The Viennese Piano

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Sebastian Lengerer piano imageSebastian Lengerer, Kufstein 1793. Lengerer originally worked in Kufstein, but moved to Vienna at the end of the 18th century. This instrument is attractively decorated and the inside of the lid is covered by pre-printed patterned paper (though this probably isn't the original). Pianos like this, made by craftsmen in small towns away from metropolitan influences, were somewhat out of date. The cabinetry is in a style fashionable some two decades earlier. Early Viennese pianos had black naturals and white accidentals. Here the accidentals are probably made of beech, covered with bone, and the naturals made of ebony. The keys are slightly narrower that those found on English pianos of the period, and the modern instrument. Viennese manufacturers were also inclined to produce attractively styled keyboards.

Ferdinand Hofmann piano imageFerdinand Hofmann, Vienna c1800 An attractive Viennese instrument. The delicate square-tapered legs feature brass cuffs, and have medallions depicting classical female figures set at their tops. The nameboard incorporates gilt bronze decorations of birds and leaves in relief. The moderator stop is located directly above the nameplate. Hofmann lived in Vienna his whole life and in 1812 became keyboard instrument maker to the Royal Court. The white naturals with mahogany veneer are typical of the more luxurious Viennese instruments built after about 1785. These features show the influence of the English style in Vienna.

The sound made by a Viennese piano of this type is much lighter and more delicate than that of a modern instrument. The great Viennese composers, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and others, would have played the Viennese piano: to hear their compositions performed on such an instrument alters our perspective quite radically. The whole balance of the music changes, with the melody much emphasized. Only when the music is played in this way can the composers' intentions be accurately realized.

By the 1780s, the English and Viennese pianos had become two distinct types of instruments. The Viennese instrument is comparatively light in construction and is typically double strung, whereas the English piano is usually triple strung and of much sturdier build. The Viennese action is lighter and simpler, using a hammer mounted on the far end of the key. The English action is more complex, using a hammer mounted on a separate hammer rail on the piano body.

The way in which the hammer strikes the string has important effects on the instrument's sound. The hammers of the English instruments strike the strings in a direct manner whereas the hammers of the Viennese pianos tend so stroke the string as they hit it. This gives the Viennese piano a gentler sound than that of the more powerful English instrument. Curiously this difference is reflected in the actual shape and appearance of the instruments.

The pictures and text in the Virtual Piano Museum are copied with permission from Piano by David Crombie, published by Backbeat Books. This book is a beautiful volume of pictures and piano history. See more about it on its Web Page.

Photos Copyright 1995 Balafon, used by permission. All rights reserved


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