The time has come to inspect the part which is really crucial to the sound and feel of the piano: The action, or mechanic, of the keyboard. How did it look like in 1830? And why are some hammers lazier than others?
An onstage almost-catastrophe
First, I want to tell you a true story. As a fresh fortepiano student more than twenty years ago, I had a crushing experience in a public concert. During the first piece of the evening, I noticed that a key had almost ceased to work. I was missing a bunch of notes and felt that I could not go on. But what could I do?
When the first piece was over, I decided to let my audience know of the trouble. I announced the malfunction and sat down at the piano again. Attempting to inspect the lazy hammer, I began to pull out the action – but immediately heard a scary sound.
Crack! The hammer had broken. I knew good and well that this could happen, but in the stage lights, I had not accurately spotted the hammer’s position.
Anyway, there I was, sitting onstage with the piano action on my lap, looking worried. Feeling an intense, nervous silence building up, I turned to the public slightly desperate, blurting out: ‘If you would like to see how a fortepiano looks like inside, please feel welcome to join me up here!’
This cramped move turned out to save the day. Anxious to get a glimpse of the piano’s inner workings, the entire audience came running! Flocking around the piano, their excitement completely knocked out the embarrassing atmosphere. It turned the crisis into a highlight!
The delighted chatter of the audience members bought me the time I needed to make someone get me pliers and a roll of scotch tape. I was hoping to pull off an emergency repair. Although the hammer shank (the ‘stem’) was completely broken, it had split along the grain, making it possible to realign and secure it with a few windings of scotch tape.
Then, I fixed the cause of the lazy hammer behaviour, which was a tight kapsel, preventing the hammer to fall down after the attack. (Just believe me! I’ll explain below what a kapsel is). Wow, the hammer worked again! Phew! I sent the audience back to their seats and the concert could continue.
For years, people would remind me about this evening – probably less because of my playing than because of the unexpected drama. From their perspective, it was a rare treat that added to the concert experience.
The Viennese action
I guess it is fair to say that we pianists forget that ‘normal people’ do not normally study piano actions. But it is really a marvellous view! The operation of a mechanical device is fascinating to watch, and so much more easily understood than the electronic ones.
Have you already seen a Viennese fortepiano action? Here it is! Some of the hammers are just spread out on the keys to remind me of the lazy hammer of that dramatic concert.
The Viennese action (sometimes called the ‘German action’) is a peculiar action, unique to the Viennese fortepiano. One assumes that Johann Andreas Stein invented it in Augsburg around 1780. And I agree, there are really no other candidate, neither for the action, nor for the Viennese piano as such. Maybe I will talk more about that later.
But for now, let us study the picture! As you can see, the black and white keys extend backwards into the piano. The ridge in the middle carries the back-checks, and that is where the hammers ‘land’ after each attack. The Viennese action is a ‘single escape action’.
Behind this ridge, you can see the shanks of the hammers, but the hammers themselves are hidden behind the ridge – here:
Left: bass hammers. Right: treble hammers.
The working of the hammers
When the key is pressed down by the pianist, the back end of the key rises, and the hammer is propelled towards the strings. The wooden hammer heads are covered with several layers of soft leather. Around 1830, leather from sheep or deer would be common.
The hammer shanks are mounted in metal kapsels at the far end of the piano key (the kapsels are the ‘metal forks’ to the right). Occasionally, the kapsels can get too loose. This will cause the hammer to rattle, which makes such an annoying noise! And occasionally, the kapsel can get too tight. Do you know what that means…? Yes, you guessed it, the hammer cannot move! It will be either move very slowly or get stuck in an awkward position.
If you look closely, you can see that some of the shanks have been repaired. Yes, repaired – not with scotch tape, but with glue and then reinforced with wound sewing cotton. Such reinforcement was necessary before the age of the superglue, and may still be used for historically appropriate repairs. After my emergency scotch tape repair in that concert, my dear harpsichord teacher helped me make a real repair like those you see in the photos here. With sewing cotton and all!
Tight kapsels make lazy hammers make the piano self-destruct
These photos witness that I am not alone having been fool’d by a lazy hammer! Lazy hammers are evil little creatures that deceive the pianist. Lazy hammers would never say out loud that they have not returned to their intended resting position securely behind the back-check. No, they just whisper that the action must be pulled out – only to self-destruct!
Like you can see in the pictures of my Dörr piano, a bunch of the hammers have repairs to the. The good news is that there’s a complete set of working hammers. However, not all of them are entirely original, as – well, yes, as maybe some lazy hammers and tight kapsels may indeed have caused self-destruction with every single new owner since 1830.
One should really never trust a lazy hammer. I have learned my lesson for real now.
But frankly, I do not think an original fortepiano without any traces of broken hammers has been seen in the 21th century. Repairs become part of the instrument’s story – and maybe even of dramatic crisis-to-highlight concerts! (Not a bad plot, after all).
When the time comes, decisions will be made regarding these repairs in my Dörr piano – some may be ‘re-repaired’, while others might be good enough to stay.
First of all, though, a good cleaning is necessary from all the dust that has gathered over the years! Should you be interested in some historical dust, I might be able to offer you a good deal…
Why not opt for an electric grand piano instead?
The funny thing is that when the action of my Dörr fortepiano from 1830 is extracted and propped up like this, it looks almost like an electric keyboard:
Having read this entire story, do you think I should have opted for an electric piano instead of a historical fortepiano from 1830? Perhaps an elegant Yamaha electric grand, as that would be so much easier?
I feel the urge to kindly inform you that electric pianos get ‘lazy hammers’, too! OK, lazy sound cards, at least. And when the sound cards stop working, which they do after a mere ten years or so, they are much harder to repair than a 200 years old Viennese hammer shank.
Never forget that!
Just beware of them lazy hammers…
Christina Kobb, 26 May 2023