Fortepiano after Johann Andreas Stein 1785

Fortepiano after Johann Andreas Stein 1785, by Johannes Secker 1996
– used for all pieces by Mozart, Sonata in E-flat by J.C. Bach, and Sonata in E-flat by Haydn.

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Mozart, in a famous letter to his father dated October 17, 1777, gave us a unique window into the world of Johann Andreas Stein and his approach to the design of pianos:

“This time I shall begin at once with Stein’s pianofortes, before I had seen any of his manufacture, Spath’s claviers had always been my favorites. But now I prefer Stein’s, the they damp ever so much better that the Regensburg instruments. When I strike hard, I can keep my finger on the note or raise it, but the sound ceases the moment I have produced it. In whatever way I touch the keys, the tone is always even. It never jars, it is never stonger or weaker or entirely absent, in a word it is always even… His instruments have this special advantage over the others in that they are made with escape action. Only one maker in a hundred bothers with this. But without an escapement it is impossible to avoid jangling and vibration after the note is struck. When you touch the keys, the hammers fall back again the moment after they have struck the strings, whether you hold down the keys or release them. [Stein] himself told me that when he has finished making one of the claviers, he sits down to it and tries all kinds of passages, runs and jumps, and he polishes and works away at it until it can do anything, for he labours only in the interest of music and not for his own profit. Otherwise he would be finished almost immediately. He often says:

‘If I myself were not such a passionate lover of music and had not myself some slight skill on the clavier, I should long ago have lost patience with my work. But I do like an instrument which never lets the player down and which is durable’.

Here and in Munich I have played my six sonatas by heart several times… The last one in d (K. 284) sounds exquisite on Stein’s pianoforte. The device too, which you work with your knee is better than on other instruments. I have only to touch it and it works; and when you shift your knee the slightest bit, you do not feel the least reverberation.”

The pedal mechanism on the instrument is actuated by a knee-lever, which elevates the rack of dampers all at once. Other comments made by Mozart include an account of Stein’s seasoning of the soundboard, describing how he inserted wedges into cracks, and actually cut into the spruce to “strengthen it in this way”. Such a detailed evaluation of an instrument by a composer of Mozart’s stature is revealing and valuable.

The delicate wooden structure and Wiener mechanik (the hammer is mounted on the distal end of the key-lever) which furthered Mozart’s musical purposes did not fare so well in the nineteenth century, when the thickening textures and martial rhythms of the Romantic movement demanded larger, felted hammers. English-style action, in which the key and hammer are separated, entirely supplanted the Viennese type by the middle of the 19th century. The widening of the range, stronger string tension and addition of a third string to the treble unisons created a need for heavier framing and ultimately the introduction, around the second decade of the century, of a metal plate. Greater volume became neccessary as the venues in which pianos were played increased in size, and as the public recital and the concerto with orchestra became a social, commercial and industrial institution.

The small leather-covered hammers, light framing, and soundboard barring of Stein’s design result in an incisive bell-like sonority, which though not loud, is very sweet and full of overtones. This characteristic enhances the thin texture and rapid theatrical passagi of the music. The unique sound suggests the salon atmosphere of porcelain figurines, lace, and powdered wigs with great immediacy. In that outwardly untroubled world, tragedy, comedy and great pathos mingle in the same piece. It is the incomparably polished music of Haydn, J. C. Bach and Mozart which makes us want to revisit the era.

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