anton walter and the una corda shift

© 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.


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One Response to “anton walter and the una corda shift”

  1. Anton Voigt Says:

    How very interesting! Thanks a lot for sharing, Anton Voigt

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