The Art of Tuning - Claude Montal
The Art of Tuning - Claude Montal

Articles about Claude Montal from the 21st Century

A series of six articles entitled "Claude Montal, First Piano Technician," written by Fred Sturm on various aspects of Claude Montal's life and work, published in the Piano Technicians Journal in 2012-2013.

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: Montal's Tuning Method

Part Three: Montal's Writing about Repairs

Part Four: Montal's Contribution to Piano History

Part Five: Montal, the Piano Manufacturer and Inventor

Part Six: Recognition and Influence

These can be downloaded as a single pdf below. They are also published below the download link as text files, that can be read on site or copied and pasted into the document format of your choice.

Six articles about Montal by Fred Sturm, published in the Piano Technicians Journal 2012-2013.
MontalPTJArticles.pdf
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Claude Montal, the First Piano Technician

Part One: Introduction

By Fred Sturm

(Piano Technicians Journal, September, 2012)

 

In the earliest days of the piano, there was no such thing as a professional piano technician. As in the time of its predecessors, the harpsichord and the clavichord, the owner was likely to tune the instrument, or possibly have it done by another musician who provided that service, and any additional maintenance and repair was handled by a skilled workman sent from a manufacturer. At that time, manufacture of instruments was a small-scale handicraft, and there were makers in any city of any size, so such a workman could be found fairly easily.

The profession of piano technician, in the sense of someone who had the skills to tune, repair, and generally service pianos, seems to have begun only in the first half of the 19th century. The person with the best claim to be father of the profession was a Frenchman by the name of Claude Montal.

A few years ago, I was curious about the origins of the sostenuto pedal, said by many to have been invented by Montal, so I procured a copy of a book he had written, in which I had read that there was something about the sostenuto. The book has a fairly modest title, The Art of Tuning Your Piano Yourself. . .[1], and the original 1836 edition had been reprinted in the 1970s, so it was fairly easy to procure a copy (it has since been scanned by Google and can be accessed on line). While this 1836 edition[2] had nothing about the sostenuto (which had not yet been invented), it simply fascinated me. Far from being a mere tuning manual, it has sections on repair, sections describing the design and layout of many rather bizarre pianos of that time, as well as a long section on piano history and a detailed chapter on acoustics.

In reading it, I felt as if that era in history was becoming real before my eyes. Here was someone who did exactly the same thing I have been doing for years, describing it very vividly. But instead of spinets, his most common instrument to tune was a small square piano, often without escapement. Yes, that’s right, a very simple action without an escapement mechanism, apparently the most common instrument he would meet on his rounds. And the moving parts were often hinged on strips of parchment rather than centerpins and bushings.

I decided this material needed to be available in English (it had never been translated), and set to work in my spare time. As I completed my translation, I discovered that he had published a revised edition in 1865, and that it had just been scanned and made available on the internet. This revised edition brought things up to date, thirty years later, probably the most active thirty years in the history of the piano. So obviously my work was not done.

I have now completed a translation of both editions, in a combined format, and hope to make it available in print within the next year or so. Meanwhile, though, I would like to introduce this father of our profession, as he was quite simply an extraordinary man. I have not yet mentioned that he was totally blind; that he essentially invented the career of piano technician for the blind; that he became a successful piano manufacturer, winning several medals; that he patented a number of inventions.

Over the course of this series of articles, I will write about the life of Montal, along with background about the piano industry during his time, and some details about the art of the piano technician as laid out in his books. I will make use of materials from his time, beginning with the following account of his early life, which was published in 1857, written by a man by the name of Dufau,[3] who had been director of the Institute for the Blind where Montal studied and taught. It is based largely on a  somewhat more detailed account published as an article in 1845, written by Gaudet, a teacher in the same institution.

 

Born in La Palisse (Allier) on July 28, 1800, Claude Montal did not come into the world blind, and his early childhood was free and happy. But around his sixth year he came down with typhoid fever, which put his life in danger. He survived, but this illness, as so often happens, was followed by complete neurological blindness. From that moment there was no difference for him between light and dark. The child entered then into a new condition, without regret or nostalgia for the other. He lost none of the happy disposition with which nature had endowed him, and on the contrary developed a very remarkable force of will, a persevering energy, a striking characteristic of blindness, that we remark at every step in the career of M. Montal.

He learned to read by means of relief letters made on cards by needle pricks. Later he was sent to the public school. The intelligence of the little child, beyond that of his young comrades, allowed him to acquire promptly those first elements to which a child is with difficulty initiated, and he became the smartest in his class.

From an early age everybody has traits that are apparently insignificant, and which escape a superficial glance, but in which the attentive observer can see hints of their future. The young Montal’s mother wanted him to learn to play the violin, as this is the talent always sought for the blind in the country. But this desire encountered a difficulty that seemed insurmountable: there was neither teacher nor instrument in the area. That which would have stopped an ordinary child was for him a stimulant. Already a certain musical instinct was manifested in him. He had had occasion to hear and touch violins. Not having one available to him, he had the notion of making one.

He went to work, laboring for days at a time, with ardor. He knew nothing and lacked everything. It didn’t matter, discouragement did not interrupt this singular labor for a single instant. A piece of wood received the form of the instrument, twisted horsehairs served as the strings he needed. The tail, the bridge, the tuning pegs, nothing was forgotten, and soon the young blind boy possessed a violin, quite crude no doubt, but on which he came nevertheless to be able to play some tunes. The history of M. Montal is contained entirely in this remarkable tale.

Around 1811, his father, who was a saddle maker by trade, left La Palisse to establish himself in a hostelry he had had built in the little village of Droiturier, on the route from Paris to Lyon. There, placed in contact with craftsmen of all sorts, the young Montal learned to work with wood, and developed a singular dexterity of hands. He found there the means to create a business; he made small pieces of leather trappings for horses that he sold on his own account. These small manual tasks did not impede his education, which developed with the years. He showed much aptitude for calculation, and it was he who often did his father’s accounts. But music had above all a strong attraction for the child. A generous neighbor, the postmaster of the village, M. Noailly, recognizing his talent, had given him a real violin, and gave him in addition some instruction that he himself had received at college. This was a powerful encouragement for our young musician, and he made notable progress. But this did not resolve the worries of his mother. One day, deprived of his parents, without support, without fortune, what would become of the poor blind man, cast alone on the paths of the world? Would he not be reliant on public pity, that pity that wounds so cruelly with its cold disdain the unfortunate one for which it is the only hope and the necessary recourse? Oh! It was a frightful image for the heart of a mother to foresee a life of anguish and torments for her son, while she would not be there to guide and defend him!

They had heard vague talk in that modest village of the Institute for Blind Young of Paris. All the ambition of the mother of the young Montal was then to see him enter that establishment. But the first attempts were fruitless, because he had already passed the limit of the age of admission. It was necessary to obtain an exception to the rule. A voyage that Madame the Duchesse of Angoulême made to Vichy in 1816 provided the opportunity. A request was addressed to her to obtain this favor. At the beginning of the next year, the desired admission finally arrived: Claude Montal was then sixteen and a half. They had excusably given his age as fourteen.

There he was in that Institution, founded by the respected Valentin Haüy, not yet at the degree of importance and example it would later achieve, but where nevertheless the aim of the young Montal’s parents could be accomplished. We find him there with the same passion for study, the same resolution in the face of the difficulties that oppose his efforts, rising when he could ahead of the time when his fellow students’ work began, disputing with sleep the moments that nature requires. Thus success did not delay in crowning his hopes. After three years, he obtained the prize for good conduct and the prize for excellence, with a cross, preserved up to this day as a precious memento of a first triumph.

During that time, Charles Barbier, former officer of artillery, whose name should be recognized in the memories of  blind people, was developing a method of writing with raised points that later, ably modified by Louis Braille, would play a great part in teaching the blind. M. Montal, already teacher of a class of grammar, was designated by M. Barbier to help him elaborate his system. A little later, in charge of a class of mathematics, he invented geometric relief charts, that were a powerful help in that branch of instruction.

