At the end of 1880s the name of Jakob Becker was very well known in the musical circles of Russia and Europe. By then, his instruments have already gathered an impressive array of celebrity endorsements and royal patronage: Tchaikovsky, Anton and Nikolai Rubensteins, Hans von Bülow, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, to name a few, were all supplied pianos by Becker.
German-born Jakob Davydovich Becker (Якоб Давыдович Беккер) moved to St Petersburg in 1841, setting up the factory in the same year and already in 1849 the Petersburg publisher and pianist M. I. Bernard wrote: ‘Becker’s instruments are especially remarkable now. Due to his talent, diligence and conscientiousness they have earned their fame. The durability and beauty of his grand pianos rival those of Erard instruments and, undoubtedly, surpass them by force, fullness and charm of sound’.
The quality and craftsmanship of Becker’s pianos seemed to coincide with the romanticism and the flowering of the age of Russian music, so, at the end of 1855 it was reported by ‘The St.-Petersburg Vedomosti’: ‘How many concerts managed without Mr. Becker’s grand pianos last season? If we are not mistaken, all the local and visiting pianist virtuosos played on Becker pianos, and indeed in any great concert where a piano was required, the piano on the stage was almost certainly none other than Mr. Becker’s…’. For the family of Leo Tolstoy, the purchase of a new grand piano by Becker in 1883, costing 700 roubles, was an ‘event’.
The present instrument (No. 9185) was discovered in a barn in Herefordshire and had been consigned to storage there more than 40 years ago. Despite this, it required only action adjustments and tuning to return it to playing order, upholding Josef Hoffman’s statement ‘Another quality of Becker pianos I would like to mention is their extraordinary strength, as a result of which they retain their form and sound, completely unaffected by temperature or transportation. I recall one town in the Urals, where the piano was completely iced over during a concert but it did not lose any of its qualities.’
It is identical to, though a few years younger than, the piano presented by Becker to Tchaikovsky, which can be seen today in the composer’s house at Klin. Becker pianos are rare in England, and the Cobbe Collection piano was perhaps brought here by an emigrating Russian family. It then belonged to Sir Percy Hull, organist of Hereford Cathedral, close friend of Elgar, and the dedicatee of more than one of Elgar’s works.
We are grateful to Vladimir Filatov for his help dating the instrument.