Archive for the ‘piano’ Category

cembalophilia? cembalophilia.

May 3, 2016

© Tilman Skowroneck 2016

The Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, in partnership with the 2016 Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, organises “Cembalophilia: Hidden Histories of the Harpsichord”, a mini-festival with concerts and lectures, which will take place in the Berkeley City Club June 6-8, 2016 (see also the poster below for more information; I will participate in the Tribute to Alan Curtis).

I love the title “Cembalophilia.” Is this even a thing, one might wonder, and yes, be assured, it can be a thing. People do love good harpsichords and their repertoire, and good harpsichordists.

Often they don’t even know it, however, which may be why we usually play for smaller audiences than we feel we should. But this is also why – as I may have written before – after a recital audience members always come forward and want to learn more about the harpsichord on stage. “I had no idea there was so much variation in this instrument!” we frequently hear at that point.

Another recent harpsichord mini-festival in Göteborg, Sweden (see this entry)  has convinced me of two things:

First, it is and remains worthwhile to invest energy, time (and money) in live events that showcase harpsichords and their players. A harpsichord is not just a historically appropriate choice for a given repertoire. A good harpsichord offers an astonishingly wide range of expressive possibilities; it can be a friend and ally to the player, and it can move audiences to tears.

Second, all this needs to be said, and not only done by playing. Some people imagine that harpsichord lovers actually feel they need to defend  their instrument. But a fighty attitude is not what I have in mind here. Gone are the angry days, when the historical harpsichord had to battle against the revival harpsichord of a 20th-century design; and also the Bachian conflict between piano lovers and harpsichord lovers has become stale, mostly thanks to the great amount of excellent, serious and unfazed Bach players on both sides. The real “enemy” these days, it seems to me, is the audiences’ increasing loss of interest in live performances, which for our instrument especially is a sad thing: harpsichords do not sound very convincing out of a laptop speaker. So we must keep telling people that it is the laptop speaker that’s bad, not our instrument; that they should come to the next concert instead.


beethoven’s broadwood

August 10, 2014


© Tilman Skowroneck 2014, updated 2 May, 2016

My book Beethoven the Pianist ends (more or less) where Beethoven’s piano music arguably becomes most interesting for many people: his late period. So there was no place to discuss his famous Broadwood grand from 1817 in it. I have now published a new article about this instrument: how Beethoven used (or did not use) it, its state of repair (or disrepair), its modernity (or lack thereof) and the various ways that Viennese instrument makers interacted with the instrument and its owner.

In my article, I offer a thorough investigation of the available sources and sort out a number of contradictory claims of the secondary literature. I try to give credit, especially, to the piano maker André Stein for putting the piano back in order rather more frequently, and apparently in a more sympathetic spirit, than a casual glance at the documentation suggests. I include a discussion about Beethoven’s late work and the problem of conflicting keyboard compasses.

The article “A Brit in Vienna: Beethoven’s Broadwood Piano” with a postscript by Tom Beghin “Beethoven’s Broadwood: A Construction Project” can be found in the Yearbook of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies,

Keyboard Perspectives Vol. V/2012, pp. 41–82

Full table of contents and the editor’s preface of this volume can be found here. The volume can be ordered by sending an email to See also the  website of the Westfield Center.




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…)

beethoven the pianist, neefe, and a clarification

March 13, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

Early Music has, to my knowledge, been first with an encouraging and generous review of Beethoven the Pianist, for which I am very grateful. For subscribers of EM, the full text is available here.

Reviews inevitably reveal some points of lacking clarity. In this case, reviewer Siân Derry alerts me to a missed chance of an explanation during my presentation of one of my side plots, which addresses the extent of Christian Gottlob Neefe’s influence on the young Beethoven (I am arguing that that influence may not have been quite as great as the usual Beethoven biographies are claiming).

Here is the passage of the review that explains the problem:

[Skowroneck’s] assertion that Neefe “does not mention giving Beethoven keyboard instruction at all” and that “by 1783, any keyboard tuition by Neefe (if it ever took place) belonged to the past” (pp.43-3) is compromised by his omission from consideration of Neefe’s letter of 19 January 1785. Yet on an earlier page (p.41) Skowroneck includes parts of this letter–which states that Neefe was forced to teach six hours each day and that “Beethoven will be most happy of all, but I doubt nevertheless that he will truly profit from this” — but fails to pursue its implications for his argument.

What Neefe actually addressed here is explained by his own position in early 1785. After the death of the old Elector Maximilian Friedrich on April 15, 1784, some influential people at the Bonn court acted to diminish Neefe’s influence there, partly because he had been frequently absent, replaced by Beethoven. The situation quickly turned ugly; (more…)

brahms’ handel or handel’s brahms?

February 19, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

In anticipation of Murray Perahia’s new CD with Brahms’ Handel Variations, which I ordered minutes ago, a few thoughts about the tangles of performance practice in this work are in order.

These magnificent variations are based on an aria from Handel’s first keyboard suite in B-flat Major. Although Brahms – as we read in the article I linked to above – drew his inspiration mainly from the bass, the theme, with all its added and omitted twiddles, is Handel’s own. Now, how does the pianist have to approach these eight bars of Early Music? (more…)

artistic-creative research and beethoven trills

February 19, 2011

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

After a recent musicological seminar, a co-listener took me aside and said,

“There should be a sign at the beginning of some of these lectures, like on those bags of sweets that may contain traces of nuts: ‘may contain sociology’.”

I have neither problems with nuts, nor sociology. But I have, indeed, come across a few  too many perfunctory footnotes in music studies, especially about cultural capital and the likes, so I think I understood what he meant. Something to be allergic for, in music or otherwise, is the buzzword.

Look at artistic-creative research, for example. Hearing that I had participated in the artistic-creative research program at Gothenburg University, someone once asked me about the methodologies we had applied in that program. It was uncannily difficult to answer that question. This is in part to be explained by the fact that everyone in artistic-creative research does a little what pleases them best, and in part it is a consequence of the discipline being relatively new.  In part, however, it is a consequence of nobody really knowing what artistic-creative research is about, while it is so nice to say the words anyway. Artistic. Creative. Research. Sounds like funding right there.


faithful amz

May 26, 2010

One of my years-old ideas about Beethoven’s piano playing is that it developed from, roughly said, “impetuous-youthful-but-rough” via “virtuosic-professional” to “stepwise declining”. First signs of that “decline” can be seen in documents from around 1800. Clear indications date from 1805 and onward.

This view is not so much based on my innate perseverance in the making of claims, but rather on the circumstance that I spent my time returning to the canonic documents about Beethoven’s playing, re-reading, re-organizing and re-interpreting their meaning (at that moment and over time). Unbelievable that a perfectly accessible passage in a very well known body of source material (the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung from Leipzig) has escaped my (and – it seems – most Beethoven scholars’) attention. It beautifully summarizes what I have tried to establish:

AMZ Zehnter Jahrgang, No. 19, 3 February 1808 p. 303. In a review of the trio Op. 2 by Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s former student, we find the following passage:

“Mr. R. is the last, and in fact perhaps the only pupil mr. v. Beethoven consented to take on, and whom he kept here in Vienna for some time also for the following reason; that he played his (Beethoven’s) piano concertos and other important works in public, which the composer himself no longer liked to do, [who has] in fact really neglected himself regarding his playing for several years.” (more…)


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