A Master at Piano Restoration

By Lawrence Biemiller

Trumansburg, New York -- In opposite corners of Edward Swenson's living room are two pianos. One is a curiosity -- a plain Feurich upright with a fold-away keyboard, compact enough for even the smallest parlor. Made in Germany before World War II, the Feurich is easy to mistake for a simple sideboard. Here, in fact, it's easy to miss altogether: It shares the room with an enormous 1850 Bosendorfer grand that glows a rich, deep gold on even the grayest and snowiest of winter afternoons.

Saying the Bosendorfer commands attention is like saying you might notice if someone left the Chrysler Building in your front hall. The piano is magnificent beyond compare -- sheathed in a veneer of burled walnut from the Carpathian Mountains, waxed by hand with a French polish that Mr. Swenson, who restored the instrument himself, remembers applying "one thin coat at a time." While he was waxing, he had plenty of opportunity to notice how carefully the sheets of walnut were arranged -- the patterns in the grain repeat and evolve as handsomely as a theme from Mozart.

Mr. Swenson, a professor of music history at Ithaca College, is an accomplished restorer of antique pianos, one of a handful of people in the country with the expertise necessary to take on major restoration projects. The Bosendorfer, for instance, he found some years ago in a boys' school attached to an Austrian monastery, where the students were using the lid as a Ping-Pong table. Fortunately, he says, the instrument was in "astonishingly good condition" -- it needed new strings but all of its original hammers and dampers were intact. Since its restoration, he has lent the Bosendorfer out for concert appearances and to star in an original-instruments recording of the Brahms horn trio (on the Harmonium Mundi France label).

Mr. Swenson, who usually finishes two or three instruments a year, recently restored an 1840 Bosendorfer for Cornell University. A number of authentic-instrument aficionados play pianos he has worked on, either for their owners or for resale: He makes occasional trips to Europe to find instruments he can buy, restore, and then sell. On such trips he looks for instruments that are in good to excellent shape, he says, but in his shop right now is a restoration job he says is one of the most ambitious he's ever undertaken -- that of a six-octave pianoforte made in 1815 by the pioneering London firm of John Broadwood and Sons.

The piano, which Mr. Swenson says "hasn't been in playing condition in many years," was given to Lawrence University's conservatory last year by the Wisconsin museum that had owned it. The university wants it returned to playing condition. "The pianoforte is big right now," Mr. Swenson says, noting that the number of concerts and recordings featuring original instruments continues to grow.

This particular pianoforte is especially interesting to period-instrument fans: It is nearly identical to one that Thomas Broadwood sent as a gift to Ludwig van Beethoven in 1818. Broadwood had met the composer in Vienna in 1817, and afterwards wrote to offer him an instrument, which Beethoven accepted. He was then nearly deaf -- he had already given up performing in public -- and he seems to have preferred the Broadwood to other pianos because it was somewhat louder. Music scholars associate the Broadwood with many of his late compositions, although Mr. Swenson points out that Beethoven sometimes wrote for more than its six octaves. Modern pianos have a 7½-octave range.

Beethoven's Broadwood, which was subsequently owned by Franz Liszt, is now the property of the Hungarian National Museum. Three years ago it was restored by a Londoner, David Winston. It has since been taken on tour by the pianist Melvyn Tan.

"It was probably in worse condition than this one," says Mr. Swenson, staring down at the long body of the Lawrence Broadwood in his cluttered workshop at the back of the house. Both instruments had been warped over time by the constant pull of their strings against their wooden frames -- even though they are strung at less than a fifth of the 30 tons' pressure that a modern instrument's strings exert.

"Look across there," Mr. Swenson says, kneeling beside the Lawrence piano and squinting across its front. The treble side is plainly some two inches higher than the bass side. "It's called cheek disease," he says. "I'm thinking about what to do about it." He may decide to do nothing -- "The twist in the cheek isn't any worse than in some pianos I've heard playing." Or he may replace the substantial wooden crosspiece that holds the tuning pins -- preserving and reusing its maple veneer -- and after that try to pull the treble side down where it belongs. Either way, he'll have a lot of related problems to deal with: "When twistings happen in an instrument," he says, "everything moves." The spruce soundboard, for instance, developed cracks that were filled with shims at some time in the past.

"Your instinct as a restorer is not to replace original material," he says. On the other hand, his job is to deliver to the university "a piano they can use." Any repairs he makes, he says, will be carefully documented and completely reversible. Mr. Swenson says he wouldn't dream of touching a Beethoven-era Broadwood that had all its original parts intact -- such a piano would rightly be a museum piece. "This was probably a very good instrument," he says. "It was clearly played a lot. But it is already considered altered. A lot of work has been done on it, which in a way becomes part of its history." Besides the repairs to the soundboard, he says, none of the tuning pins are original, and modern wire was put in at some point; originally the piano would have had iron wire that was much softer than the steel wire used today. "I'll take out any repairs made before people understood that an antique instrument wasn't trying to be a modern one," he says. He hopes to deliver the instrument in July.

Mr. Swenson has been working on pianos since shortly after he graduated from Oberlin College in 1963. A piano-repair course he had taken at Oberlin enabled him to get a job with Lyon and Healy, a Chicago piano-repair company. Later, while he was in Austria for graduate work at the Mozarteum, he bought his first antique instrument, a Conrad Graf that is now in a museum in St. Paul. He has since acquired all sorts of tools and materials; he keeps spruce from unrepairable pianos to use in fixing their luckier cousins, for instance, and he is negotiating for what he calls "a lifetime supply" of an old-fashioned animal-hide glue used in many of the instruments he deals with.

"I'm still learning a lot -- it's an endless learning process," Mr. Swenson says. "You can't even begin to know the things these early builders knew." He adds that some of his colleagues are puzzled by the direction his career has taken. "Academe frowns on this a little," he says. "It's on the borderline of scholarship, but Ithaca has been really good about supporting me." The college, he notes, was founded as a conservatory.

In his office, Mr. Swenson locates a recording of Mr. Tan playing Beethoven's Variations on "God Save the Queen" on the composer's own Broadwood. "Beethoven had a Graf, a Broadwood, and an Erard -- a French piano," Mr. Swenson says. "The English action had slightly bigger hammers and slightly less efficient dampers that would have made it a little louder. It had more bloom, more overtones, and more after-rings than Viennese instruments." Back then, he adds, "there were hundreds of piano makers, and every instrument had its own personality. Now virtually every piano is made with the action Steinway developed at the end of the 19th century, and the artists themselves are uninterested in variety."

Another of Beethoven's variations begins. "The decay of sound is fairly rapid, compared with a modern piano," Mr. Swenson says. "That's why the music is full of figuration and ornamentation -- to help with the sustain." He pauses to listen. "This CD makes a nice sound documentation for me," he says; he's never heard a single note out of the Lawrence piano. "It's nicer when you find an instrument that's still making some kind of sound -- you always listen to its voice before you take it apart. Otherwise you don't have a clue what it's going to sound like when you're done. The fun will be when this one begins to speak again."

Copyright © 1994 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published March 9, 1994.