The renovation of Chopin’s last Pleyel piano Factory No.14810 by the charismatic conservator Paul McNulty. Warsaw, Poland 3-12 December 2021

The last Pleyel 14810 piano played by Fryderyk Chopin in the Fryderyk Chopin Museum Warsaw before restoration


Chopin at a Pleyel piano. Pencil drawing by Jacob Götzenberger Paris October 1838, just after Chopin's first visit to England in 1837

From 3-12 December at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw we saw the renovation of a Pleyel piano 14810 from 1848. It was the last instrument that belonged to Fryderyk Chopin. Conservation work was done by Paul McNulty, the outstanding American specialist in historical pianos who courageously came to Warsaw during this ghastly pandemic. This groundbreaking event in the history of the unique instrument was available to watch by the visitors of the Museum.

I attended an interview session with Paul McNulty on Thursday 9th December 2021. He said that this instrument was the best preserved Pleyel he had ever seen. He is thrilled to be working on this historic instrument, one of the high points of his career, the 'most exciting thing I have ever done'. Much of the original instrument has been miraculously preserved and sensitively restored whilst in the possession of Chopin's family and the later historical restoration. The mechanism requires little work, simply restringing, tuning and regulation

At the end of November 1848, a chronically ill Chopin was given his last instrument (No. 14810) by his friend, the famous Parisian piano maker, Camille Pleyel. Many models of Pleyel grand pianos (Grand Patron and Petit Patron) and pianinos (upright Pleyels) were loaned to Chopin during his lifetime by Camille for his use teaching in Paris, composing at Nohant and even a pianino sent to Valldemossa. It has been estimated as many as a dozen instruments were selected in this way by Chopin himself.

After a winter or summer season they were then leased or sold on at the composers recommendation. Chopin also received a commission on the sales he arranged of new Pleyel pianos for his students. This instrument would have an estimated cost new around £84,000 at today's prices. The piano, serial number 14810, was briefly kept at Place d'Orléans and in the last flat that Chopin inhabited at Place Vendôme. This instrument was the last piano at which the composer sat and wrote his music until his death on 17 October 1849.

A most charming portrait of Jean Wilhelmina Stirling (1804–1859) as a child with her father John Stirling of Kippendavie (1742–1816) by the famous Scottish portrait painter 
Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). Painted in 1823, the year of his death. (Fyvie Castle) 

After Chopin’s death, it was purchased by his utterly devoted Scottish pupil Jane Stirling (whom he found rather guiltily as 'so boring') for around £ 56,000 on 11 December 1849. It was then generously given by her to Fryderyk’s sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz. Transported by sea, it arrived in Warsaw in August 1850. Inside the case of the piano, there is still a wax seal of the customs office of Tsar Nicholas I and the handwritten dedication ‘pour Louise’ made by Jane Stirling.

In a letter from 'miserable London' to his close friend Wojciech Grzymała in Paris on 21 November 1848, Chopin wrote detailed instructions to prepare his flat at 9 Place d'Orléans (now 80 Rue Taitbout) for his arrival including a request for this piano from Camille Pleyel. His extreme sensitivity as a neurasthenic, artistic and ill man is clear. 

My Life! 

'I've been lying in bed almost the whole day today - but on Thursday I'll be departing this miserable London at this hour. I'll spend Thursday night in Boulogne and on Friday during the day I'll be at the Place d'Orléans.

[...]

Tell Pleyel to have me sent any sort of piano on Thursday evening, have it covered. Have a bouquet of violets brought on Friday, so that it smells sweet in the drawing room - let me have a bit of poetry still at home when I return - passing from the living room to the bedroom - where I will certainly lie down for a long time. And so on Friday in the middle of the day, I'll be in Paris. Another day longer here, and I'll go mad; ....' 

[...] 

I embrace you. Please have the fires lit, and the rooms heated,and dusted - perhaps I will yet come to. 
Yours unto death, Ch.

(trans. David Frick)

'pour Louise'

The Customs Office seal of Tsar Nicholas I (Kalbar TFN)

The piano, as one of the most important Chopin historic objects, was kept by subsequent generations of the family, the children and grandchildren of his sister Ludwika. In 1924 it was sold to the National Museum in Warsaw, where it was displayed until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. After the failure of the Uprising, the instrument was taken by the occupiers to Austria and returned to Warsaw on 24 April 1946. In the 1950s it was displayed in Chopin's birthplace at Żelazowa Wola for some time. In 1958, the National Museum cared for it and then it was given to the then Fryderyk Chopin Society. The instrument was finally transported to the Ostrogski Palace, the seat of the Chopin Museum in Warsaw. Since 2005, it has been deposited with The Fryderyk Chopin Institute.

