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Articles - Restoration


Restoration of Early Pianos

by Edward Swenson

Several important considerations enter into the question of whether an instrument should or should not be restored and made playable. The age, condition and rarity of the instrument are of foremost consideration. If the instrument is one-of-a-kind and still in original condition, great caution must be taken to preserve and conserve the original parts. The goals in conserving a rare antique include preserving the instrument in original condition, saving, documenting and photographing anything that has to be removed, and protecting the instrument against deterioration. Not every instrument can or should be made playable. In other circumstances restoration may be appropriate even if the result is not one hundred percent satisfactory playability. Above all, the original components of the instrument, to the extent that they are still present, must be preserved and documented.

The curators and conservators of major museums and musical instrument collections attempt to preserve historical pianos in the condition in which they were received, taking measures to protect them from deterioration, while often avoiding the temptation to make them play. They question whether the rare musical instruments in their trust should be made playable because restoration diminishes the historical authenticity of an instrument, and playing it inevitably results in deterioration and wear and tear on original parts. Our right to hear the voices of historic instruments often conflicts with the obligation museums have to preserve the instruments for the scholars, researchers, and replica builders of the future. Many instruments in museums and private collections have been greatly reduced in historical importance through attempts to restore them and make them play.

Conversely, the instrument restorer whose goal is to return the instrument to playing condition, while retaining and documenting all original materials takes a different path. The work of a responsible restorer is always accompanied by a written report, supported by photographs, drawings, measurements, and a detailed explanation of the procedures used in the restoration. Moreover, any repairs should be rendered reversible by using water-soluble animal glues. It is also incumbent upon the restorer to offer suggestions for the continued preservation and maintenance of rare instruments.

The difficulties involved with restoring antique pianos and returning them to playing condition are considerable. Little is known about the building methods used and the specific materials employed by early builders, particularly during the first hundred and fifty years of piano history, when the wood-framed piano reached an extraordinary state of perfection. Replacement materials for hammers, dampers, and action parts, and even suitable stringing wire are often not available. For very early pianos that do not incorporate cast-iron frames, and often have hammers made of laminated leather, both the restorer of original instruments and the replica builder face considerable challenges in their attempts to duplicate the craftsmanship and the materials of the original builders. The large number of early pianos which have survived, often with original strings, hammers, keyboards and case finishes, is a tribute to the skill and high-quality materials employed by period builders. After an interruption of over one hundred and fifty years in the building of fortepianos it is not surprising that today’s replica makers and restorers must struggle to recreate the mastery of period builders who grew up in a flourishing tradition of competitive hand craftsmanship. The workmanship of famous builders such as Stein, Walter, Graf, and Streicher live on in their instruments, but their methods were not adequately described in writing at the time. Famous makers obviously wanted to maintain their competitive edge and they jealously guarded their building procedures.

Working with antique pianos requires an enormous amount of thought and care. Every instrument presents its own unique problems and challenges. An antique instrument must not be approached as though it were inherently inferior to the modern piano. All attempts to "modernize" an antique piano using new soundboards, pinblocks, modern music wire, and oversize felt hammers and dampers in place of the original materials must be assiduously avoided. An antique instrument is reduced in importance in direct proportion to the number of original parts which have been removed. One of the definitions of the noun "restoration" is "to put back into nearly or quite the original form." The task of the restorer who hopes to enhance the instruments in his or her care is to retain and preserve as much of the original instrument as possible.

Age is not the only consideration that determines if an instrument should receive special conservation. Any piano, manufactured by a famous builder or owned by a famous composer or performer is historically important. Mozart’s Walter fortepiano, the Broadwood, Erard and Graf pianos owned by Beethoven, the Pleyel owned by Chopin, Paderewski's Steinway and Bartok's Bechstein are all invaluable primary sources of information about the nature of piano sound for different generations of composers. Many pianos built in the last one hundred years are potentially important. The piano restorer must treat such instruments with great caution in order to preserve the intrinsic value of the instruments as historical documents. A musical instrument can be regarded both as a work of art and as an important historical artifact, because of the information it provides about the history of culture, science, and manufacturing technology.

An approach, which has nothing to do with conservation or restoration, is taken by modern piano rebuilders, many of whom, particularly in North America, replace as a matter of course the original soundboards, pinblocks, strings, and action parts in high- quality 19th- and 20th-century grand pianos. Even if the work is expertly accomplished, a 19th-century Steinway with a modern action and a 21st-century soundboard no longer reflects the workmanship and goals of the original makers.

The motivation for the current early piano revival is that we should be allowed to hear the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Lizst, Brahms, and many others on the instruments that the composers originally intended. The use of a skillfully made replica instrument instead of a restored original has numerous advantages, particularly for the touring professional pianist. Replicas are usually less expensive and they can be transported and used in situations and environments which would be unsuitable for historical instruments. Although replica builders are rapidly improving in their attempts to recreate the skill of period makers, it is still questionable whether modern replicas or even restored originals are as good as the new instruments constructed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

Barclay, Robert L., ed. The Care of Historic Musical Instruments. Edinburgh: Museums & Galleries Commission, 1997.
Barnes, John. "Does Restoration Destroy Evidence?" Early Music. vol. 7 (1980), 153-159.
Hellwig, Friedemann. "Restoration and Conservation of Historical Musical Instruments." In Making Musical Instruments, edited by Charles Ford. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.
O'Brien, G.G. "Attitudes to Musical Instrument Conservation and Restoration." Bulletin of the Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments 3 (1976) 15-18.
Plenderleith, H. J. and A.E.A. Werner. The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art: Treatment, Repair and Restoration. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Swenson, Edward E. "Ein Glucksfall: Ein Fortepiano von Conrad Graf." Concerto, Das Magazin für alte Musik. (March, 1988) 10-16.

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