Pianos from the little Czech village of Divišov are sought after worldwide
Dita Kopáčová Hradecká
Paul McNulty, an American, whose copies of historical fortepianos are played by musicians all over the world, has been living for the past thirteen years in the beautiful countryside around Český Šternberk in central Bohemia. “I found a source of high-quality timber here, which is essential for instrument making. The spruce that grows in the Schwartzenberg forest was chosen by most Viennese instrument makers from 1790 until 1850,” Paul says, explaining what brought him to the Czech Republic, in preference to Amsterdam, where from 1987 he produced his first twenty five pianos. Upon leaving the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore he took to the study of piano technology in Boston. He avoided working in a modern piano factory, but before long several pioneering artists in the fortepiano field took notice of his plan to build fortepianos, and set him on his way.
His wife, the pianofortist Viviana Sofronitzki, leads us across the yard to the workshop, whose façade still bears the sign Strojírna (engineering works) from before World War I. The warm scent of timber is reminiscent of a joiner’s workshop. As we enter the second room the characteristic shape of a fortepiano lid leaves us no doubt about what is manufactured here. The raw timber is seasoned until it becomes the material to make the instruments from which the master craftsman will extract sound in proportion to his controlled effort, much as musicians will do.
We go upstairs to the second floor and peep into the room where the instruments are polished. In the brightly-lit room next door, where a constant temperature and humidity are maintained, stand seven completed fortepianos asking to be played. Viviana doesn’t resist for a moment and sits down at each of them in turn to demonstrate the differences between them. She, the daughter of the legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Sofronitzki, is a fortepiano specialist who once visited Paul as a customer – and stayed. She has recorded Mozart’s complete works for keyboard instrument and orchestra in Warsaw. Now she is playing Schubert, C. P. E. Bach and Beethoven, according to the period of the original instrument that Paul McNulty copied. The subtle and distinct sound of the Mozartian piano give way to the more boisterous and darker tone of the younger Bach’s imagination; by the use of stops, Schubert’s Moment Musical becomes delicate and full of colour. She is utterly at home with the instruments and knows all their foibles and characteristics, and how to make the best use of them – and she need know nothing about the mysteries that still puzzle her husband. How is it that no two pianos of identical construction sound the same? How can one best imagine producing 36 pianos per year with twelve assistants, as did the great Anton Walter in his heyday, long before electricity? Is there a way to make the later Graf pianos truly sing, even with their English-inspired soundboards?
Paul models his instruments on the renowned instrument makers Georg Anton Walter, Ferdinand Hofmann, Conrad Graf and Johann Andreas Stein. “Mozart loved Stein’s fortepiano and wrote to his father about it. However, his father replied that Stein was excellent but expensive,” Paul McNulty tells me. Whereas the builders of those days were capable of producing dozens of instruments annually, Paul’s workshop turns out about ten per year. Paul has five assistants, but the “fine work”, such as building the soundboard or covering the hammers with leather or tuning the action—not to mention the oversight of the entire process—is entirely in the master craftsman’s hands.
There are about ten people in the world specialising in the manufacture of fortepianos “but only about four of them are coming anywhere close to Paul’s standard,” Viviana maintains. This is no empty praise – the quality of McNulty’s instruments is confirmed by the creditable list of renowned musicians who have had instruments built in his workshop. They include Paul Badura-Skoda, Alexei Lubimov, Jacques Ogg and other pianists who have found they need something other than the modern piano. Ronald Brautigam has recorded all of Beethoven’s Sonatas on a Paul McNulty fortepiano. “Paul McNulty’s fortepianos are by far the best,” he declares. “His instruments are the only ones I’ve ever played that have a ‘soul’, rather than being ‘museum replicas’. I truly believe that he is the only fortepiano builder who has managed to capture Anton Walter’s spirit in his pianos and am convinced that, had he lived and worked in the late 18th-century, there wouldn’t have been ‘Anton Walter & Sohn’ but ‘Walter & McNulty.’” McNulty’s instruments feature on many recordings by Czech musicians, notably those of Jaroslav Tůma. Instruments with the McNulty trademark are not cheap to buy, of course, but Paul has plenty of orders. From time to time he will load a piano onto a van and drive it to a competition or a concert – air transport is too costly and unsafe.
Paul specialises in instruments from the late eighteenth century, but he is about to embark on a new order – a copy of a Pleyel from 1830. It stands in a corner, and it takes my breath away to think it was touched by the fingers of long-ago pianists. “Compared to the Mozartean fortepiano, the strings are much thicker, so the frame has to be sturdier,” the builder says, explaining the basic differences – which are anyway obvious at first glance even to a layperson. “At that time the ideal was a bigger, fuller sound—the one-man orchestra. Times and aesthetic opinions had changed— the French Revolution had turned many heads.”
Paul McNulty finds an interest in the context and circumstances of the period in which the instrument he is copying was made. He relishes the stories of builders’ lives emerging from recent research, and is full of quotations of musicians talking about their pianos. He acquired his experience in museums here and abroad, and learned a great deal by restoring originals. His first job is to measure the original instrument. “It gets easier to measure these old pianos as I am better able to determine the intention of the builder, which usually means an approach more reliable and simple than a beginner would imagine,” he explains. The measured dimensions of an old piano reflect years of production on the part of a successful builder who wasn’t at all confused about his instrument, so I copy the soundboards and hammer action without varying from observed data. “When I was working in Amsterdam not much was documented from the few early pianos which had been opened and repaired. With a little guesswork, I nevertheless arrived at a working design of a Walteresque piano, however slightly bulkier in its musical dimensions than later emerged from a unique examination of a five 8ve Walter in the Czech Republic. So my instruments of that period have bigger hammers than they ought to have,” Paul says, recalling the time he worked in Holland. He explains patiently and clearly how the piano action evolved. He takes apart a fortepiano as if it were a construction kit and picks up some of the resilient hammers. “These hammers, which fall back quickly – the so-called ‘Viennese action’ – were Stein’s invention. Great acceleration is generated with little movement,” he says , thrumming a hammer with his finger. It also depends on the point where the head of the hammer touches the strings – in the top treble it strikes at a tenth of the string length, corresponding to the musical interval of a third. This simple rule helps Paul locate the maker’s ‘sweet spot.’ “When I was measuring the Stein I kept finding the number 15.3 mm in the mechanism and soundboard. It is very attractive to suppose there were literally rules of thumb, and many organologists today explore instruments employing the scale of inches of a particular place and time.”
Anyone who tries one of McNulty’s copies can confirm that the keys react more sensitively to the softest touch than the modern instrument can manage. Lisztian technique, suitable for larger, heavy pianos, doesn’t work well here. Paul’s careful replicas of pianos from an unimaginable time, long ago, are brilliant evocations of the spirit hidden in some of our most treasured musical scores.