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For my research project at UA, I'm working on historical performance practice in the period 1890-1920, and I'm going to produce a recording of Rachmaninoff's 1st sonata and Liszt's B minor sonata, hopefully on my own 1893 piano. I have opted to not use a modern piano because of the type of project this is - those techniques require a period instrument, and a period instrument requires those techniques will be one of the points of view in this project.

I am interested in researching as far as I can first hand, the development of the piano from c.1870 to the present day. For example I know that Paderewski in 1893 performed in Dundee Scotland on an Erard piano which was straight strung and had up striking dampers. The piano actually came up for sale last year and was signed "I. J. Paderewski, Dundee, Scotland, October 1893" I think even gave the day but I can't remember the exact day, but 17th seems familiar....

Anyway my point is that although with rebuilding, an 1890 Steinway B can be turned into a modern Steinway B (sort of), these pianos when they were new were quite different from what is being manufactured today. The sound of a modern piano is certainly brighter and louder, and has either a longer sustain or a different kind of sustain. ||

For brainstorming I'm interested in:

Steinways patents in this period. This is the period before the 'diaphragmatic soundboard' or the 'accelerated action'.
Scale designs. We know that Steinway concert grands were birthed through a few incarnations before the present day D was settled upon. In fact I believe that a D from pre-1960 has differences in the scale design from a present day D, but I don't have sources to back this up.
Since I'm doing Rachmaninoff, differences between Hamburg and New York Steinways are relevant from that era only. I'm not interested in present day differences or similarities.

Other makes that were prevalent in Europe. What was Bechstein doing in 1870? What were the differences in pianos? There were many developments at Bechstein in this period.

Blüthner designs are fascinating from this period, David-G has a piano which was made in 1910 I think, but it has an extremely antiquated design even for then. The differences the larger Blüthner grands would be better to reference but smaller ones would be fine too. I'm going to also watch and rewatch the video of Andras Schiff although that piano is maybe just a little too early for this study, but maybe not.

Bösendorfer were still producing Viennese instruments at this time. How do they play compared to modern pianos?

French and English pianos are not irrelevant to my study but they're not going to be as important. I will contact Alasdair Lawrence about the Broadwood pianos of the day because I believe he has a wealth of information. Chappell made a rather solid 9' concert grand which has the standard American-German design in about 1925, but it's a bit of an anomaly in this study.

I'm also going to contact the Carolina Music Museum because it's closest to me, and Vienna Art History museum because they have pianos from this period.

My REAL CONCERN is:

In spite of all the variance between the different makes and scale designs, is there some kind of consensus in the sound? Can I say that virtually all pianos from that period were sweeter sounding, for example (whatever sweeter means but you probably understand). Was there a difference in hammer material?

At what point did the concert and recording standard become the modern Steinway? I know that today it could also be Yamaha, Bechstein, Blüthner, etc but there was a point that Steinway was virtually the only available concert grand.

In the conclusion I will talk about today's makers and how once again there is more variety, but I'm not there yet.

If anyone would be willing to contribute photographs of their pre-1920 grand pianos, with year built, and any important things in the design that sets them apart from modern instruments, I would be incredibly grateful if I could use them in my dissertation.

Thanks in advance.


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This is a long conversation, Joe. You are asking all the right questions and your European-ness is coming through loud and clear. smile smile thumb


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Joe,

What a wonderful project! Very much after my own heart.

I have a mass of information about Blüthners which may be of interest to you, though it will take me some time to gather it. Basically, I should be able to find you photos of pretty much all their designs up to 1920, each with the range of serial numbers over which the design was produced. This should, I think, be extremely useful to you. Of course, what this does not do is tell you what these designs sounded like, or how the sounds of the various designs differed. You will have to draw conclusions about that on the basis of the designs themselves. I will send you a PM.

Are you going to be back in the UK at all before finishing your dissertation? If so, you would be most welcome to come over here and play my Blüthner. I really think you would learn a lot from that which would be helpful to your project.

Incidentally, my piano dates from 1878, not 1910. (I had thought it was 1881 - the 1878 date is a new discovery, I will post about that.)

