Interview with McNulty and Viviana Sofronitsky


The talk with fortepiano maker Paul McNulty and pianist Viviana Sofronitsky about historical fortepianos and their copies.

KACPER Miklaszewski: — How many copies of pianoforte from the end of the eighteenth century to today are on the concert podiums all over the world?

PAUL McNulty — coming from my workshop are around one and half hundreds, I think that all the other makers built twice as much, maybe three hundred together.

How many copies of instruments from the time of late Schumann, Chopin and Liszt?

P. MCN. — One …

What is the difference from the times of copying of Haydn’s piano from the time of Chopin?

P. MCN. — The essential difference is associated with the development of technical capabilities of contemporary Europe. During modern fortepiano revival, first appeared the need for five octave at the end of the eighteenth century instruments – only about one hundredth originals survived to this day. When they turned out to be obsolete — they were thrown out. It is not easy to copy them, because the sounding board is still closed by the instrument panel from the bottom. To understand how they were built, you need to find an a fortepiano with extracted sound board or without bottom. This is the way you can measure the thickness resonance. It is unfortunately that not in all instruments undergoing complete restoration all necessary measurements were made as not everybody in the past was realizing the importance of precise measures for sound board. I remember then I asked one restorer about soundboard thicknesses of the piano he was restoring, and he replied that the thickness is «normal” Only in 2000, there is a lucky chance that I personally opened a five octave Walter. Since then, my instruments have become … reliable.
Soundboard sound determines the identity of the instrument, luckily in Brussels there was an opportunity to find information for soundboard thickness of Graf instrument1820s, which had its soundboard extracted. Because even in those years were built pianos still closed from the bottom. Pleyel instrument from 1830 is from the bottom open, so we went to a museum in Paris with a magnetic device to measure the precise thickness in all the necessary points. These dimensions can not be guessed, do not know it, as he had obtained the homogeneity of production engineers. In the 25 years we have built one hundred and fifty instruments, At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries craftsmen in Vienna manufactured fifty instruments per year!

How changing the thickness of the soundboard in different places?

P. MCN. — Changes in thickness are not random and depend, as it seems, on the tastes and beliefs of the constructor. I had opened a five octave instrument for Walter and compared it to Walter’s thirty years later made six octave pianoforte: the thickness proved to be the same — it seems to hold the same plan. Stein instruments from different years also retain the dimensions of the soundboard. Build a copy of a much more modern Pleyel piano was more difficult, because it was the first such experience. These instruments had a wooden frame strengthened by cast iron beams above and below the strings. We had also to do castings: carve out their first models in wood, then prepare the forms, bearing in mind that cast iron, when it cools, reduces its size by one percent. I never did things like this before, but I managed to recruit an experienced modeler who knew the secrets of casting. It was very helpful that Pleyel used the metric dimensions, which were most painstakingly boiled down to equal centimeters and millimeters. Technological difficulties emerged in the bending of a four oak plywood, forming a wall of corrugated boxes. It was again new thing for me — I had to learn the secrets of steam-bending wood, fitted with a studio in an appropriate machine, similar to that used in the manufacture of modern pianos. The process can be described as following – I was heating a layer of wood at 100 ˚ C for three hours till it becomes to become soft like pancakes, then I bended it and kept to dry for a week separately and then I glued several of them together. I did not want to hurry, but should note that I admire the management of workshops from the first half of the nineteenth century. Pleyel produced one thousand instruments a year — not all perfect, some returned to the plant, some even eight times for warranty repairs. Several points were giving him especially many troubles, for example the node connecting the back of the instrument’s frame. The copy I added, following in the footsteps Graf, reinforcing bar, way of solving this problem, which struggled to Pleyel. (??)

Does every employee Pleyel company was preparing a separate part, while others assembled a whole, or small work teams of master craftsmen responsible for the construction from start to finish?

P. MCN. — Production was divided into small sections between groups of people, as in a modern factory. It was common that masters were signing their parts and there are sometimes two signatures on one part.

Which material were you using for the strings?

P. MCN. — Never was a pure iron. It is too plastic. Historically, as the beginning, this problem was made by adding used carbon steel alloys and later by adding other trace elements. The first attempt to play «non-tempered» steel were not successful, Strings give a hissing hum. For some time, however, operate in Germany plants producing good copies of historical strings of steel, an alloy with a bit of phosphorus. Its composition is consistent with the results of the analysis of historical strings, and the sound of the strings quite excellent — clean and beautiful.

Are there still today instruments with original historical instrument strings?

P. MCN. — Many of them have original strings are in some part. More rarely you will find original hammers. In the old Pleyel instruments will hammers covered with felc and leather, their sound results in different registers of the instrument are difficult to predict, as if they were selected ad hoc basis, looking for the best sound. Felt came into use as early as the twenties, but failed to Pleyel instrument to find the original cover of hammers. It seems that they changed after ten years of using the instrument, and after they change it again, several times.. My example was also an Erard piano from 1830, which once belonged to Hummel, and now is in the collections of the Museum of the composer in Bratislava: It is a set of original leather hammers. Our copy also has Pleyel leather hammers.

