The Composers' Pianos
......by Jeffrey Dane - © 2001 Jeffrey Dane
"Beethoven research is a field that has been plowed so often, each furrow having been turned so many times, that expecting to make a major 'discovery' about him would be comparable to finding an ancient Greek vase lying loose somewhere in the Parthenon." Thus wrote George Marek in his book, "Beethoven: Biography of a Genius."
As the archaeologist Howard Carter peered into the tomb of Tut-ankh-amen for the first time in 1922, he was asked what he saw. "Wonderful things," he replied. He could well have been describing the effect of hearing Beethoven's (or any composer's) music played on the composer's own piano.
Beethoven, ca.1824. (Rendering by
Michel Katzaroff, Paris, ca.1933)
During the fifty-seven years of his life, Beethoven played a variety of keyboard instruments: in his youth, the clavichord, harpsichord, and organ; and as an adult, various fortepianos made by Stein, Böhm, Erard, and undoubtedly Streicher, since he was friendly with the Streicher family. In the last decade of his life, however, he had the good fortune of owning two exceptional and virtually unique instruments: pianos made by Broadwood of London, and by Graf of Vienna.
By today's standards, most of the late 18th-century and early 19th-century Viennese pianos Beethoven played were relatively delicate instruments. By his own standards, i.e., by the way he played, they were particularly flimsy. Even his finest pianos did not have the advantage of metal bracing, a necessary feature of today's instruments, introduced into the somewhat stronger English pianos in 1820 (only after Beethoven's receipt of his Broadwood), and into the Viennese instruments in 1831 (four years after the composer's death).
Beethoven is said to have played the piano in a manner never before heard or conceived. The very spirit of his music bears witness to this. His music demanded a new nobility and breadth of utterance, for which he called into existence new elements of vitality and dramatic emphasis - not only in his playing but in just about everything he did. His playing was described as having "a nearly-orchestral conception" (foreshadowing by decades the playing of Franz Liszt). This description was of a Beethoven performance on one of the weaker Viennese pianos, so it would not be hard to imagine what his playing must have sounded like on the Broadwood or Graf instruments - or what it would have been like, had he been graced with a modern concert grand. Conjecture is fascinating but fruitless.
Although Beethoven did not actually mistreat his pianos, they were nevertheless subjected to some abuse literally under his own hands, simply because of his manner of playing - a manner which was often as powerful as his personality. Most of the pianos he used throughout his life simply could not stand up to the elemental force with which he played. Piano-playing of such unprecedented power and brilliance during his day could scarcely have been imagined before his arrival on the scene - and it was not as a composer but as a pianist (and especially as an improvisor) that he first made his mark.
We know that he snapped the strings and splintered the hammers of his Viennese pianos, as much from the strength of his playing as for the relative weaknesses of the instruments.
Because of the technology, materials and mechanics of their construction, the pianos of Beethoven's era had a different sound from those of today. They were built differently, with components many of which are no longer in use. They had hammers covered with layers of leather, not pads of felt (introduced for the first time only in 1826 by Jean-Henry Pape, into the pianos made by Erard of Paris; it was Pape who also designed the "console" piano in 1828). Due to their action and workings, the keys of the 18th-century pianos had a different, lighter touch to the fingers, the keybeds were shallower than those of today's pianos, and the instruments themselves produced a different kind of tone - a tone which, for obvious reasons, is more in keeping with the nature and nuances of sound which Beethoven and his contemporaries heard. Those who have heard such instruments (and those even more fortunate, who have played them) can corroborate this.
Generally, period instruments like these fortepianos form a tangible, sonic link with the past in a chain of composers and keyboard artists reaching as far back as Haydn (born the same year, 1732, as George Washington). Specifically, Beethoven's own pianos form an even more material link with the composer himself, for the sounds produced by these very instruments are the very sounds he expected to hear. Beethoven himself used the words Hammerklavier or Hammerflügel to describe the instruments (depending on the type), emphasizing that very principle of the hammer-action mechanism which is not only what distinguishes it from that of the harpsichord, but which is what makes possible on the piano the variations in volume between soft and loud. Beethoven's own opus 106 was written specifically for the instrument and is, in fact, actually subtitled Hammerklavier Sonata, the clear implication being that it was intended for performance on just such an instrument.
A page from the manuscript of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata
For Beethoven, his better pianos were at least improvements over the harpsichords of the generations of artists and instruments that had preceded him relatively recently, and to which his own pianos were heir, but even his best pianos were a far cry (that is, until the year 1818) from the massive grands we know today. He was forever complaining about their tone ("They sound like harps!"), as well as their physical weaknesses and other limitations.
His complaints in these respects were largely justified. In a letter written as early as November 1802, he stated that even though a number of the nearly 150 piano-makers in and around Vienna at the time were more than eager to make a piano for him (without charge), he was entirely willing to pay for one - provided it met his needs, and that it be made of mahogany (a material of which he was apparently fond). The manufacturers were willing - but when the time came, only Broadwood and Graf "delivered."
Background of the Piano
The fact is that in the 18th century the instrument now known as the piano was a relatively recent invention. Although there were a number of people who experimented with the mechanism and who produced functioning instruments, it was Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy, who built an important prototype and who is traditionally recognized by history as having "invented" the piano essentially as we know it today. His instrument was even described in a publication as early as 1711, and a few of them have survived. His 1720 piano (by now greatly modified but still playable) was built in Florence at the court of Ferdinand de' Medici, has a 54-note compass (from C-F), and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His 1726 piano, having only a 49-note (4-octave) compass (from C-C), is at the Musikinstrumenten Museum at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, Germany. Neither piano has pedals, which came later in the century. Cristofori's position in history may have more to do with the survival of these instruments than with historical primacy.
Cristofori's 1720 piano, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In Bach's time, the German word klavier (Italian, cembalo) was usually used as a generic term to signify all keyboard instruments (except the organ, in most cases). In Germany today, however, the word refers only to the upright piano, to distinguish it from the Flügel (literally, "wing"), the instrument in the grand-piano shape.
