anton walter and the una corda shift

April 24, 2014

© Tilman Skowroneck 2014

The following text represents a snippet of authentic research, too small to warrant a printed article, but too important not to share. It is fully referenced, and may be used in a scholarly context. Please make sure to identify this blog as the source.

This short article is about a passage at the beginning of a letter dated Vien d: 5. junii 1802, from the Swedish diplomat Fredrik Samuel Silverstolpe to his superior, Jacob de la Gardie (1768-1842). De la Gardie was the Swedish envoy in Vienna between 1799 and 1801. At the time of writing, Silverstolpe was still in Vienna; among other things, he bought two fortepianos for de la Gardie. Silverstolpe’s letter is of interest because it provides some detailed information about the nature and construction of the second one of these instruments.

The passage in question helps us to date the earliest known experiments in Vienna with the so-called una corda stop, or rather the keyboard shift (in this case, as we will see, it allows for striking two or three unison strings), made by Anton Walter. Because of a well known letter by Beethoven from November of the same year 1802, we have, in fact, always wondered whether Walter made pianos with the una corda in 1802. In his letter, Beethoven instructs his friend Nikolaus Zmeskall to ask Walter for an instrument with that same feature, which he, we believe, knew from an Erard grand piano that Joseph Haydn owned 1). However, the earliest surviving Walter piano with an una corda is believed to date from c. 1810, that is, full eight years later than Beethoven’s letter. Beethoven may have been mistaken about Walter’s construction, and his letter has not always been taken seriously. 2)

Silverstolpe’s letter, written in Swedish, shows that Walter in fact was building instruments with the una corda in 1802. It was previously only known in an excerpt, translated into German and published in the appendix of a dissertation by C.-G. Stellan Mörner from 1952. 3) The passage in question has remained unknown to organologists for a long time. When it finally was acknowledged in an organological context in 2000, Stellan Mörner’s German translation was used and not in the the original Swedish source. 4) In my own discussion of Beethoven’s above-mentioned letter, 5) I referred to that same German version. After a few fruitless attempts over the years to locate the original letter, I  finally found out that the entire collection of Silverstolpe’s letters to de la Gardie is preserved in the De la Gardieska arkivet in Lund. A single e-mail request finally provided me with a beautiful scan of the original. 6)

The short passage about Walter’s fortepiano stands at the very beginning of the letter (which otherwise contains a lot of other information, but little about pianos. We can, for example, read some of the gossip of the day: someone experimented with gunpowder in his house and blew himself up, returning to the earth in “thousand pieces”). As it turns out, Stellan-Mörner’s German translation is very good, and the date of the letter is correct.

Below I will first reproduce my own transcription of the passage about Walter’s piano from the Swedish original, followed by an English translation and a short discussion.

Vien d: 5. junii 1802
Den enda af min Grefves Commissioner jag hittills’ gjordt, är den om Claveret; men jag smickrar mig med att hafva gjordt den väl. Jag har funnit ett hos samma instrumentmakare der det förra var köpt, neml: Walther. Det är af samma träd och utseende med det förra, men har mycket företräde i ton och styrka. De vanliga äro sådana att hvar tangent har allenast två strängar. Här är en ny förträffelig invention, att när man med vänster knäet uptrycker en ressort, slår tangenten på 3. strängar på en gång, då ett forte vinnes som öfvergår de förre claverens, emedan det är till ton lika med piano och derföre naturligare. Upfinningen är redan länge gjord i england, men nu först imiterad här.
Vienna, June 5th, 1802
The only one of the assignments of my Count that I have fulfilled at this point is the one about the Clavier; but I flatter myself of having done it well. I found one [clavier] with the same instrument maker where the previous one was purchased, namely Walther. Is is made of the same wood and looks the same as the first one, but it has great advantages regarding its tone and volume. The usual ones are made so that each tone only has two strings. In this one there is a new, excellent invention; when one presses up a lever with one’s left knee, the key hits three strings at once, so that a forte is achieved that is superior to that of the earlier claviers, while its tone resembles the piano [i.e. the tone of other instruments, when played piano] and is thus more natural. The invention has been made in England long ago, but is imitated here only now.

One of Silverstolpe’s explanations is not entirely correct: whereas this new Walter piano clearly did have three strings for every tone, many other Viennese pianos (and some by the Augsburg maker Johann Andreas Stein), even earlier ones, did in fact have three strings for each tone in the treble, not two, but (and this is what Silverstolpe wants to address) only two strings per tone further down. It seems that he simplifies the picture here to make his point. In any case, it was unknown to us that anyone in Vienna built fully triple-strung pianos as early as 1802.

Especially interesting in this report is that the keyboard shift was not a full una corda, but rather (by implication) a default due corde that could be brought to tre corde by pressing up a knee lever — in other words, and unless Silverstolpe was mistaken (or his description flawed), the mechanism of the instrument described here was inverted in comparison to the English instruments that Silverstolpe had in mind. In English grand pianos of the time, three strings, tre corde, is the default setting. Like in a modern piano, pressing the left pedal shifts the keyboard. It now makes the hammer hit two or one string instead (depending on how a little slider that is located at the right hand of the keyboard is set).

