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I'm curious about the techniques used to achieve the responsive action favored by Vladimir Horowitz. Although there have been related several threads in this forum, I thought I would try to summarize what I've seen, and solicit further ideas.

In previous articles, I read that Vladimir Horowitz's last Steinway D had characteristics something like: 44-45g downweight, 30-32g upweight. And the key leads were removed to reduce inertia (meaning something drastic must have been done to overcome the lost key weight and still reach such a low downweight.) Apparently this was done without devices such as magnets or wippen support springs. So how was it done?

Some of the things I've read:

-- Franz Mohr said the hammers were filed down so much they didn't last very long, and had to be thrown away after a concert. Is it possible to cut/file down hammers so much that key leads are not needed, and still get an unusually low downweight as 44g? Wouldn't reducing hammer weight so drastically have a detrimental affect on the piano's sound?

-- The piano had strong repetition springs. Does this reduce downweight? Does it affect the ability to play very softly?

-- Key dip was shallower than normal and aftertouch was small.

(Presumably the obvious things like reducing friction with lubricants were done, and perhaps adjusting the dampers so they activate late in the keystroke?)

(Did Glenn Gould's piano have similar characteristics as Horowitz's?)

Any other ideas for creating a low inertia, low downweight action?

Regards,
Robert



Last edited by renenkel; 03/17/09 09:59 PM.
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Robert,

I do not recall reading anything about "the key leads being removed." Perhaps SOME of the key leads were removed is more accurate.

Hammers can be lightened substantially, yes, and this alone can allow the action to become too light, and require weights to be removed.

Reducing the key dip and hammer blow, making sure the hammers were very bright, and regulating the damper lift up are all helpful things to making a light touch.

Remember, though, that most pianists would have refused to play the piano in the condition it was in. Reports were that it was exceptionally difficult to control.

Earl Wild also requested a similar touch towards the end of his performing career, and I had the pleasure of setting up a concert grand for him. It was not as extreme as Horowitz' though, at least from what I have heard.


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I don't remember ever reading anything about hammers being thrown away, other than one set that was ruined because Horowitz requested that Mr. Mohr load them with waaaay too much lacquer. Mr. Mohr noted in his book that the piano sounded horrible with these hammers, though the Maestro was apparently happy with the results.

I recall reading that the upweight was significantly heavier than normal.


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The repetition spring tension has a limit to its strength. If it is too strong, a double strike will happen while playing soft enough that the hammer does not get caught by the back check or upon release form check. It will also introduce a definite bump felt in the keystroke upon release from check that is unplesant.
That said, stronger repetition spring tension contributes to faster repetition so higher checking combined with stronger spring go hand in hand. The higher it checks, the softer you can play without the risk of double strike and the faster it will repeat. This can get very tricky to make happen.




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Just to clarify....
By saying the upweight is heavier...you mean that the key comes up FASTER..yes?

I think the combination of several factors produced the results on the piano in question...
Certainly it had a 'thin' key dip.
The aftertouch would then be determined by the blow distance, which must have been shorter than what passes for 'standard'...I can't see how there would be room for much more than a 'regular' aftertouch..whatever that is...

If the spring tension was excessive, it would have been very difficult to control...but that is for us mere mortals...
What this man produced is nothing short of miraculous...I have no idea how he did it....I don't have any answers...
I haven't seen Franz Mohr in a while...but I'm sure someone here will have a means to getting a more meaningful answer.


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The other factor to consider is Horowitz traveled with his own piano. It's amazing what people can do with their own pianos. I know a fellow with an older rebuilt Knabe that has a horrid touch - very heavy and unwieldy with hammers that produce a very bright tone. I find it almost impossible to play pianistically; control over the soft playing is very difficult. However when HE plays it it sounds just wonderful! I have experienced this other times with professional pianists. When they play for hours a day on their own instrument they know every nuance, every flaw, and know exactly what they can get out of it. It literally becomes an extension of their body.

I had heard that after Horowitz died and they started the piano tour they quickly decided they had to alter the piano to make it more "normal" because nobody would be able to stand it otherwise. So the "Horowitz Piano" may not really be the Horowitz piano!


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Originally Posted by Peter Sumner- Piano Technician
Just to clarify....
By saying the upweight is heavier...you mean that the key comes up FASTER..yes?

[...]


Yes, I think so. At least that's the logical explanation to me. smile


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Greetings,
I was able to examine this piano while taking a class at the factory, in 1989, I think it was. It was in a back room, near the loading dock. My instructor, who shall remain nameless, had been given the task of de-regulating the action. I assume the factory wanted to mask what Horowitz had used, because it was not normal.

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oops, hit the wrong button!
What I found was that the hammer blow was near 1 5/8", let-off was at the string, drop was nearly as close. Springs were normal to weak, dip was shallow, I would guess .360". Hammers were light,though I didn't weigh them. Dampers lifted extremely late.Repetion levers were set so that the jacks barely touched the knuckle and the jacks were slightly proximal to the normal alignment. Checking was exremely high.
The piano was brassy and featherweight. This isn't surprising, since Horowitz used it when he was old and feeble. It may have been heavier when he was younger.
I saw the same piano after Steinway had "restored" it. It came to Vanderbilt on the second stop of the tour. Once again, I had a chance to examine it. New action, strings, etc. It was not the same piano, at all. It was still light,though. I asked David Grossi, who was head of the restoration dept. at the time, what happened to the old parts, and he told me that at the factory, there were good parts and bad parts, and that the old ones had been thrown away. I was appalled at the lack of concern for conservatorship. I have heard since then that Franz Mohr had saved the hammers, but that might be urban legend.
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Again, another addition,
My instructor informed me that all the original specs were still in place on the fifth octave, but all the rest of the action had been altered upon arrival back at the factory, so all of the above measurments were done from that one octave. It seems that the prevailing powers at Steinway, at the time, didn't want the world to know how far from factory standard the piano was. I didn't see any evidence of lead removal from the keys, though.
The soundboard had virtually no downbearing in the middle two octaves, though the rest seemed normal.
Regards,

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Thanks for the info, Ed. As you can see, I'm fascinated about all things Horowitz. grin It' too bad the factory wasn't more careful to preserve the piano exactly as it was. I can see altering the regulation to make it playable by others, but completely emasculating it to the point it's hardly recognizable as the Maestro's piano? That's a crime. frown


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It's been a few years since I started this thread, but here's another thought (nothing to do with Horowitz but still relating to reducing action inertia for a lighter touch while playing).

Do the key levers really need to be as strong as they are? Correct me if I'm wrong, but those thick, solid pieces of wood seem to me to be a bit over-engineered for the stress encountered while playing. If that's true, they might stand having a series of holes drilled horizontally through them throughout their length, somewhat like the holes made for the keyleads, which would get rid of quite a bit of unnecessary moving mass.

It seems this would significantly reduce the inertia of the action, and if the size/number/position of the holes were suitably chosen, durability might still be sufficient. (For example, you wouldn't put holes too close to the pivot, since that is where the stress is greatest, and fortunately is also the part of the key lever that moves the least so that the mass there contributes the least to inertia.)

I wonder if any manufacturer or piano tinkerer has tried this?

Robert

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I would be interested in knowing who was the genius who created this action. Was it Horowitz, or was it Mohr? How much did Horowitz understand of piano actions? Did these specs evolve over time, as Horowitz complained of this thing or the other? His most formidable virtuoso days were in the 1940s, so did he have this unique action at that time, or was this more something he needed in his old age? I don't think any of this was discussed in Franz Mohr's book.

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Originally Posted by Numerian
[...] I don't think any of this was discussed in Franz Mohr's book.

I must admit that, although I thoroughly enjoyed reading Franz Mohr's "My Life With the Great Pianists", I was a bit disappointed that he didn't go into much detail about the adjustment of Horowitz's piano. In fact, he said,

"Many people ask me about Horowitz's piano. There are many stories going around as to what is so special about that one piano. I will answer that question very honestly and truthfully. [...] There is nothing special about the Horowitz piano! It hasn't been differently regulated; it doesn't work any differently than any other Steinway."

This totally contradicts Ed Foote's evidence from direct observation, earlier in this thread. Perhaps Steinway, for some obscure business reason, (and/or Horowitz himself?) really wanted to suppress knowledge of the unique regulation, and Mohr in his book was acquiescing to that wish?

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If it was regulated just like any other Steinway, Horowitz would not have insisted that only Franz Mohr be allowed to work on his instrument. Nor would he have carted that single piano from city to city, continent to continent, whenever he performed. Those who played on that particular piano while Horowitz was alive attested to its extremely light action and the difficulty they had in controlling it.

I suspect Mohr was being a Steinway loyalist and went along with the company silence on the matter, never admitting that the instrument was anything but a typical D.


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Older actions often where faster hence have less heavy hammers.

the correct size of a modern hammer (weight wise) in that case could be size 3 while the usual one is 5 or 6.

Then impregnation make the power.

I would tenhd to believe that actual wire quality is not allowing older models to sound the same once rebuild, unfortunately.
They generally sound "better" by some aspects, but the tone will be back to a more similar condition after may be 5-10 years of playing, and even there it is always more "greasy" in my experience.


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Originally Posted by renenkel
Originally Posted by Numerian
[...] I don't think any of this was discussed in Franz Mohr's book.

