As a salute the fabulous instrument makers of the 17th and 18th centuries, I would like to make a series of keyboard portraits whenever I can. The selection will simply depend on where I am and which instruments I get a chance to record.
Here is the first one – a true gem from the Beurmann collection in Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe:
This tiny square piano was made by Christian Baumann (1740–1816) in Zweibrücken, in 1777. Zweibrücken is a German town close to the French border, east of Saarbrücken. The town is named after the ‘two bridges’ (zwei Brücken) that crossed the river. In the early 19th century, the town looked something like this:
I don’t see any bridges here, but there is definitely a big castle in the middle. This castle was actually built by a Swedish architect (Sundahl) around 1715. Even the famous Christoph Willibald Gluck entertained here in the 1770s – maybe he played on Baumann’s pianos…? We will probably never know, but some occasional speculation must be allowed.
This particular instrument has gotten an ‘upgrade’ of the case at some point – with rococo style paint and decoration! The original case was probably plain and undecorated (unless it was decorated to fit the castle…but that’s admittedly a wild and completely uneducated guess!!).
Details of the Baumann square piano
Last July, I visited the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, where I was allowed to spend a few minutes with this very special piano. To have a keyboard instrument with such a tiny action, which is still in playable condition, is remarkable!
There are only around 20 extant Baumann pianos world-wide, and only a few in playing condition. Here is a close-up of the action (as close as possible, without pulling it out):
A rather peculiar thing in some of these early pianos, is that the dampers move up to the strings instead of falling down on it. The pivot point for the dampers is created by a simple string across all of them! You will notice the read felt bits working as a lining.
I pressed down a key halfway to make the hammer head visible! Can you spot it under the strings? It has a light covering, probably leather – but I cannot promise that this is original, since almost all of the extant Baumann pianos have cork coverings.
Can you image how it will sound?
Sound of the Baumann square piano
It is time to let it speak for itself! I chose the opening of Mozart Variations in B-flat major, KV. 500. Please click on the video!
I think it is safe to say that this is not an instrument for a big concert hall, and this is just a recording with my phone, but I think you can tell it is a charming little piano! It weighs only 36 kg!
Can you imagine it being played with a heavy, modern technique? Unless you can move your fingers with small, quick movements here, you cannot play this instrument well.
Next week, I would like to tell you more about Mozart’s connection to Christian Baumann. Please make sure to check in again if you want to know!
Christina Kobb, 2 June 2023