The piano pictured here is a 6-½ octave copy inspired by a Conrad Graf fortepiano of c. 1819 in Goat Castle (Castle Kozel, near Pilzeň), outside of Prague, Czech Republic. Its range is CC-f’’’’ and the case features walnut veneer.
American maker Paul McNulty (http://www.fortepiano.eu/), who lives and works in Divišov, Czech Republic, built it for me in 2003. One of the most highly respected builders working today, McNulty has been making pianos since 1986, and his instruments are owned by music schools and colleges, as well as by private individuals in Europe, Japan, Australia and the United States.
Conrad Graf (1782-1851) was one of the leading Viennese piano makers in the early nineteenth century. He opened his workshop in 1804, and by 1820 his instruments were considered to be the “greatest and most renowned in Vienna and throughout the empire.”
His pianos have all-wood construction, except for one small piece of metal called a gap spacer. They are 6 or 6-½ octaves, and have 3 to 5 pedals, which modify the sound in various ways. The action of the piano is a slightly heavier version of the Viennese action favored by Anton Walter, the maker who inspired my 5-½ octave McNulty fortepiano. Graf built pianos for Beethoven, for Schubert, and for the wedding of Clara and Robert Schumann. Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Brahms also held his instruments in great esteem.
This instrument, modeled after an earlier Graf, is particularly suited to the music of Schubert and late Beethoven. It has four different pedals, which can change the sound. The leftmost pedal is a shift pedal, which moves the action so that the hammers can strike one, two or three strings. Next is the single moderator, which inserts a piece of cloth between hammer and strings, creating a more muted sound. Next to that is the double moderator, which inserts two pieces of cloth between hammer and strings, creating the very soft sound, which Schubert envisioned when he wrote ppp. Finally, as in the modern piano, the pedal on the right lifts up the dampers, allowing the strings to resonate longer. The resulting tone colors are striking, and provide a variety that cannot be matched by any piano before or since.
This Graf copy is a bit larger than my Walter copy fortepiano, and consequently has a slightly bigger sound. It is articulate, but not quite as clear and feisty as the smaller piano. Like the Walter copy, its action is still light enough to be revelatory about ornaments and ornamental lines. Both pianos encourage gracefulness and transparency.
Why I Play a Copy of a Graf Fortepiano
Because I love Schubert and late Beethoven, and I love early pianos and the great variety a single piano produce. Details of the Graf copy's variety are in the essay above.
Special Thanks: Rob Loomis
It would not be possible for me to practice and perform on my two fortepianos without the generous help and collaboration of tuner and technician Rob Loomis, RPT. He has spent countless hours making sure that the instruments are fine-tuned and ready for the stresses and strains of performance. From help with moving, to the care of their cases, to moral support for concerts and recordings, he has been a mainstay of my fortepiano career. I am very grateful to him for his knowledge and expertise.
Special Thanks: Hampshire Piano (www.hampshirepiano.com)
I am also grateful to Richard Blais and Craig Hair of Hampshire Piano in Holyoke, Massachusetts, for their generosity and willingness to move my 1819 Graf copy fortepiano by Paul McNulty. Their expertise has been invaluable, and has made possible appearances with this piano at Smith College and at Wistariahurst Museum.