Paul McNulty

Johann Andreas Stein’s ‘Viennese’ action dominated piano design in Vienna from the 1770s through to the 1850s. The action is extremely subtle and responsive.

Mozart was enthusiastic about Stein’s pianos, judging them to be the best that he had ever encountered. (Stein’s fame today is largely a result of the letter written by Mozart to his father in 1777, in which he wholeheartedly praises Stein’s pianos. Mozart could never afford to own one of Stein’s pianos; instead, he owned an instrument made by Stein’s contemporary, Anton Walter. The four extant earliest pianos by Walter, including the piano owned by Mozart, have been so radically altered that they cannot provide an accurate indication of either their original sound, or touch. Within this context, the surviving pianos of Stein, of a type known to Mozart and often played by him, acquire a singular significance).

This piano is a precise copy of an instrument made in Augsburg, in 1788, by Johann Andreas Stein. The original is housed in the Würtemburgishe Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

Two Stein pianos built in 1788 (housed, respectively, in the Würtemburgishe Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, Inv. no. G4185, and the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, Inv. no. MIR 1097) were examined, in order to obtain hitherto undiscovered data (in this copy, the builder has for the first time in the modern era, assiduously incorporated Stein’s soundboard measurements). The two identical 1788 originals, and this copy, represent Stein’s ‘Phase 3’ fortepianos.

In relation both to hammer-head design and stringing, the extant pianos of Stein reveal three phases:

  1. Prior to c.1780, the hammer-heads of Stein’s ‘Phase 1’ pianos comprise solid bare pearwood, with no leather covering (it was probably not until after 1777 that the sound of leather-covered hammers became standard). ‘Phase 1’ instruments are double strung (2 strings per note) throughout.
  2. Between c.1778-1783, the hammer-heads of Stein’s ‘Phase 2’ pianos are based on those of Cristofori and Silbermann: hollow cylinders of wood support a tuft of leather. To compensate for the soft, mellow sound produced by this type of hammer-head, the treble of ‘Phase 2’ instruments is triple strung (3 strings per note).
  3. Between 1783-1792, the hammer-heads of Stein’s ‘Phase 3’ pianos (of which this instrument is an exact copy) comprise solid wood covered with 2 layers of leather (the ‘inside’ layer: goat leather; the ‘outside’ layer: harschaaf (a hybrid goat-sheep). Harschaaf leather does not allow any gas to pass through, and so is flexible, yet resistant). Stein’s ‘Phase 3’ instruments may represent his response to the contemporary instruments of Anton Walter, which had comparatively large, solid, leather-covered hammer-heads. When Stein died in 1792 at the age of 63, his ‘Phase 3’ design did not cease, but was continued by his children until 1804. ‘Phase 3’ instruments are consistent in length, being slightly longer than the pianos of ‘Phase 2’. Stein’s ‘Phase 3’ instruments are double strung (2 strings per note) throughout.

Stein never incorporated a ‘back-check’ in his pianos (a back-check prevents the hammer, once it has struck the string and fallen back, from bouncing up again and re-striking the string). The back-check is first found in ‘Viennese’-action pianos after 1785 (for example, in the later pianos of Anton Walter). In order to prevent the hammer from re-bounding, pianos with no back-check must be played more gently than those with a back-check.

During the 1780s and 1790s, Stein-type pianos were regarded as appropriate instruments for those pianists who preferred a subtle, ‘melting’, intimate style of playing. Joseph Haydn expressed a preference for Stein-type pianos.

Knee-levers under the keyboard lift the dampers. The left-hand knee-lever independently raises the left-hand half of the damper rack; the right-hand knee-lever raises all the dampers.

The case is veneered in French-polished cherry wood; without exception, cherry wood is used as the veneer on the extant pianos of Stein.

Paul McNulty is regarded as one of the greatest living fortepiano makers. A Texan by birth and graduate of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, he maintains his workshop in Divisov, Czech Republic. His pianos are represented in significant international keyboard collections, such as Harvard University, London’s Royal College of Music, and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. His instruments have featured on many significant recordings made by the great fortepianists of our time.

This piano was commissioned by the ANU in 2004; the instrument was delivered to the ANU Keyboard Institute in 2008.

Updated:  23 February 2016/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications