By Ann Hicks
In their lifetime, the Classical Era’s towering musicians: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven played and owned a number of different keyboard instruments including fortepianos, the predecessor to today’s grand pianos. The list of master-makers of those instruments include Stein, Walter, Böhm, Erard, Schantz, Broadwood, Stodart, Clementi, Graf, Streicher, and others. At one time, eighteenth century Vienna supported 60 keyboard instrument makers, while London supported over 200.
It helps to keep in mind that there were two broad approaches to the piano action mechanisms and layout available to eighteenth century composers and performers: the English and the Viennese, each with its distinctive advantages. The English grand piano action had a deeper key dip and was somewhat more robust in the bass compared to the Viennese, which had a light, shallow touch, quick damping, and balanced tonal response.
The likely inventor of the Viennese action is organist and keyboard maker Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792) of Augsburg Germany. He built distinctly wing-shaped (die Flügel) instruments that featured a swift escape mechanism , the German Prellmechanik (piano action). Stein also gets the credit for inventing the knee-lever control to operate the damper and sustaining functions.
Mozart visited Stein’s shop in 1777 and wrote favorably about the instruments’ quality and responsiveness to his father, Leopold.
“This time I shall begin at once with Stein’s pianofortes, before I had seen any of his manufacture, Spath’s claviers had always been my favorites. But now I prefer Stein’s, the they damp ever so much better that the Regensburg instruments. When I strike hard, I can keep my finger on the note or raise it, but the sound ceases the moment I have produced it. In whatever way I touch the keys, the tone is always even. [Stein] himself told me that when he has finished making one of the claviers, he sits down to it and tries all kinds of passages, runs and jumps, and he polishes and works away at it until it can do anything, for he labours only in the interest of music and not for his own profit.
Steins in Greenville
The 1784 Johann Stein grand piano is one of three Viennese instruments in the Carolina Music Museum/Sigal Music Museum collection in Greenville, South Carolina.
Crafted by Johann Andreas Stein (one branch of the family continued to build under his name after his passing), it is built from richly grained walnut and finished to luster. The piano’s sonorities lie under an intarsia decorated folding panel lid, with faux-brass filigree ornaments.
After his death Stein’s daughter Maria Anna (Nannette; 1769–1833) and son Matthäus Andreas (1776–1842) continued his business; Matthäus began working independently in 1802. Nannette, who was a talented pianist, moved with her husband, the noted pianist Johann Andreas Streicher, to Vienna. Stein’s son Friedrich (1784–1809) was an excellent pianist.