Frank Benner
piano technician

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piano stories


Archaeology for musicians

The violinist Theo Olof remembered that Maurice Ravel wrote his 'Tzigane for violin and piano' originally for violin and 'Luthéal' to imitate the effect of a Gypsy cymbal. What is a Luthéal actually? The answer requires digging in the past.

It is not known exactly how Ravel got to know about the instrument but in any case the premiere of the 'Tzigane' was performed in the Parisian Salle Gaveau by the violinist Samuel Dushkin and the 'Luthéalist' Beveridge Webster in 1924.
Apparently Ravel used the same instrument for the composition L' Enfant et les Sortilèges.
The instrument used for this premiere has probably been lost in a big fire in Paris that also reduced the Salle Gaveau to ashes.

The cellar of the Museum for musical instruments in Brussels houses remarkable and rare instruments.
Here a Luthéal grand piano was found.
When the dust was swept off, it appeared to be a grand piano prepared to change the timbre of the instrument.

Under the top of the grand it looked like a bizarre ragbag of parts of a typewriter, or registers of an organ, all joined with the strings of a Pleyel grand piano.
It produced unusual sounds, something in between a harp, a harpsichord and a Forte piano.

The instrument designed in 1922 by the Belgian George Cloetens was however in a very bad shape. The Brussels museum requested the Dutch piano technician Evert Snel to restore the Pleyel with Luthéal.
Especially the Luthéal part was very difficult to repair as there is no literature available about the design. Nowadays there is an adapted Fazioli on which one can hear the Luthéal effect.

The British pianist Verian Weston was very good on a Luthéal .He wrote a special composition for it. It is a series of 52 themes, called Tesselations acting as a base for his improvisations.
Weston was invited to perform these in the Brussels museum where the pieces whizzed around the ears of the audience at great speed.
This recital earned Weston a place in the list of 'piano linguists' together with composers like Nancarrow and Cage.

The Luthéal has four registers that can be used in different combinations, so it works a bit like a church organ.
If you disconnect the registers the grand piano still sounds like a piano.

For the register of the harpsichord steel pins hang one millimetre above the strings.
The pins touch the strings only when played louder than mezzo forte and this makes the instrument sound like a harpsichord but still retaining the dynamics of a piano.

With the harp register on, thin pieces of felt lay on all the different unisons, exactly in the middle of the length of the string, which make the instrument sound an octave higher and flageolet tones appear.

With both registers connected one can hear the typical sound of the Hungarian Cembalo.

'Tinkering' with sound

There are a few composers who, not satisfied with the possibilities their piano offers, start 'tinkering 'with their instrument as if it is a car or scooter. And like a car that has been tinkered with, it will produce a different sound!

Satie squeezed pieces of paper in between the strings, for his composition ´Le piège de Méduse´(1914)

One can see pianists crawling under ` the bonnet ´of their piano to play the strings with their fingers instead of properly using the keys.
Henry Cowell called the piece composed this way `Piece for a piano with strings´. ('Pièce pour piano avec cordes', 1924)
One wonders if a composer has ever tried to write a piece for piano without strings?

The American composer John Cage needed more noise and prepared his Grand with items from his kitchen cabinet.
Erasers, isolation tape, screws and spoons were rattling happily along with the music. It sounded like a Gamelan orchestra under the influence of drugs or a drunken carilloneur, but that was what Cage wanted.
Cages most famous piece for prepared piano is called `Sonatas and interludes´(1946/1948) It consists of sixteen `sonatas` and four intermezzos. Little 'gems' of sound, each taking not longer than four or five minutes.

During `De klap op de vuurpijl `a new years performance of the Willem Breuker Kollektief in Amsterdam the pearl necklace of a female singer broke.
The pearls fell into the grand piano and skipped happily along with the music between the strings.
This sound effect is later added to the score, but sadly one has to imagine the surprised face of singer Pauline Post to go with it!

One can listen to the different sounds of the Luthéal performed by pianist Carlos Moerdijk and violinist Emmy Verhey.
They play pieces written for violin and prepared piano written by different composers like Kodály, Granados, Bartók, and Ravel.
Often traditional music is the source of inspiration of these composers hence the whimsical, contrasts, passion, melancholy and gayety.
The Luthéal offers extra possibilities to express those different moods in this kind of music.

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