#9: A true ‘Mozart piano’

Last week, I introduced you to one of the world’s few playable square pianos by Christian Baumann of Zweibrücken. The piano was built in 1777, and now belongs to the Beurmann collection in Hamburg. Check out last week’s post to hear me play it!

In this post, I want to discuss how this instrument is, in fact, one of the few types of pianos we know that Mozart knew and approved of. The sound of the Baumann pianos might possibly be the closest we get to the piano sound Mozart had in mind, or heard most often.

Why, then, do we never heard of it?, you might ask. To be honest, I asked the same question. Despite my long experience with historical keyboards (since 1999), I did not get to hear or play one until July of 2022. Today, I’m pondering why – and invite you to take part in the quest!

Warning: This post might be a bit more musicological than my previous ones so far. If you mind, you can always wait for next week’s post 🙂 But if you listen to performances of period pianos sometimes, maybe this information will enlighten you.

The fight over the correct interpretation

Period-instrument performance is a term you might be familiar with; it refers to the modern practice of performing works from earlier times on historically appropriate instruments, either restored originals or copies, or replicas of such, made in our time.

For several decades, period-instrument performance has challenged the established standards of musical interpretation. Bach’s keyboard works, for instance, are now available played on the harpsichord, classical symphonies in gut stringed, non-vibrato versions, Mozart’s flute concerto played on a wooden, one-keyed flute – and so forth.

Usually, the period-instrument performance approach encourages historically correct information – but yet, that is not all that matters. Commercial issues, instrument availability, practical and logistical questions and simply the size of the concert hall (too big for soft instruments) may easily ruin the chances for a nice concert with period instruments.

Another thing is that when ‘the classics’ – canonical works that have been played for generations – are being presented in ‘new’, or ‘new, old’ ways, this is not always welcomed. Perhaps because some people feel that they ‘know how a piece goes’, or they just prefer to hear it the way they are used to!

Fair enough. I am less willing to fight over the correct interpretation, than simply to offer my interpretation to whoever might be interested. There is still plenty of folks left that are happy to ponder and even hear glimpses of the instruments the composers themselves might have had in mind.

On top of that, getting to see and hear instruments that have survived for centuries – and still work!! – is a treat in itself! The craftmanship, ingenuity, patience and innovation that went into most of the early keyboards that have survived to this day, is simply mind-blowing.

Baumann and Mozart

How do we know that Mozart knew Baumann’s pianos? The proof is straight forward. In a letter to his father Leopold on 31 August 1782, Wolfgang wrote to the following:

I have a request to make. The Baroness Waldstätten is leaving here and would like to have a good small pianoforte.  As I have forgotten the name of the pianoforte maker at Zweybrücken, I should like to ask you to order one from him.

Mozart researchers have been able to confirm that the ‘pianoforte maker at Zweybrücken’ was, in fact, Christian Baumann. This indeed confirms that Mozart had played Baumann’s instruments and judged them as ‘good’! We may safely assume that Mozart wanted to pick the best possible instrument for her. Especially as a house instrument, and not for big concerts, a square piano may have preferred.

Baumann was not the only piano maker Mozart approved of. From other letters, we know that he liked Frantz Jacob Spath, Johann Andreas Stein and Anton Walter. All of these are great makers. But even by fortepiano experts, Mozart’s work are seldom played on anything but replicas of Walter’s grand pianos. Why is that?

The fight over the ‘true Mozart piano’

In 1782, Mozart bought a fortepiano from Anton Walter in Vienna. We are in the lucky situation that this very instrument has survived to this very day and is kept in a playable condition. Here it is (from wikipedia):

At the same time, we are in the unlucky situation that it is all too easy to sell in the story of ‘just what Mozart had in mind’ whenever you play on any replica – more or less faithful to the original – of Mozart’s last fortepiano.

It becomes the perfect marketing story: Who would not like to play, or own, or hear a replica of Mozart’s piano? The appeal to a wide group of culturally-interested people is evident.

In the early music world, it has become the standard to present copies of Mozart’s last fortepiano as ideal for the music of Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. If we consider the development of the piano, we understand that this must be a grave simplification. I think we easily forget that the fortepiano was hardly available to Mozart before he was in his twenties! Prior to that, he played other keyboard instruments, like various harpsichords and clavichords.

Mozart and the fortepiano

Here is a quick timeline to demonstrate Mozart’s knowledge of the fortepiano:

1756: Mozart’s birth
c. 1770: Mozart may have seen a fortepiano in Vienna
1774/75: the first documentary evidence of Mozart having played a fortepiano

Last winter in Munich, I heard two of the greatest Klavierspieler, Mr Mozart and Capt. von Beecke; my host, Mr Albert…has an excellent Fortepiano in his house. There I heard these two giants wrestling at the Klavier. Mozart is a very strong player and plays at sight everything that is put in front of him. (Deutscher Chronik, C.F.D. Schubart, 27 April 1775).

