The fortepianos after Anton Walter
Painted when he was seventy-three, Anton Walter’s portrait shows a striking, somewhat grim face, with wonderfully intense dark eyes. By that time, in 1825, he had long forsaken piano-building in order to breed fruit trees on his model farm in Lower Austria.
Walter founded his workshop in Vienna in the late 1770s, and very quickly came to dominate the musical world that was beginning to revolve about that city, a musical world suddenly fascinated by the fortepiano. When Mozart arrived there in 1781, he wrote to his father: “This is Klavierland … if I only had two pupils, I could do better than I do in Salzburg.” A couple of years later, he bought a piano from Walter, and was forever having it moved from his house to one theatre or another for concerts.
That he should have chosen one of Walter’s instruments is hardly surprising. Walter, by the force of his genius and his ceaseless experimenting, was the universally acknowledged creator of the Viennese piano. Taking design elements from South German makers such as Stein and Späth, he combined them with radical improvements of his own, to the structure, the sound-board and above all, to the action. While his instruments retained the 5-octave compass and entirely wooden construction of their predecessors, their tone was rounder and more powerful, the action more reliable and capable of nuance: a new artistic concept which opened up unheard-of possibilities for musicians.
Walter’s visionary passion extended to politics; he held ardent Jacobin convictions, which did not prevent him from becoming Imperial Court Piano-maker in 1790.
In his heyday, he had the largest piano workshop in Vienna, employing fifty men. His designs were copied by many other makers in Vienna and elsewhere, and never ceased to evolve until the period around 1800, when he took on his stepson as partner. The musical taste of the day now demanded pianos with first 5 ½ and then 6 octaves. Somehow, these larger instruments failed to kindle Walter’s old creative spark; the firm slowly dwindled to second rank, as other makers continued to develop the Classical instrument he had first defined into Romantic forms. He seemed to remain a man of the Enlightenment, making possible the new order but out of tune when it arrived.
For Jos van Immerseel (1989) and Yoko Kaneko (2004) I built copies of a Walter piano from the later part of his creative flowering, catalogued MiNe109 in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum collection in Nuremberg.
Fortepiano Anton Walter, Vienna – Christopher Clarke, Cluny, 1988 (Jos van Immerseel)