In terms of sound esthetics and musical preferences, the mechanism described here agrees well with the then-current Viennese debate about how to achieve a louder tone that nevertheless did not lose its “flexibility.” What is relatively new, in the context of the sources of the day, is that someone explicitly called the idea of a greater tone volume a “great advantage.” It is clear that Silverstolpe thought of Walter’s invention as a means of both having the cake and eating it too: this new instrument still possessed a “natural” tone with the more pleasant qualities of a piano, yet it was able to produce a louder sound.

How is all this important? For the Viennese piano, the years between 1800 and 1810 brought rapid and thorough change. For many reasons it is unwarranted to call the instrument’s compass expansion, increase in the number and tension of strings, change of tone character and increase in overall volume, and even the huge increase of its outer dimensions and weight, a technological “revolution.” But it is clear that the changes happened over a short period, that they were groundbreaking in many respects, and that they influenced how piano music was created and received. Composers for the piano, minor ones and those who had a lasting impact on the history of western music, were directly confronted with the outcomes of the piano builders’ experiments and achievements. Beethoven may well be the most prominent of them all, but it was the entire clavier world of Vienna that absorbed the changes and made them part of its musical and pedagogical practices, and so helped influence the piano music of the German speaking world (and beyond, thinking of Moscheles, Liszt and even Chopin who visited Vienna twice) throughout the 19th century. Some of Beethoven’s works from the years after 1800 demonstrate the composer’s intense interest in the timbral possibilities of the una corda pedal: the one used in English and French pianos of the time, not Walter’s inverted one (if Silverstolpe is correctly describing it), and akin to modern usage. Silverstolpe’s information shows that in 1802, this interest was not only present in Beethoven’s head, or in the two or three imported concert instruments in Vienna, but that it was “in the air”: an attractive concept to explore, even for the local Viennese piano makers.




1) Beethoven, Ludwig van. Briefwechsel Gesamtausgabe Vol. I, ed. Sieghard Brandenburg 1996 (München: Henle), 137.

2) See Latcham, Michael 2000. The Stringing, Scaling and Pitch of Hammerflügel Built in the Southern German and Viennese Traditions 1780-1820, Vol. I (München-Salzburg: Katzbichler), 65.

3) Stellan Mörner, C.-G. 1952. Johan Wikmanson und die Brüder Silverstolpe (Stockholm: Ivar Hæggström), 390.

4) The letter is quoted in Berdux, Silke and Susanne Wittmayer 2000. “Bibliobraphische Notizen zu Anton Walter,” in Mitteilungen der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum, ed. Rudolf Angermüller (Salzburg: Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum), 50..

5) Skowroneck, Tilman 2010. Beethoven the Pianist, 87.

6) De la Gardieska arkivet, Släktarkiven, De la Gardie 374:1. Many thanks to Per Stobaeus.

strings from waterloo

October 7, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

I have mentioned this before. I am not convinced that a given harpsichord can be substantially improved by putting up some new strings.

In fact I am rather convinced of the opposite, which is that random changes to a given design (and the stringing of a harpsichord belongs, or should belong, to its maker’s design choices) not normally result in a major shift toward a better tone. The expectation that a harpsichord can be optimized by applying a number of relatively simple tricks, or by experimenting with some new string material, is usually rewarded by some kind of disappointment. In my experience, a truly noticeable shift in a harpsichord’s quality often goes in the other direction: it happens when the instrument is being neglected. Improvement is a much more hard-won thing, especially when the instrument is assembled and ready to be used.

So what I will discuss here below should be seen as an exception, as I am about to introduce an exceptionally well-suited string material which actually does, within reasonable limits, improve the tone and tuning properties of a harpsichord:

Over the past decade or so, Stephen Birkett  of the University of Waterloo, Canada, has researched the properties of historical iron strings, and has come up with a formula to produce iron wire with very similar properties. This so-called P-wire is now becoming available (here is some more information about it), and I have had the chance to test it in three quite different harpsichords with a Flemish-French mixed scaling (brass in the bass, and iron from the tenor upward). Read the rest of this entry »

teachers and students: transmission versus copying

March 30, 2013

© Tilman Skowroneck 2013

Gustav Leonhardt’s transcription of J.S. Bach’s Ciaccona

Musical transmission is a well-explored topic in the history of Western music. In a rare filmed appearance, pianist Edwin Fischer recited, more than explained, how it works: “Beethoven instructed Czerny how to play the Well-tempered Clavier; Czerny taught it to Liszt; Liszt taught it to Eugène d’Albert.” The clip is part of the documentary “The Art of Piano” (found at 1:07:31 of this YouTube video). To complete the lineage for the benefit of readers of our time: d’Albert taught Fischer, who was endorsing his then-new recording of Bach’s WTC.