I must admit that, although I thoroughly enjoyed reading Franz Mohr's "My Life With the Great Pianists", I was a bit disappointed that he didn't go into much detail about the adjustment of Horowitz's piano. In fact, he said,

"Many people ask me about Horowitz's piano. There are many stories going around as to what is so special about that one piano. I will answer that question very honestly and truthfully. [...] There is nothing special about the Horowitz piano! It hasn't been differently regulated; it doesn't work any differently than any other Steinway."

This totally contradicts Ed Foote's evidence from direct observation, earlier in this thread. Perhaps Steinway, for some obscure business reason, (and/or Horowitz himself?) really wanted to suppress knowledge of the unique regulation, and Mohr in his book was acquiescing to that wish?


Well, in the movie on the building of the Steinway D for Helene Grimaud, we see for a short moment one of the concert service techs in NY that is voicing and working on hammers that have 0.75 inches strings imprints.

That piano may have a very partiocular tone for sure.

If impregnated hammers can be left with as large strings imprints and voiced there, the impact can be very lively and certainly abrubt, but this allow to make an extremely powerful tone without much effort.

Worn hammers cannot be shaped without a huge loss in power because of mass loss

Last edited by Olek; 02/23/13 03:44 AM.

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Originally Posted by Numerian
If it was regulated just like any other Steinway, Horowitz would not have insisted that only Franz Mohr be allowed to work on his instrument. Nor would he have carted that single piano from city to city, continent to continent, whenever he performed. Those who played on that particular piano while Horowitz was alive attested to its extremely light action and the difficulty they had in controlling it. I suspect Mohr was being a Steinway loyalist and went along with the company silence on the matter, never admitting that the instrument was anything but a typical D.


Greetings,
Most accounts of Horowitz portray a totally neurotic artist, idiosyncrasy is too slight a word for his manner. He wouldn't let anyone but Franz Mohr adjust the bench, so there was a placement of faith in the tech that superseded most everything else. And Franz Mohr was a great technician.

I suspect that Horowitz was playing this piano with a heavier action in the 1940's, that it had larger hammers in it. By the time of his near dotage, he would plausibly have preferred a lighter and easier to play keyboard, even if it meant a more brittle tone. The hammers may have been replaced several times, but the last set, which I saw, appeared to be decades old, and heavily filed.
Who knows? Had we had a hearing test from his last years, we may have found other reasons why a nearly strident sounding Steinway pleased him. I see this in a lot of my customers who have had me tune for them over 30 years. Their tonal tastes change, and when they begin asking me why the top three or four notes have gone dead, it is time we have "the talk".
Nobody would dare "talk" to Horowitz, I suppose.
Regards,

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Originally Posted by renenkel
It's been a few years since I started this thread, but here's another thought (nothing to do with Horowitz but still relating to reducing action inertia for a lighter touch while playing).Robert


There has been quite a bit of work done on this question by Darrell Fandrich and John Rhodes. The long lever of the shank, the weight(hammer) on the end of that long lever, and the fact that it is swinging at a 5:1(ish) ratio to the key places the strike weight as the major factor determining the overall inertia. Ed Mcmorrow has been saying this for 30 years, and Roy123 on this forum has posted physical analyses of this seemingly simple fact.

Location of the knuckle and/or capstan changes the leverage ratio, but the inertia, unless the ratio manipulation allows removal or addition of weight from/to the keys, is not effected by the simple act of changing leverage.

There have been studies carried out on key weight, and location of leads in the keys, but the effect of the Strike weight is so overwhelming, without addressing that first and predominantly, inertia will not be significantly changed.

Leverage is used to compensate for the reduction in strike weight mass. By increasing leverage, the velocity at impact is also increased. F=MA (Force= Mass x Acceleration). If you reduce M(Strike weight mass), F(force at impact)can remain constant if A(velocity at impact) is increased.

This means if the cards are played right, the power of the instrument, even after reducing strike weight, can remain musically unchanged. In addition to all this, an added and huge benefit of the reduced strike weight is reduced string contact time. Reduced contact time,in the treble, can bring a challenged treble to life.

Jim Ialeggio

Last edited by jim ialeggio; 02/23/13 09:37 AM.

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Good for you to point out possible changes in Horowitz's hearing. I go on and on here at the Forum about sound receptivity changes as one ages, and how what one hears may be affected by damage to the inner ear, sometimes caused by common medicines taken by many people for high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Five percent or more of those who take these type of medicines report tinnitus, and I can't see how a concert artist playing in front of orchestras for decades and practicing daily on a concert grand can avoid some tinnitus. By the time you are 70, the muscle tone in your arms has deteriorated considerably unless you are lifting weights daily, which Horowitz probably was not.

And you are absolutely right that no one would dare talk to Horowitz about human failings like this, unless it was Wanda.

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