PS The Carolina Music Museum is run by Tom Strange, who I know because he used to come over to our annual square piano meet-ups at Finchcocks. Such a nice man and extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful.

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All US patents are searchable on the web for free, which you may well know.

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Rich thanks! And I know you have a Centennial Steinway....

David G that would be EXTREMELY helpful yes. Unfortunately I don't think I'll be back in the UK before I finish. It's too early to make plans with the current Covid restrictions in place. 1878, that makes more sense! I look forward to hearing this story.

Roy, thanks I'll look into it. Regarding Steinways themselves I'll probably get in touch with them and ask them what certain patents are for. Of course, I'll ask Rich as well, and other rebuilders, but my committee would also like to have things from what they'd see as the horse's mouth. I'm sure you all understand....


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Do you have the Official Guide to Steinway Pianos?


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I'm also going to contact the Carolina Music Museum because it's closest to me, and Vienna Art History museum because they have pianos from this period.

This brings up a really interesting question. Where are the places that one might visit, that might have a variety of historical keyboard instruments? When I was living in New Haven CT, I visited the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments . They have a number of keyboard instruments, although the ones they list on their website seem to be primarily from an older period than the one you’re interested in. However, it’s possible they have instruments that are not on display. From their website, it seems like they do live performances and demonstrations on these instruments (in non COVID times), so i would hope that they are well maintained. You mention the Vienna Art History Museum. What museums in the US would have collections of these instruments that are well maintained/playable? I think you would be interested in playing them. I would think that academic institutions would support a project like yours and would be agreeable to you playing the instruments, but that is a huge guess…

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The University of Michigan has the 1932 Gershwin Steinway A but from smtd.umich.edu it appears they have the Brescoll Model C #40751. It appears to be their oldest piano in the collection from 1880. It resides in the University president's home. It was apparently owned by the manager of Carnegie Hall in 1904 and at some point the Brescoll family who donated it to the SMTD in 2010. Repairs done in 1904 but no other renovations mentioned. If in good condition still, it may provide an interesting comparison. My Michigan connections are limited now but I could try to get you the opportunity to see and play.
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There is of course the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham Massachusetts. Could be well worth a visit. They have a Bluthner of the same design and period as mine but concert-grand size.

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Since you've mentioned the Vienna Museum of Art History, you will probably disappointed with their collection in the context of your research. Basically they have just one Bösendorfer concert grand from the turn of the century.

Instead, you should speak to the guy who did the restoration for the museum. His name is Gert Hecher and he has what I would say is probably the largest collection of concert grands from the 19th century. He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of the piano and piano music. He is also an excellent pianist (There is an incredible recording of the Prokofiev 8th sonata on youtube) and he will be able to answer all your questions in detail.

Here is a quick walk through parts of the collection, showing pianos by Erard, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Rönisch, Streicher, Schweighofer, Ehrbar, among others:



All of these pianos are in excellent condition, can be played and are regular rentals for the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein.

One of his most recent restorations was an 1862 Bechstein and here is a video:



http://www.hecherpiano.com/collection_hecher.html

In addition to these instruments he has a huge storage area that contains another 50-60 instruments that can be restored. There are pianos by Erard, Pleyel, Bösendorfer, many Streichers (Liszt loved them) and my two turn of the century model IV Bechsteins, among others.

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Originally Posted by OE1FEU
Instead, you should speak to the guy who did the restoration for the museum. His name is Gert Hecher and he has what I would say is probably the largest collection of concert grands from the 19th century.

Wow that is a jealousy-inducing collection - fantastic!

I can only offer photos of a single 1899 Bechstein E (serial number 51930) - so send me a PM if you are interested.

Some of the unique design features were discussed here from 7m51:


Warm regards,

Ppianissimo


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The Frederick Collection is well worth the trip. Here is a recording of their 1877 Blüthner. (Their early 20th-century Blüthner has been recorded for a cd program of Debussy.)


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Originally Posted by mha9
The Frederick Collection is well worth the trip. Here is a recording of their 1877 Blüthner. (Their early 20th-century Blüthner has been recorded for a cd program of Debussy.)

Nice piano, but does it sound out of tune to anyone else?

