Some Historic Pianos – Practising the Piano

As I wind up my short tribute to the pianos of yesteryear, I want to mention two particular pianos that stand out in my memory. Last week, I wrote about my experience playing Chopin’s music on the very Broadwood that Chopin himself selected to play when he was in London. This week, I recall a more recent concert of music for four hands by Schumann with my former student, Daniel Grimwood on a very lovely Erard built in 1851 (we played the early Polonaises and Bilder aus Osten, op. 66). There was a beautiful clarity in the sound, and (unlike our homogenised modern piano) a noticeably different tonal quality in each register. This made problems of balance much easier to solve. Here is Daniel talking about his award-winning recording of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage made on this instrument (he has also recorded the Chopin Preludes on it).

Another instrument that stands out in my memory is the Horowitz Steinway. In the late 80’s I had the opportunity to try out Vladimir Horowitz’s own personal Steinway, at Steinway Hall in New York City.  In the early 1940’s, Steinway & Sons presented Horowitz and his wife Wanda with a Steinway Model D, Serial #279503. Known simply as CD503, this is the piano Horowitz kept in his New York townhouse. He used it in many recitals and recordings in the 70’s and 80’s, and he famously demanded that the piano be his exclusive touring instrument during the last four years of his life, including for his triumphant return to the former Soviet Union for performances in Moscow and Leningrad in 1986. Horowitz had the piano set up to suit his own playing style and concept of sound, and when I played it it was in this souped-up condition. I have to say it took quite a bit of getting used to. If you weren’t careful, the hammer would rebound onto the string causing the note to sound twice, which for me was quite disconcerting. Glenn Gould also favoured this way of regulating the escapement – it enables very rapid repetitions of a single key, so useful in trills and repeated notes. There were many other quirks about CD503 which made playing it precarious if you weren’t used to it, not least its very light action. I believe it has since been restored, and the action more normal. Here is my friend Michael Meltzer talking about the piano from his perspective as a Steinway sales representative:

When the Horowitz model D came back to Steinway Hall NYC in January 1990, Franz Mohr, who had worked very closely with Horowitz for almost 30 years, regulated the action to the rapid-fire extraordinary sensitivity that Horowitz liked, but replaced the filed-down hammers Horowitz also preferred with standard specification hammers. Franz allowed me to try it in the basement prior to its display in the rotunda. All I could control was the Chopin B-flat minor Nocturne, anything more challenging and the action flew away from me. Franz seemed surprised I could even play that. The piano was brought upstairs, and pianists were invited to schedule 15-minute appointments to play it. Some 300 or so responded. I heard the majority of them, though not all, but almost all whom I heard only made noise, including known concert artists I will decline to embarrass here. In fact, only four pianists whom I heard were able to elicit a beautiful tone while playing advanced repertoire. I imagine several others might have adjusted to the action if they had more than fifteen minutes. The piano was then sent on tour for a couple of years to visit all the authorized Steinway dealers in North America. Chief Concert Technician Franz Mohr couldn’t leave New York, so the decision was probably made to give the action a regulation to standard specification, so that the various dealers’ technicians would know how to work with it. That is no doubt the incarnation of the piano you are currently experiencing. I would imagine the tone to still be very beautiful, with perhaps a slight attrition in sustaining power that is to be expected with the years. (Michael Meltzer, Steinway Sales Representative, 1984-1993).

Here is chief Steinway technician Franz Mohr talking about shlepping the piano to Moscow and preparing it for these now-legendary recitals (also, do check out the Facebook page devoted to this piano!).

Before I leave the subject of historical pianos, I really want to try and persuade those who might dismiss the instrument of Mozart’s time in particular as being inferior, honky tonk or somehow less than the magnificent beast the piano has evolved into today. There is a transparent quality to the sound and, because the striking point changes from bass to treble, the timbre changes across the instrument. The bass has a bassoon-like sound which becomes more lyrical as you go up, with a tinkly top. Here is Kristian Bezuidenhout speaking eloquently about the  Viennese fortepiano, and how it evolved.


As the piano developed, the music written for it became more difficult. Composers wanted greater dynamic range and a variety of textures (especially singing melodies against a harmonic background). Tonal balance was required, and this meant that pianists needed to develop the skills to control the speed of the key during its descent. Manipulating the keyboard in this way involves fine work of the arm muscles, and pianists started to realise the old finger technique was no longer fit for purpose. Instead of the arm quietly hanging by the side, those muscles started to stiffen and seize up, resulting in many injuries being reported. In next week’s post, I shall look at how The Finger School turned into The Arm School and the early proponents of weight technique.

If you want to learn more about the history of the piano and piano technique, Part 2 of my eBook Series, Practising the Piano is now available. Please see below for details of how to get your copy.

Practising the Piano Part 2

Buy all three volumes of Practising The Piano Part 2  for 25% off the individual volume prices or click here to view the full Practising the Piano eBook Series catalogue.

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