- Margaret Cranmer
French firm of piano makers. It was founded in 1807 at Paris by the composer Ignace Pleyel (see Pleyel family). The firm quickly adopted and improved the best features of English piano making; Pape, Jean Henri helped Pleyel from 1811 to 1815 with the building of cottage pianos or ‘pianinos’, small vertically strung uprights invented by the English maker Robert Wornum (ii) which were new to France. In 1815 Ignace’s son Camille Pleyel joined the firm; 14 years later the pianist Frédéric Kalkbrenner joined too and did much to publicize Pleyel pianos. Chopin became closely associated with the firm; he made his début in Paris (26 February 1832) at the Salle Pleyel and later owned a Pleyel grand of 1839 (no.7267) with a single escapement and a light touch. Chopin said ‘when I feel in good form and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano’. The soundboard introduced by Pleyel in 1830 consisted of mahogany veneer running across pine boards and is thought to have encouraged a bright, silvery sound. Cramer, Moscheles and Steibelt were also friends of the firm. Business increased so much that the firm claimed 250 employees and, probably with exaggeration, an annual production of 1000 pianos in 1834. By the 1870s the annual output had increased to 2500, a level that was maintained for the rest of the century.
In 1855 Camille died and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Auguste Wolff (b Paris, 3 May 1821; d Paris, 9 Feb 1887), the firm becoming Pleyel, Wolff & Cie. After Wolff's death his son-in-law Gustave Lyon (b Paris, 19 Nov 1857; d Paris, 12 Jan 1936) assumed control of ‘Pleyel, Lyon et Cie’. Lyon developed a harpe éolienne (see Aeolian harp), but is more famous for his development of the chromatic harp (see Harp, §V, 7, (ii)) at the end of the 19th century. It dispensed with pedals, substituting a string for each semitone of the octave. Debussy wrote for it, but it has never achieved the popularity of the double-action harp, as the number of strings is nearly double and it requires a totally different finger technique. Under Lyon the firm also made chromatic timpani, chimes, practice keyboards, the ‘Duoclave’ (in 1895), which consisted of two grand pianos built into a single case, and the two-manual Emanuel Moór pianoforte with a steel coupler designed by Lyon himself (see Shead). Lyon's action was subsequently used by Bösendorfer in their own double-keyboard instruments. Under the trade name ‘Pleyela’ the firm brought out a reproducing piano-player mechanism.
At the turn of the century Pleyel began making two-manual harpsichords, with 2 × 8′ and 1 × 4′, six pedals and classical casework (see Harpsichord, §5, (i)). Wanda Landowska suggested a new design in 1912, a modern departure having little in common with the classical instrument, with a heavy case including a cast-iron frame, a special tuning system, seven pedals and a 16′ register (see Harpsichord). About two such instruments were made annually. It was this instrument that Landowska played throughout her career. In 1961 the firm was merged with Gaveau-Erard, but it continued to make pianos under the name of Pleyel. In 1971 the merged firm was bought out by Schimmel of Brunswick, who produced instruments under a licence agreement until 1994, when the French piano firm Rameau took over.
- J. Turgan : Les grandes usines de France: la manufacture de pianos de MM. Pleyel, Wolf [sic] et Cie (Paris, 1862)
- J.P.O. Comettant : Histoire de cent mille pianos et d'une salle de concert (Paris, 1890)
- T. de Fourcaud : La Salle Pleyel (Paris, 1893)
- R.E.M. Harding : The Piano-Forte: its History Traced to the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Cambridge, 1933/R, 2/1978/R)
- B. Dahl : ‘The Ehlers' Pleyel’, The Harpsichord, 6 (1973), 3 only
- J.A. Richard : ‘The Pleyel Harpsichord’, The English Harpsichord Magazine and Early Keyboard Instrument Review, 2/5 (1977–81), 110–13
- H.A. Shead : The History of the Emanuel Moór Double Keyboard Piano (Old Woking, 1978)
- O. Barli : La facture française du piano de 1849 à nos jours (Paris, 1983)
- N. Schimmel : La facture du piano: un artisanat d'art (Brunswick, 1990–91)