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Originally Posted by violarules
Originally Posted by mha9
The Frederick Collection is well worth the trip. Here is a recording of their 1877 Blüthner. (Their early 20th-century Blüthner has been recorded for a cd program of Debussy.)

Nice piano, but does it sound out of tune to anyone else?

It sounds out of tune in terms of the way we tune now, but remember in the 1870s people still used different temperaments. The fully equal temperament that we're used to these days was just not in the vocabulary of tuners back then.

It's interesting to be, because this piano sounds like a historical piano for sure, and of a completely different generation to my own Blüthner from the 1890s, but there is still the recognisable pre-WW2 Blüthner tone there. It's not the mellowness, that can be done on any piano, but there's a kind of roundness in the tone, like it's actually singing with a human voice rather than being a percussive or stringed instrument.

Don't get me wrong, modern pianos are an improvement in that they're more versatile, and they're more suited to our present-day venues, and our modern sensibilities, but this is a beautiful sound.



Originally Posted by OE1FEU
Since you've mentioned the Vienna Museum of Art History, you will probably disappointed with their collection in the context of your research. Basically they have just one Bösendorfer concert grand from the turn of the century.

Instead, you should speak to the guy who did the restoration for the museum. His name is Gert Hecher and he has what I would say is probably the largest collection of concert grands from the 19th century. He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the history of the piano and piano music. He is also an excellent pianist (There is an incredible recording of the Prokofiev 8th sonata on youtube) and he will be able to answer all your questions in detail.

Here is a quick walk through parts of the collection, showing pianos by Erard, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Rönisch, Streicher, Schweighofer, Ehrbar, among others:



All of these pianos are in excellent condition, can be played and are regular rentals for the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein.

One of his most recent restorations was an 1862 Bechstein and here is a video:



http://www.hecherpiano.com/collection_hecher.html

In addition to these instruments he has a huge storage area that contains another 50-60 instruments that can be restored. There are pianos by Erard, Pleyel, Bösendorfer, many Streichers (Liszt loved them) and my two turn of the century model IV Bechsteins, among others.

I was hoping you'd pick up on this thread! Thank you! I appreciate it. I wish I'd have time to visit there before my project is complete but I just can't, I'm in America and Covid restrictions are happening again in the UK, and flights are not cheap right now. I will go in future, because I suspect this won't be the last time I explore the romantic era piano.


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Originally Posted by violarules
Nice piano, but does it sound out of tune to anyone else?

The piano is out of tune and it has nothing to do with temperament and equal temperament.

Very few 'modern' tuners ever touch a historical grand piano - and those who consider themselves experts on tuning historical instruments have rarely trained their ears to the richness of overtones of pianos and tune unisons the way they should be. I am confident that had you played an instrument just before a recital by Liszt, you would have heard an instrument perfectly in tune by today's standards.

The unisons on this Blüthner are horribly out of tune.

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Originally Posted by OE1FEU
Originally Posted by violarules
Nice piano, but does it sound out of tune to anyone else?

The piano is out of tune and it has nothing to do with temperament and equal temperament.

Very few 'modern' tuners ever touch a historical grand piano - and those who consider themselves experts on tuning historical instruments have rarely trained their ears to the richness of overtones of pianos and tune unisons the way they should be. I am confident that had you played an instrument just before a recital by Liszt, you would have heard an instrument perfectly in tune by today's standards.

The unisons on this Blüthner are horribly out of tune.

Thanks for confirming. I respect Joe a lot, but the out-of-tune unisons stuck out to me from the very beginning.

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I can't help with any of the clever stuff - but would be fascinated to read any of your research that you're willing to share. I can however share photographs of my 1910 Bechstein B (rosewood - Sheraton style legs) if that's of any use.

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What I hear in the Blüthner recording is desiccated hammers and tension-hardened strings. The tuning is not bad. This is the problem with old pianos. Even if they have not been played much, age takes its toll.


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Originally Posted by BDB
What I hear in the Blüthner recording is desiccated hammers and tension-hardened strings. The tuning is not bad. This is the problem with old pianos. Even if they have not been played much, age takes its toll.

I disagree.

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Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell us what you disagree with.


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