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The Piano: Viennese Instruments

The Viennese school of piano making produced one of the two distinct types of piano to develop in the eighteenth century. Like its counterpart, the English piano, the so-called Viennese piano began as a regional tradition and was first built by makers and players mostly in Austria and southern Germany. Through the enormous influence of Vienna, which was then the center of the musical world, these pianos would become known throughout Europe and used by most of the great composers of the classical music period.

The basic form of the Viennese piano was invented in Augsburg by the organist and keyboard maker Johann Andreas Stein (1728–1792). Stein was born in Heidelsheim, Germany, a small town on the Rhine. Early in his career, he may have become familiar with the pianos of Johann Andreas Silbermann (1712–1783), the nephew of the great Saxon organ builder and piano maker Gottfried Silbermann (1683–1753), who worked in nearby Strasbourg. Some scholars have suggested that Stein may have apprenticed in the Silbermann shop learning to build pianos, although there is no documented evidence of this. Sometime around 1750, Stein relocated to Augsburg, where he served as organist and also built keyboards, including many experimental instruments such as an enormous harpsichord with four choirs of strings and a vis-à-vis instrument that housed both a harpsichord and a piano. However, it was through his innovative efforts applied to the piano that he was to have the greatest success.

Stein’s most significant work was the creation of a new kind of piano action (the mechanism used to activate the hammer to strike the string). He developed his piano action, called the Prellmechanik, perhaps as early as 1769 and continued to perfect it through the 1770s. Stein simplified the complicated action of Bartolomeo Cristofori by dispensing with the intermediate lever and placing the hammer in direct contact with the key. With this design, the hammer head rested toward the player, reversed from that on a Cristofori piano. The hammer is mounted in a “kapsel” with a “beak” at the end. When the key is pressed, the “beak” is caught on the escapement, propelling the hammer head up toward the string. When the hammer falls, the position of the “beak” allows it to return to its rest position and it again catches on the escapement. The fulcrum on Stein’s design was now at the very rear of the key, which maximized the leverage the player could exert on the hammer, making for a quick response and a somewhat louder sound than was possible on earlier pianos. Stein’s was the first successful action that differed significantly from the Cristofori invention. In addition to the action, Stein is credited with introducing knee-lever controls for the dampers, and also the redesign of the case with bracings better suited for the demands of a hammer action piano than the earlier harpsichord-style cases.

The composer and musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) visited Stein in Augsburg in 1777. His purpose was to organize a concert and while there to look at the instruments of the Augsburg maker. Stein helped Mozart to produce the concert, which proved to be a great success and included a performance of the composer’s triple-clavier concerto (K.242) using three of Stein’s pianos, with both the men playing solo parts. During his stay, Mozart penned a famous letter to his father describing Stein’s pianos and giving them much praise. It is believed that Mozart returned to Augsburg in 1781, where he played a duo piano concert with his sister Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl).

In the same year that Mozart visited Augsburg, Stein exhibited one of his vis-à-vis instruments at the court in Vienna. Through this visit, he gained much notoriety and acquired several customers who purchased his pianos over the course of the next several years. Not long after, probably in the early 1780s, makers working in Vienna began to produce pianos. Anton Walter is thought to have started working there in the early part of the decade, building instruments basically on Stein’s model with some alterations, most of which contributed to a greater physical structure and sound of the instrument. Despite the praise Mozart gave to Stein’s pianos, it was an instrument by Walter that he would purchase in about 1783 and which is still housed in the Mozart Museum in Salzburg.

The rising popularity of the piano in Vienna caused a great demand for the instrument, which manufacturers were only too pleased to fill. By 1800, there were approximately sixty known makers building pianos in Vienna. The new musical styles of the time, which we now call “classical music,” were well suited for the Viennese action piano, and composers were beginning to write a great deal of music for the instrument. Musicians such as Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the young Ludwig van Beethoven played these early Viennese instruments and helped drive the demand for them.

In the nineteenth century, musical trends changed as professional music moved out of the small chamber ensembles of the aristocracy and into the more democratized public auditoriums. As concert halls grew and the audience’s appetite for spectacle increased, orchestras expanded and musical instrument makers of all types manufactured louder instruments with larger ranges. Piano makers were perhaps at the forefront of this movement, greatly expanding the compass of the instrument from the somewhat standard five octaves (sixty-one keys) of the late eighteenth century, through the first decades of the nineteenth century, until there were a full seven octaves (eighty-five keys) by the middle of the century. Pianos also grew louder, which was accomplished through several mechanisms, perhaps most importantly by increasing the number of unison-tuned strings per note from two in the eighteenth century to three by the early nineteenth. The invention of overstrung strings, which made for very thick strings that could withstand great tension, allowed for the bass notes to become louder. The ever increasing number of strings added great tension to the instruments and cases. More bracing was added internally and the cases themselves became bulkier throughout the period.

Composers and pianists in Vienna and beyond continued to use the Viennese piano through the middle of the century, with such famous musicians as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, and Brahms all playing or owning instruments of the Viennese style. During the second half of the century, the English action pianos, especially as perfected by the American firms of Chickering and Steinway, came to dominate the world market for pianos. Bösendorfer was the last major company to make pianos with the Viennese action, but switched to the more common English action in the early twentieth century.