At the end of the 1950s the piano underwent a sensitive renovation, including a change of strings, tuning pins, felt and case refinishing. Unfortunately, the strings were changed for modern ones, made from high-tension carbon steel. It distorted the original timbre of the piano, and in the future it could have had a negative impact on the condition of the entire instrument.


Paul McNulty working on the Pleyel at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw







Immense international and local interest in this restoration even during this frightful pandemic

Strenuous activity .....

Among the most important tasks indicated by the researcher was the regulation of the mechanics and the change of strings for ones that would be more similar to the original version, replaced in accordance with historical knowledge. For that purpose, strings similar to the ones used by the Pleyel’s manufacture in the 1st half of the 19th century were used.

During his talk, Paul McNulty usefully and knowledgeably referred to his superb 2011 copy of one of Franz Liszt's favourite instruments, the piano by Boisselot & Fils, Facteurs du Roi, Marseille The original instrument won a Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1844. 


The Paul McNulty 
2011 copy of one of Franz Liszt's favourite instruments by 
Boisselot & Fils, Facteurs du Roi, Marseille This instrument was exhibited as part of the Franz Liszt - A European in Weimar series of exhibitions in that remarkable town during 2011. It was part of the Kosmos Klavier exhibits in the Palace Museum.

The comparison was immensely instructive. Liszt was interested in the power of an instrument. This was one reason he was also attracted to the Erard, unlike Chopin who found its 'ready-made tone' less satisfying. Liszt advised his pupil Edwin Klahre in Weimar in 1884: 'When I play, I always play for those [people] in the gallery that pay ten pfennigs for a ticket, so they also can hear.'  He referred to 'the monster Boisselot', a word that Chopin would never have used. 

The Pleyel is a conservative instrument in comparison, eminently suitable for the intimate, nuanced and subtle recitals that suited Chopin's introverted temperament. He referred to the Pleyel as the ne plus ultra of pianos. With its single escapement mechanism he needed to 'work' to produce the tone and perfect touch, the intimate, poetic sound he envisaged for many of his compositions.

Period piano wire is of a quite different metallic structure and composition to modern piano wire which has to cope with far greater stresses of many tons, possibly as much as thirty on a Model D Steinway concert grand. 

The metallic composition of the iron wire for the new strings on the Pleyel is vital. This is manufactured by the German historical instrument part specialists Vogel & Sheer. They manufacture high quality parts for historical keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord, spinet, clavichord and period pianos.  They pull strings in eight different alloys, so that they are suitable for each instrument type. The type used on the Pleyel is their nearly pure iron string called Westphälisches Eisen. This sounds beautiful and perfect when struck with an ideal wire stress of 50% and 70% of  breaking strength. The pitch is set at 435 kHz.


Webster and Horsfall supplied the strings for the Liszt Boisselot. They still manufacture historical piano wire to the almost exact original composition (except phosphorus rather than carbon which stabilizes the iron) Mild steel wire from England was used on the Boisselot to increase its power. This piano design could sustain a total of 30,000 kilos of tension with a possible ffff dynamic albeit additionally possessing a seductive, eloquent soft pedal. This wire produces a quite different piano tone to that required by Chopin  for his compositions.


The hammers on the Pleyel have a mahogany core, two layers of what McNulty amusingly referred to as 'shoe leather', one layer of thin deer hide and a layer of thick felt, the composition of which can no longer be duplicated exactly but closely approximated. However, the hammers on this instrument are in particularly finely preserved condition. The key covering is in slightly worn ivory.

Piano builders and designers were much influenced by the particular compositional demands of the composer. Clearly Chopin demanded a completely different sound palette, color, timbre and dynamic range to Liszt. Also, purely as a piece of finely crafted aristocratic furniture, the Pleyel has a grace and elegance in the cabinetry, veneer and ormolu decoration denied many other instruments of the period.

Chopin with his characteristic barbed irony once confided to Liszt: 

I am not suited to public appearances – the auditorium saps my courage, I suffocate in the exhalation of the crowd, I am paralyzed by curious glances . . . but you, you can, since if you should fail to win over the audience you at least have the possibility of murdering them.

This instrument after restoration should come close to the sound that Chopin heard, and more importantly, desired in his mind's ear and imagination. As both a harpsichordist and pianist, in a question, I touched on the vexed, often unasked question, of the temperament of Chopin's piano. In the English language there is a distinct difference between the tuning of a well-tempered instrument and an equal-tempered instrument. 

