Chopin in Vienna

Listen to one of Chopin’s most beautiful compositions, and discover the musical possibilities of a Viennese fortepiano from Chopin's time.

By Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Vienna Viewed from the Belvedere Palace (1759/1760) by Bernardo Bellotto, called CanalettoKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Chopin and Vienna

Fryderyk Chopin is one of the greatest piano composers of all time. However, modern-day pianos differ in many ways from the instruments Chopin would have known. And major cities, including Vienna, had their own piano building traditions.

A view of the Kazimierzowski Palace, the headquarters of the Cadet Corps (1785) by Zygmunt VogelPolish History Museum

Fryderyk Chopin was born about 50 kilometres from Warsaw, Poland, and it is in Warsaw that he received his training as a composer and a performer. 

A View of Place Louis XV A View of Place Louis XV (about 1775–1787) by Alexandre-Jean NoëlThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Nevertheless, Chopin is perhaps most often associated with Paris, where, from late 1831 onward, he would spend most of his career as a composer and a performer.

Square piano (1802) by Érard FrèresMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

It is in Paris that he encountered the pianos of Érard and Pleyel, the two most important French fortepiano makers of their time. Chopin fell in love with the instruments of both makers.

Euro Austria Vienna Engraving OnlyLIFE Photo Collection

However, Chopin spent some time in other places as well. This includes two formative stays in Vienna, one in August 1829 and one between late November 1830 and late July 1831. 

In the Austrian capital he was offered the use of instruments by two of the most important Viennese piano makers: Stein and Graf. Chopin had a clear preference for Graf’s instruments, and during his stays in Vienna, Chopin composed and gave concerts on Graf's pianos.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Conrad Graf

The Viennese fortepiano maker Conrad Graf (1782-1851) was one of the very best piano makers of the early 19th century and one of the most important Viennese piano makers of all time.

From 1804, Graf owned his own studio and in 1824 he was awarded the title of official piano maker to the imperial court ("k.k. Hof-Klaviermacher"). A year later he made a piano for Ludwig van Beethoven (although it is doubtful Beethoven really used the instrument).

Robert Schumann, Polonaise No. 1 (performed by Nicolas Callot & Lucas Blondeel)
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Graf's pianos were also used by Robert and Clara Schumann, among others. By 1826 Graf had a large, factory-like workshop with dozens of employees. By his retirement in 1840 Graf's firm had made nearly 3000 instruments of which only a handful survive in playable condition.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Chopin's Viennese Nocturne

After a triumphant first visit to Vienna in the Summer of 1829, when he had performed at a number of highly successful concerts, Chopin returned to the imperial city over a year later. 

Chopin arrived in Vienna on 23 November 1830. For the duration of his stay, a piano was provided to him by Conrad Graf, free of charge. Some time in the first week in Vienna Chopin composed a work for piano titled ‘Lento con gran espressione’. He dedicated it to his sister.

The work was then forgotten. Only in 1875 did it come to light, after which it was published. The work is now known as the Nocturne in C-sharp minor (op. posth.).

The Nocturne was made famous by its inclusion in the Roman Polanski film The Pianist (2002), where the historical character of Władysław Szpilman is seen and heard playing the work.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The Nocturne in C-sharp minor

In June 2021, we asked pianist Nicolas Callot to record the Nocturne in C-sharp minor on a 1826 Conrad Graf fortepiano. The instrument is owned by the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp and has been on permanent loan to the Museum Vleeshuis since 1967. 

In his performance, Nicolas Callot uses several of the technical means offered to him by the piano, in order to emphasize its musical possibilities.

The recording was made in the main exhibition hall of the museum.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

Graf's fortepiano

The Conrad Graf fortepiano in the Museum Vleeshuis was completed in or around 1826, only three years before Chopin's first visit to Vienna. Graf was at the peak of his technical prowess, and the instrument must be very close in design and sound to the instrument Chopin used.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The strings

The strings of the Graf fortepiano are strung parallel to each other, while on a modern piano the bass strings are strung obliquely, over other strings. 

Also, the frame of the Graf fortepiano is mostly made of wood, rather than cast as a single piece of iron. The result is a lighter, well-defined sound.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The keys

The Graf fortepiano has 78 keys. A modern piano has 88.

Fortepiano (1826) by Conrad GrafMuseum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City

The pedals

Graf's fortepiano has four pedals: the action shift ("Verschiebung", or "una corda"), the bassoon ("Fagott"), the moderator and the dampers.

The moderator pedal

When pressing the moderator pedal, a strip of fabric is inserted between the hammers and strings, which produces a softer but also more veiled sound.

(You can also see the dampers at work, on top of the strings)




The bassoon register

When the pedal of the bassoon register is depressed, a strip of parchment is lowered on to the (lower) strings, resulting in a nasal, buzzing sound, not unlike the sound of a bassoon.

The 1826 Conrad Graf fortepiano has been restored serval times, by Derek Adlam (ca.1973), by Christopher Clarke (ca.1987) and by Jan Van den Hemel (ca.2007). Thanks to these restoriations we can still enjoy this beautiful instrument today.

Fortepiano, Conrad Graf, 1826, From the collection of: Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City
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Credits: Story

This Story was created by Museum Vleeshuis | Sound of the City, Antwerp. Visit us at www.museumvleeshuis.be

Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth., performed by Nicolas Callot.
Audio recording & editing: Nicolas Callot
Video recording: Kris Hellemans

Together with Lucas Blondeel, Nicolas Callot recorded two cd's on the Graf fortepiano. You can listen to them here.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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