Cristofori called his new instrument Clavicembalo col Piano e Forte (literally, "keyboard-instrument with soft and loud"). It had the capability of producing both soft and loud tones, with gradations in between, depending upon the force with which the keys were struck with the fingers. His instrument was at first considered a novel type of harpsichord (not surprisingly, because of its harpsichord-like appearance) which was capable of gradations of volume - gradations made possible by a hammer (rather than plectrum-type) action, in which hammers, activated by the touch of the keys, struck the strings. The mechanism was not immediately accepted by other keyboard instrument makers - but all of the basic, essential mechanical elements in our modern pianos are found, in embryonic form, in these Cristofori instruments.
Although the piano, clavichord and harpsichord are all keyboard instruments, of course, they differ in the sounds they produce by reason of their very sound-producing mechanisms. In the fortepiano of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the hammers which struck the strings were covered with leather, while the hammers in our modern-day pianos are covered with felt. The piano's ability to sustain tone, and various gradations of it, eventually invested the instrument with particular appeal, and ultimately inspired a new (and by now, vast) literature for it.
The strings of a clavichord (the earliest type of stringed keyboard instrument) are struck by the heads of small metal hammers, called tangents, and the instrument produces a sweet but very soft tone, unsuitable for "concert" performance. The harpsichord, however, differs markedly in that its strings are not struck but rather are plucked (which accounts for the instrument's somewhat metallic and glittering sound), usually by crow or turkey quills (in the antique instruments), or by metal, plastic, or hollow bamboo quills (in the modern pieces). The harpsichord is not a tone-sustaining instrument, so during its heyday it was generally used to best advantage in music of a rapid and sparkling nature, as exemplified in the keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti, the Franz Liszt of his day. Many authentic Baroque harpsichords had small drawers built into the instruments, to contain spare quills for those which had worn down, and it's said that Bach could re-quill the plectra in record time.
Domenico Scarlatti, born the same year, 1685, as Bach & Handel
The German organ and clavichord maker, Gottfried Silbermann, employed in his own early pianos (several of which he sold to Frederick the Great for his Potsdam palaces) a mechanism essentially the same as Cristofori's. Silbermann, however, had the distinction of having had some of his pianos played (and later, praised) by Bach himself, although the composer never actually owned one. Bach is said to have told Silbermann, with characteristic candor, that although his earlier instruments were somewhat feeble and dull of tone, his later, improved pianos had a pleasant touch and were wide of dynamics. Besides being one of the great organists of his day, Bach was also a master of the clavichord, and because of its intimate, sensitive responsiveness to touch, he favored it over the harpsichord. (It was not primarily as a composer but as an organist that he was mourned throughout Europe when he died in 1750).
One of the first known uses of a piano as a solo instrument in concert was at a June, 1768 performance by one of Bach's own sons (and one of the first of the Bachs to show an interest in the piano), Johann Christian Bach, on an English square piano made by the German craftsman Johannes Cristoph Zumpe of London. Some important music composed specifically for the piano (in 1770) was Three Sonatas, Op.2, by Muzio Clementi, who, because of the understanding he showed of the piano's possibilities even at that relatively early stage, is considered one of the founders of modern piano-playing. An important composer and pianist in his own right (as well as an instrument-maker), he was held in high regard by Beethoven himself, who readily acknowledged his indebtedness to Clementi.
We live in an era where some amazing things are often taken quite for granted. In the United States, the mention of George Washington's name, for example, will more often than not produce only a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. This is not the case, however, in Vienna when the name of Beethoven is spoken, and where even now, incredibly, some remnants of his personality still remain - remnants as distinctive as some of the garments (i.e., "remnants") he was known to have sometimes worn. So deep was the mark he left during his life there, that despite the passage and changes of time, residual effects of his presence still exist in much of the city (as well as in the outlying areas he frequented, now suburbs of Vienna, such as Heiligenstadt, Baden, and Mödling). The very mention of his name in these places even today prompts a certain intangible yet unmistakable posture, even from store-owners and postal clerks, which bespeaks an astounding degree of reverence. It's an atmosphere which may be difficult to define but easy to recognize. Such is the regard in which he is still held in his own adopted city more than a century and a half after his death. The obvious, by its very nature, often escapes our attention, so it may be worth noting that Beethoven was as alive then as we are today.
Lifemask of Beethoven, made by Franz Klein in 1812, when the composer was 42
To say he had a forceful personality would be understatement epitomized. That personality was as powerful as his piano-playing, and just as unique in his day. It was he, through his free and frequently fierce nature, who almost single-handedly wrenched music out of the 18th century and into the next, making him if not the last of the Classicists (to which Brahms might claim title) then certainly the first of the Romantics. Beethoven's adventures in disregarding prescribed 18th-century stricture, structure, requirements and protocol marked not only his music but also his personal behavior (which, at times, could be very embarrassing), and in both areas he achieved a virtually complete freedom of expression.
In one's personal relations with him, an honest and straightforward approach was the only feasible one, as he could often be an extremely difficult man to deal with on a personal basis. One never knew what he would be like at any given time, because of his notorious, momentary swings of mood, and his deafness later in life did nothing to improve his frequently volatile disposition. The only thing consistently predictable about Beethoven was his consistent unpredictability. It must be remembered, however, that just because he was so far above us in his art does not mean he had to be far above us in general daily virtue. In the right historical context, the reason is clear. Like us, he had a full set of human weaknesses, and the personal frailties to which he was subject make him more, not less, of a human being.
By way of comparison, what Mozart's nature was to Beethoven's is in many ways equivalent to what Beethoven's early keyboard instruments were to his Broadwood and Graf pianos. In a figurative sense, where Mozart knocked vainly at the door, Beethoven simply kicked it down, triumphantly marched right in, and defiantly made himself comfortable. (And heaven help those who objected, be they paupers in poverty or princes in palaces).
The Broadwood Piano
It was not only in Vienna that Beethoven was so revered even in his own day. The regard in which he was held in England, too (a place he never saw), is exemplified by a gesture of the following magnitude: in 1817, a magnificent, English-action piano, a then state-of-the-art piece made by the London firm of John Broadwood & Sons, was sent to Beethoven as a gift. Founded in 1728, Broadwood had made giant strides in the development of keyboard instruments; they built their first grand piano in 1781, and within two years had patented and introduced the damper pedal to the instrument. This 2-pedal, 6-octave Broadwood piano (which, from day one until he received it, took nearly a year to reach Beethoven) was finer than any he had used up to that time, and he composed for several years within the range of its capabilities.