Meanwhile our young teacher had not set aside his musical studies, which were always a predilection for him. He had acquired a certain skill on the oboe, the violin, and notably on the piano, thanks to the good attentions of Madame Vanderburch, whose lessons supported the emphasis placed on musical studies at the Institution. He also played the clarinet and bassoon a little. From that time he never ceased that activity of spirit that led him constantly to seek all paths for improvement. In concert with his colleagues, he invented a new system of musical notation, since replaced, but which was used for many years. Charged to give lessons in violin and piano to young students, he came to recognize the defects of the method of solfege adopted in the establishment. After having studied works relative to that material and having consulted the experience of some professors at the Conservatory, he devised a new method for instruction. Finally, impelled by a pronounced taste for mechanical arts, with a manual aptitude that had been manifest in him, as we have seen, from his early childhood, he came to the most ingenious of his explorations, to that which would make for him, and for many other blind people, a new destiny.

Among the teachers at the Institution there was a young man named Tourasse, who, though without equal intelligence, had like Montal a particular aptitude. Bound together by the same inclinations, the two young blind men, after several attempts, finding the pianos of the establishment very badly tuned, undertook one day to tune them themselves. They succeeded; but the tuner complained, and the pianos were locked up. They needed to demonstrate their ability, to make it palpable in some way. Tourasse had a good brother from whom he obtained the sum of 200 francs, by means of which an old piano was acquired, on which the new tuners were entirely free to work as they pleased. The piano was placed in the antechamber of the director. The two friends took it apart piece by piece and, after having studied each part, reconstructed it, and presented it to the director, who was stupefied by the fact that it had been perfectly repaired and tuned.

A little later came another tour de force, even more surprising. The organ of the chapel, which was a considerably defective instrument, needed a complete repair. A large sum of money was required, and the Institution was not rich. The director, for whom the earlier happy experience had revealed the ability of the two young people, called them one morning into his office, and asked them to undertake an important task. They accepted, on condition of having a carpenter and a tinsmith available to them, to proceed, under their instruction, to put together the parts of the case and solder the metal tubes.

To prepare himself for such work, Montal procured the excellent book on the making of organs by the Benedictine Dom Bedos. He studied with care, cutting out figures from playing cards and drawing up many plans, which he compared. After having, in addition, consulted several renowned organ makers, he went to work with his companion, and after long efforts, among which were mixed several moments of discouragement, fortunately temporary, a marvelous result was achieved: the organ, completely put back in condition, could be played as in the past.

Encouraged by this success, our two young people accepted soon after the new proposal made by their director to adapt pedal keyboards to the harpsichords serving as practice instruments for organ students. These keyboards were entirely unknown to them. No matter, the spirit of invention, with which both were endowed, came to their aid, and this problem was also resolved. But this was the last work to be undertaken by their efforts, for death came at that time, taking Tourasse, to break the fraternal ties and bring an end to an association cemented by many years of continuous labor, of joys and pains experienced in common. This loss was heartbreaking for M. Montal, and from that moment his stay at the Institution became painful to him. The moment had come to think seriously of the future. For a long time he had thought secretly about piano tuning. He had the firm conviction that he would find resources outside the Institution, and that he would open as well a path that many of his comrades in misfortune could follow, which was later so happily realized. Knowing from experience that sighted tuners proceeded most of the time only by rote, that few among them were capable of understanding the theory of their art, he resolved to make use of the understanding he had acquired of acoustics to study in a methodical way temperament, or the system of tolerance in tuning of instruments with fixed pitch. He consulted various writings on the matter, tried to reconcile them with practice, and finally invented a new method of making the partition, and this method, which made it possible to tune both better and more easily that the known methods, made him soon one of the most capable tuners.

But it was not at the Institution that he could acquire renown. And there the young man would find no hope of a real existence. The position of teacher was very poorly paid and was surrounded by constant obstacles. Animated by a noble zeal, though he had but few monetary resources, painstakingly acquired by giving lessons to outside students who were authorized, not without difficulty, to enter and receive them in the Institution, relying on Providence, he decided to leave definitively the monotonous and almost cloistral life to try to achieve his rank in society.

At this moment the Revolution of July took place. This event could not change his resolution, and he decisively left the establishment in November, 1830.

There he was without support, without protection, without resources, challenged by the difficulties every man encounters in making himself a career, difficulties that are much greater for a blind man, who faces a fatal prejudice, too much believed among the people of the world. He had counted on tuning and maintaining the pianos and the organ of the Institution. No such thing, this modest clientele was refused him. What calm and energetic persistence must he have had to face such a situation without faltering! Let us follow our poor tuner to the apartment he had rented a short distance from the Institution to whose service he had for so long given his singular aptitude and which was now closed to him! He has there nothing but two bad pianos, a violin, and a few books in relief.  His existence is supported only, for the moment, by lessons he gives to two children of a widow who is no richer than he. He is condemned to the hardest privations. Nevertheless, his courage is not shaken.

His hope for a better future was not at all deceived. At that time there was among the administrators of the Institution a Monsieur the Count Saint-Aulaire, a man with a noble heart and an elevated spirit, for whom both politics and letters were a source of pride, and who has left those who knew him with such regrets. Far from sharing the narrow and petty views which were the source of the animosity toward M. Montal on the part of the Institution, M. de Saint-Aulaire believed that it was his duty to support the courageous efforts of this young man, and he presented him to Madame the Countess of Saint-Aulaire, whose life was devoted to good works, and who did not cease to be for M. Montal a generous protectress during that period. She entrusted the maintenance of her pianos to him, and recommended him to her numerous acquaintances. On her account he obtained soon after a pension from Quinze-Vingts [an institution for the support of blind people], and was thus relieved from his primary needs, in awaiting reputation and fortune.

Also at that time he was able to establish relations with some professors at the Conservatory, among them M. Laurent, an artist whose sentiments equaled his talent. Thence arose a circumstance that was decisive in the life of M. Montal. M. Laurent had at home two pianos, one grand and the other upright, coming from different ateliers. Nobody had yet been able to maintain both instruments in the same tune. The professor asked the blind tuner if he believed he could succeed in this, and the latter offered to attempt it. After having examined the pianos well, and recognizing the particulars of their construction, which were very different one from the other, he understood what he needed to do to tune them together, and he succeeded. His success so astonished M. Laurent, that the next day he told some of his colleagues that Montal was the best tuner in Paris. He recommended him particularly to Zimmermann and to Louis Adam, the father of the celebrated composer whom the art of music had just lost. These eminent professors gave him a warm reception, obtained for him the tuning of many of their students, and authorized him to use them as references. From that point on all doors were open to him. The prejudice was vanquished.

In 1832, M. Montal had the happy thought of giving a public course in the art of tuning pianos, open to everybody. This course, given at the shop of the Wetzels manufactory, was much attended, and demonstrated to the connoisseurs the excellence of the blind tuner’s method. He was able through this to expand his clientele, but his method was also divulged. It happened that, two years later, in anticipation of the Industrial Exposition that was about to open, when M. Montal presented himself at a well-known publisher, a Manual of Tuning in hand, he met with a rejection, the cause of which was discovered a few days later. One of his students, contrary to all delicacy, had stolen his method, and was at that very moment having a treatise printed that would be published by the same publisher at which our unfortunate author had presented himself. What would M. Montal do in this difficult circumstance? He lacked the time to file suit to recover his property. With that intelligent energy that we have already seen in him, he ran to the printer Terzuolo, who was counted among his friends, and there, on the spot, dictated to the boy who served him as guide a short extract of his method, under the title, Abridged Treatise on the Art of Tuning Your Piano Yourself. The typesetters set to work, and distributed among themselves the pages as they left the hands of the copyist. In twenty-four hours it was all printed. Musical engravings were prepared at the same time at an engraver, and were collated. The two necessary copies were deposited at the Copyright Office, and M. Montal, armed with the precious receipt, ran to the publisher, and one can imagine his disappointment and anger in recognizing that he would be pursued in court if he did not destroy completely a work already in press and nearly completed. M. Montal was assured of priority. The Exposition of 1834 opened. His Abridged Treatise sold very well, and was transformed later into a complete treatise, whose success was very great, both in France and abroad. Thanks to this publication, he became the mostly highly regarded of tuners.

 

In the next article, we will look at Montal’s tuning manual in some detail.

 

 

[1] L’Art d’accorder soi-même son piano …

[2] The later, revised edition of 1865 did reference the sostenuto pedal.

