Dvorak’s White Grand – The Saga of the Petrof Piano

Rummaging around in the proverbial shoebox of old photos from an old Euro vacation, i ran across a Throwback Thursday-worthy shot of me tickling the ivories on Antonín Dvořák’s own ivory-colored piano.

BKR at the Dvorak Piano

Did Dvorak actually own this gilded white grand?

The photo was taken at the Dvorak Museum in a leafy section of Prague, in a restored Baroque mansion called – and, no, I’m not making this up – “Villa Amerika” – appropriate for the composer who became so famous in the New World, I suppose!   I recall it was in a different location when I visited there in the late ’90s, but today, the white piano now gets pride of place in a small concert hall on the second floor, perched below an ornate frescoed ceiling.

 

But it got me to wondering about the Museum and more still about its Liberace-esque gilded white grand.  Did Dvorak really live there?  Did he actually play that instrument?  And what kind of a piano was it, exactly?

 

Villa Amerika - the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Villa Amerika – the Dvorak Museum in Prague

Dvorak Museum Concert Hall

The White Piano at home

 

The answers: 1) No, Dvorak actually lived in a small place not far away, on Zitna street.  But the Museum holds a lot of his various artifacts, including his viola.

2) Doubtful. Since I visited, the Museum has subsequently acquired Dvorak’s actual piano, a beautiful mahogany 1879 Bösendorfer, built in Vienna.

3) The piano, it turns out, is a Petrof, the storied family-owned Czech manufacturer run by a fifth-generation descendent of founder Antonin Petrof, born just two years before Dvorak.   And therein lies a tale!

It turns out that the company went into business in 1864 in the central Czech town of Hradec Králové, about two hours east of Prague, after young Antonin returned from an apprenticeship in Vienna and persuaded his father to turn their cabinet-making business into a piano factory.    And the apogee of success happened for both “Tonys” at about the same time: Just as Dvorak was returning from “Amerika” and about to take up the directorship of the Prague Conservatory, Antonín Petrof is appointed by the Emperor as the court piano-builder for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But after that the story becomes a tale of booms, busts, war, and then the advent of the Iron Curtain.  In 1948, the Petrof factory was nationalized, and became a state-run factory of a profoundly diminished reputation until the Petrof family got their company back in 1993.  And if you do the math, that means that the Petrof company is 150 years old this year!

Read more about the Petrof Piano Saga here: an amazing story of courage, determination, and a family’s extraordinary commitment to exemplary piano building tradition...and check out this video visit to the Petrof Piano factory below, replete with the roll call (with a few hilarious misspellings) of Petrof piano artists,including Ray Charles (who even had one in his home), Count Basie, Bill Evans, Mal Waldron, Lynne Arriale, Richard Clayderman (!), and Jacques Loussier.

Ray Charles' favorite piano brand?

Ray Charles’ favorite piano brand?

Further research reveals that the Petrof pianos have long been the house-supplied instruments in the storied Rudolfinum in Prague, where their rather heavy action and even regulation was preferred by such luminaries as Rudolf Firkusny, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Ivan Moravec.   (One of Moravec’s great recordings: a 1963 disc of pieces by Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven, was recorded on a Petrof.)

Then there’s the Petrof on display in the glittering concert hall in Prague Castle. Check out this video of violinist Josef Suk and pianist Jan Panenka playing Dvorak, natch:

 

But I was still curious to hear what that gilded white Petrof in the Dvorak museum sounded like.  So, after a lot of interet scouring, I did come up with a grainy video containing Dvorak Romance for violin and piano, Op. 11, as well as Chopin’s Ballade No. 3.  Incomplete performances, sadly, but complete enough to reveal that Dvorak’s white Petrov looks far better than it sounds…

 

 

Monadnock In Winter: William Preston Phelps

Monadnock From Stone Pond - Wm. Preston Phelps

Monadnock From Stone Pond – Wm. Preston Phelps

“Phelps, during a visit some 2-3 years before he reacquired his homestead, saw the mountain (Monadnock) through new eyes, and was to be excited and inspired by what he saw. Here were the things he had known from boyhood, which had grown into his soul, and which though they had laid dormant for years had awakened to vigorous life. From that moment he worked under the influence of a new inspiration. He studied the mountain with eyes of a lover. In sunshine and shadow, in storm and in calm he watched and noted and painted.”

Had a nice visit to the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester the other day, including a chance to see one of the original, iconic renderings of one of the most-painted mountains in the world. “Mount Monadnock from Stone Pond” was painted c. 1900 by William Preston Phelps, (1848-1923), New Hampshire native and the “painter of Monadnock.”

Suddenly coming face-to-face with Phelps’s work at the Currier was a pleasant surprise: White Mountain Art and Artists proclaims: “Mount Monadnock from Stone Pond is among the finest known examples of Phelp’s work.   It survives in excellent condition and exemplifies the fine technique and refined aesthetic sensibility that are the hallmarks of his best works.”

And it seems appropriate to note during this especially hard winter that this exceptionally hardy (if troubled) Yankee preferred this season above all others to pursue his art, according to the fascinating biography by Edie Clark on the excellent Monadnock Art website:

Preston was especially fond of painting in winter, which was a cold and forbidding endeavor. To make himself comfortable, he built a traveling studio that could be transported on horse-drawn sled or wagon. The shelter was equipped with easel, paints, canvas, and a small oil stove. This enabled him to work outdoors for long periods of time. Though the summer seasons would have permitted him to work outdoors with less of an encumbrance, it’s interesting that so many of his canvases capture the mountain in the winter, in ice, in snow, the afternoon light casting pink shadows onto the blueish snow.

The whole story is worth a read, which includes the sorry tale of what Phelps considered to be his true masterpiece, which could not be farther removed from snowy New England landscapes:  A massive (7′ x 12′)  1886 painting of the Grand Canyon, that he painted on location, as was his habit.   The painting has been lost to fate, but remarkably, just a month ago a 9″ x 12″ Phelps Grand Canyon study turned up on eBay, claiming: “This particular one may well be the only surviving work of the Canyon by Phelps. A “plein aire” painter, he took huge canvases into the open, and built shelters around them to complete his landscapes on site.”   And fetched a tidy $7500…

A Phelps Pfind?

A Phelps Pfind?