A Count Account

This article announces the visit of Alexander Friedrich Loth[a]r, Count von Faber-Castell to the United States in 1909. Of interest is some of the detailed history provided about the House of Castell, whose origins apparently date back to as early as the 8th century.


Too often, figures from the past (i.e. 100 years ago or more) don’t seem very real to us today; the photos and stories you might find in a profile or as part of a biography from their time period are usually just distant, stylized portrayals. That’s why a magazine article like this one interests me so much: it’s a reminder that historical figures were actual people who did day-to-day things—like taking trips to America and staying at the St. Regis Hotel.

I’m reminded of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first journey to perform in the United States (also in 1909). During his voyage he was forced to practice on a homemade cardboard silent keyboard (also called a “dumb piano”) because the ship he was on had no piano.

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14 Responses to A Count Account

  1. Kenneth Goodenough says:

    Interesting, I never knew Rachmaninoff used a homemade cardboard keyboard, I always thought it was just a smaller-sized, softer keyboard.


    • Sean says:

      Kenneth, I remember being told a long time ago that he made the keyboard himself out of cardboard (perhaps my teacher was trying to make an already extraordinary story even more extraordinary). But after some searching, your recollection is the more precise. Quoting Rachmaninoff himself:

      “As during the previous summer I had not found much time for practicing and was not familiar enough with some passages, I took a dumb piano (i.e., silent keyboard) on the boat with me and practiced during the journey. I believe it is the only time that I have resorted to this mechanical toy, which, however, at the time proved very useful.”

      Thanks for mentioning that!

      PS: The usage of “dumb” here is interesting (i.e. a reference to someone who is unable to speak) since it’s a term that really isn’t used in that capacity anymore.


  2. A Reader from Paris says:

    In Bach’s time, and up to the beginning of the 19th century, such was the main function of the clavichord: a small, lightweight, portable keyboard (especially the triple-fretted clavichords — perfect travel instruments), limited in compass but ultrasensitive and with a very soft sound, intended to practice, to compose and to play for oneself.
    (And as bonus, when you opened the lid of your clavichord, you enjoyed the smell of wood — just like when you sharpen your GvFC pencil, but stronger.)


    • Sean says:

      Thanks for the link. If I recall correctly, Bach was so enamored of the sound of the lute that he had one of his clavichords strung with gut strings. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like trying to keep it in tune.

      Sure would be nice to have one of these.


      • A Reader from Paris says:

        The instrument you’re alluding to, the Lautenwerck (or Lute-Harpsichord), is quite different from the clavichord: on the clavichord, the strings are made from brass or iron, and they are struck by a small metal tangent; the sound is softer or louder depending on how you press the key, so this instrument is the real ancestor of the piano. The Lautenwerck, on the contrary, belongs to the harpsichord family: the string is plucked, and the main features of the instruments are the same, except that it is strung in gut instead of brass or iron. Maybe the plectra were small pieces of very hard leather, of even of wood, instead of quills: we don’t know for sure, because not a single Lautenwerck survived.

        Bach loved the Lautenwerck: if I remember well, he owned three such instruments when he died. Nearly all his keyboard music for two hands can be played on the Lautenwerck, but there are some pieces he intended specifically to be performed on this instrument (with the indication “Aufs Lautenwerck” on the score): the lovely Prelude BWV 999, the Prelude, Fugue & Allegro BWV 998, and the Suite in E minor BWV 996, which is a neglected masterwork in Bach’s keyboard output. I recommand without any reserve a recording of all these pieces, with some others, beautifully performed by Robert Hill on an instrument built by his brother Keith. Listen to the samples on iTunes, but buy the CD instead of the digital version, because the liner notes are very interesting:

        Bach also loved the clavichord, of course. His first biographer, Forkel, tells us that JSB enjoyed performing the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin on the clavichord, improvising extempore his transcription…


      • A Reader from Paris says:

        I know the website you have linked to in your last comment: I’ve even seen by myself the spectacular giant lute-shaped instrument on the pictures. But it is quite unlikely that lute-harpsichord really looked like that (the drawing on the heading of this website is a modern drawing, not an original document from the 18th century). Lute-harpsichords were rather built like harpsichords.


  3. Kevin says:

    I too like these old, atmospheric articles. Even more despairing (to me) is the almost complete lack of online histories of some supposedly great pencils such as the Ticonderoga. For instance Google Ticonderoga 1370 …the round barrel Tic and, other than images on brandnamepencils.com I couldn’t find a single article. At least you have the Blackwing well covered.


  4. A Reader from Paris says:

    On the idea of a dumb keyboard, and on the clavichord again: a French performer, Olivier Baumont, interestingly describes the clavichord as “the last musical instrument before silence” (“C’est le dernier instrument avant le silence. Il y a tous les instruments, puis le clavicorde, puis le silence…”) Indeed, the sound of a small clavichord is even softer than the sound of a lute or a baroque guitar — to be heard only by the player and by a few people gathered around her/him. I’ve attended to such private concerts sometimes: midnight concerts, in order to minimize traffic noise… When listening to recorded clavichord music, you can’t set the volume too low (a Spinal Tap member would maybe suggest using a amp going down to -1). The sound of the instrument is denatured unless any noise in the near surrounding hampers you from listening.

    So it seems quite logical that somebody would try one day to build an electric clavichord, in order to take advantage, in the modern world, of a unique feature of this instrument: the ability to play vibrato (bebung) on a keyboard…


  5. A Reader from Paris says:

    {Ooops, I messed up with the italics in the last §: I only wanted “electric” and “bebung” italicized, if it can be corrected… Sorry.}


  6. Pingback: A count account (2) | Contrapuntalism

  7. Pingback: A Count Account (3): Pencils Fit for a President | Contrapuntalism

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