[3] Dufau, P.A, P. E. Benaimé, and M.Tahan: Claude Montal, facteur de pianos (aveugle); sa vie et ses travaux (Paris, 1857)

 

Claude Montal, the First Piano Technician

Part Two: Montal’s Tuning Method

By Fred Sturm

(Piano Technicians Journal, October, 2012)

 

We left Montal in 1834, when he had successfully published a tuning method. He sold copies at the great Industrial Exposition of 1834 in Paris, through his connections as a piano tuner. He was apparently hired as tuner by most of the piano manufacturers exhibiting at that exposition, and was able to place copies of his book for sale in their exhibits. This Abridged Treatise on the Art of Tuning Your Piano Yourself[1] was a big success, so much so that it was translated and published in German the very next year, by the music publishing firm Schott und Söhne, a firm that still publishes today. That manual on tuning was later translated into Czech (1836) and Dutch (1846). Copies of these three translations can be found on WorldCat, an international catalogue of library holdings, and it seems likely it may have been translated into other languages as well, although apparently not into English.

Spurred by the success of his first book, Montal decided to produce a much more comprehensive one, and in 1836 he released it under the complete title of The Art of Tuning One’s Own Piano Oneself by a secure, simple and easy method, deduced from precise principles of harmony and acoustics, containing in addition the means of maintaining that instrument, a description of its qualities, the means of repairing problems that arise in its mechanism, a treatise on acoustics, and the history of the piano and of the keyboard instruments which preceded it, from the Middle Ages to 1832. (Such long descriptive titles were common at the time). This was also very successful, selling out its first edition so as to require a second, unrevised edition two years later, in 1838.

The book received comment in the press of the time. G. – E. Anders called it “without doubt the best book that has been written on the subject” in an article that appeared in the 1839 Musical Gazette (we will return to that article later on in this series). More detailed reviews were published in the annals of the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in 1839, and in the annals of the Free Society for the Fine Arts in 1840, both very favorable. It seems to have been the only book published on the topic in France, until the appearance of his revised third edition of 1865. And by many accounts, its influence extended well beyond the borders of France. Gaudet described it in 1845 as “a work read not only in France, but everywhere the art of tuner was exercised.”

In 1862 Montal submitted the book with an accompanying review to the jury of the London Exposition, and received a medal for it. The 1865 revised edition contains an additional chapter, devoted to a tuning pattern beginning the temperament from a C fork, rather than the A in the original. This was added, as he states, for the benefit of tuners in England and parts of Germany, where the C fork is more commonly used. Obviously he was writing with an international audience in mind, and it seems that his book had such stature that this point of view was justified.

In view of its apparent importance to the piano tuning community of its time, it is worthwhile to spend some time looking at Montal’s tuning method in some detail. First, we need to be plain that for Montal, there was only one way to tune: equal temperament. He was aware of earlier tuning patterns, but as he put it, “The organists and harpsichordists of the time, who had little in the way of technique, were happy with a small number of keys that were easy to play, but today, when pianists play equally well in all keys, equal temperament has become an absolute necessity, because our composers do not choose the easiest keys like the old organists, but they follow their inspiration and write in F-sharp as well as in F, in D-flat and A-flat as well as in C and G.” Modern tuners who have been taught that 19th century tuners were seeking to tune in accordance with subtle “key colors” will find not a shred of evidence for this view in the work of Montal.

Montal understood the issues of temperament very well both from the point of view of the theory and mathematics involved (as is obvious from his lengthy chapter on “acoustics,” devoted largely to the mathematics of temperament), and also based on practical considerations. He considered equal temperament to be the best compromise, where everything is “tolerable.” As he put it, any change that makes one thing sound better will make something else sound worse, so the most equal temperament is the one that will sound best overall.

Montal begins with some very practical information describing the various models of piano, how they are laid out, how to open them up to get access to tune, and how the strings and tuning pins correspond to the keys. Square pianos of the time mostly had tuning pins on the right, and finding the right tuning pin was not as easy as it is with today’s instruments. The pin block would be marked with note names – and it is interesting that already at that time the norm was to mark all “accidentals” as sharps, a custom of long standing in piano manufacture.  Lay out of the tuning pins followed a number of different patterns, and he describes them all so the student will learn to avoid turning the wrong pin.

The tuning tools described are a T hammer and various wedge mutes, and Montal’s tuning instructions are based specifically on a technique using only one mute. One string of any unison is tuned first, then the other string(s) of the unison to that first string (at the time of the 1836 edition most pianos had two strings per unison), and finally the unison is played with the note it was tuned to, checked to see that nothing has shifted during that time, and corrected if necessary. He gives a thorough account of how to handle the tuning hammer so as to achieve a stable tuning, writing in detail about the idea of different tension on either side of the bridge, and the need to make the tension equal in all portions of the string. He strongly advocates approaching pitch from below rather than from above, as a more reliable way to achieve stability.

His approach to learning temperament is based on beginning by training the ear. The first step is the tuning of just intervals, specifically the unison, octave, fifths and fourths, and major thirds. Montal describes the sound of beats, and how to tune the interval until all beats disappear. These basic intervals are now put together to form chords, triads in all three inversions (eg., CEG, EGC, GCE), and the student is to learn the sound of these just intervals and chords. He notes that in tuning the three inversions of the chord justly, the ear is trained to hear the just minor third in the root position (EG), the just minor sixth in first inversion (EC), and the just major sixth in the 6/4 or third inversion chord (GE).

Following mastery of just intervals and chords, he proceeds to equally tempered intervals and chords.  After a theoretical explanation of why intervals need to be tempered, he begins with the major third. The student is to tune a stack of three contiguous major thirds, and then compare the bottom and top note, which will be a very narrow octave. The top note is raised to form a good octave, and now the uppermost third is very wide, un-usably wide. Its lower note is raised until the major third is “bearable” or “tolerable.” Now the middle third is very wide, so its lowest note is raised, again making it tolerable. The bottom third should also be tolerable now. The student is to practice making all three thirds “equally tolerable.” This same exercise is repeated for the minor third, stacking four of them to form a very wide octave, then narrowing each in turn.

Now the fifth is dealt with. A series of four fifths is tuned, with intervening octaves so as to end up with a major third (for example, C-G, G-D, D-A, A-E, then down two octaves, arriving at C-E). This major third is wide, wider than the equally tempered major third produced in the previous exercise, and is described as “intolerably” wide. It is narrowed to the level of “tolerable” that was learned in that earlier exercise by lowering the top note, and then the last fifth is found to be too narrow. Now each fifth is narrowed “just a tiny bit” so that all of them are equally narrow and tolerable, dividing the difference evenly among all the fifths. He asks the student to repeat this exercise for E-G# and for Ab-C as well. When these exercises have been mastered, chords of all inversions are to be tuned in accordance with this “tolerable” criterion, and the student is to become familiar with their sound.

It is on this basis of preliminary tuning and ear training exercises that Montal’s temperament method, called the partition, is based. The temperament procedure itself is a straightforward circle of fifths, with intervals and chords to be listened to as checks as they become available. Montal places particular emphasis on the 6/4 chord (eg., GCE), saying that it is the easiest to hear. All chords are to be “equally tolerable.” In case the circle of fifths does not meet up correctly at the end, he has a separate chapter called Counterpartition, in which the steps of the partition are done in reverse. The student is to proceed through the counterpartition until the error has been found.

Montal placed considerable emphasis on the fact that his temperament sequence was designed with stability in mind, so that each note of the temperament would be tuned by pulling it up to pitch. He accomplished this by tuning downward around the circle of fifths. The lower note of the fifth is always tuned. It is tuned just, and then raised a small bit. He stated that tuning in the ascending direction, tuning the upper note of each fifth, one would need to tune a just fifth and then lower the note a bit, leading to more of a tendency for the tuning to slip. Following are his own words on this subject:

Each fifth, being narrowed by raising the lower note of the interval without changing the movement of the tuning hammer, allows the ear to hear the sound of the just fifth, which serves as a point of comparison, so that then you can introduce the suitable degree of alteration with assurance and ease. That is to say, since the string holds its tuning infinitely better while being stretched, you can control it much better while raising the pitch than while lowering it. For example, if you wish to tune the fifth D/A, the D being too low, you raise its pitch until the ear hears that the fifth is just, and then, to narrow it, you continue to raise the string by turning the tuning hammer in the same direction until the ear hears that the purity of the fifth is troubled by a small alteration. In ordinary partition methods, ascending fifths are tuned by changing the upper note, so that you can’t temper except by a continuous fumbling back and forth, raising and lowering the pitch, in order to leave the string a little below a just fifth, which hinders it from holding its tune, and makes the procedure very difficult and even impossible for amateurs. From this defective method has arisen the false idea that, if a newly tuned piano doesn’t hold its tuning, this is because the tuner hasn’t adequately tapped in the tuning pin, when actually it is the result of the method of tempering and of controlling the string.

