Posts Tagged ‘historical performance practice’

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. (more…)

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). (more…)

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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