Liszt’s Boisselot piano in Weimar

Liszt’s Boisselot piano in Weimar (in Deutsch)

From original to the copy
Erich Tremmel, Viviana Sofronitsky, Paul McNulty
March 2011 Piano Bulletin, Netherlands

The German Liszt town Weimar, from June to October 2011, will be staging an exhibition “Liszt, a European in Thuringia“. The most important part of this event will be the exhibition ‘Kosmos Klavier’. Spread over several rooms of the Grand Duke Palais, it will expose pianos from the Klassik Stiftung Weimar collection. These instruments, starting from early Viennese pianos to the sophisticated Erard grand-pianos, illustrate the evolution of piano construction in the nineteenth century, just as Liszt experienced during his lifetime. The highlight of this exhibition will be Listz’s personal instrument – the Boisselot grand piano. It was built for Liszt’s tour to Kiev and Odessa in 1847 and later served as Liszt’s workpiano in his study room at his Altenburg residence in Weimar. This instrument has been preserved in Weimer, but is currently unplayable. In 2011, builder Paul McNulty made two replicas of this grand piano. One of them was on display alongside the original with an idea to be played there. Boisselot pianos are relatively unknown today as they are not produced any longer, and therefore the Liszt’s Boisselot piano attracted very little attention until recently.
Some articles about this Boisselot grandpiano follow. Dr. Erich Tremmel of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar, a co-author of “Kosmos Klavier” exhibition textbook, is writing about the Weimar instrument. Paul McNulty and Viviana Sofronitsky have described in two chapters the Iberian tour of Liszt and Boisselot, and are giving a summary of the reconstruction of this unique grand-piano.

Franz Listzt’s treasured instruments
Franz Liszt: greatest piano virtuoso of all times, innovator of piano playing, master composer, master performer, master teacher – despite being a bit “out of fashion” during the last decades, he and his music today represent the starting point of a new modern era of piano playing, public appearance and perception of music. The instruments he used and cherished convey to us a lot of interesting information. Especially the instrument, which he played not only once in a single concert, but one he kept for more than half his lifetime and used to play many hours a day as a kind of a “workhorse” when he was composing music.

Thus the Boisselot grand opus no. 2800, made in Marseille in late 1846 or early 1847 and preserved in Weimar, can claim to be the most interesting monument of Liszt’s personal affection to an instrument. On this instrument Liszt performed the last concerts of his grand virtuoso tour, concluded by a series of concerts in the Black Sea region. He afterwards transported it to Weimar where Liszt lived and worked as Court Music Director from 1848 to 1861. The instrument was placed in Liszt’s private studio in the back of the Liszt’s house, so hardly a showpiece for visitors. They could instead admire one of the latest Erard grands next to Beethoven’s Broadwood grand (today in Budapest), or the gigantic ‘Piano-Orgue’ by Erard and Alexandre (today in Vienna) – a 2 manual harmonium and grand piano combined. Those instruments were perhaps more to be seen and admired than heard (Liszt refused to perform on Beethoven’s grand). The Boisselot though was an instrument, which was used daily for hours of playing and composing. It also was a keepsake to remind Liszt of his dearest friends – Louis-Constantin Boisselot, who named his son Franz (with Liszt as godfather), and Caroline von Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom Liszt first met in Kiev during one of his last concerts, which he performed on this Boisselot grand opus 2800.

This instrument has gone through many stressful events from the beginning of its existence. First it was transported by ship from Marseille to Odessa, then moved around in Ukraine and finally transported by land to Weimar. Here, Liszt continued to use it despite the fact that it eventually reached its “worn and hardly playable” state. During Liszt’s “commuting years” between Rome, Budapest and Weimar, when Liszt lived in his second Weimar residence (the “Liszthaus” of today), he had rather limited space, and so put the Bechstein grand and the Ibach upright in his working room (both still present). During the same period he also had a Boisselot upright sent to his Rome rooms for use there. Liszt, who had many instruments presented to him over the years, had a number of places where he deposited instruments, which were too large for any of his rooms. The 1867 Chickering grand (today in Budapest) was stored among other instruments in the house of his friend Auguszt Antal in Szekszárd, the 1883 Steinway & Sons grand No. 49382 in the house of Baroness von Meyendorff (later presented to his granddaughter Daniela von Bülow, today in Milano).

