You find the denizens sitting silently and waiting in the old library. They look lonely, huddled against the midwinter chill, until they start to speak. All of them are old. Some of them were once noted for their voice and personality, but now they are remembered mainly in obscure pages of history. Some of them are spindly and whispery, others burly and assertive. They used to be companions of famous people. Their intimates included Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Debussy.
Which is to say: This library is filled with the pianos great composers wrote for. Instruments like these were etched in the composers’ consciousness; they were co-creators of splendid music.
Their retirement home lies in a little town in central Massachusetts. They aren’t allowed to molder, however—their supervisors keep them active.
In 1976, Michael Frederick, once an East Asian history major and a harpsichord buff, and his musical wife, Patricia, bought an old piano, a British Stodart built around 1830. It needed major restoration, and because Michael had been building harpsichords as a hobby since his college days he decided to work on it himself. Then they bought another 19th-century piano, and another, and so on. You know how it is with obsessions.
A theme Michael Frederick often returns to is standardization. Why should everything be the same? Why should three or four piano makers, however splendid, especially the Steinways that inhabit the majority of concert halls, dominate the scene?
To be sure, Steinways are tremendous instruments and have earned their glory. But should any one brand be that dominant? A modern piano is a matter of iron and steel and high-tech and some degree of assembly line. In the days of Beethoven and Schubert, it was a matter of one man or woman (such as the legendary Nannette Streicher) with hammers, saws, planes, and chisels, and there were myriad visions of what a piano could be. Stephen Porter notes that now in Europe a number of artisanal makers are creating first-rate reproductions of old instruments.
When I made some observation to the effect of, “the piano was in the middle of its evolution in Beethoven’s lifetime,” he pointed out with some heat that this wasn’t the case. The state of the piano was a variety of national, local, and house traditions moving forward at the same time. During the 19th century, Viennese pianos were noted for their lightness of touch and tone and British pianos for a more robust build, touch, and sound; French pianos lay somewhere between. Within those parameters of local taste, each maker had a distinctive style and a proprietary bag of tricks. For one example, Mozart’s favorite maker, Walter, would leave his soundboards outside all winter; the ones that cracked went into the stove.
When composers wrote for these instruments they sometimes loved them and sometimes chafed at their limitations, but in any case they wrote for those sounds, that touch, those bells and whistles. From old instruments, performers on modern pianos can get important insights into the sound image that Mozart, Schubert, et al., were aiming for.
But music from the 18th and 19th centuries doesn’t just sound different now than on the original instruments; some of it can’t even be played as written on modern pianos. One example is the double-octave glissando in the last movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata.
With the light action and shallow key dip of a period Viennese piano you can plant your thumb and little finger on the octave and slide to the left, and there it is. Given the much heavier action and deeper key dip of a modern piano, if you tried that today you’d dislocate something. Every pianist has a dodge for that passage. It’s said that before the glissando Rudolf Serkin would discreetly spit on his fingers.
The prime example of what I’m talking about is perhaps the most famous piece ever written: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Hector Berlioz called its murmuring, mournful first movement, “one of those poems that human language does not know how to interpret.”
At the beginning, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustain pedal through the whole first movement, so the strings are never damped.
With the pianos of Beethoven’s time, on which the sustain of the strings was shorter than today, the effect was subtle, one harmony melting into another. On a modern piano, with its longer sustain, the effect of holding the pedal down would be a tonal traffic jam. Today you have to fake the effect, and it never quite works as intended.
The sound is startlingly different from a modern piano and takes a while to get used to. These instruments were mostly played in small to medium-size rooms. The sound is intimate; you hear wood and felt and leather.
The voicing is varied through the registers rather than the homogenous sound of modern pianos.
On the Katholnig, the effect of holding the pedal down in the “Moonlight” has a ghostly effect, most obvious in the longer-sustaining bass notes that can sound like a distant gong. All these elements of the pianos Beethoven knew shaped the music in the first place, including the way he picked out high and low notes around the murmuring figure in the middle of the keyboard.
Let’s compare pianos on another monumental Beethoven piano sonata, No. 23, the “Appassionata,” from 1805. The later sonata is a story of voids, abysses, hopes rising only to be crushed, one of the supreme tragic works in the keyboard literature.
But as much as anything, the piece is about the piano itself, especially the colors of its registers. It’s generally understood that after Beethoven was given a state-of-the-art Erard in 1803, his piano music got more ambitious and exploratory (even as he groused about its heavy French action)
Around 1820 Beethoven secured a Viennese instrument by Conrad Graf, partly because he was seriously deaf by then and Graf made the loudest pianos in town. Pianist Stephen Porter is not a period specialist, but he has been soloing on a Graf in the collection’s concerts since 2002. (This particular instrument’s first owners were the Sonnleithner family in Vienna, known to history for their connection to Beethoven and Schubert.)
Porter talks about the transparent sound of old pianos, the three-dimensional quality of the registers from silvery high to booming low–so different from the homogenized voicing of modern instruments.
In the whirlwind last movement of the “Appassionata,” Porter says it’s as if the Graf is straining to contain the music, threatening to fly apart in the attempt. That, of course, is the effect Beethoven was aiming for: a certain desperation.
That may be the most exciting and appropriate version of the “Appassionata” ending I’ve heard, and it’s the piano as well as the performer that makes it happen. It’s hard to make a Steinway sound anything but elegant; it’s not so good at hair-raising.