Modern American tuners will note that not a word has been said about beat rates. The focus on specific beat speeds for intervals is largely an English invention, that later spread to the United States. Beat rates are very specific to pitch, and for that reason most French and German writers about tuning chose not to bother calculating them, as it seemed to them to be more practical to rely on matching the “color” of intervals, estimating that all fifths and major thirds sounded “the same,” while allowing other intervals to fall into line.

Montal’s very vivid and practical descriptions are interesting to read. Following is a segment on the possible problems that may make it hard to hear a unison or octave and make it sound pure:

Note: It is sometimes difficult and even impossible to tune certain unisons and certain octaves. I will describe the problems and ways to remedy them:

1st When a string is false, that is to say that when it vibrates by itself, and it creates several sounds that one hears confusedly, one must be contented with a tolerable justness, or one must change that string.

2nd When a hammer misstrikes, that is to say in striking its own strings it also touches a neighboring string, which happens frequently – for example, when striking A natural, it touches a string of A-sharp or G-sharp – one must damp the other string being struck or trim the hammer.[2]

3rd When the damper of a neighboring note is misaligned, so that it touches one of the strings of the unison one is tuning, and keeps the vibration of that string from lasting, it is necessary in order to tune to hold down the key corresponding to the misaligned damper.

4th When the wedge mute is too thin to touch firmly the two strings between which it is inserted, so that it allows the string that the hammer strikes to vibrate a little, one must replace the mute with a thicker one.

5th When a mute is inserted too strongly between the strings, it can cause a strange sound that confuses the ear; here one must press it in so that it leans against the soundboard, or replace it with a thinner one.

6th When the mute is perpendicular, and by chance it touches the soundboard only lightly, it excites a kind of groan or extraordinary noise that is very annoying to the ear; to avoid this noise, one must change the position of the mute.

7th When there is a buzz, that is to say a noise caused by two strings that, vibrating behind the bridge, touch each other lightly, one must, to remedy the problem, change their position a little or place a bit of paper between them.

8th Finally, when the note one plays makes another string sound close to the same, this is ordinarily a string behind the bridge that, not being seated against the wood, vibrates sympathetically with the string being struck. To remedy this, lower the string on the hitch pin or place a bit of paper under it.

Montal had a number of other very practical things to say about tuning. He described methods for touching up tuning without doing a complete tuning, finding which strings were out and tuning only those strings. He described major pitch raising and lowering, and the effect of temperature change, which was much greater on wooden pianos without metal frames. He gave instructions for tuning two or more pianos together, and for tuning a piano to other instruments, especially wind instruments that might not be at a standard pitch. And he gave a great deal of attention to the idea of a standard, pitch, passionately advocating for such a standard to be established. In his 1865 edition, he was able to say that, at last, a standard pitch of A435 had been adopted in France – it would be many years before this became the first international standard, but this was a very important first step.

In our next article we will look at repairs in the time of Montal.

 

[1] He referred to his first, shorter book as “Abregé de l’art d’accorder…” (Abridged version of The Art of Tuning) to distinguish it from his later, expanded book. In fact, the first short book (20 pages) had the same title: l’Art d’accorder soi-même son piano.

[2] This problem is common on square pianos, with their strings at an oblique angle to the line of the hammers. A very small discrepancy of the hammer line will lead to striking neighboring strings.

Claude Montal, the First Piano Technician

Part Three: Montal’s Writing about Repairs

By Fred Sturm

(Piano Technicians Journal, November, 2012)

 

In the previous article, we saw examples of how practical and descriptive Montal’s writing was on the subject of tuning. His approach to repairs was similarly vivid and detailed. His book’s title, “The Art of tuning one’s own piano oneself . . .,” didn’t begin to do justice to the material he actually covered. In his revised edition of 1865, he added a statement to his introduction, making a little clearer what his intentions had been in writing the book:

Many tuners and even craftsmen piano makers will find here useful information, that most of them do not know; for this third edition, which has been reset with new plates, and which has been expanded to such a degree that one could almost call it a new work, has been brought up to date with the considerable progress in modern manufacture, since in addition to everything concerning square and grand pianos, special treatment has been given to everything that concerns upright pianos.          

In fact, the original edition was also very comprehensive, though it obviously covered only the instruments of its time, and it would have been quite helpful to any tuner or craftsman working in the field on a customer’s instrument, as opposed to building a new one. But both versions are written so that a complete novice would be able to understand, and might be able to accomplish any given repair.

In the first edition, emphasis was on the small square pianos without escapement. He begins with the very basic procedure for removing the keyboard and action:

First raise the lid and prop it on its supports. Remove the false soundboard [this was a thin piece of wood similar in shape and size to a soundboard, which was placed above the plane of the strings]. Raise the dampers as you do when you wish to replace a string. Remove the name board above the keyboard, pulling it out perpendicularly and strongly with both hands from the slots in which it is held at both extremities. Then remove the B and C keys from the first octave in the bass, the B and C from the middle or third octave, and the B and C from the top or fifth octave, to expose six screws which are usually placed two by two under these keys to attach the keyboard (figure 46, A, B, C). Unscrew them, as well as the lock catch O, a small bolt that goes into the lock (fig. 46). Then grasp the keyboard by the frame with the thumb and index finger of each hand, at the places A and C, which are where you removed the keys B-C, B-C from the bass and high treble. Lift the keyboard a few 16ths of an inch with force to disengage from a sort of recess or indentation in the case, then, at the same time, pull it toward yourself using both hands at once to remove it from its cavity, taking care not to press down on any keys, for you run the risk of breaking the hammers which the keys have raised. Previously, you should make sure that they are all in a down position by looking through the strings where the dampers are. When the keyboard is partly out, grab it by the sides, so that, when it is no longer supported by the case, you can hold it so as to carry it to a table prepared in advance to receive it.

It sounds very familiar to read, here and many places later in the book, the caution about being certain the hammers are all down, and that no keys are being pressed down, while removing the keyboard. Obviously people working on pianos broke off hammers while removing and replacing the action, then as well as now. Once the keyboard and action were out, various repairs could be made. A common one was replacement of a broken parchment hinge, which served the function of the later centerpin and bushing:

In order to repair the hinge joint of a hammer, you must remove the keyboard from its cavity, and unscrew the upper part of the hammer rail, which is a thin strip of wood, held to the under part by eight or ten screws. Then you remove the piece of skin that served as the hinge for the hammer, which you now find exposed. Clean its place with a knife or an ordinary woodworking chisel. Then take the hammer, and unglue the heel, which is a piece of wood joined to the underside so as to pinch the piece of white skin that forms the hinge. You unglue the heel by introducing a thin knife blade between it and the hammer shank to which it is joined (see figure 34, T).

To make the disassembly easier, and thus to keep from splitting the wood, it is good to apply a hot iron to each side of the heel, or to dip it momentarily in boiling water.[1] The heel being separated from the hammer, you remove the piece of skin that remains and scrape the glue from the two parts. Cut a piece of skin similar to the one that was there, that is to say, the width of the heel and about half to 7/16 inches long. Glue the end of this piece of skin in the slot that was left empty in the hammer shank from the piece of skin you removed. Glue the heel in its place, and wind a piece of thread around it (figure 35 F) until the glue is dry. Then remove the thread, scrape the excess glue, and put the hammer in place so that it is equally aligned between its two neighbors. Glue the skin on the hammer rail, and put the keyboard in place to see that the hammer strikes only its own strings, so that you can adjust it forward or backward as necessary before the glue dries on the hammer rail. When it strikes only its own strings, remove the keyboard, screw back on the upper part of the hammer rail that was removed previously, as well as the celeste pedal, if there is one. Reinstall the keyboard, screw it in place, and replace the keys that have been removed.

