#3: Nannette Streicher and the Viennese Fortepiano

Imagine that you are 8 and a half years old. Mozart comes by, you play the piano for him, and he says that you are talented! You have already appeared as a soloist with the local symphony, and your favourite thing is to hang out with your father in his instrument workshop. His job is to build organs – and even to invent new types of keyboard instruments! Luckily, your father loves you to pieces and entrusts you with his secrets of piano building even if you are not a boy.

Growing up, you meet a young, handsome man who also plays the piano and who, exactly like your father, is called Johann Andreas. Of course, you fall in love! Of course, you get married and have children and take over the piano workshop! Of course, you move to Vienna, where all the famous pianists meet and where the piano fever is about to invade the city like no other frenzy has. You organize house concerts which easily attracts an audience of 300 people because of the famous musicians who attend and the young talent that is introduced. You help Beethoven with making him louder pianos since his hearing is unfortunately fainting, and you help him keep his house in order as well.

But more than anything, you have to stay competitive in the business because you are far from the only one offering these popular instruments. However, since also your brother and your son build pianos, the history goes on and the legacy of your beloved father, Johann Andreas Stein, is honoured. In fact, the entire musical world is forever thankful to your family.

Would Nannette, in her wildest dreams, have imagined that her pianos would be played 200 years later?!

Nannette Streicher. Reproduction, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien. The picture on the top of this blog post shows Goethe’s piano, which was built by Nannette in 1821. 

Nannette Streicher, née Stein, 1769-1833

What a life! Anna Maria (Nannette) Stein was born in Augsburg in 1769 and died in Vienna in 1833. I summed up her eventful life very briefly, but even the outline testifies of an extraordinary person.

Nannette’s life and work provides interesting information regarding piano technique, piano playing, piano construction as well as being a prime example of how a woman actually could manage all that, even at a time when it was not expected! Although this short blog post cannot fathom her significance, I will at least comment on these three aspects: What Mozart’s letter about her playing as a child teaches us about fortepiano playing, how Nannette became a great pianist despite Mozart’s worries, and how she managed one of the greatest fortepiano businesses in Vienna.

Nannette and Mozart in 1777

After having visited Johann Andreas Stein in Augsburg and heard Nanette (8,5 years) play the piano, Mozart writes a long letter to his father Leopold. Here, he lets us have his opinion of Nannette in clear words! ‘Sie kann was werden, sie hat Genie’, he writes. That is, ‘she could become something, she is gifted’. That was the good part! But he continues: ‘in this manner, she will not become anything!’ Mozart expresses much worry, and we need to understand why. He explains that he talked to Nannette’s father for ‘at least two hours’ about her bad piano habits!

In regard to piano technique of the time, it is interesting to see how Mozart comments that Nannette did not sit opposite the middle of the keyboard, but way up in the treble. If you have read either my thesis or my article discussing this subject, you may remember that sitting opposite the middle of the keyboard is the very first instruction in many keyboard treatises. It is very basic, but our young pianist did not follow this rule!

The second error, according to Mozart, is that Nannette is ‘flopping about’, which would be contrary to the frequently uttered rule of ‘avoiding all unnecessary motion’ and keeping hands and arms still. Nannette not only moves her arms and body excessively, but she also makes grimaces, funny faces and eye-rolls! With her arms up, she could produce nothing but heavy attacks, which Mozart could not stand.

Moreover, it seems that Nannette was not yet familiar with the concept of passing the thumb when playing scales. Her runs were presented in a somewhat ‘clumsy’ manner, even lifting her hand from the keyboard in the middle of a passage. All of these errors of posture and arm movement caused Nannette to play out of time and made Mozart fear for her future career. She was not being professional, and the musical interpretation suffered.

Do you want to read Mozart’s letter about Nannette? Here it is:

Anyone who sees and hears her play and can keep from laughing, must, like her father [Herr Stein], be made of stone [Stein is the German word for stone]. For instead of sitting in the middle of the clavier, she sits right opposite the treble, as it gives her more chance of flopping about and making grimaces. She rolls her eyes and smirks. When a passage is repeated, she plays it more slowly the second time. If it has to be played a third time, the arm must be raised as high as possible, and according as the notes in the passage are stressed, the arm, not the fingers, must do this, and that too with great emphasis in a heavy and clumsy manner. But the best joke of all is that when she comes to a passage which ought to flow like oil and which necessitates a change of finger, she does not bother her head about it, but when the moment arrives, she just leaves out the notes, raises her hand and starts off again quite comfortably – a method by which she is much more likely to strike a wrong note, which often produces a curious effect. I am simply writing this in order to give Papa some idea of clavier-playing and clavier-teaching, so that he may derive some profit from it later on. Herr Stein is quite crazy about his daughter, who is eight and a half and who now learns everything by heart. She may succeed, for she has great talent for music. But she will not make progress by this method – for she will never acquire great rapidity, since she definitely does all she can to make her hands heavy. Further, she will never acquire the most essential, the most difficult and the chief requisite in music, which is time, because from her earliest years she has done her utmost not to play in time. Herr Stein and I had at least two hours’ talk on this point.