The Boisselot grand No. 2800 was apparently left in the Altenburg studio. Whether the Boisselot grand was too large to be moved to the Liszthaus or already more or less out of function, the instrument was left behind in Weimar after Liszt’s death and not transported to Budapest together with Beethoven’s Broadwood. The Boisselot piano received little attention after Liszt’s death. When the Liszthaus was opened to the public as a museum, the instrument was placed there and served as a base for a specially made display case shaped to fit over its lid. This now lost wooden showcase certainly added weight to the instrument and strain to the structure, damaging the top and sides considerably.

Later attempts to restore the instrument to playability during the 20th century caused even more harm. While the action (English) itself was preserved, the hammers were covered with modern piano felts under tension. The result was that these felt covers ripped off underlying older cover layers as these could not withstand the different tension. The main structural problem of the instrument could not be solved: as Boisselot usually produced grands with a length of approx. 220 cm, but the grands for Liszt were special elongated models with a length of about 249 cm, the wrestplanks and structural stiffness of these instruments had not been increased to withstand the considerably higher string tension, so they typically broke in upon themselves. With this kind of structural damage, the instrument could never again withstand string tension. Notwithstanding the deeply worn ivories of Boisselot #2800, suggesting many years of use, the piano could not be repaired to the playing state without practically building a new instrument within the old outer shell, thereby removing and destroying vital details of the original structure. Thus the decision to restore the original instrument without alteration, yet at the same time make a playable copy to explore the musical characteristics of Boisselot’s “Liszt” grand was chosen as the most appropriate way to preserve Liszt’s legacy, as well as to enable the rediscovery of the sound of one of Liszt’s most beloved instruments.
Erich Tremmel

Liszt’s relationship to Boisselot, the Iberian concert tour
The first meeting between Liszt and Boisselot family took place in the spring of 1826, when, during young Liszt’s concerts in Marseille, Jean-Louis Erard Boisselot was providing instruments and acted as his agent. Afterwards Boisselot was selling Liszt portraits and published Liszt’s “Études pour le pianoforte” and a volume of exercises. In 1830 Boisselot began to build pianos, hiring experienced piano crafstmen from England and Germany, so that his instrument quickly reached a high level of quality. In July 1844 Liszt began a concert tour in Southern France, which continued to Spain and Portugal and concluded in Marseille in April 1845. Louis-Constantin Boisselot and his pianos accompanied Liszt during his tour in the Iberian Peninsula. The arrival of the greatest piano virtuoso of those days was a big event in Marseille. The four major concerts of Liszt (at 25 and 26 July and 2 and 6 August 1844) made the headlines.

On January 12 they left for Lisbon. The problems at the Portuguese border with the import duty for the grand piano being very high were solved with the intervention of the Austrian Ambassador and the Portuguese Minister of Finance. It was established by special decree that every object that was needed for Maestro Liszt in the kingdom could be imported or exported without charge.

Liszt played for the Queen Maria II of Braganza, who then gave him the title “Knight of the Order of Christ,” and granted him a gold snuff box set with diamonds. The press spoke of “the most exciting event ever held in Portugal.” At the end of the tour Liszt’s Boisselot grand piano was given as a gift to the Queen Maria II. This instrument is still in Lisbon. During the inaugural concert at the Royal Palace in Lisbon, in the presence of the assembled dignitaries and sponsors, the instrument collapsed, experiencing what is known as ‘pinblock shear’.
After a long tour, with concerts in Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz, Lisbon, Malaga, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona, Liszt and Boisselot returned April 21 1845 to Marseille. During this tour Liszt had used Boisselot pianos only in port cities. In cities that were not accessible by boat, such as Madrid and Cordoba, he had to use local instruments.