In addition to being a great-great-grandpupil of Beethoven, Fischer was also a celebrated teacher. His statement about the musical lineage that authenticated his way of playing Bach can be seen as a statement about pedagogy rather than a display of vanity. It tells us that by the mid-20th century, the idea of a student imitating the example of his teacher was considered more than just valuable in a general sense.

To Fischer, the transmission of skills, knowledge and values from teacher to student in an unbroken tradition was profoundly meaningful: the essence of why one became a pupil, or later a teacher. This idea is not new. In France in the 1670s, J.L. Le Gallois suggested the same pedagogy of learning by imitation in his famous praise of Chambonnière’s way of playing: “in order to learn the pieces of each master, it is necessary to study them with the same masters who have composed them, or with their best pupils.”

For a student of harpsichord in Amsterdam in the 1980s, however, learning by imitation was not normally considered an option. On the contrary. Read the rest of this entry »

oiling quills: new findings

June 5, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

Denzil Wraight has now published his findings about the wear pattern of quill, the best technique for oiling quill, and recommended oils for this purpose in one short article and a rather longer one with extensive explanations at:

This should be seen as a complement, and in some ways a correction, to my own article about voicing which I published earlier on this blog (a link to the PDF version is here). I am presently testing oiling the quills (with Ballistol) in two of my instruments according to Denzil’s recommendations (including the French Double that takes the brunt of my practicing) and my initial experience is positive (see my most recent thoughts in the third comment added to this post).

beryllium copper on the front page

April 26, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

As the “searches” tab in my blog stats is telling me, many people are interested in the characteristics of  beryllium copper harpsichord wire in comparison to other materials. Some time ago, I have posted an explanation in the “Skowroneck harpsichords” tab of the sidebar (see my full text there), but I would like to pull the discussion to the front, and expand it.

As I have stated, beryllium copper is not the same as phosphor bronze (the latter doesn’t sound all that well, hence this whole discussion) although it looks very similar. It has similar characteristics to brass and can be used in harpsichords with a brass scaling, or in the bass of harpsichords with a mixed scaling. I also claim that,

beryllium copper of the kind best known to me also has a good sound. True, most people will have no possibility to make direct comparisons between the various materials – and “good” is a problematic term. I have tested brass and beryllium copper in one single instrument and monitored their properties over a time span of 15 years. I found beryllium copper to sound slightly “fuller” than the brass that is usually available today, but without compromising the appropriate overall “brassy” sound character. Together with the advantages listed above I personally prefer this material. As said above, however, these properties may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and not all beryllium copper appears to be as good as I describe here.

I am re-posting this here, because I should add that beryllium copper can be hardened just as other wire. This property might in fact be at the bottom of some negative judgments about its usefulness as harpsichord wire. Read the rest of this entry »

new dissertation about j.a.stein

April 26, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

On May 4, 2012, Robin Blanton will defend her doctoral dissertation in musicology. The title is Johann Andreas Stein’s 1781 Claviorganum and the Construction of Art in Eighteenth-Century Augsburg.

The dissertation is available for download at the following link: Printed copies are available for sale from the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

The defense will take place at 1 p.m. in Vasaparken, the main building of the University of Gothenburg, on Vasagatan, Sal 10. The opponent will be Assistant Professor of Music Emily Dolan of the University of Pennsylvania.

Gustav Leonhardt 1928-2012

January 18, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

It is a sad occasion that makes me resume the writing of blog posts: yesterday morning the news reached me that Gustav Leonhardt has passed away on 16 January in his Amsterdam home.

Gustav Leonhardt walking the streets of Vienna. Photo by Ibo Ortgies, October 22, 2011

As I wrote elsewhere, I remember Gustav Leonhardt as a lifelong friend and mentor. Lifelong, because our first encounter happened at a time that I do not even remember. I am told that I was two years old; friend, because that’s what he was to me: always kind, inquiring, never brusque, and on many occasions more than ready to share not only musical, but also completely unmusical experiences such as a new movie, a book with high-end photos of Bugatti cars, a (slow, one may add) sightseeing drive through the summery back country of Siena, Tuscany, or the offerings of one or another new Amsterdam restaurant; mentor, finally, because since the first time I touched a keyboard (with higher aims than a plinking or plunking agenda, which was at the age of five and a half) Gustav Leonhardt’s musicianship has been a continuous source of inspiration for me. When I finally was in the position to take lessons at his house in Amsterdam, he spent considerable time and effort to critically assess my playing (quite in contrast to his generally complimentary style at masterclasses), from which I benefit every day even today, and for which I am eternally grateful.

The impact of this shift in the world of historical performance practice will be great. No matter whether in accordance or in opposition, there will be few harpsichordists today whose playing is not, in one way or another, influenced by Leonhardt’s approach. Now, all of a sudden, we’re on our own. The impact on the world of his closer friends and colleagues is immense. His unique wit, brilliancy and warmth will be missed at every moment to come.

My thoughts are with his wife Marie Leonhardt, his family, and his friends.

The New York Times Obituary is available under this link.


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