Montal also covered remedies for annoyances like squeaks, groans and clicks. Here is a short excerpt of his section on clicks in small square pianos:

We use the term click to refer to a certain noise that is sometimes heard when you play a key, and which is the result of the shock of two hard parts of the action against one another. All clicks can be assigned to eleven categories, which I divide into three classes: clicks of the key, clicks of the hammer, and clicks of the damper. A key clicks against its front pin, against the nameboard when it rises, against the damper lifting wire, and finally against its neighbor, especially a black key against a white.

1) A key clicks against its front pin when the key’s mortise, into which the pin enters, is enlarged by use. The way to remedy this fault is by replacing the pin with a larger one, which will keep the key from moving right to left; or you can shim the key, that is to say make a small incision to the side of the mortise and press into it a sliver of wood which you will glue in place, which will cause the wood to shift and thereby reduce the size of the mortise. This second method is not as good as the first, and is difficult to do for those who are not skilled. The best way to keep a keyboard from clicking is therefore to “remount it on pins” as the makers say, that is to say, replace all the pins. [Key mortises were most commonly unbushed at this point].

The 1865 edition added considerable detail about the newer grand pianos, and especially about uprights, which had become by far the predominant design. An excerpt about regulation of an upright:

In upright pianos, the keybed, being thin and only supported on its two extremities, is subject to warping; and the dip of the keyboard, so important for good execution, goes out of regulation, and the piano functions badly. To establish this dip as it should be, we use two methods: the first consists of removing some wood from the bottom of the front rail of the key with a plane, to give more dip, and to remove wood from under the balance rail to reduce that dip; the second method consists in adding or removing punchings from the pins on the balance rail or on the front rail. This second method is preferable, because it is easier to do for those people who lack work experience. To regulate the dip, you proceed in the following manner: first obtain a thin and very straight rule, the length of the keyboard, which you will lay across the ivories. You verify if the keyboard is straight, convex or concave, that is to say if the rule lies equally on all the keys it is straight, if it bears on the keys in the middle without touching those at the extremities it is concave, and finally if it bears on the extremities without touching the middle, the keyboard is concave. To level it, you work with the punchings of the balance rail, which are paper or cloth of different thicknesses: by adding new ones or replacing those already there with thicker ones, you increase the dip, and by putting in thinner ones or removing punchings, you reduce it. You begin then by regulating the dip of the two end keys, that is to say the first in the bass and the last in the treble. This dip should be from 8 to 9 millimeters for the bass and from 7 to 8 millimeters in the treble. Then, with the aid of the rule, level the entire keyboard, removing or placing punchings where necessary, so that the ivory is very level to the rule from one end of the keyboard to the other. Then you proceed in the same way with the sharps. Having finished the operation, the white wood of the sharp keys should be at the same level on the balance rail as that of the other keys. You should take care always to place paper punchings under the cloth punchings, and to settle the keys on the balance rail as you change the punchings. When the keyboard has been leveled, verify that the dip is as it should be in all parts of the keyboard with a little tool called a key dip gauge (figure 73). One side, D, gives the measure for the treble; the other, B, the measure for the bass; and the middle you measure by approximation between the two extremes.

In the next article, we will look at Montal’s remarkable account of the history of the piano.

 

[1] Boiling water should only be used with care for this operation, when the underside of the heel is covered with a piece of leather intended to keep the fixed jack from making noise; for it can become unglued or deteriorate.

Claude Montal, the First Piano Technician

Part Three: Montal’s Writing about Repairs

By Fred Sturm

(Piano Technicians Journal, November, 2012)

 

In the previous article, we saw examples of how practical and descriptive Montal’s writing was on the subject of tuning. His approach to repairs was similarly vivid and detailed. His book’s title, “The Art of tuning one’s own piano oneself . . .,” didn’t begin to do justice to the material he actually covered. In his revised edition of 1865, he added a statement to his introduction, making a little clearer what his intentions had been in writing the book:

Many tuners and even craftsmen piano makers will find here useful information, that most of them do not know; for this third edition, which has been reset with new plates, and which has been expanded to such a degree that one could almost call it a new work, has been brought up to date with the considerable progress in modern manufacture, since in addition to everything concerning square and grand pianos, special treatment has been given to everything that concerns upright pianos.          

In fact, the original edition was also very comprehensive, though it obviously covered only the instruments of its time, and it would have been quite helpful to any tuner or craftsman working in the field on a customer’s instrument, as opposed to building a new one. But both versions are written so that a complete novice would be able to understand, and might be able to accomplish any given repair.

In the first edition, emphasis was on the small square pianos without escapement. He begins with the very basic procedure for removing the keyboard and action:

First raise the lid and prop it on its supports. Remove the false soundboard [this was a thin piece of wood similar in shape and size to a soundboard, which was placed above the plane of the strings]. Raise the dampers as you do when you wish to replace a string. Remove the name board above the keyboard, pulling it out perpendicularly and strongly with both hands from the slots in which it is held at both extremities. Then remove the B and C keys from the first octave in the bass, the B and C from the middle or third octave, and the B and C from the top or fifth octave, to expose six screws which are usually placed two by two under these keys to attach the keyboard (figure 46, A, B, C). Unscrew them, as well as the lock catch O, a small bolt that goes into the lock (fig. 46). Then grasp the keyboard by the frame with the thumb and index finger of each hand, at the places A and C, which are where you removed the keys B-C, B-C from the bass and high treble. Lift the keyboard a few 16ths of an inch with force to disengage from a sort of recess or indentation in the case, then, at the same time, pull it toward yourself using both hands at once to remove it from its cavity, taking care not to press down on any keys, for you run the risk of breaking the hammers which the keys have raised. Previously, you should make sure that they are all in a down position by looking through the strings where the dampers are. When the keyboard is partly out, grab it by the sides, so that, when it is no longer supported by the case, you can hold it so as to carry it to a table prepared in advance to receive it.

It sounds very familiar to read, here and many places later in the book, the caution about being certain the hammers are all down, and that no keys are being pressed down, while removing the keyboard. Obviously people working on pianos broke off hammers while removing and replacing the action, then as well as now. Once the keyboard and action were out, various repairs could be made. A common one was replacement of a broken parchment hinge, which served the function of the later centerpin and bushing:

In order to repair the hinge joint of a hammer, you must remove the keyboard from its cavity, and unscrew the upper part of the hammer rail, which is a thin strip of wood, held to the under part by eight or ten screws. Then you remove the piece of skin that served as the hinge for the hammer, which you now find exposed. Clean its place with a knife or an ordinary woodworking chisel. Then take the hammer, and unglue the heel, which is a piece of wood joined to the underside so as to pinch the piece of white skin that forms the hinge. You unglue the heel by introducing a thin knife blade between it and the hammer shank to which it is joined (see figure 34, T).

To make the disassembly easier, and thus to keep from splitting the wood, it is good to apply a hot iron to each side of the heel, or to dip it momentarily in boiling water.[1] The heel being separated from the hammer, you remove the piece of skin that remains and scrape the glue from the two parts. Cut a piece of skin similar to the one that was there, that is to say, the width of the heel and about half to 7/16 inches long. Glue the end of this piece of skin in the slot that was left empty in the hammer shank from the piece of skin you removed. Glue the heel in its place, and wind a piece of thread around it (figure 35 F) until the glue is dry. Then remove the thread, scrape the excess glue, and put the hammer in place so that it is equally aligned between its two neighbors. Glue the skin on the hammer rail, and put the keyboard in place to see that the hammer strikes only its own strings, so that you can adjust it forward or backward as necessary before the glue dries on the hammer rail. When it strikes only its own strings, remove the keyboard, screw back on the upper part of the hammer rail that was removed previously, as well as the celeste pedal, if there is one. Reinstall the keyboard, screw it in place, and replace the keys that have been removed.

Montal also covered remedies for annoyances like squeaks, groans and clicks. Here is a short excerpt of his section on clicks in small square pianos:

We use the term click to refer to a certain noise that is sometimes heard when you play a key, and which is the result of the shock of two hard parts of the action against one another. All clicks can be assigned to eleven categories, which I divide into three classes: clicks of the key, clicks of the hammer, and clicks of the damper. A key clicks against its front pin, against the nameboard when it rises, against the damper lifting wire, and finally against its neighbor, especially a black key against a white.