Viviana SOFRONITZKY: The skin is the same trouble. You might think that, like steel, the difference in leather is that it can be clean or distorted, or come from this or another animal, and this it. Nothing like – even the same animals 200 years ago had different skin! Many generations of sheep subjected to intentional selection and breeding so that new breeds were obtained, which have much more hair fleece then the same animals in the time of Chopin. Their skin is so different and hard to even guess structure which was obtained after tanning animal skin at the time.

P. MCN. — We have established cooperation with Vienna’s Museum of the episcopal curia, where he studied ancient recipes and techniques of tanning. They gave us samples of skin from half a hundred sheep: In the old way of tanning collagen were removed from the skin, Meanwhile, modern tanned skin does not have collagen, so it loses skin elasticity. But still, the skin produced at museum order and made after old tanning techniques is coming from modern sheep; to maintain the elasticity they gave only the inner layers of upholstery hammer, so that in contact with the string was too weak. We used it in six of the seven layers of overlapping, with skin for outer layer provided for us by an Austrian specialist, whose family leads a workshop tanning since the mid-nineteenth century, and he completed his studies in Vienna in the tanning specialty. This wild leather comes from mountain animals and carefully vegetal leather reagents. I can prepared ten hammers per day; insert them to the instrument, we tried listened to it and .. threw. Finally found and material, and method of its preparation. Piano was created from bass to discant.

Is the demand for copies of similar pianos is growing? Now celebrating the anniversary of Chopin and Schumann, next year will turn to Liszt …

P. MCN. — Our copy is different from all the old instruments of Pleyel, whose wording is — compared with a copy — unviable. I’m enjoying it, because I was afraid that will build the instrument with the hollow-sounding upper register, Meanwhile, our pianoand sings beautifully. Courage gives me the fact that construction has not proved so difficult we thought at the beginning of . If I would not have any other orders, I could make five copies Pleyel during the year. It is difficult to expect from a concert institution that it would often order such copies of historical instruments, but more and more universities opening doors for a historical performance and want to have original instruments. It was the same with harpsichords – they started coming back slowly, but now every school has a copy of the historical harpsichord.

V.S. — Historical instruments, even their modern copies, very different from each other. Thus — like a violin — some appear to be “closer in spirit” to one musician, and another will be appreciated by different person. It is also that fortepianomplayers often travel with their own instruments, so their instruments become their “partners” the same way as it works with violin and violin players. This is further far from the relative uniformity of contemporary piano concert situation, where most pianist are playing every day different piano in different city. You can travel with them as with a cello, while loading the old piano in the car takes two hours and more effort to bring it the room and get ready to play. But we rejoice from every student who comes after the concert with a confession to find such a wealth of colors that are not expected and was unknown to him before, often admitting that they didn’t ever imagine that performed piece of music was so interesting. Many music works begin a new life after they are played on the appropriate instrument.
Paul’s art is close to the art of music. While all materials, dimensions and proportions are most important, ultimately it all comes down to assess the ability to create many colors and dynamic degrees. This heart dictates the answer when the instrument interacts with the music intended for him.

Catherine Drogosz, pianist specializing in playing the old instruments once told us that the transition from instrument from the late eighteenth century to the fortepiano the mid-nineteenth century might be very difficult for the same musician in one concert

P. MCN. – Yes, the differences are greater than we expect. Key Stein delves 4 millimeters, and the hammer travels 40 mm, ten times more. In the modern piano, this ratio does not reach five: key basin is 10 mm, and the hammer suddenly runs 48 mm. The instruments, the proportion is 1:7, Walter. Stein pianoforte player to the instrument immediately correspond with unexpected strength.

V.S. — I agree with Kate that it is difficult to switch, but in my practical life I am trying to overcome these difficulties and still performing on different pianos in the same concert because of the advantages which such presentation gives to the whole presentation. On such presentation listeners then feel and hear for themselves the most significant differences between the instruments and music works. It might be a risk to quickly change between — say — music of Scriabin to the works of Mozart, but I feel I can adupt my hands with good results to the keyboard Stein and Graf. Sometimes in the concerts I even play the same part of work twice on different pianos.It helps listeners to realize how much depends on the instrument. Fortunately, Pleyel instrument, the same way, as historical, is not so hard keyboard, as the heaviest contemporary concert pianos. Not only is lighter — on it just different than the instrument of the twentieth-century tone which results are achieved. It has a completely different personality.


fortepiano s.r.o. implements a project co-financed by the European Union.
Number of project: CZ.01.2.111/0.0/0.0/18_244/0016789