According to reports in the press, his return to Marseille was a real triumph, not only for Liszt, but also for Boisselot and his factory. The city produced specially minted coins in honour of the virtuoso. The Marseille newspapers from May 18, 1845 trumpeted: ”Tired of so much Royal company, F. Liszt is rushing to take the first boat available and exclaiming to the helmsman: “Fast to Marseille, to the factory Boisselot & Co!” When he arrived at the factory, he found four large tables in the form of a parallelogram installed in the large courtyard of the factory. Senior workers, headed by the son of Boisselot, were placed at three tables, while F. Liszt and the director of the factory were honourably seated at the fourth table, surrounded by representatives of the local press, arts, music and industry. “F. Liszt, the emperor of the festivities, seems a bit like the God Bacchus, drinking with the workers, overwhelmed with kind words, with many handshakes… then he runs to the piano and plays with a wild fury, being on the top of his inspiration, “La Somnambule Cachucha” … The people take the famous pianist upon their arms, and carry him in triumph through the city.”
Viviana Sofronitsky

Building a Boisselot
Knowing the risks involved in restoration from events in Lisbon (see above), the authorities in Weimar chose instead to commission from me a replica of another Boisselot, the instrument sent to Liszt in Odessa for his 1847 tour in Ukraine and Turkey. This piano, #2800, was kept ever after by Liszt in Weimar, where he moved with Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom he met in Kiev at the end of his tour. A spirited woman (“my Amazon!” – F. Liszt, “a Monstrum in Excessum…what an infernal racket!” – R. Wagner), Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein devoted her efforts (and her distant Russian husband’s finances) to freeing Franz from the tribulations of life as a touring virtuoso. She encouraged his composition, worked on his correspondence, and contributed a substantial portion of his “Life of Chopin”. She lived in the Weimar Villa Altenburg, painting three rooms red, white and blue — for Russia. Liszt was in the red room; she worked and wrote in the blue room, and the white room was for her daughter, whom she raised as a Russian princess. From 1847 on Liszt gave no more tours, but wrote a great number of compositions.

A letter of 1860 from Liszt to Boisselot praises #2800 in glowing terms: “a daily partner in my battles with the music of the past, present and future…I have nearly played through the keys, but I love it, and I will never part with it.” #2800 has suffered since, particularly during restoration work carried out fifty years ago, and during its haphazard storage in DDR Weimar. The complicated structure of #2800 indicates that in the 1840’s Boisselot chose to bury his iron braces under the soundboard, whereas in the 1830’s he had placed them above the soundboard, passing through deep notches cut into the bridge. Notching a bridge kills the notes on either side of the notch, and the aversion Boisselot developed to this acoustic effect seems to have stimulated him to make this radical structural change, in order to string the dumb notes above each brace, Viennese fashion, giving an untrammeled array of strings, for uninterrupted tonal response. To this end he even added a unison of three strings for a non-existent bflat5, the better for a5 to sing.

The stringing is marked out with exceptional care, and the bridge is formed of vertical beech laminae (capped with pear) forming sudden kinks, in order to keep string lengths in proportion where there are blind notes. The top four octaves double exactly in length. Piano strings in 1847 were no longer iron, but English Webster steel, the original factory providing the wire I have used for this project, manufactured to the same specifications. The hammers of #2800 were refelted at some point, replacing the two approximately 5mm outer layers with one thick layer.

I was able to examine Christopher Clarke’s Boisselot #2894 and its original hammers, and, also referring to the detailed photos he kindly provided, made my hammers closely observing the measures of each layer of covering. The hammers are constituted of pencil cedar cores covered with two layers of ox or horse (I substituted cow), plus one layer of deer and two layers of felt, the outer being softer. In the upper register the layers decrease to three. The felt I used came from Würzen Filzfabrik, the inner layer being a special order, too soft for modern hammers, though harder than the outside layer, while for the outer layer I used another type of Würzen felt, so-called keyend felt (used at the rear of upright piano keys), medium density, available in various thicknesses — I chose 5.5mm, and dressed it down from there. Mr. Clarke graciously offered the use of his splendid replica of a hammer covering machine, which attaches a layer of hammer covering at a given pressure, determined by weights hung on a stout gut cord.
I couldn’t have spent the three weeks required for covering these hammers in his workshop, but managed at home by pressing hammerson a bathroom scale to gauge the pressure. The tapered ends of the various layers are cut on the outer surface, and partly cutting this wedge of material away before assembly provides a flap, giving purchase for spring clamps to grab the felt and hold the twenty three kilos of pressure I applied to each felt layer in the procedure.