1) A key clicks against its front pin when the key’s mortise, into which the pin enters, is enlarged by use. The way to remedy this fault is by replacing the pin with a larger one, which will keep the key from moving right to left; or you can shim the key, that is to say make a small incision to the side of the mortise and press into it a sliver of wood which you will glue in place, which will cause the wood to shift and thereby reduce the size of the mortise. This second method is not as good as the first, and is difficult to do for those who are not skilled. The best way to keep a keyboard from clicking is therefore to “remount it on pins” as the makers say, that is to say, replace all the pins. [Key mortises were most commonly unbushed at this point].

The 1865 edition added considerable detail about the newer grand pianos, and especially about uprights, which had become by far the predominant design. An excerpt about regulation of an upright:

In upright pianos, the keybed, being thin and only supported on its two extremities, is subject to warping; and the dip of the keyboard, so important for good execution, goes out of regulation, and the piano functions badly. To establish this dip as it should be, we use two methods: the first consists of removing some wood from the bottom of the front rail of the key with a plane, to give more dip, and to remove wood from under the balance rail to reduce that dip; the second method consists in adding or removing punchings from the pins on the balance rail or on the front rail. This second method is preferable, because it is easier to do for those people who lack work experience. To regulate the dip, you proceed in the following manner: first obtain a thin and very straight rule, the length of the keyboard, which you will lay across the ivories. You verify if the keyboard is straight, convex or concave, that is to say if the rule lies equally on all the keys it is straight, if it bears on the keys in the middle without touching those at the extremities it is concave, and finally if it bears on the extremities without touching the middle, the keyboard is concave. To level it, you work with the punchings of the balance rail, which are paper or cloth of different thicknesses: by adding new ones or replacing those already there with thicker ones, you increase the dip, and by putting in thinner ones or removing punchings, you reduce it. You begin then by regulating the dip of the two end keys, that is to say the first in the bass and the last in the treble. This dip should be from 8 to 9 millimeters for the bass and from 7 to 8 millimeters in the treble. Then, with the aid of the rule, level the entire keyboard, removing or placing punchings where necessary, so that the ivory is very level to the rule from one end of the keyboard to the other. Then you proceed in the same way with the sharps. Having finished the operation, the white wood of the sharp keys should be at the same level on the balance rail as that of the other keys. You should take care always to place paper punchings under the cloth punchings, and to settle the keys on the balance rail as you change the punchings. When the keyboard has been leveled, verify that the dip is as it should be in all parts of the keyboard with a little tool called a key dip gauge (figure 73). One side, D, gives the measure for the treble; the other, B, the measure for the bass; and the middle you measure by approximation between the two extremes.

In the next article, we will look at Montal’s remarkable account of the history of the piano.

 

[1] Boiling water should only be used with care for this operation, when the underside of the heel is covered with a piece of leather intended to keep the fixed jack from making noise; for it can become unglued or deteriorate.

Claude Montal, the First Piano Technician

Part Five: Montal the Piano Manufacturer and Inventor

By Fred Sturm

(Piano Technicians Journal, January, 2013)

 

­

While he was completing work on his book on piano tuning and service, and making much of his living tuning pianos, Montal was also in the process of developing a piano manufacturing business. He began by simply taking old instruments and repairing them for resale, but soon began making new instruments as well, beginning small and gradually adding employees.

From the start, he showed an interest in including the most innovative features of other manufacturers, adding his own improvements, and he soon began applying for and receiving patents for his inventions. Some were more successful than others, but his creative and innovative spirit continued to the end of his life.

He also took advantage of the large industrial expositions that took place in Paris every five years or so, first exhibiting pianos in the one that took place in 1839. His exhibit was reviewed extensively in an article by G. – E. Anders in the Musical Gazette of Paris[1]. My translation of that article follows:

M. Montal presented himself at the Exposition this year for the first time. He debuted there in a manner that did him honor, which must astonish us the more when we consider his unfavorable position for the exercise of his art. If piano making is a difficult art for those who have the full use of all their senses, and who can see the minute details of such a complicated instrument, what can we say of a maker who, struck by complete blindness, has hazarded on a career where many do not succeed, even with the aid of sight? However, this is the case here. M. Montal is blind. In spite of his handicap, he has undertaken to make pianos, and what is more remarkable, he has succeeded.

Let us say a few words about this artist before speaking of his instruments.

It was at the age of five and a half years that M. Montal lost his sight following an illness. Having entered later into the Institution of the Young Blind in Paris, he spent several years, and devoted himself principally to the study of mathematics and music. He started studying the violin, then the oboe, and finally took up the piano. His curiosity naturally brought him to get to understand the details of this instrument, and he succeeded, thanks to that patience that is the normal share of his fellow sufferers. It would take too long to recount here how he procured an old piano which allowed him to satisfy this desire, and of which he disassembled and reassembled all the parts. The result of these painstaking researches was a perfect understanding of the structure of this instrument.

In 1830, M. Montal left the Institution, and chose the career of tuner. The ability he demonstrated in that difficult branch of art was not long in bringing him many customers, among whom were found even some makers[2]. In this way, a great quantity of pianos of all sorts passed through his hands. He had the occasion to familiarize himself with diverse actions, whether French, English, or German, and to examine them in all their details, which he did with astonishing address; for, to see him take apart an instrument, remove and replace the smallest parts, one would not guess that one had before one a man deprived of that organ one would say is essential for that sort of work. Furthermore, this is only one of many examples that could be cited in the history of the blind who have distinguished themselves by a remarkable ability, and we will return to this interesting subject in an article we will devote to some blind men who have come to make musical instruments.

After having acquired a perfect knowledge of the construction of pianos, M. Montal resolved to make them himself. He began in 1833, aided by a single workman, for his means did not allow him to proceed too quickly. Soon he added a second workman. Today he has thirteen or fourteen, and the number of pianos that have left his atelier in the space of five years has risen to 172. No doubt his establishment will be extended more, for his is well under way, and the obstacles against which he had to strive in the beginning have been vanquished by success.

One of the greatest of these obstacles has been, no doubt, the prejudice of the public, for a blind man is unlikely to inspire confidence in an ordinary person when it comes to the making of objects that demand accuracy and precision. One would be trading in pianos constructed by a maker who could only examine the case and the action by touching them with the tips of his fingers. But this prejudice vanished before the good results M. Montal has achieved, and which he owes to his rare intelligence, joined to the painstaking care that his condition has led him to bring to his work. All his instruments are rapidly sold, and he has found in their reception by amateurs the encouragement merited by his perseverance and talent.

In beginning to make pianos, M. Montal could choose one of the existing systems and content himself with scrupulous imitation. He has preferred to be eclectic in taking what seems best to him in each, and in adding improvements of his own invention, for which he has received patents. Many of the experiments with which he is occupied in this moment have not been completed, so we can only speak here of the three instruments which have been displayed at the Exposition. These are a grand piano, an upright with oblique strings, and a pianino with vertical strings.

The grand piano, hinged and with a reversed soundboard, is remarkably different from ordinary grand pianos. The soundboard is placed above the strings. It is, along with the strings, situated in a structure movable by hinges, which leaves the case of the instrument like an etui, when you wish to reveal the strings. The action alone, lodged in the bottom of the instrument, occupies its usual place. In this design, the hammer, while striking the hammer upward, pushes it against the nut and against the soundboard as in vertical pianos or downward striking actions. The result is a real advantage for sonority. It is in considering the beautiful quality of tone of upright pianos that M. Montal adopted this system, invented by a Swiss maker named Kohl.

Experience proves, says M. Montal, that when a thin body, like a soundboard, is placed between the strings and the ear of the listener, the tone takes on more volume. One notices this result generally in an upright piano, when the public is facing the performer, that is to say when the piano is heard from its back; the piano turned around makes its full tone heard.

The construction of the new grand piano presents the same favorable conditions for sonority and propagation of tone. For the hammer, striking the string toward the nut and the soundboard, impels the tone upward by means of the soundboard, which is in contact with the upper column of air. The quality of tone becomes better, stronger, and propagates farther. As for the action, M. Montal has tried to avoid friction as much as possible by the suspension of the spring and the interpolation of little rollers or cylinders between the points of contact. He has taken out a patent for this invention, intended to make the keyboard lighter and the mechanism more durable, for the friction is almost eliminated. One can also regulate the action and remove the keys without removing the keyboard.

