A Long-Forgotten Instrument Takes Center Stage at Oberlin

September 10, 2014

By Erich Burnett

Historical keyboard
Associate Professor of Historical Performance David Breitman prepares for a recital of two Beethoven piano sonatas, which will mark the Oberlin debut of a 185-year-old fortepiano acquired by Oberlin in the summer of 2014.
Photo credit: Erich Burnett

The long and somewhat tragic history of a glorious Viennese fortepiano gets a fascinating new chapter this weekend.

On Saturday, September 13, faculty pianist David Breitman and violinist Marilyn McDonald will join forces on the Kulas Recital Hall stage to perform Beethoven’s two best-known violin sonatas, opuses 47 and 96. The occasion will mark the Oberlin debut of a 185-year-old fortepiano that has found a welcome home in America after weathering generations of obscurity in Europe.

The instrument’s history is enmeshed with that of a 19th-century Italian noble family, in whose summer home the piano remained, virtually unplayed, for 170 years, its marvelously grained woods—European beech, maple, and walnut, among others—withering amid endless seasons in the unheated mansion. Crafted in 1829 by Anton Zierer, one of 30 piano makers toiling in Vienna at the time, the instrument changed hands in 1935 when an Italian artist and art historian bought the vacation home and its contents.

When the estate was finally sold again in 2012, that man’s granddaughter, Marcella Calabi of New York, had the piano painstakingly restored and then shipped to the United States. She tried desperately to find a nearby location it could call home, but various snags proved insurmountable: The piano was slightly too large to fit in the elevator of her Manhattan apartment, and considerably too temperamental to reside in a nearby museum that lacked suitable climate controls.

“She basically said, ‘I have tried my best to care for this, and I could not,’” says Breitman, director of the conservatory’s historical performance program.

Enter Oberlin, which acquired the piano from Calabi over the summer.

“When I first laid my hands on it, the first thing that was obvious to me is that this instrument is critical for chamber music,” says Breitman. Modern pianos, he notes, are four times more powerful than they used to be—a circumstance that often results in ensemble performances in which the thunderous keyboard squashes other instruments in ways certainly not intended by Beethoven and other 19th-century composers.

Not so with the Zierer, which like other fortepianos of its era, is crafted so that its output does not overwhelm the room. Also like other instruments of its time, it is a decidedly fickle partner, prone to constant fluctuations in tuning.

While Oberlin boasts an extensive collection of fortepianos—most of them reproductions—the Zierer is the institution’s only original in performance-level condition, a rarity in the world of vintage keyboards.

“We couldn’t have taken this on without Robert Murphy,” says Breitman, referring to the Oberlin piano technician who specializes in historical instruments. Murphy devoted a considerable portion of his summer preparing the Zierer for the stage. “In this country, Robert is the guy for fortepiano restoration.”

And what does the expert expect this weekend?

“I’m never nervous when I tune a modern piano for performance,” says Murphy, who with colleague John Cavanaugh stands by at each Oberlin piano performance, ever ready to tweak—even repair—on the fly.

“But with these old pianos,” Murphy admits with a smile, “I am always nervous, because everything can go wrong!”

Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Opus 47, and Sonata in G Major, Opus 96, begin at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, September 13, in Kulas Recital Hall.

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