"http://www.usd.edu/smm/" by "smm@usd.edu" r (SS~~000 1))'> Grand Piano by Frantz Jacob Spath, Regensburg, 1767, at the National Music Museum
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NMM 13010. Grand piano (Pandaleon-Clavecin) by Frantz Jacob Spath, Regensburg, 1767

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NMM 13010. Grand piano (Pandaleon-Clavecin) by Frantz Jacob Spath, Regensburg, 1767. Handwritten paper label on the front of the wrestplank:  Frantz Jacob Spath. / Regenspurg 1767. Compass originally AA-e3 (4+ octaves; now C-g3). Stoßmechanik without escapement. The present hammers, hinged like the originals to a batten at the front edge of the soundboard, are replacements from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. There are now no dampers, pedals, or stops, but there is evidence of a hand-operated moderator, now missing, which had been added to the instrument at an early stage. Dampers might originally have been attached to the hammer shanks. Board of Trustees, 2006.

NMM 13010.  Grand piano (Pandaleon-Clavecin?) by Frantz Jacob Spath, Regensburg, 1767


An Early "Mozart Piano" in Vermillion: NMM Acquisition Authenticated as a Work of Frantz Jacob Spath

by John Koster, Conservator and Professor of Music

From National Music Museum Newsletter 36, No. 1/2 (February/May 2009), pp. 10-13

Museums exist not just to accumulate, display, and preserve artifacts. Equally important aspects of any accredited museum’s mission are interpretation, education, and research. The last of these functions—research—generally passes unnoticed by the public at large, but it can and should play a large role in assisting or even guiding the other aspects of a museum’s mission. The responsibility of the NMM’s professional staff to conduct signficant original scholarly research is all the more important because of the NMM's institutional affiliation as an academic support unit of The University of South Dakota and the individual appointments of five staff members of the USD faculty. As a researcher one occasionally has a hunch, and occasionally that hunch, tested and elaborated over months or years of effort, yields results of interest not just to one’s own institution or to a few specialist colleagues, but also to the larger world.

One of the principal motivations behind the collection and study of old musical instruments has been to identify and understand the particular types of instruments for which the great masters conceived their works—Monteverdi’s violino piccolo, Bach’s harpsichord, or Haydn’s keyed trumpet, for example. Among the greatest objects of interest have been the pianos that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have played. This is by no means a simple question, for Mozart, during his extensive travels, played a great variety of pianos as well as a diversity of harpsichords and clavichords. Moreover, even during his brief lifetime (1756-1791) the piano in all its various forms in several countries underwent considerable changes. Mozart’s own grand piano, preserved as a relic in the Salzburg Mozarteum, was itself extensively altered, almost certainly after his death. Many other surviving instruments by the same Viennese maker, Anton Walter, some copied and promoted as authentic “Mozart pianos,” are now known to have been made closer to 1800 than to the composer’s lifetime.

In the midst of this fog of uncertainty there is one sure statement by Mozart himself. In October 1777, shortly after visiting the piano maker Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792) in Augsburg, he wrote to his father back in Salzburg a frequently quoted letter beginning:

 

Now I must begin straightaway with Stein’s Piano fortes. Until I saw something of Stein’s work, the Spätt claviers [die spättischen Clavier] were my favorites. Now, however, I must relinquish first place to the Steins, for they damp so much better than the ones from Regensburg.

Mozart went on to explain other advantages of the Stein piano action. Stein’s existing instruments show that Mozart’s enthusiasm was not misplaced. Their brilliance, however, has diverted attention from the other side of the equation, the spättischen Clavier which had been the best that Mozart had experienced up to that point in the twenty-second year of his life. These earlier pianos must themselves have possessed some considerable merit.

NMM 4145.  Tangentelfluegel by Frantz Jacob Spath & Christoph Friedrich Schmahl, Regensburg, 178[4]

The maker from whose name Mozart formed the adjective spättisch was Frantz Jacob Spath (as the name was usually spelled) of Regensburg, Germany. Spath (1714-1786) is best known for the Tangentenflügel, essentially a type of grand piano in which small upright slips of wood are propelled upward to hit the strings and rebound. Of the mere nineteen known examples from Spath’s workshop only two are outside Europe, one in a private collection, the other at the NMM (left). This instrument, NMM 4145, signed jointly by Spath and his son-in-law, Christoph Friedrich Schmahl, with a faint date read as 1784, is one of the earliest surviving Tangentenflügel. Although there has been some speculation that Mozart was referring in 1777 to the Spath Tangentenflügel as his former favorite piano, the dampers in NMM 4145 work perfectly well. This, together with evidence that the Tangentenflügel as known from the surviving examples was developed by Schmahl in the early 1780s, indicates that Mozart knew some other, earlier type or types of Spath piano. Until now, however, no Spath piano made before the 1780s has been known to survive.

Spath, something of a publicity hound, from time to time issued what today would be called press releases, two of which are of particular interest. One of 1770 concerned his Clavecin d’Amour, which seems to have been an earlier type of Tangentenflügel. Five years earlier, in 1765, Spath advertised his Pandaleon-Clavecin. Its name combines terms for a type of hammered dulcimer and for the harpsichord. Thus, it was probably a hammer-action instrument in a harpsichord-shaped case, that is, some sort of grand piano.