We have spoken earlier of the problems that result from the ordinary disposition of dampers, which consists in not damping the sound sufficiently when the finger is raised. M. Montal uses a second damper that moves in the opposite direction of the first and in the short part of the string, so that the string is seized at the same time from above and from below, in front of and behind the hammer. This simultaneous movement produces its effect in a complete manner, causing the vibrations of the string to cease immediately.

Another improvement has been introduced in this instrument to assure its solidity. M. Montal has placed three bridge pins for each string, which allows the strings to be straight in their entire length, and thus avoids the considerable force on the soundboard that occurs in pianos that have only two pins. The soundboard is thus relieved of almost all its work, the wood does not lose its newness, and the instrument lasts a long time.

Finally, M. Montal has taken great care with all the details of the making of this instrument which adds to the beautiful quality of tone the advantage of a keyboard that is light and facile, and of which the solidity is guaranteed.

The upright piano exhibited by M. Montal is distinguished also by its exterior: it is decorated in the style of the renaissance, in ebony with incrustations in nacre and copper, engraved and decorated with marquetry, with a keyboard in nacre and shell.

We cannot approve the use of nacre in place of ivory, for a keyboard made thus dazzles and fatigues the eyes of the performer, especially under light.

In this piano as in the preceding, M. Montal has tried to eliminate friction in the action by the use of rollers or cylinders. The double damper has also been applied, as well as the bridge with three pins. One can see that in constructing an instrument that could be considered a work of art, M. Montal has not at all neglected making the qualities of the interior in rapport with the elegance of the case.

The pianino, a lovely instrument of six and a half octaves, participates in the same improvements. One sees there a new action with rollers; there are dampers on the rear of all the strings, and they act at the point where the hammer strikes; in addition, a roller applied to the damper pilot makes the weight of that damper almost insensible at the key, without making it lose its action on the string.

It is with great satisfaction that we have examined these instruments and pointed out the efforts of an artist who, in view of his position, merits double the praise. We wish sincerely for M. Montal the ever-increasing prosperity of the establishment that his intelligence makes him so apt to direct with full success.

 

While he received a favorable review in the press for his first exhibit, Montal failed to receive any medals that year. But he continued on his path of manufacturing pianos, incorporating various improvements and inventions. During the 1840s, he moved to successive show rooms in Paris, large enough that he was able to host small concerts and lectures, as was reported at various times in the press. He focused considerable attention on action design, developing an equivalent for the upright of the Érard double escapement mechanism, as well as his own version for grand pianos.

He focused his attention on other aspects of the piano as well. He developed a system of threaded iron rods placed on the back of the upright piano, intended to stabilize the tuning, and to allow for adjustment over time. This seems to have been somewhat analogous to the later Mason & Hamlin spider for grands, except that it consisted of individual rods rather than a network of rods, and was designed to be adjustable to account for climate changes. This invention, which he named the “Counter-Tension” system, was especially intended for instruments being shipped to the climates of Asia and the Americas.

He developed a transposing keyboard, patented in 1846, allowing the pianist to change keys by one or several semi-tones in either direction by the movement of a lever. His mechanism raised the action parts, then shifted the keyboard under them to the desired point, and finally dropped the action parts back into contact with the keys.

He was particularly proud of his “expression pedal,” which brought the hammers closer to the strings, while at the same time moving the key level to compensate. And he seems to have taken the sostenuto pedal invention of the Boisselot Brothers, and made further refinements to it. He made and exhibited pianos with a sostenuto pedal, for both grand and upright pianos, during the 1850s and at least up to the London Exposition of 1862, apparently the only manufacturer to do so (and considerably before Steinway introduced that pedal as standard equipment in their grand pianos).

A substantial article in the Musical Gazette of Paris gives a good sense of how far he had come by the year 1851:

 

Extract of an article by M. Fétis, on the occasion of the Universal Exposition of London, 1851.

(Musical Gazette, 1851, p.337).

M. Montal seems to me to merit particular mention. While blind from the age of five years, he has nonetheless a mechanical genius and the hand of an able artisan. That which his eyes cannot give him is compensated by the finesse of touch and hearing. For a long time he had to struggle against prejudice toward his instruments due to his blindness; but his modest confidence in himself, sustained by an unshakable firmness, has triumphed over the obstacles surrounding him with ill will. At first, M. Montal was a tuner, and it was then that he came to understand all the systems of piano construction. Having become a maker himself, he began by imitating; but soon thereafter, entering the often dangerous course of invention, he created several improvements, among which are three that were specially recognized by the juries of the French Expositions and by the Societies for Encouragement. Eight medals have been awarded to M. Montal over a period of time. Four upright pianos were placed by him at the London Exposition; and in each he made use of inventions by means of which the instruments coming from his ateliers distinguish themselves.

M. Montal is, I believe, the first French maker who has applied the Érard action, of double escapement, to the upright piano, modifying it because of the inverse means of striking the string by the hammer. This action functions very well, and the repetition of the note at all degrees of force is executed without trouble in all the instruments of the maker that include it. All are transposing; but the system by which transposition is effected is Montal’s alone. In this system, the shifting mechanism operates by means of a simple lever, and this mechanism lifts the escapements during half of the movement, and allows them to fall onto the neighboring key during the second half, so that the keyboard cannot catch on or injure the escapements during its lateral motion; the action remains immobile, and the hammers, as well as the dampers, maintain their positions in relation to their respective strings. By this means Montal resolved the problem M. Mercier sought to solve by means of his split keys, which he abandoned in ceding them to M. Addison of London.

The upright pianos of M. Montal differ also from those of other makers by a system of counter-tension, which consists of many iron rods with nuts, which are placed behind the instrument, across from each of the vertical pieces of the case and at a certain distance from each of them. These rods run between the pin block and the hitch pin rail acting on them by being elongated or shortened by means of the nuts, and, maintaining the case in these standard conditions, offer a resistance that is proportional to the pulling of the strings, conserving the elasticity of the sound board, by protecting it against the flexing of the case, and increasing the durability of tuning of the instrument. There is no doubt that this system, much superior to the passive resistance of ordinary beams, is destined to pass into general use, after the expiration of the patent of M. Montal.

The instruments of this ingenious maker are distinguished also by an expression pedal which, acting on the hammers, brings them progressively closer to the strings and lowers the keys in the same proportion, so as to diminish the strength of attack and produce a sweeter sound that combines in a happy manner with the effect produced by the damper pedal. This pedal allows for nuance of passagework by a change of sonority without the hands leaving the keys; that which cannot be done with the pedal that shifts the hammers to one string, because they can catch and break if the fingers remain on the keys during the shifting motion.

The first upright piano with oblique strings by M. Montal is a very beautiful piece of furniture in the Boule style. The action is made with a great deal of care, but the tone of the mid range is a little too muffled, which is due to the covering of the hammers. Another instrument in large format, with vertical strings, in rosewood with very rich decoration, has a more brilliant sonority. The third, smaller, also has vertical strings; and finally the fourth is a true upright piano of the old form, with long strings. This piano is remarkable for its great tonal power, for its evenness and for the lightness of the action. All these instruments are transposing.

 

 

[1] Gazette Musicale de Paris, volume 6, no. 26, June 30, 1839, p. 208

[2] M. Montal published, in 1834, a short treatise on the art of tuning the piano. This brochure, which had the honor of a German translation, was only the forerunner of a large work that occupied the author for a long time, and which appeared under the title of The Art of Tuning Your Own Piano Yourself. This is, without a doubt, the best work that exists on this topic.

Claude Montal, the First Piano Technician

Part Six: Recognition and Influence

By Fred Sturm

(Piano Technicians Journal, February, 2013)

 

We have seen that Montal, by his own efforts, was able to become not only a successful piano technician, and author of the first comprehensive book on that subject, but also created a flourishing piano manufacturing business, and contributed several inventions to the development of the piano. We left him at the age of fifty-one, having won some eight medals at various expositions. While he filed for no additional patents after that year, he continued to innovate and to offer pianos with particular features he thought useful. Among these was the sostenuto pedal, originally invented by Boisselot in 1844, but apparently not pursued further by that firm. Montal began including it in his pianos exhibited in 1851, and continued to include it at least until the London Exposition of 1862, with reviewers assuming it was his invention. He characteristically developed a version for uprights as well as for grands.

