Pianos in Europe
The English grand piano action was first developed by Americus Backers with help from John Broadwood and Robert Stodart around 1772. The Stodart and Broadwood grands were the first musically important pianos to be built in England. During the 1800s, Broadwood made numerous developments in piano construction including improvements in piano wire and scaling. Throughout the 19th century, Broadwood continued producing large numbers of pianos, including uprights, squares and grands. Broadwood grands are considered historically important due to their long history as a piano builder and the fact that Beethoven was so fond of his large Broadwood grand.
French piano making around 1800 was influenced by the developments in England. It was not until a little later that the French became equally respected. Of course, Paris was considered a a city of culture, including musical culture. The piano companies of Erard, Pleyel, Kriegelstein and Herz were held in high regard in French homes and concert halls. Beethoven owned a Erard grand which he used for a number of years. Chopin and Liszt did much to add to the respect and prestige of Erards and Pleyels during the 19th century. Sebastien Erard had numerous patents for the piano dating back to the turn of the century. He invented the agraffe (the metal stud that holds the wire near the tuning pins) and the most importantly, the repetition action that is still used today in Europe and America. Erard moved to England in the early 1800s, and so many of the fine Erards were built in London.
Piano construction in Vienna was influenced by the musical culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Walter, Stein, Streicher, Graf and of course Bösendorfers were the prominent piano builders of the time. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms were some of the great pianists served by Viennese and German pianos. The piano during Beethoven’s time underwent numerous changes including increased octaves, heavier construction and better wire. While these changes coincided with developments in America by Chickering and Steinway, the Viennese and German builders were a bit more conservative with some other aspects of piano construction. They continued to produce straight-strung pianos up until late in the 19th century, nearly 40 years after Steinway decided to move to the overstrung piano we see today. It was believed by the Europeans that overstringing (having the bass run over the top of the treble wire) creates a muffled sound. There may be some truth to that, as the fine Viennese pianos like Bosendorfer and Streicher do have a beautiful, clean tone. However, the Americans were concerned with increased power and wanted to fit the longest wire possible in a piano.
Another stark contrast between the Viennese pianos and the rest of the world was the action design. While the repetition action was being used in quality grands (not square grands) during the late 1800s, Bösendorfer continued to use the old Viennese action in which the hammer and shank is mounted on the back of the key, facing the opposite direction of the hammers in a modern action, until 1909. Two differences are that 1. without a double escapement mechanism, the fall of the hammer is a bit more apparent, and 2. the Viennese action has a lighter touch more reminiscent of the early piano-fortes. When playing a Viennese piano for the first time, pianists often remark at how much fun they are to play.
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