Why you've never really heard the "Moonlight" Sonata.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 2 2010 7:06 AM

In Search of Lost Sounds

Why you've never really heard the "Moonlight" Sonata.

You find the denizens sitting silently and waiting in the old library. They look lonely, huddled against the midwinter chill, until they start to speak. All of them are old. Some of them were once noted for their voice and personality, but now they are remembered mainly in obscure pages of history. Some of them are spindly and whispery, others burly and assertive. They used to be companions of famous people. Their intimates included Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Debussy. Which is to say: This library is filled with the pianos great composers wrote for. Instruments like these were etched in the composers' consciousness; they were co-creators of splendid music. Their retirement home lies in a little town in central Massachusetts. They aren't allowed to molder, however—their supervisors keep them active.

In 1976, Michael Frederick, once an East Asian history major and a harpsichord buff, and his musical wife, Patricia, bought an old piano, a British Stodart built around 1830. It needed major restoration, and because Michael had been building harpsichords as a hobby since his college days he decided to work on it himself. Then they bought another 19th-century piano, and another, and so on. You know how it is with obsessions.

At the turn of this century, their five-room house was full of keyboards, the furniture and the Fredericks themselves crammed into the interstices.  Finally, their village of Ashburnham, Mass., agreed to lease them the small Victorian brick library next to the town hall to house what was now called the Frederick Historic Piano Collection. They could rent the library for a modest rate, balanced by an equal amount they invested in restoring the building.  Today the pianos reside in the library, the only collection of their kind on the continent.

The Frederick Collection has 24 restored pianos, the oldest an unsigned Viennese model from the 1790s of a style Mozart knew, followed by a century's worth of legendary names: Graf, Bösendorfer, Streicher, Pleyel, Blüthner, an 1866 Steinway. The youngest member is an Erard made in Paris in 1928. They're all originals, and Michael Frederick is himself an original. If you need to know about the exigencies of postwar felt production in Europe, he'll catch you up. Felt is a big thing in his life; likewise, leather, wood, wire, and other low-tech hardware. If you e-mail the collection, you get his wife, Pat. Michael doesn't do e-mail or computers, either.

He keeps the pianos in concert-ready shape, and the couple produce a yearly series down the road in Central Church. The 200 seats are usually filled. If you make a reservation to see the collection in the library they'll give you the tour, very much hands-on. Maybe Pat will sing you a Schubert song in her tremulous voice, accompanying herself on a model that Schubert would have known well. Michael might play you Mozart on the 1790s piano, whose action is so delicate that nobody yet has had the courage to play it in public. He is ready to expound at length on any relevant subject you like and more. When I made some observation to the effect of, "the piano was in the middle of its evolution in Beethoven's lifetime," he pointed out with some heat that this wasn't the case. The state of the piano was a variety of national, local, and house traditions moving forward at the same time. During the 19th century, Viennese pianos were noted for their lightness of touch and tone and British pianos for a more robust build, touch, and sound; French pianos lay somewhere between. Within those parameters of local taste, each maker had a distinctive style and a proprietary bag of tricks. For one example, Mozart's favorite maker, Walter, would leave his soundboards outside all winter; the ones that cracked went into the stove.

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When composers wrote for these instruments they sometimes loved them and sometimes chafed at their limitations, but in any case they wrote for those sounds, that touch, those bells and whistles. From old instruments, performers on modern pianos can get important insights into the sound image that Mozart, Schubert, et al., were aiming for. But music from the 18th and 19th centuries doesn't just sound different now than on the original instruments; some of it can't even be played as written on modern pianos. One example is the double-octave glissando in the last movement of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata. With the light action and shallow key dip of a period Viennese piano you can plant your thumb and little finger on the octave and slide to the left, and there it is. Given the much heavier action and deeper key dip of a modern piano, if you tried that today you'd dislocate something. Every pianist has a dodge for that passage. It's said that before the glissando Rudolf Serkin would discreetly spit on his fingers.

The prime example of what I'm talking about is perhaps the most famous piece ever written: Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. Hector Berlioz called its murmuring, mournful first movement, "one of those poems that human language does not know how to interpret." At the beginning, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustain pedal  through the whole first movement, so the strings are never damped. With the pianos of Beethoven's time, on which the sustain of the strings was shorter than today, the effect was subtle, one harmony melting into another. On a modern piano, with its longer sustain, the effect of holding the pedal down would be a tonal traffic jam. Today you have to fake the effect, and it never quite works as intended. Here's Alfred Brendel playing the beginning of the "Moonlight" about as well as anyone on the ubiquitous modern Steinway.

Compare that to Gayle Martin Henry playing a piano from around 1805 by the Viennese maker Caspar Katholnig.

The sound is startlingly different from a modern piano and takes a while to get used to. These instruments were mostly played in small to medium-size rooms. The sound is intimate; you hear wood and felt and leather. The voicing is varied through the registers rather than the homogenous sound of modern pianos. On the Katholnig, the effect of holding the pedal down in the "Moonlight" has a ghostly effect, most obvious in the longer-sustaining bass notes that can sound like a distant gong. All these elements of the pianos Beethoven knew shaped the music in the first place, including the way he picked out high and low notes around the murmuring figure in the middle of the keyboard.

Let's compare pianos on another monumental Beethoven piano sonata, No. 23, the "Appassionata," from 1805. The later sonata is a story of voids, abysses, hopes rising only to be crushed, one of the supreme tragic works in the keyboard literature. But as much as anything, the piece is about the piano itself, especially the colors of its registers. It's generally understood that after Beethoven was given a state-of-the-art Erard in 1803, his piano music got more ambitious and exploratory (even as he groused about its heavy French action). Here's Brendel on the opening of the "Appassionata," what was originally a plunge into the bottom of Beethoven's five-and-a-half-octave keyboard.

Here's Gayle Martin Henry on the Katholnig.

Around 1820 Beethoven secured a Viennese instrument by Conrad Graf, partly because he was seriously deaf by then and Graf made the loudest pianos in town. Pianist Stephen Porter is not a period specialist, but he has been soloing on a Graf in the collection's concerts since 2002. (This particular instrument's first owners were the Sonnleithner family in Vienna, known to history for their connection to Beethoven and Schubert.) Porter talks about the transparent sound of old pianos, the three-dimensional quality of the registers from silvery high to booming low–so different from the homogenized voicing of modern instruments. In the whirlwind last movement of the "Appassionata," Porter says it's as if the Graf is straining to contain the music, threatening to fly apart in the attempt. That, of course, is the effect Beethoven was aiming for: a certain desperation. In this live performance of the ending by Porter, listen for the contrast between the Graf's mellow middle register and the brighter high and the crashing low chords in the maddened dance that precedes the final frenzy.

That may be the most exciting and appropriate version of the "Appassionata" ending I've heard, and it's the piano as well as the performer that makes it happen. It's hard to make a Steinway sound anything but elegant; it's not so good at hair-raising.

In later life, Brahms, who liked big, rich sounds, preferred American Steinways and Viennese Bösendorfers, both of them still leading makes today. But the piano Brahms had in his apartment was a classic Viennese Streicher. Who knows whether he would prefer his grand Op. 119 Rhapsody by Radu Lupu on a modern Steinway

or the old-mahogany tone of Ira Braus on the Frederick's 1871 Streicher.

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