He also continued to receive recognition for the excellence of his instruments, being awarded an additional six medals, including the Legion of Honor, “from the hand of his majesty the emperor himself” as he was proud to report. He was honored as piano manufacturer “by appointment to” the Emperor and Empress of France, and the Emperor of Brazil, and received a special “medal of merit” from the King of Hanover.

Some of this recognition by royalty came, no doubt, from the attention he gave to furniture design. His last exhibition, London in 1862, he showed “a grand piano in rosewood, with trimming in gilded brass; an upright piano in speckled ebony, with trim and gilded bronze; an upright piano, in Algerian thuya, a new decorative model with marquetry and white metal inlay; and an upright piano in green ebony of Guadeloupe, with friezes in rosewood and brass wire inlay, Louis XV style.”

In addition to his successful career as a manufacturer, Montal was very much involved in the movement toward establishing a standard pitch. In his 1836 edition, he told of having scientific measurements done on the tuning forks for the major concert halls of Paris. In 1835, he reported, one was at A-437, the other at A-441, while as recently as 1829, there were three pitches used, A-434, A-435, and A-439. And so he wrote impassionedly in favor of establishing a single, standard pitch:

It seems that standard pitch has varied considerably and risen since the last century, and these changes have contributed not a little to trouble good musical execution.

So it seems to us that it would be in the greatest interest of the art that a standard tuning fork, fixed, invariable, and based on the laws of nature, should be determined by a commission of the Institute composed of scientists and musicians, the first to develop a method of construction of the instrument as independent as possible of temperature variations (for example, a bell of crystal struck by a hammer of cork), the latter to decide the level of pitch to give it. A standard one, deposited at the Institute or at the library of the Conservatory of Music, would serve to tune the forks which were put into circulation; theaters and public establishments adopting it, the wind instrument makers would modify their measurements, and would construct instruments all at the same pitch; thus, no more difficulty in tuning many orchestras together; amateurs meeting to make music would find themselves always in agreement; makers of pianos and harps would proportion the length of the strings according to the same pitch, so the instruments would break less strings, would be easier to tune and to keep in tune; voices, always singing at the same pitch, would sing with greater assurance, and would never be troubled, as often happens, when they pass from one piano to another, or to an orchestra tuned to a different pitch; traveling artists would find in every country the same pitch, as they find the same movement of the metronome. If variations were necessary under certain circumstances, one could make them in a regular manner, by graduating the tuning forks, which would be raised or lowered successively by a certain number of vibrations above or below the standard fork. One can see how great an advantage there would be to music by undertaking this innovation.

In 1865, he was able to relate that his dream of a standard pitch had finally begun to be realized. He wrote with pride that he had helped to set this process in motion:

On May 2, 1855, I gave to the Society of Piano Makers of Paris, led by M. Savart, pianist and distinguished maker of pianos, on the occasion of the universal exposition, that took place in Paris that year, the following proposal:

Extract from the archives of the Society of Piano Makers of Paris, no. 100.

Paris, May 2, 1855

To Monsieur the President of the Society of Piano Makers of Paris.

Monsieur President,

During about two centuries, pitch has risen more than a full step; for earlier the organ of Notre-Dame gave an A that corresponds today to the F# of the pitch now most commonly used. Pitch has thus always risen, which presents great problems for the voice and for tuning instruments together. At different times, scholars and musicians have concerned themselves with the need to have a uniform pitch that gives the same number of vibrations in an equal time in all countries. Nobody is more interested than piano makers in having this uniformity adopted. I thus come to propose that the Society take the initiative, in our time, to achieve this reform. The circumstance of the Universal Exposition, where they will, as it appears, concern themselves with uniformity of weights and measures in different countries, could favor the success of this improvement, which is generally understood to be very useful.

I have the honor to be, Monsieur the President, your very humble and very devout servant, Montal.

And he was able to report that, following the appointment of an official commission, and its report to the corresponding governmental agency, the following decree was issued:

In view of the decree, dated July 17, 1858, which instituted a commission charged with seeking the means to establish in France a uniform musical pitch, to determine a standard pitch device that could serve as an invariable reference, and to indicate the measures to be taken to ensure its adoption and preservation;

In view of the report of the commission dated February 1, 1859, it is decreed:

Article 1: A uniform pitch is instituted for all the musical establishments of France: imperial and other theaters of Paris and of the departments, conservatories, public schools, and public concerts authorized by the State.

Article 2. The pitch of A for the tuning of instruments is fixed at eight hundred seventy vibrations per second; it will be given the name standard pitch[1].

Article 3. The pitch standard device for the standard pitch shall be deposited at the imperial Conservatory of music and declamation.

Article 4. All musical establishments authorized by the State must be provided with a tuning fork verified and stamped, conforming with the standard device.

Article 5. The standard pitch shall be placed into effect in Paris on the first of next July, and on the first of December in the departments. Following these dates only instruments at standard pitch, verified and stamped, shall be admitted into the musical establishments above mentioned.

Article 6. The state of tuning forks and of instruments shall be regularly submitted to administrative verification.

Article 7. The present decree shall be deposited with the general secretariat as notification under law.

Paris, 16 February 1859

Achille Fouil

 

Another very important legacy of Montal was the firm establishment of the career of piano technician as an appropriate skill for blind people. Montal was instrumental in creating a training program at the Institute for Blind Youth of Paris, where he had been a student, and that program served as a model for other countries as well, most notably England, and to a lesser extent the United States. He advocated very strongly for their employment by his fellow manufacturers. He hired only blind tuners at his own establishment, and was able to list in 1865 the names of some 50 other manufacturers who also employed blind tuners.

Montal’s approach to training blind people was comprehensive. He was not content with teaching tuning alone, but wanted them to have a thorough knowledge of the instrument, and to be able to do the most common repairs and adjustments themselves, or to oversee any work that required sight. He devoted the last chapter of his 1865 edition to training for blind people, and set out a rigorous program of education, which included learning patterns of feeling, counting and marking tuning pins to be certain of being on the right one; how, precisely, to move the tuning hammer from pin to pin; how to place the wedge mutes; methods for learning to replace strings, including measuring the diameter of the wire with a gauge, tying the tail, and winding the coil on the tuning pin, with and without beckets; the use of carpenter’s tools like planes, chisels, files, and bench vises.

As he commented,

You may think that this is impossible; but no: everything I have indicated is doable, and many blind have proved it by doing various sorts of carpentry and cabinetwork, with a certain degree of ability.

In any case, I repeat, as a blind person almost always needs a young guide, he should make use of his eyes in certain cases, knowing himself how to direct the work and to indicate how it should be done. When he has acquired these general notions, as well as filing metal, cutting brass and steel wire, twisting and winding it, he should apply them to pianos for the little repairs he encounters, as for example to make a note play, replace an escapement spring, a pedal spring; change a center pin, replace a hammer shank; re-glue a bushing, a hammer felt; tighten or loosen a screw, or give some play to a pivot joint, to a key; remove and replace a keyboard; regulate a note; needle hammers; replace strings, etc. etc.

It is well understood that to learn all this, the blind student must have great perseverance, intelligent, capable, patient and devoted teachers, who are willing to spend the time in this humanitarian work that provides useful members of society.

In the midst of his many professional activities, Montal also found time for a personal life. He married in 1836, once his piano manufacturing had been established firmly enough that he felt he could support a family. He had two daughters, Pauline and Clementine, both of whom were given piano lessons, and became proficient enough performers to have notices of their concerts mentioned in the Revue Musicale de Paris.

It was toward the very end of his life that Montal prepared a revised edition of his book about piano tuning and repair. In fact, that up-dated book appeared in print during the year of his death. He had intended to write a book about piano design and manufacture, as he stated in an interview during the 1850s, but unfortunately that project failed to come to fruition. His manufacturing business continued for a few decades after his passing, under different ownership.

What we have seen over the course of this series of articles is the portrait of a truly extraordinary man, someone whose energy, intelligence and drive must have been astonishing. He probably has the best claim to be the father of the profession of piano technician. All piano technicians today can say without exaggeration that we “stand on the shoulders of a giant.”

 

 

[1] [Diapason normal. Note that single vibrations were counted at that particular time, as opposed to cycles. Hence, the number is twice that of today’s standard hertz.]

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