The programme of works Zarembski had composed or arranged for the occasion is known, but the music is lost. All that is left to us now is a brochure containing a few musical examples taken from the transcriptions he had created.

The notation for such a piano is written on two sets of two staves, each keyboard being supplied with its own two staves sharing out thus the tessitura of the piano, one in the G clef and another F clef. The two central staves are for the right hand and the two others for the left hand.

A few months later, on 11 June 1878, the new piano was shown at the Universal Exhibition in Paris when Liszt was honorary Président of the jury reponsible for judging the musical instruments exhibited. The greatest virtuoso of all time waxed enthusiastic about this piano offering 'inexhaustible possibilities'. 'Everything that can be done on the normal piano has been done' he said, 'the future belongs to a piano that, without abandoning the instrument's character, will offer new resources'. The Mangeot firm was awarded a gold medal and could therefore be counted among the best piano builders of the period.

Next, Zarembski was to launch himself on a European tour starting from London and going as far as Kiev by way of Warsaw and Vienna, in order to demonstrate the new piano abroad. Reactions to it varied, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes sceptical. As usually happens in this field, tradition proved stronger than any novelty, however brilliant the invention. Like so many others, this new invention, although quite revolutionary, would fall into oblivion.

Only two double pianos with mirrored keyboards were ever built. Zarembski's family gave his own model to Warsaw Conservatory, but it disappeared during the course of World War II. The model exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878 entered the collections of the mim (inv. M1638) as a gift from its makers.

In June 2000, as part of the Opening Festival of the new mim, Chris Seed, an English left-handed pianist, performed a virtuosic arrangement specially written for the Mangeot double monster by Francis Bowdery of Liszt's "Figaro Fantasy" on themes from Mozart's famous opera, in the presence of HM Queen Fabiola of Belgium. The then head of the department, Ms. Malou Haine, published a book on Liszt's last orchestrations, which were in fact two "Galician Dances" and one "Mazurka" by ... Juliusz Zarembski. You can listen to a fragment of the cd included in the book, which is available from our museum shop.

M1638's double keyboard