(Letter from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Leopold Mozart on 23 October 1777. Otto Jahn, Life of Mozart, Vol. I, p. 361. Translated by Pauline D. Townsend. London, 1882. The translation (except for the last sentence) is from Maurice Hinson (ed.): At the Piano with Mozart. Alfred Publishing Co., 1986. Foreword, p. 7).

Nannette the pianist and composer

Did Mozart worry too much? Or, did Nannette benefit so much from his advice that it saved her career? We will probably never know exactly, but Nannette kept playing the piano, and she kept doing well. She even tried her hand at composition, which was highly unusual for women at that time. At least two of her opuses (two marches for piano and one march for wind instruments) were published by Simrock.

Exactly how often she appeared as a pianist or composer in concerts is hardly known, but I found one contemporary source (1826) referring to her as ‘die bekannte grosse Klavierspielerin’ – that is, ‘the famous, great piano player’ – which is really quite impressive!

Yet, it seems clear that, as time went by, Nannette spent more of her time on piano building and on developing the piano firm in various ways. When Johann Andreas Stein died in 1792, Nannette was the one who kept the business going. She was assisted by her younger brother Matthäus Andreas, but since he was only 16 when their father died, Nannette was clearly the more experienced one. In an obituary, Stein’s ‘heart-melting pianoforte’ was praised as famous all over Europe – so the pressure was definitely on her to save the family business.

Nannette the piano maker

A big change happened in 1794. Nannette married the pianist, teacher and composer Johann Andreas Streicher, whom she had probably met as he visited her father’s workshop. Together, they decided to move the piano business to Vienna. 

The question of leadership was also discussed. According to Streicher, he had insisted that the company should continue to bear Nannette’s name, although a female business leader was unheard of at the time. Later on, Streicher explained that Nannette was the one who knew the trade first-hand from her eminent father. She had the detailed knowledge! She knew why her father had built this model this way, and that model that way. This became Streicher’s reason for insisting on Nannette’s leadership, in spite the fact that she was a woman and a mother.

We might also add that Nannette had known most of her father’s customers since she was a small girl and demonstrated the new instruments to potential buyers. And indeed, her ability to network seems a crucial part of the success.

Nannette’s communication and negotiation skills secured distribution of the instruments through exclusive contracts: through Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, her instruments were sold in Sachsen, through Heinrich Friedrich Schütz in Weimar, and through Johann Anton André in Offenbach. In this way, she effectively sold pianos to the entire German market and became one of the most successful Viennese piano companies in Europe.

Assistants and students

We can only assume that Nannette also had an important role in teaching the craftmanship (or, should we say, craftwomanship?) of piano building. It would have been impossible that she and her husband personally made all the instruments themselves. They relied on workers and assistants, whom they first had to educate! 

Perhaps the most important one, at least to the family company, was Johann Baptist Streicher, the son of Johann Andreas and Nannette. In the year where he formally joined the company, 1823, he patented a piano with a down-striking action – staying true to the innovative family spirit, indeed!

A few weeks ago, I played one of these pianos, and it was very sonorous and beautiful. I could not record myself, but a video of that very piano, played by excellent colleague Els Biesemans, is available here. Pictures and a description of the piano by its new owner, piano maker Chris Maene, is available here.

It is also known that some of the workers who had learned the craft in Stein’s or Streicher’s workshop, later became successful piano makers elsewhere, and thus spread the art of Viennese fortepiano building after Stein.

One of these men was Daniel Dörr – although he seems to have stayed in Vienna – and thereby, this blog post has turned back to the builder of my piano and the motivation for this entire blog.

In next week’s post, I will give you some news about its progress. I’ve scheduled a trip to the workshop where my Daniel Dörr piano it’s being restored and I can’t wait to go see it!

The Streicher piano with the down-striking action, Chris Maene collection (chrismaenecollection.be)

Christina Kobb, 21 April 2023

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