The word intimacy captures the atmosphere of much of the music of Chopin, in particular the Nocturnes, Mazurkas, Waltzes and Preludes. The subtly different 'well-tempered' tunings that existed between say 1700 and 1900, gave particular keys and certain harmonic transitions uniquely characteristic coloration, modulation, atmosphere, sensibility, sensitivity, timbres and textures lost in the homogenized 'perfect' sound world of the oscilloscope-designed Steinway, Kawai, Yamaha or Fazioli. 

This and the colour differences obtainable from the different registers of a Pleyel  put us far closer in touch with the descriptions of the unearthly, spiritual and transcendent sound worlds Chopin produced at the keyboard. 

He often spoke of of feeling as if his fingers were playing on the strings when performing on the Pleyel. It comes as no great surprise then that the guitar was the instrument he loved most next to the piano, albeit a different sounding instrument to the  Spanish classical guitar we are accustomed to.

Period descriptions graphically attested to his playing as possessing: soft dynamic range, great subtleties of rhythmic inflection and articulation, a caressing touch and an approach to pedaling too complex for accurate notation or even description (Jonathan Bellman - Professor of Music History and Literature - University of Northern Colorado. Author of the thought-provoking Toward a well-tempered Chopin included in Chopin in Performance: History, Theory, Practice Naradowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina, Warsaw 2004)

Charles Hallé wrote, certainly with a degree of excusable hyperbole: There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being who produces this music. It seems to descend from heaven .....I feel a thrill each time I think of it.

On the 18th August 1848 in a letter from Paris, Chopin wrote in a deeply melancholic mood 'All those with whom I was in the most intimate harmony have died and left me. Even, Ennike, our best tuner, has gone and drowned himself; and so I have not in the whole world a piano tuned to suit me.' 

The tuner Ennike departed this 'vale of tears' a mere fourteen months before Chopin's deathIf equal temperament had been considered attainable or even desirable at that time, which it was not, this death may not have created yet another psychological obstacle and depressive factor for Chopin. Together with his horrifying chronic illness, this unfortunate death may well have contributed to the depression that ominously grew in such strength as to paralyze his compositional imagination and stamina.

For a great deal more on this fascinating and only recently explored subject of temperament on Chopin's pianos see Michèle Duguay, Department of Music Research, Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montréal, Canada - August 2016: 

 


A mysterious wine stain on the soundboard - surely a symbol of hedonistic, intimate enjoyment, the taking of pleasure in music and wine by an audience intimately gathered around the piano!

In 2018 The Fryderyk Chopin Institute commissioned a detailed analysis of the instrument, conducted by the LANBOZ Laboratory of Analysis and Nondestructive Investigation of Heritage Objects. The work included scanning, RTG photographs, and chemical analysis. The piano was also examined by the brilliant and engaging Prof. Benjamin Vogel, a Polish musicologist, a specialist in piano making and string instruments. The work confirmed that a renovation should be urgently implemented. This is being carried out by the American specialist in historical pianos Paul McNulty.

Thanks to the good condition of a major part of the elements (for one hundred years, with small exceptions, the instrument was not used for performance, but only displayed as a museum object), there is a real chance to regain the original sound qualities of the instrument, especially its original timbre. If it is to survive another hundred years, storage care must be exercised.

In modern times with central heating, the Polish continental climate and an instrument with a predominantly wooden frame (there is some metal bracing), an optimal relative humidity of 45%-55% should be maintained at all times. Depending on the season, this may require a controlled storage facility with both humidifier (to counter the dry, artificially heated atmosphere of winter) and dehumidifier (to counter the moist atmosphere of summer rains). It is astonishing for how long with these controlled conditions such instruments (including my Rubio harpsichord and 1844 Pleyel pianino) accurately maintain their tuning.

This restoration is undoubtedly an historic event. Perhaps in the near future we will hear the last of Chopin’s pianos as the composer himself might have heard it. 

Naturally a young pianist would be hard pressed to build a career on a period instrument, but a great deal can be learned of the composers' intentions in sound if such instruments are at least experienced by them. Modifications can then be transferred to the modern instrument which often tends to unbalance the dynamic and affective sound palette of the original indications and intentions in the score. Much can be written on this subject, but here is perhaps not the appropriate place!

Paul McNulty and his technical assistant Karolina Kapela

The work of Paul McNulty’s team took place in the Museum and thanks to the kindness of the conservators, visitors to the Fryderyk Chopin Museum we were able to see the restoration process in progress. 