When he was able to hear it, he was overwhelmed with its penetrating sound and its full, broad tone, both of which far surpassed that of the comparatively feeble Viennese instruments he had had to use until then. He was a German living in Austria, playing Viennese pianos which would better serve him with an English solidity. Da Vinci never had his camera - but Beethoven had his Broadwood.
On Dec. 27, 1817, the following entry was made in the Broadwood records: "Taken today from our London warehouse, a 6-octave grande pianoforte, number 7362, tin and deal case. Beneficiary: Mr. Ludwig van Beethoven, master composer of music in Vienna. To be shipped to his residence at Mödling, near Vienna Austria, via Trieste."
It was the intention of the head of the firm, Thomas Broadwood, that the composer be spared all expenses, including import duties, for which purpose Broadwood (with the aid of Beethoven's friends) even went so far as to enlist the help of the director of Austrian customs.
The assistance and advice of some of Beethoven's colleagues was also sought in this matter before steps were taken for the delivery of the instrument. One of them, Ignaz Moscheles (a great admirer and friend of the composer and who may in fact have been largely responsible for initiating the gift), stated quite openly that the Broadwood's tone was beautiful - but he felt quite privately (and as a point of comparison, not of denigration) that the action (the "touch" of the keys) was somewhat stiff and heavy. Moscheles was a professional pianist and had lived for some years in England, so his opinion had merit.
Beethoven's friends described him as in some ways a changed man when he learned of the gift, and even before its arrival his gratitude for it led him to express an earnest desire to dedicate to the donor the first piece of music composed after the instrument's receipt. (Unfortunately, this never came to fruition).
Beethoven's Broadwood piano
The very anticipation of the Broadwood's arrival brought the composer inordinate joy and excitement, offsetting some of his difficulties in a life riddled with misfortune and malady and, during this period, an extended court-battle for the guardianship of his nephew, Karl. The litigation took years and made such inroads into Beethoven's time and efforts that it may have robbed posterity of at least several sonatas, a string quartet, and perhaps even a tenth symphony, some sketches for which the composer actually made. Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas (in which he was somewhat experimental), his 16 string quartets (quite autobiographical), and his 9 symphonies (largely philosophical) all represent in microcosm the essence of his life and art - and if posterity was robbed indeed, it was a theft of immeasurable proportions, equivalent only to the irretrievable loss of so much of Bach's music (conservatively estimated by some at thirty percent) at the hands of those who sold his manuscripts for their own weight in paper, and of the schoolboys who used them to wrap their lunches.
The Broadwood's case was of mahogany indeed, and was simply and very tastefully designed. Its appearance, of solidity and strength combined with grace, caused no little surprise in Vienna at the time among those who saw it. Thomas Broadwood had arranged to have the name BEETHOVEN inlaid in ebony on the nameboard above the keys, directly under the music rack. The composer held this instrument in such high regard that he adamantly refused to let anyone tune it (except Stumpff of London, who came with the right credentials: a letter of introduction from Broadwood himself). Beethoven kept the instrument as long as he lived.
While the Viennese pianos had an action which was light, speedy, sharp, and clear, the English instruments were built more solidly and were quite robust by comparison, and they had a richly resonant tone - characteristics more suitable for Beethoven in view of his manner of piano-playing.
The Broadwood piano was stronger and more massive than any of the instruments the composer had used up to that time. Its tone was characterized by a transparent bass, an almost chime-like treble, and a greater sound-volume, and it afforded Beethoven wider musical possibilities because of its greater keyboard-range. It was this very instrument which, at least in part, may have stimulated in Beethoven the composition of his late sonatas, those high-water marks of 19th-century piano literature, including the Hammerklavier Sonata in 1818, his 29th work in that form.
The conception of the Broadwood pianos evolved naturally from their having built excellent harpsichords (which they stopped manufacturing in 1793), hence the somewhat metallic but very fluid and silvery sound of their pianos. The instrument given to Beethoven had a divided pedal: the bass and treble registers could therefore be pedalled separately, giving greater clarity and brilliance to the music played on it.
Beethoven's Broadwood piano is certainly the most well known among those the composer used. It was an outstanding example of an excellent piano and it was undoubtedly the finest he had ever had - that is, until 1823, when yet another superb piano entered his life.
Beethoven was quite deaf toward the end of his life, when this piano was available to him. However, the fact is that there were occasions when he could hear tolerably well - and on such days, we can easily imagine him spending much of his time at the piano, for reasons very obvious. (It wasn't just musically that Beethoven lived before his time: some specialists now believe that his deafness, at least in its early stages, could today be corrected by a relatively simple operation).
Beethoven's secretary and general factotum for several years from 1815 was Anton Schindler, a young man who so venerated the master that he proudly printed, "L' Ami de Beethoven" (Friend of Beethoven) on his own visiting cards. In his book, "Beethoven As I Knew Him," Schindler wrote, "Beethoven liked to extemporize during the evening twilight. To those outside it was less audible and consequently of great charm, otherwise it made a discordant and deafening impression".
After Beethoven's death, the music publisher Spina bought the Broadwood (for 181 florins) at the sale of the composer's effects.
The two pianos in the music room of Franz Liszt's house in Weimar, Germany
Spina later gave the instrument to Franz Liszt - a fitting recipient, for it was very likely the Broadwood that Liszt had played for Beethoven when taken to see him as a child-prodigy. Liszt kept the Broadwood when he lived in Weimar, where it remained until his death in 1886. The following year his estate donated it to the Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum (Hungarian National Museum) in Budapest, where it remains today.
(Beethoven's Streicher, Liszt's Bechstein and Ibach, Mahler's Blüthner, Brahms' Bösendorfer and J.B.Streicher, and others).
