Ending on a sad note
Very few old pianos - many of them about 100 years old - are considered to be worth anything. Photo: iStockphoto
For a second, the JCB machine's claw hangs in the air, a metal vulture waiting to swoop. Then, with a jolt, the giant yellow arm jabs forward and lands on top of the piano. Wood splinters and the instrument tips backwards, hitting the ground with a tuneless clang. Its wooden casing breaks open, exposing its strings, and the claw delves inside to pick out the piano's soundboard. Metal screeches on metal. One leg flies off, another skids across the yard. Within five minutes, all that's left is a pile of matchwood, an iron brace and a tangle of rusting strings.
This place, a recycling depot on the outskirts of Bristol, is just one site where pianos come to die. Similar scenes are taking place all over Britain as more and more owners send their instruments for scrap.
Piano-dealers, house-removal firms and manufacturers all confirm the trend.
''I'm scrapping up to five a week,'' says Jon Kelly, of The Piano Removal Company, based in Bath.
''Most of them were made at the height of the piano industry, in the 1920s, and are about 100 years old. They don't hold pitch, the notes stick and the owners are loath to pay thousands of pounds to have them restored.
''It just doesn't make sense to keep them and they can't find anyone out there to buy them.''
Other pianos have simply come to the end of their musical lives and are impossible to salvage. Leading brands, such as Steinway or Bechstein, can, with the correct care and attention, maintain their sound for a century or more, but, generally, an English piano lasts about 80 years; German ones, a bit longer.
''There are very few old pianos that are worth anything at all,'' says Robert Gregory, of J. Reid Pianos, a family firm that has been selling and restoring pianos since 1928.
''People phone me up, wanting to sell me their piano or part-exchange it for a new one, and I have to tell them it's not worth a penny.''
Instead, owners have to pay to have their instruments taken away. J. Reid ferries them to a warehouse in Tottenham, north London, breaks them up with a sledgehammer and throws them in a skip.
It's an ignominious end for something that, more than any other piece of household furniture, embodies years of family memories.
''Our customers sometimes get quite upset,'' Kelly says. ''Pianos have often been passed through generations of one family and have great sentimental value. We've been on jobs where people cry when the piano's taken away.''
On one recent occasion, says Kelly, a husband had passed away. He was a musician and, although his piano would have doubled as the perfect monument to his life, his widow was moving to a smaller property and didn't have the space to take it with her. ''She was so upset she couldn't watch when we took it away,'' Kelly says.
In rare cases, if the owner feels particularly attached to an instrument, and he or she has space, they will eschew sensible economics and pay for a restoration.
But a piano has so many moving parts and takes so long to renovate that this often costs as much as £7000 ($10,570) for an upright and £12,000 for a grand.
More often, if someone has the money and wants to continue playing, they will buy an up-to-date digital piano, which can cost as little as £600, or a piano made in China, now the world's leading manufacturer of the instruments, whose low production costs mean they can be bought in British high streets for a relatively cheap £2000.
The upright taken apart by the JCB in Bristol was well past its sell-by date. Made in 1882 by John Broadwood & Sons Ltd, which claims to be the world's oldest surviving piano manufacturer, it was bought in 1987 by a retired nurse, Barbara Jones, to encourage (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) her children to play.
Already 105 years old, the piano was part of a backlog of instruments awaiting renovation at a local piano restorer, and Jones bought it for just £50.
Until it joined the celestial orchestra in the sky, the piano had sat in Jones's dining room, gathering dust, save for Christmas time, when it was wheeled out for a rendition of Hark the Herald Angels Sing or O Little Town of Bethlehem. It's a similar story in thousands of other homes, where the piano has been superseded by other forms of entertainment, from the DVD player to video-game machines, or high-tech keyboards.
Today, only about 4000 acoustic pianos are sold in Britain each year - about 800 grands and 3000 uprights - compared with 14,000 in the late 1960s. Hardly any are made in Britain.
In contrast to the early 20th century, when Camden Town in London alone had 100 small-scale factories and workshops employing 6000 people, Britain now has only two piano manufacturers: John Broadwood & Sons, in Goudhurst, Kent, and Cavendish Pianos, a two-year-old firm in Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, who together have just 14 people in their employ.
Alastair Laurence, 65, chairman of Broadwood & Sons, has been making pianos since he was 22. ''Our founder, John Broadwood, started out making harpsichords in 1761,'' Laurence says. ''But, as the years went by and composers started making music for pianos, harpsichords went out of fashion. We made our first piano - a square piano - in 1780.''
The transition to pianos made Broadwood a fortune. By 1800, the company was hand-making a piano a day in its workshop in Soho. Every high-profile composer who came to London bought one, from Haydn to Chopin. One was even sent to Beethoven in Vienna, although that was not a happy tale. Sent in 1817 to Trieste, in Italy, it was then taken over the Alps in a horse and cart and did not arrive in Austria until the following year, by which time it was, unsurprisingly, damaged and had to be repaired by craftsmen in Vienna.
''All the great piano composers either owned or hired a Broadwood,'' Laurence says. At its height, in 1890, the company employed 500 people and was making 40 uprights and 12 grands a week.
''At the beginning of the 20th century, every home had a piano,'' says Julian Markson, a dealer whose company has been selling the instruments since 1910.
''That was home entertainment at the time. Not just in middle-class homes, but in every family. It was the fashion. And, although it sounds sexist to say it now, if you were a single lady and you could play the piano, you were considered more eligible.''
Such attitudes gradually changed as the century wore on, but the real decline for the British piano industry began in the Seventies, with the growth of Japanese manufacturers Yamaha and Kawai, and the development of the synthesiser.
In 2003, the British Piano Manufacturing Company, which made pianos under brand names such as Bentley, Knight, Welmar and Woodchester, went into liquidation; and in 2009, Kemble Pianos, near Milton Keynes, closed its gates for the last time.
Today, John Broadwood & Sons employs just four people, including Laurence, and makes, on average, one upright piano a month. The company makes 75 per cent of its money through restoration work.
''Fortunately, the Broadwood name generates a lot of repair work,'' Laurence says. ''But it's a huge disappointment that we've lost our piano industry, by and large, in this country.
''Young people are good at simulating things on a computer. They have very nimble fingers, but they don't seem to be interested in craft skills any more.
''If a country loses its skills and knowledge, it makes the economy much more vulnerable. And it makes it a much more boring place to live in.''
The Sunday Telegraph, London