In November 2006, a small grand piano with a handwritten paper label reading Frantz Jacob Spath / Regenspurg 1767 was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London. Given an overly optimistic estimated price and facing considerable skepticism about the authenticity of the inscription, it failed to sell. Nevertheless, because the instrument, which I examined in London before the auction, was clearly an eighteenth-century German Flügel (harpsichord or grand piano) of some sort, the NMM went ahead and purchased it not long afterwards for a reasonable sum. Questions about the “mystery Flügel,” as I fondly called it—more formally NMM 13010—were twofold: what was its original state and who made it? Answering the first was relatively straightforward: the instrument was originally made as a piano with hammer action, not as a harpsichord or Tangentenflügel. Although the hammers (below) had all been replaced around the beginning of the nineteenth century, the original action must have been of the same very simple type.

NMM 13010.  Grand piano (Pandaleon-Clavecin?) by Frantz Jacob Spath, Regensburg, 1767

Spath piano with lid closed

Hammers and Jacks

Although these hammers are replacements from about 1800, the original hammers were similarly hinged to the rail at the front edge of the soundboard and were likewise pushed up directly by the upright jacks attached to the key levers.


The keys (below) were original but had been shifted to change the lowest note from low AA to C and the highest note from e3 to g3. The treble half of the bridge (below) had also been moved to accomodate the string lengths to the new compass. Otherwise, the soundboard, construction, and appearance of the instrument have remained essentially untouched.

Keys Arranged in Original and Present Order

Keys in original order
Keys in present order

Original order

Present order

Plan Views Showing Original and Present Bridge Positions

Plan view
Plan view

Original compass, bridge position, and internal ribbing
indicated in white.

Present plan view

Label

Label

Handwritten paper label on the front of the wrestplank:  Frantz Jacob Spath. / Regenspurg 1767.

The most obvious evidence of the origin of NMM 13010 is the label indicating that it was made by Frantz Jacob Spath in Regensburg in 1767. Signatures and labels should, however, be approached with caution. As recently as the 1990s, some entirely modern harpsichords came to the market with the fraudulent inscriptions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century makers. Even an actual antique instrument, unsigned or signed by a minor maker, can easily be provided with the falsified label of an important master. For example, the attribution of several eighteenth-century pianos enhanced with copies of J. A. Stein’s label has been downgraded over the past decade or so. For Stein, from whom a fair number of authentic pianos still exist, uncovering the fraud is relatively straightforward. Detection of fakery or the converse, authentication, is more difficult if, as with NMM 13010, there is no directly comparable genuine instrument by the purported maker. Nevertheless, although the NMM’s Spath & Schmahl Tangentenflügel was made nearly two decades after 1767 and it is a type of instrument rather different from NMM 13010, its ready availability in Vermillion significantly facilitated the assessment of whether Frantz Jacob Spath actually made the mystery Flügel. Dozens of other makers’ instruments scattered among collections throughout Europe and North America also provided useful information.

The complete process of authenticating this instrument is too lengthy to be fully documented here. However, as a first step, one had to consider whether an instrument like this could have been made in Regensburg in 1767. Nothing specific is known about keyboard-instrument making then and there other than the documentary record that Frantz Jacob Spath was indeed making harpsichords and instruments with striking actions. One can, however, expand the inquiry to consider that various instruments from the general region around Regensburg in the decades around 1767 have many of the general characteristics of NMM 13010.

Ladder construction

The NMM's instrument was, for example, assembled with the "ladder" construction found in Austrian harpsichords and in the earliest surviving pianos (dated 1777 and 1781) by J. A. Stein, who, in fact, had worked for Spath as a journeyman for a few months in 1749-1750.

Left: The interior of NMM 13010, under the soundboard. The inner surface of the outer wall (A) is attached to a horizontal ladder-like structure consisting of two rails (B and C) connected by a series of posts (here D and E). The edge of the soundboard (F) is attached to the upper rail (B), while the lower rail (C) is attached to the bottom board (G).

Joinery on NMM 13010 Joinery on NMM 4145

Most telling are some quirks in the construction of NMM 13010 that were apparently unique to the workshop of its maker. Among the most important of these is the reinforcement of the front edge of the bottom board by a transverse batten attached with a slanted joint (left). The same unusual joinery is present in the NMM’s Spath & Schmahl Tangentenflügel (right). This and other idiosyncracies were evidently maintained in Spath’s workshop over many decades.

Altogether, the evidence indicates that the label in NMM 13010 should be taken at face value. This instrument, therefore made by Frantz Jacob Spath in Regensburg in 1767, is most likely one of the Pandaleons-Clavecins that he advertised in 1765. As such, it is the fourth earliest securely dated German grand piano, representing a tradition of piano making quite distinct from that of the three earlier ones, all made by Gottfried Silbermann in Saxony in the 1740s.

It was no mean endorsement that Mozart held Spath’s pianos in his highest esteem until the fall of 1777. Doubtless he would have preferred an instrument with a larger compass and longer bass strings than those of NMM 13010. Spath, in all likelihood, also made Pandaleons-Clavecins with the same very simple, light action but with longer cases, keyboards extending five octaves from FF to f3, and nicely veneered cases. Nevertheless, modest NMM 13010, as the sole known example of the Frantz Jacob Spath’s early work, is a missing link of inestimable value for understanding Mozart’s own developing keyboard aesthetic and for elucidating an obscure yet crucial period in the history of the piano.


Literature: John Koster, "An Early 'Mozart Piano' in Vermillion: Recent NMM Acquisition Authenticated as a Work of Frantz Jacob Spath," National Music Museum Newsletter 36, No. 1/2 (February/May 2009), pp. 10-13.

John Koster, "Among Mozart’s spättischen Clavier: a Pandaleon-Clavecin by Frantz Jacob Spath, Regensburg, 1767?," Early Keyboard Journal 25/26 (2010), pp. 153-223. Click here to access additional color and supplemental figures referenced in this article.

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