The author has seen several of Beethoven's pianos, and has even played one of them: the instrument made by Johann Andreas Streicher, the son-in-law of (and professional successor to) Johann Andreas Stein, who had made some of Mozart's pianos. This Streicher piano is still in the composer's apartment (now Beethoven Memorial Rooms) on the top floor at Mölkerbastei 8 in Vienna, where he lived, intermittently, from 1804-1815. At the time the author played it, the instrument was believed to have been one of Beethoven's own, but according to Prof. Dr. Gerhard Stradner, Curator Emeritus of the Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente (Collection of Historic Musical Instruments) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum at the Neue Burg in Vienna, this instrument, though certainly representative of those of the composer's era, was not among Beethoven's own possessions.
The Streicher piano in the
Beethoven Memorial Rooms
at Mölkerbastei 8 in Vienna
The façade of Mölkerbastei 8. The unique experience had its own problems, but which were rendered worthwhile indeed, by compensation. The instrument has five pedals and a range of only about five and a half octaves. Although the configuration of the keyboard itself is of course identical with those of today, the physical scale of the keys is somewhat different: the ebonies are in fact longer and thinner, while the ivories are actually thinner and shorter. The author's playing can frankly be characterized more accurately by intent than by virtuosity, but the logistical difficulty in merely playing this piano was compounded by the mechanical difficulty even in coaxing music out of it: although the piano's exterior was kept highly polished and had a brilliant sheen, the curator opened the lid to reveal a veritable thorn-bush of snapped strings and splintered hammers, which rendered quite mute some of the notes. In short, getting accustomed to this keyboard took some practice, in the very literal sense.
Frau Appel, who had been Liszt's personal housekeeper
Playing a composer's own piano can be a most unusual, singular experience, personally as well as musically. Fortunate musicians could verify it. Among them: Leonard Bernstein, who played Tchaikovsky's piano (housed at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad) during a New York Philharmonic tour in the late 1950's; pianist Byron Janis (one of the few students of Vladimir Horowitz), who played Chopin's piano during a visit to Mallorca, where the composer lived with George Sand for some time; Horowitz himself, who played Scriabin's piano during his first return to the then-Soviet Union in many years; composer Elmer Bernstein (who scored such films as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Ten Commandments, and The Magnificent Seven) who, after entering the London showrooms of John Broadwood & Sons, was escorted to the very piano (a Broadwood, of course) on which Chopin had given his last public performance; and composer Miklos Rozsa (perhaps best known for his film scores but who composed over 40 major works for the concert and recital hall), who was permitted to play Franz Liszt's Ibach piano at the composer's house in Weimar in 1926. Dr. Rozsa personally told the author that the ancient care-taker, Frau Appel, who showed the then 19-year-old student Rozsa around the house and let him play Liszt's own piano had, herself, been Liszt's own housekeeper.
Beethoven's are not the only instruments to have met a fortunate fate at the hands of posterity. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can boast the current ownership of the keyboard instruments that were actually owned (or, in the case of literally poor Schubert, only used) by composers from Haydn through Mahler. (According to Frau Jutta Ross of Dülmen, Germany, the Kunsthistorisches Museum reports that the Haydn instruments are now only attributed to his ownership, in light of recent findings).
Among those items in the Hofburg collection are a French instrument given to Beethoven by the piano-manufacturer Sébastian Erard of Paris in 1803 (when the composer was working on the Eroica symphony and the Triple Concerto); a Viennese Walter & Sohn Tafel-Klavier ("table-piano," so-called because of its appearance), made ca.1820-25 and often played by Schubert; and a gigantic, two-manual harmonium ("organ-piano"), now restored, made by Erard in Paris in 1850, and owned for many years by Franz Liszt, who used it when he lived in Weimar.
The 2-pedal, jet-black grand piano owned by Gustav Mahler was made in 1902 by Julius Blüthner of Leipzig (whose firm had produced more than 3000 instruments yearly even before the Second World War). This massive piano, its size befitting the magnitude of Mahler's symphonies, has a surprisingly smooth and mellow tone, and was donated to the Museum in 1948 by sculptress Anna Mahler, the composer's daughter.
The kindness of the collection's then-curator, Prof. Dr. Gerhard Stradner, in having permitted the author to play this piano made that occasion not only both musically and personally fulfilling, but also a special highlight of the author's visit to the Museum on that day - certainly as much for his extraordinary love of Mahler's music as for his own extraordinary circumstances in Vienna.
The position in the history of music held by Franz Liszt is in many ways comparable to that of Leonard Bernstein today. Both men are figures of gargantuan musical importance, and by reason of their versatility they excelled in virtually any musical undertaking in which they engaged, with usually superlative results. Liszt and Bernstein shared numerous professional traits (as composer, conductor, pianist, educator), and it is as inevitable as tomorrow morning that the latter, through his work, will ultimately reach the same destination in musical history as did the former through his.
"Then & Now" views, from same vantage point, of the music room in Liszt's Weimar home (with Liszt himself in the older photo).
Cast of Liszt's right hand.
A legendary (and documented) characteristic of Liszt's piano-playing was a tone of distinctive and peculiarly effective carrying quality. Today at his house (now a museum) on Marienstrasse in Weimar, Germany, one finds two pianos in the music room, the keyboards nearly facing each other, with a piano stool between them: a huge seven and a half octave, Berlin-made Bechstein concert grand, (acquired by Liszt in 1869) which dominates the room, and, against a wall behind it, an upright piano made in Cologne by Rudolf Ibach & Sohn, a gift to Liszt in 1885. At one point during the years he lived in Weimar, Liszt had his own personal "collection" of pianos: in addition to the two now on display, he had a concert Erard, Beethoven's Broadwood, and a piano once owned by Mozart. It may have been the enormous Bechstein which Liszt used when composing his last piano works (such as Nuages Gris), some of the harmonies of which belong to the dawn of 20th-century music.
Despite Brahms' lack of "higher formal education" (he attended no university and studied with no "great masters"), but because of his insatiable appetite for literature as well as a driving curiosity about all kinds of music, especially that of former periods (the books and scores in his library were practically worn out from assiduous reading), in his maturity Brahms was a composer of towering musical intellect and profound depth of feeling in his work. In keeping with these standards was the J.B. Streicher concert-grand he kept in his Vienna apartment until he died there in 1897. The instrument was for many year in private hands and is now displayed at the Brahms Museum in Mürzzuschlag, in the Styria region of Austria, where the composer spent the summers of 1884-85 composing his fourth symphony.
