#1: A new, old piano!

Do you see the beautiful piano case in the picture above? It is my new piano, built in Vienna around 1830, by a man called Daniel Dörr. Stunning, isn’t it?

In this first blog post, I will attempt to explain why I have purchased a piano which does not work and which is almost 200 years old. I will also let you in on what is about to happen to it!

Why purchase a really old piano?

You see, for someone who has played the piano for almost 40 years, and the historic versions of various keyboard instruments for more than 20, the truth is simply that nothing can replace the sound and musical qualities of a real, original Viennese fortepiano. (Later in this blog, I will explain why we use so many different names for pianos, but for now, let me just say that ‘fortepiano’ is the common name for the stringed keyboard instrument built in Vienna in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.) 

I am so fascinated by the craftmanship, the materials, the musical ideals of this time and – not the least! – the enormously rich and treasured music that was written during the first Viennese school and the early romantic period! All of these subjects will be treated in later blog posts, so we will have plenty of opportunity to dive into the details.

If you know me already, you probably know that I recently finished a PhD about Viennese piano technique at Beethoven’s time. I have owned a replica (copy) of a Viennese fortepiano for years – but now the time has come for a real Viennese original! I am excited about learning more about the restoration process of early pianos and excited about sharing the steps with you! And finally, I am excited to find out whether this old fortepiano will sound better than a replica when it is done – and whether an original fortepiano will sound better with my ‘original’ Viennese playing technique!

Restoring an old piano

The picture above is taken by the piano restorer himself, Florian Bischof. Florian lives just outside of Freiburg in Germany, and has already brought several old beauties back to life. (www.romanticpianos.de ). In this picture, Mr. Dörr is ready for the first part of the surgery – to restore the case and restabilize the structure. Below, you can see more photos from my fist visit a couple of weeks ago. It looks so pretty! But the damages have to be fixed.

But even more important, of course, is how it sounds. This piano has probably had some restoration done to it at some point, so the condition of the soundboard is quite good. Florian was able to tune two octaves in the middle to give me an idea of the sound quality. It has this peculiar sound, which is so hard to describe, because you never hear it in modern instruments. It is so free and unrestrained, but not entirely smooth! Florian and I agree that this is the quality we want to hear in the piano when it is fully restored.

The sound of the 1830s

To give you an idea, you could listen to Malcolm Bilson playing Schumann on his fabulous piano built by Simon in Vienna in the 1830s. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtXislqpEEY

Will my Dörr piano sound approximately like that when it is fully restored? I certainly hope so! But we have to wait for the answer. The restoration will take around 9-10 months. So many things have to happen to it! It takes time and dedication, craftmanship and skill, patience and knowledge. 

I hope you will join me on the journey of seeing my original fortepiano restored!

Christina Kobb, 2 April 2023

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