On Sunday 12 December 2021 I listened to the Pleyel for the first time after a huge investment of time and work in restringing to a tight schedule by Paul McNulty and his technical assistant Karolina Kapela. 

Aleksandra Świgut was given the rare honour of bringing a piano to life that had scarcely sounded for so many years. She had won 2nd prize ex aequo at the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 2–14 September 2018. The competition itself was a revelation of musical complementarity in contrast to the conventional approach on a modern concert grand. This was not a formal recital but just to try out the instrument and offer a first impression, especially for the restorer Paul McNulty.

She began so appropriately with a highly sensitive rendition of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor op.posth., the Lento con gran espressione, whose affective nature on this instrument  transported us into the dream world of Chopin as he undoubtedly intended. Perhaps some of these emotions came through the power of suggestion, the fact that we were listening to an immensely significant, treasured, historic musical instrument of great beauty, speaking once again as it can and should, the rising of a musical Lazarus. 

The refinement of sound with her subtlety of touch, the ultra pianissimo possible from the Pleyel's delicately coloured registers, was deeply affecting. The music, in combination with the authentic sound world of Chopin, can miraculously touch you in far more intimate, secret and deeper places in your emotional life, your buried wounded psyche, than any other composer. His poetic power in this regard can be at once emotionally disturbing and yet ecstatic. 

She then played the Andante spianato as a solo work, set apart from the style brillante Grande Polonaise that usually accompanies it. Chopin often separated the two in performance himself and listening to this on the Pleyel answered the many questions of aesthetic completeness that arise in modern times. It appeared the perfect 'salon' work in all the best senses of that much maligned term and exceptionally 'smooth' as directed.

Finally she presented the Barcarolle as an ecstatic love song. The Pleyel limited the dynamics which prevented mood-destroying exaggerations; too many modern pianists are prone to indulge themselves when performing this work. The febrile ecstasies of love encased in the glowing cantabile lines on this romantic excursion, perhaps taking place in a gondola on an imagined Venetian lagoon, were  beautifully and touchingly expressed by Świgut. With great sensibility, she used the instrumental qualities of understatement, suggestion and constraint which so enhances the romantic passions in Chopin. 

'Imprisoned romanticism' as the great Polish musicologist Tomszewski referred to the music of Chopin. A Pleyel is perfect for pursuing this course of interpretation.

Finally a brief fragment of the anguished Doppio movimento from the B-flat minor Sonata revealed a bass register on the Pleyel that was emotionally disturbing with a unique mixture of fierce emotion in the overtones which created an authentic feeling of that complex Polish emotion called żal, untranslatable into English. This is so rarely experienced in terms of the roughened texture of fury and the agitated timbre of anger mixed with resentment stemming from frustrated nostalgia for past joys and emotive complexity impossible to adequately express on an homogenized, 'perfect', modern instrument.

On the Pleyel  it is possible to implement Chopin's comment to Wilhelm von Lenz. 'I only indicate. It is up to the listener to complete the picture.' Understatement and sensitive restraint is hardly what we are hearing in modern times in too many cases.

An absolutely magical experience to hear this voice of silence speak once again, an emotion that brought me close to tears. 

Aleksandra Świgut

Aleksandra Świgut and an admiring and intently listening Paul McNulty during the first trial of this restored historic Pleyel

In a remarkable moment, much later I was discussing the poetry and emotionalism lying within Chopin's music with Aleksandra Świgut, while at that very same moment Paul McNulty using a micrometer was calling out string gauge numbers to his assistant who was measuring strings for later adjustments. Surely a rare moment of conjunction in historical time ! 

This is only the initial stage of the restoration - ongoing fine tuning adjustments will need to be made as the future unfolds. She found the instrument particularly impressive, the action finely adjusted and the sound alluring. Of course she would require time to accustom herself to this particular instrument. Being entirely hand-built and crafted, each Pleyel piano is an individual with its own decoration, character and personalty, with which she would need to familiarize herself.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

For further interest in the unique qualities of period pianos in performance, here is a link to my 

Final Report and Highlights of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 2–14 September 2018


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

For a fascinatingly detailed, recent account (February 2019) of Chopin's last solo public recital, which took place in Edinburgh on 4 October 1848, by the great pianist Tobias Koch 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

XVIII International Chopin Competition Warsaw, October 2-23, 2021 at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw.

76th International Chopin Festival in Duszniki-Zdrój, 6-14 August 2021

16th.Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) 15-31 August 2020, Warsaw, Poland