The resulting piano is a beast, in comparison to the 1830 Pleyel I make, yet has a transparency and range of color not found in modern pianos. The English action is supple and light, even with Boisselot’s rather large hammers, because the shanks and hammers are both pencil cedar. The damping is essentially modern in terms of the mechanism, except that the heads are simply flat felt throughout. The damping is more ethereal than precise. In Weimar Castle there is an excellent Erard original from 1845, standing in the next room to my Boisselot copy, and the comparison is a bit like ‘aunt calling to aunt, like mastodons bellowing across a primeval swamp.’ — (P.G. Wodehouse). The Erard is more round and fuller in tone than Boisselot, but not as clear and colourful. The Boisselot is very rich in tone, given its strings are as thick as the modern piano, though scaled a bit shorter for the Webster steel wire prevalent in the 1840’s, which is nevertheless much stronger than the iron of the 1830’s and before. The Erard has an unusually light touch, and it brings to mind Liszt’s letter to Erard explaining his preference for Boisselot, saying the touch most resembled the Viennese pianos of his youth. In the same vein, Clara Schumann remarked that she would need a period of weeks to prepare for a recital using an Erard.
Paul McNulty

PD Dr. ERICH TREMEL geboren 1959 in Füssen/Lech. Nach dem Studium in München und Augsburg dort 1987-1998 Hochschulassistent, danach Lehrbeauftragter an den Universitäten Augsburg, Würzburg und Innsbruck. 2007 Lehrstuhlvertretung in Göttingen, seit 2010 an der Hochschule für Musik FRANZ LISZT Weimar. Publikationen: Blasinstrumentenbau im 19. Jahrhundert in Südbayern, Augsburg 1993.(In Kooperation): Lauten – Geigen – Orgeln, Füssen 1999.(Mit Gert-Dieter Ulferts): Kosmos Klavier. Historische Tasteninstrumente der Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Augsburg 2011.

VIVIANA SOFRONITSKY has followed in the footsteps of her father Vladimir Sofronitsky, a distinguished Russian pianist. She earned a DMA from the Moscow Conservatory and received historical fortepiano and harpsichord performance degrees from the Royal Conservatory in Den Haag. She took First Prize at the “Bach Tage Berlin” competition, as well as prizes at the “Musica Antiqua” competition in Brugge. Viviana Sofronitsky has recorded with ”ETCetera”, “Suoni e colori”, “Globe”, “Pro Musica Camerata” (complete Mozart concertos, with Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense) , “Passacaille” and “Avi” lebels. Her current projects include recording Chopin and Liszt on romantic fortepiano. Russian-Canadian citizen Viviana Sofronitsky is based in Prague from which she travels with her fortepianos.

PAUL McNULTY became interested in instrument building after studying music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He studied piano technology in Boston and earned guild qualification as a tuning examiner.After some years in Amsterdam he came to the Czech Republic in 1995. He has built more than 150 fortepianos after Stein, Walter, Hofmann, Graf and Pleyel, which feature in many recordings and are owned by prominent players and leading music institutions such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Paul Badura-Skoda and Glyndebourne Festival. In 2009 Paul McNulty built two copies of I.Pleyel 1830, the results confirming Chopin’s 1831 remark to his best friend Tytus: “Pleyel’s pianos are ‘non plus ultra.” Paul McNulty was chosen by Klassik Stiftung Weimar to make a copy of Liszt’s personal Boisselot 1846 piano.

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