During his twelve intermittent summers in Bad Ischl, Austria, where he also spent the last creative holiday of his life (in a house which still stands), Brahms used a smaller grand piano, a Bösendorfer, owned at that time by the Gruber family, the upper floor of whose home he rented during his stays there. This instrument is now in the Brahms Collection at the Kammerhof Museum in Gmunden, Austria. The then-curator of the Collection, Frau Prof. Dr. Elfriede Prillinger, was kind enough to let the author play it. It's most likely this piano Brahms used when he composed his final (and only posthumously published) work, the Eleven Chorale Preludes for organ, Op. 122.
Detail of Brahms' own
J.B.Streicher grand piano.
The author at the Bösendorfer piano
Brahms used at Bad Ischl.
Those who walk into the main entrance of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at midday are often pleasantly surprised to hear live music coming from a large, ornately-decorated, brown Steinway grand located on the small balcony directly above and behind the lobby. The instrument had belonged to a longtime resident of the Waldorf Towers, Cole Porter.
Many of those who visit New York City take a special, 3-hour tour, on a boat which circles Manhattan. As the vessel passes a certain large apartment house on the upper west side of the island, the tour guides make a point of mentioning that George Gershwin's piano is still in the building's penthouse apartment, where the composer lived.
The fate of Pietro Mascagni's instrument, however, was not so fortunate: the piano he used during the 1880's when composing Cavaleria Rusticana perished in a fire only within the last three decades.
There are those who would allege that the piano is more noble an instrument than others. Although this is arguable and would in any event depend upon what's played, how it's played and who is playing, an important instrument is still an important instrument. For many years, Jascha Heifetz owned and played the "David" Stradivarius, the violin once owned by the colleague and friend of Mendelssohn, Ferdinand David (pronounced Da-VEED), the artist for whom the composer's Violin Concerto was in fact written.
The clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, via his instrument, literally played an admittedly somewhat obscure but nonetheless very important role in the creation of some of the greatest chamber music of the late 19th century - specifically, the clarinet works of Johannes Brahms. Mühlfeld was originally a cellist, but also a virtuoso clarinettist and virtually self-taught on that instrument. Essentially it was this man who, because of his playing, was responsible for bringing Brahms out of "retirement" in the twilight of his life. MühIfeld's sweetness and beauty of tone stimulated in Brahms the composition of such "trifles" (as the composer modestly called them) of no less than the ethereal Clarinet Quintet, the Clarinet Trio, and the two Clarinet Sonatas. One wonders what became of Mühlfeld's instrument.
An important string instrument (such as an Amati violin or a Guarnerius cello) is far less likely to go astray than a "mere" clarinet. Beethoven's own quartet of string instruments is well accounted for and has long resided in the collection of the Verein Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. This quartet is composed of an Amati violin (1667-90); another by Guarnerius, c.1718; a viola by Rugero, c.1690; and a Guarnerius cello, made between 1675-1712. They were given to the composer as a gift in 1800 by his patron, Prince Carl Lichnowsky, at the behest of the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzig, Beethoven's friend and an early champion of his music.
The Pianos of Mozart and Schubert
It was only during the career of Mozart that the piano began to gain wide general acceptance. He lived, worked and played during a time when the piano was to a great extent in an evolutionary twilight-zone - certainly not a harpsichord but not yet a full-blooded "grand piano" as we see it today, but in either case it was certainly adequate for his purposes. Trained initially on the harpsichord, Mozart developed, from all accounts, into a first-class pianist.
It has been claimed Mozart's earlier keyboard works and piano concerti, among his more than two dozen works in that form, may actually have been conceived for the harpsichord. This is possible, in view of the then-transitional period of the piano. Others, however, discount the notion, claiming that most of Mozart's keyboard music was written specifically for the fortepiano. This, too, is a possibility, because it was, after all, during his era that the piano had begun to interest more and more composers and performers as a self-sufficient instrument. The distressing fact is that we simply cannot be sure what the answer is; inquiries of ten different music historians may net twelve different opinions, and for one to make a "definite" claim in either direction would be equivalent to tampering with the lid on Pandora's box. The point therefore remains debatable: while harpsichord works can be quite effective when played on a piano, the converse is usually not so, and many of Mozart's keyboard pieces would be quite musical when performed on either type of instrument. (This is not the case, however, with most of Beethoven's keyboard works; by the year 1802 he was composing his keyboard music exclusively for the hammerklavier; indeed, his later such works are, to say the least, so specifically written for the piano, with their expressive sonorities and pedal possibilities, that they are totally unsuitable for performance on the harpsichord).
During his lifetime Mozart played a variety of pianos, including those made by Andreas Stein, whose workshop the composer visited in 1777; and by Anton Walter (whose instruments Mozart seems to have favored, one of which is at the Birthplace Museum in Salzburg, and several examples of which are in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art). It was Stein who perfected an escapement mechanism which not only promoted a smooth legato playing but which also made it possible for a player to execute notes rapidly on his pianos. This feature became known as the Viennese action, and Mozart is said to have taken full advantage of it in his playing. (It was also a Stein piano on which the 9-year-old Clara Wieck, later Clara Schumann, performed at her first concert at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on October 20, 1828; the instrument is now at the Schumann Birthplace-Museum in Zwickau, Germany).
In 1790, the year before the cadence of his 35-year life, Mozart acquired an instrument made by Ferdinand Hoffmann of Vienna. This piano was, for its time, an excellent one (Hoffmann eventually became president of Vienna's Civic Keyboard Association, in 1808). Mozart's Hoffmann piano had the advantage of knee-levers (as did some of the pianos of his friend and teacher, Haydn): they were devices which, when activated by the knees of the player during performance, fulfilled the damper and sustaining functions of the pedals on the later pianos.