1782: Mozart acquired a fortepiano from Anton Walter

This means that Mozart cannot have played the fortepiano for more than 16 (out of his almost 36) years. And yet, it is very rare to hear a keyboard work by Mozart today performed on a period keyboard instrument other than a Walter copy of either Mozart’s last fortepiano or some other Walter model of a later date. While it is true that Mozart’s Walter piano is a great instrument, it is far from the only option for performances of Mozart’s piano music.

Mozart lived in a time when the fortepiano was about to establish itself as the predominant keyboard instrument. Instrument builders added inventions and improvements in almost every new model – this influenced the tone quality, the volume, the piano’s touch, and sometimes even if you raised the dampers with your hand or with your knee. All of this would directly influence how one would play and how the music would sound.

But there is one more problem: the historical evidence of Mozart’s piano is not straight-forward. As Michael Latcham, instrument curator of Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag has brought to our attention, Mozart’s piano was altered by Walter a few years after Mozart’s death (according to a letter from Constanze Mozart). Latcham says – and I can only agree:

‘The development of the piano in Vienna at the end of the 18th century was so rapid that a piano made in 1785 differs radically from one made in 1800.’

Since instrument development was rapid during those years, the improvements do not represent features that were available in the 1780s. Since Mozart died in 1791, he obviously never heard a piano of 1800! But today’s piano makers copy these later changes into new replicas, marketing these as ‘Mozart pianos’.

The improvements to Mozart’s piano were good in themselves, and made by the original builder. The problem is just that it is not entirely true sell the somewhat later sound as something that Mozart would have known!

The changes to Mozart’s piano around 1800

What, exactly, was changed in Mozart’s piano? According to Latcham, it is unsure whether the knee-lever was there – if not, it means that the performer must operate the ‘pedal’ (raising the dampers) with a hand stop. This means that the pedal sound could not be applied as easily as with the knee lever or foot pedal. You’d have to choose pedal sound for a longer stretch, or not at all!

The adjustable escapement rail is a later addition – affecting the touch and even the volume of the instrument, and it is not even sure whether the action the same.

Mozart’s piano probably had a different action (Stossmechanik) when Mozart played it.

Latcham concludes:

‘If these alterations were made after Mozart’s death [1791], which is more than likely, this piano cannot properly serve as a source for understanding Mozart’s performance practice’.

‘Everyone’ keeps playing Mozart on Walter replicas

25 years have come and gone since Latcham wrote this very convincing article, presenting evidence from his meticulous research. No one, to my knowledge, has refuted him, but practically every fortepiano expert keeps playing Mozart on later pianos than the most appropriate ones, seen from a period-instrument perspective.

And yet, the standard HIP way is to play all of his keyboard works on Walter copies – copied from the state Mozart never knew. The tendency of choosing a slightly late instrument is continued with Kristian Bezuidenhout’s Mozart recording on a Walter-replica of 1805. Is he trying to be louder than his predecessors, or does he aim at pleasing a larger audience? It is hard to tell why.

The story of Mozart’s own piano is highly marketable, but represents a grave simplification. This has been going on for so long, so it is hard to introduce ANOTHER ‘Mozart piano’. I can hardly imagine that two such stories could co-exist beyond expert circles. The variety of the historical fortepiano has been reduced to one kind of modern replica for piano music between 1770 and 1810 – the years of the greatest variety and invention in fortepiano construction!

Does it matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. People like the 5-octave Walter piano, and it is very good, Mozart knew this type of piano although not in this exact state. But to use only this instrument is a simplification of historical evidence. It restricts both concert life and research and it stifles further insights if we seldom consider other instruments than the Walter piano as relevant for Mozart’s works.

Ideally, historical evidence should have a high priority when it comes to period-instrument performance! As we have seen, this is not always the case. Practical obstacles, as well as commercial mechanisms of today’s concert world are disadvantageous for period-instrument performance: most period instruments are much too soft for the big concert halls, extra costs of instrument transport, insurance and tuning quickly strain the budget, occasional squeaks and action noise of original instruments become terrible threats in recording sessions, when every minute of studio time costs a fortune. Even by early keyboard experts, recordings on pianos that we may – with a good consciousness – call ‘true Mozart pianos’ are rare.

If you haven’t already, you can check out my post about the mentioned square piano made by Christian Baumann of Zweibrücken in 1777. That is, for sure, a true Mozart piano!

The world needs more types of pianos!

Many years ago, I did an interview with fortepiano pioneer Malcolm Bilson. He said:

‘Part of the problem is that we live in a world in which there is only one kind of piano.…. Imagine a world with a single type of wine or a single model of automobile driven for 130 years with no other model available‘.

I’m dreaming of a world with more types of pianos available! And more innovation in how we actually use this enormous treasure of historical keyboard instruments to enrich our communities.

I realize that some money would be needed to fullfil that dream. But it is better to have a dream with no money than to have money with no dream, right?

Christina Kobb, 9 June 2023

Here are some of the sources I used for this text:

Richard Maunder: ‘Mozart’s Keyboard Instruments‘,Early Music, Vol. 20, No. 2, Performing Mozart’s Music III (May, 1992), pp. 207–219. 

Michael Latcham: ‘Mozart and the Pianos of Gabriel Anton Walter’, Early Music (Aug. 1997), pp. 382-400.

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