Regarding his brief life and early death, it should be noted that Mozart's pauper's funeral was due more to bad advice given to his wife, Constanze, than to a lack of funds; and although Mozart spent money and enjoyed comforts just like everyone, he was far from a pauper - as indeed were most of the great (and even the not-so-great) composers. The cases of Schubert and, in our own time, perhaps Bartok, would be exceptions.
A room in the house where Schubert died
The traditionally accepted (but often false) image of "the starving composer" is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Schubert. His professional life was not marked by total obscurity - his music was in fact given performances, and his idol, Beethoven, was familiar with some of his work, including a set of Variations which the older composer played "daily, and with great enjoyment." It may be hard to believe, in view of his current place in the history of music, but it's a matter of record that Schubert (known about Vienna as "the town vagabond" because of his rather Bohemian lifestyle) was never in the best financial shape. "You will quote the lowest possible fee." - Thus wrote a publisher to the man who composed some of the most exquisite and glorious music in the entire history of the literature. Although Schubert's death was not of starvation per se, he was in fact sustained in his day-to-day existence primarily through the generosity of his friends during much of his adult life. In his last years, he was aided by his brother, who provided the composer not only with a place to live (in his own apartment), but also with the use of a piano.
Although Schubert had access to many pianos during his short, 31-year life (including one by Joseph Böhm made c.1820, and another by Johann Alois Graf of Vienna, an instrument now at the Schubert Birthplace Museum at Nussdorferstrasse 54 in Vienna), there is no evidence that he ever owned his own piano. There is also no proof that he ever actually met Beethoven, notwithstanding the legend that he visited the dying master at the eleventh hour. Schubert was known to be shy in the extreme with those he didn't know, and it's reported that the closest he ever came to personally making Beethoven's acquaintance was at a tavern (which might have been the Griechenbeisl, still a popular restaurant in Vienna and which Beethoven and Schubert were known to have frequented), where Schubert simply pointed out the great man to a friend - and then fled the place as though its patrons had the pox.
The piano used by Schubert during the last year of his life was owned by his brother, Ferdinand, in whose Vienna apartment the composer died in 1828, at Kettenbrückengasse 6, and where the instrument remains today. Made by Heinrich Elwerkember of Vienna, the year of origin is unknown but the instrument is consistent with the sound and styling of other pianos contemporary with Schubert's time. It has four pedals, and a range of six and a half octaves. Restored in 1829 by Joseph Böhm, it was overhauled several times throughout the years, most recently by Alfred Watzek in 1979.
The Graf Piano
By the year 1823, Beethoven's Broadwood was a tangle of broken wires, cracked hammer-posts, and mute keys, and was a virtual wreck. This may have made little difference to Beethoven, whose deafness had caused a change not only in his lifestyle but also in his criteria for judging a piano. He (usually) could not hear his own playing but he still found great comfort and pleasure in his Broadwood's relative stability and its even and solid keyboard action. Simply put, it felt better to him when he played it than did the other (Viennese) pianos.
At this point, Conrad Graf entered the picture. His timing could not have been more opportune, considering the condition of Beethoven's Broadwood at this stage. Graf had begun the manufacture of his pianos in Vienna in 1804 and was soon appointed Imperial Vienna's official court piano-maker. By reputation as well as by deed, he was, after 1815, considered the foremost maker of concert grands in Vienna.
The caliber of Graf's pianos is illustrated by some of the names on the roster of composers who used them: among them, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and the young Liszt. This in itself gives testimony to the advanced quality of the instruments. It sang with a cantabile tone under the hands of Schubert in Vienna, gave clarity to the velocity of Mendelssohn's playing in Leipzig, and it thundered in the bravura passagework of Liszt during his whirlwind concert tours. Clearly Graf's pianos form a most important link between Classical and Romantic keyboard instruments.
Chopin, who also played French pianos by Erard and by Pleyel (the instrument he eventually favored) as well as those by Broadwood, praised the Graf instruments on his first visit to Vienna in 1829 - and was soon provided with a Graf piano. His concert Erard was a gift from publisher Moritz Schlesinger, and his Pleyel grand is now in the German National Museum in Nürnberg. Chopin, "the poet of the piano," is said to have had such control at the keyboard that there were two dozen different degrees of shading between piano and pianissimo, but this was due certainly as much to his pianistic skill as to the quality of the instruments he played.
Conrad Graf also offered one of his pianos as a wedding gift to Clara Wieck on her marriage to Robert Schumann in 1840, an instrument which they used throughout their lives together, and which is now at exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This 4-pedal piano, built in 1839, stood in Schumann's workroom in Düsseldorf until his death in 1856. It was undoubtedly this very Graf piano on which a painfully shy, 20-year-old composer named Johannes Brahms played for the Schumanns when he visited them for the first time in 1853, at their home at Bilkerstrasse 15. That meeting was fateful in that it began not only the friendship between the young Brahms and Schumann (which ended only with the latter's death three years later), but also Brahms' lifelong devotion to Clara (who was fourteen years his senior), with whom he eventually developed a singular interaction and who remained an altogether unique phenomenon in his life until the end of his days (but this is another subject for another time). Through Clara, Schumann's piano later came into Brahms' own possession.
The Viennese pianos were characterized by a light and speedy keyboard action which permitted a rapid execution of notes while producing clear, sharp tones. Their English counterparts had a more powerful sonority and afforded a solid, robust, and rich resonance. The English and Viennese pianos each had their own intrinsic advantages, but the 3-pedal Graf piano that was given to Beethoven in 1823 apparently combined the best features of both, and perhaps for this reason the composer nearly discarded his Broadwood for it. (Fortunately for posterity, he didn't).
Beethoven was amazed at the Graf piano's power and brilliance, its lightness and brightness of tone-color, and perhaps most importantly, with its conspicuously louder sound (more about which, presently). The instrument had a greater keyboard-range (more than six octaves) than the Broadwood, and a finer cantabile tone. Perhaps the Graf piano's most distinguishing feature, setting it quite apart from other instruments, was a noticeably different sound-character to each of the registers: the bass was sonorous and powerful, the middle register cool and clear, and the upper register and higher treble was crisp and almost bell-like. Today our own ears are not accustomed to such a timbre, but rather to the uniformity of sound in each of the registers of our modern pianos.
The major modifications that Conrad Graf planned especially for this piano easily qualify it as a custom-built instrument, and that is what it was in virtually every sense of the term, considering its two special and most important features as they relate to the deaf Beethoven.
Beethoven's Graf Piano
Firstly, the concept of having four-string notes (i.e., unisons) rather than three (or sometimes three rather than two, as the case may have been) for each tone in the upper reaches of a keyboard instrument had originated as early as 1715 with Christoph Gottlieb Schröter of Dresden. The purpose was greater amplification, and this feature gave fuller volume to the treble registers in harpsichords. It was Conrad Graf, however, who made a point of using this four-string unison feature in the piano meant for a deaf composer who most needed it in his instrument.
Secondly, at the suggestion of Johann Mälzel, in theory the inventor of the metronome but in fact the designer of Beethoven's "hearing-aids" (i.e., the ear-trumpets), Graf also arranged to have constructed over the strings and mechanism of Beethoven's piano a canopy of thin plywood, similar in appearance to a wide promptor's box, across the entire width of the piano, which was intended to amplify the sound even more. It was thoughtful of Mälzel and providential of Graf to have had these considerations in mind for the composer who would benefit most from them. Physically as well as sonically, the Graf piano was, in a word, ideal for Beethoven: it had a previously unmatched power and sonority. In so preparing this instrument for the composer, Graf's personal considerations may have been altogether unique in the annals of human and musical thoughtfulness.
It was with the characteristics and peculiarities of this particular instrument in mind that Beethoven composed his last piano works. Indeed, the instrument may have actually contributed to the stimulation of their very composition.
Beethoven is said to have died as he had lived: dramatically. After an argument (which he himself may have precipitated) with his brother Johann, at the latter's estate at Gneixendorf, Beethoven stormed out in a blind rage. Leaving in a huff, and possibly too proud to use his brother's coach, he started back toward Vienna, then a 2-day journey, on a crude, open milk-cart. The 57-year-old man spent the night at an inn which was as cold as the argument must have been heated. It was December of 1826, wintertime.
By the time Beethoven arrived in Vienna he was suffering from a severe inflammation of the lungs. Soon he had almost recovered, but a sudden outburst of rage brought on a relapse with a terrifying combination of symptoms. Surgeons (such as they were in those days) were called in for a series of "operations" (four, to be exact - performed without anesthesia, not in use until 1846). While he felt his strength ebbing away, the sick man suffered with a patience that was untypical of him. The illness lasted four months.
On the evening of Monday, March 26, 1827, a violent thunderstorm arose in Vienna. According to the eyewitnesses, the room in which the composer lay dying was suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning. Beethoven, in a characteristic gesture, was said to have opened his eyes and raised his clenched fist in defiance. As the thunder subsided, he sank back and died.
After Beethoven's death, the instrument was returned to Graf, and was then acquired by the imperial court-librarian and bookdealer Wimmer. It later found its way to the Bern home of the Swiss poet and friend of Brahms, Pastor Joseph Widmann, whose son, Joseph, Jr., sold the instrument in 1889 to the newly-organized Verein Beethoven-Haus in Bonn - just in time to prevent its impending sale to America.
For a piano especially, the consequences of neglect can be as far-reaching as those of abuse - and by this time, those consequences of years-long neglect were far-reaching indeed and had taken their toll. The amplifying canopy had long since disappeared; the more than seven tons of tractive pull had caused an unusually heavy deformation of the entire casing and sounding board, creating many bad cracks; the leather which covered the hammers, tightened over them in seven layers and for almost as many decades, had disintegrated and was reduced to powder. All of these factors rendered the instrument virtually unplayable.
In 1963 the Nürnburg firm of J.C. Neupert, famous for their harpsichords and restorers of period keyboard instruments, was engaged by the Verein Beethoven-Haus to restore the composer's piano and rectify its problems. A primary and most essential stipulation was that Neupert preserve and rebuild, rather than "replace," as many of the original components as possible, for reasons very obvious: this was Beethoven's piano. In restoration, the case was subjected to a new bending process, and the hammers were rebuilt and recovered with new layers of leather. The keys, however, the worn ebonies and the ivories yellowed with age, remained intact and exactly as they had been: just as Beethoven had played upon them.
In 1970, the Broadwood was brought from Budapest to Bonn and was reunited with the Graf for the Beethoven bicentennial, and a special Beethoven recital, performed on both instruments (and recorded), was given by the Austrian pianist Jörg Demus at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn.
The priceless Graf piano, which is still in the possession of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, remains one of the most exquisite keyboard instruments of the Beethoven era. The Broadwood and Graf pianos used by Beethoven were, in a comparative sense, the Steinways and Bösendorfers of their day. They were far and away the finest pianos that Beethoven ever played and he was fortunate in having owned these instruments, which are as magnificent now, tonally as well as visually, as they were then.
By the 1850s, the evolution of the concert grand had reached the stage, figuratively as well as literally, where it had the capabilities and dimensions that made it a fully mature and self-sufficient solo concert instrument, and by the end of the century the piano essentially as we know it today had for the most part assumed its modern form, in appearance as well as in its sound.
Epilogue and Reflections
Physically, today's pianos are often adapted in their design to the rectangular configuration and relative narrowness of our modern-day homes. They're often featured as pieces of furniture as much as (and often even more than) a musical instrument. Sonically, because of thicker strings, iron frames, and a more even and forceful volume, they may also correspond to a tonal ideal - i.e., sometimes a somewhat percussive quality - crystallized in the minds of composers like Stravinsky, Bartok and Prokofiev, and exemplified in their piano music. A price, however, has been paid for this kind of "progress." Modern pianos can lack the bell-like transparency of a Mozart piano, the greater softness and yet power of the basses of a Beethoven piano, or the dreamy tenderness of a Parisian salon Chopin piano.
To compare Beethoven's Broadwood and Graf pianos with each other for quality purposes would be futile, just as such a comparison of each of them with today's concert grands would be unfair. What comes into play in either case is not a matter of "quality" but rather of difference. The inherent distinctions among these instruments simply preclude equitable quality comparisons. (Indeed, can one compare the "quality" of a fine Stradivarius with that of a fine Guarnerius?). It would of course be possible to compare such instruments in certain ways, but not in others - it could be done for the purpose of identifying and studying some of their differences.
If the standards of comparison were to be physical ones (the sheer size of the pianos, and the more modern materials and technology of manufacture of the newer instruments, etc.), rather than musical considerations (such as touch, and tone-production), the comparisons would be unjust in the extreme - but if they must be made, suffice it to say that Beethoven's Broadwood and Graf pianos, in comparable historical perspective, would stand up against today's concert grands in much the same way as the piano technique of Franz Liszt would now very likely rival that of today's virtuosi. To put it in the vernacular, he would give them a keyboard-run for their money.
We cannot have the experience of hearing Beethoven play his own music. This is obvious. We can, however, hear his own music played on his own pianos. This is a blessing which raises some questions, the answers to which are, alas, not so obvious. Would one prefer to listen to the composer's music performed by an acknowledged Beethoven exponent like Rudolf Serkin on a modern concert grand? - or, to hear a rendition of the same pieces by a musician even of less renown, but played on fortepianos that are contemporary with the composer's own era (ideally, Beethoven's own Broadwood and Graf Hammerklaviere)?
Additionally, would such a decision be based on musical and historical criteria, or, just as validly, on personal preferences? In this regard, both can carry weight and should be equally considered: the once-available recorded performances (on a modern piano) of some of Beethoven's late piano sonatas by a now deceased but well-known European composer and pianist are a head-shaking disappointment, and are as embarrassingly anemic as some of Beethoven's own early sketches are embarrassingly crude.
Today we are fortunate. Because of the media and commercial recordings, we can hear virtually definitive performances of Bernstein conducting Bernstein; Dmitri Shostakovich (winner of the Chopin Piano Competition at age 21) playing his own Preludes and Fugues, as soloist in performances of each of his two piano concerti, and performing his Concertino for Two Pianos (with his son Maxim as the second soloist); we can hear Maurice Ravel at the piano playing his own music, as well as conducting his Bolero with the Lamoureux Orchestra (on an historic recording made by Polydor ca.1932). We can also hear much older recordings of some much older composers performing their own music - Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar conducting their works, and, thanks to the International Piano Archive, we can hear Edvard Grieg, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Camille Saint-Saëns, and even Brahms, playing their own piano music. (The Brahms recording, from a cylinder made in December, 1889 at the home of his friend, Dr. Richard Fellinger, is unique in that the composer actually announces himself, partly in English, before rendering his Hungarian Dance Nr.l in g-minor, although his playing can hardly be heard). We are fortunate in still other respects. Through the Early Music Movement, the increased interest in period instruments, keyboard and otherwise, has made performances on them more common today than before. Recordings, too, of music played on fortepianos have become fairly popular: Paul Badura-Skoda and Malcolm Frager have recorded works on instruments contemporary with the eras of composers from Schubert through Chopin, Melvin Tan performs the five Beethoven concerti on a period piano, and Ernst Gröschel has recorded, in addition to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and other works on the Graf instrument, some of Chopin's piano works on the composer's own concert Erard at the German National Museum in Nürnberg, where the piano is located.
Historically most special of all, in this respect, are particular instruments the sounds of which are documented literally on record: the composers' own pianos. For the liberal, open-minded listener, the experience of hearing such a performance or recording can be nothing short of a wonder.
Outstanding among such Beethoven recordings are those by the Austrian pianist Jörg Demus, a musician if not of international "celebrity" then surely of international caliber, on which he performs Beethoven's piano works on the composer's own Broadwood and Graf pianos. It can be a hair-raising experience to hear these recordings, if not an outright revelation.
While performances today on period instruments raise some general questions among scholars and historians, a performance on Beethoven's own pianos raises a question that is more specific - a question not of musical authenticity (how he played), but of sound authenticity (what he heard). From the musicological viewpoint of performance practice per se, the plain, simple fact is that we actually know as much about Beethoven's playing as he knew about ours. (What is in fact documented, however, is the impression he made on his listeners).
Because of the nature and elements of their construction, the sounds that emanated from his Hammerklaviere are not the same as those we hear coming from today's instruments. These subtle differences in timbre, discreet but distinct, may not be what our modern ears expect to hear; but in terms of their actual sound they are historically far closer to what he himself would have heard, than what we hear today on the modern concert grand at the hands of Vladimir Horowitz, or even a Beethoven specialist like Artur Schnabel. The bottom line is that at least from a purely historical (not a musicological) perspective, the closest we will ever get to hearing Beethoven play his own music is to hear his music played by someone else, but on Beethoven's own piano.
In hearing the sounds of these instruments, the casual listener is welcome, if he or she chooses, to close his eyes and simply enter a figurative time-machine. The astute listener, however, will realize that while the fortepianos of Beethoven's day produced the kind of sounds he heard, his own Broadwood and Graf pianos produced the very sounds he heard.
"Wonderful things," to be sure.
Author's AutobiographyJeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher and widely published author whose work appears in print and online publications in the USA and abroad, and in several languages. His goal is to make a contribution to the sum of human knowledge. He prefers to let his work speak for him rather than he for his work, and he views researching and writing as a reason for living, not just a means of earning a living. He's been seen by some as being overly confrontational and thusly a real idealist, and by others as being insufficiently engaged and thusly an ideal realist. Both views have merit.
His likes are: Good sense and logic, and those who subscribe to it in concept and practice; people who admit when they're wrong about something, and those who accept his own apology when he acknowledges an error of his own; those who consider and weigh their options, make a decision, and stay with it; circumstances that promote a clear vision, where we can see something for its own intrinsic worth and gauge it on its own merits, viewing it (and hopefully accepting it) for what it is.
His dislikes are: Screaming children; the "Know-it-all"; those who have no sense of organization, but who do have a genius for making simple things needlessly complicated; men & women who are intolerant of another person's viewpoint, who fix only upon what suits them, and who try to make their own self-serving rules; the strutting, egocentric, power-mad control-freak with the Napoleonic domination complex; the person who takes the easy way out by focusing on what something is not, and who first polls others to decide what his or her own opinion will be.
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