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The Man Behind the Pianist

Kate Bowen interviewed Franz Mohr
July 23, 2006

After a career tuning pianos for Horowitz, Gould and others, Franz Mohr knows what makes a good piano -- and pianist. He talked with DW-WORLD.DE about his career as Steinway & Sons chief piano technician.

Franz Mohr has always been more than a mere piano technicianImage: Steinway & Sons

Franz Mohr has a way of endearing himself to everyone he comes into contact with. In his 30-year career as a piano technician for piano greats like Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubenstein and Glenn Gould, Mohr became more than just a highly valued tuner: he was also a friend and confident to the pianists he worked with. This was part of the success he had as Steinway's chief piano technician -- a job that meant tempering not only grand pianos, but also dealing with the often unpredictable temperaments of the world famous artists who performed on them.

79-year-old Mohr is a native of Düren, Germany, where he and his parents miraculously survived severe Allied bombings in 1944. After training to be a piano technician in Germany, he immigrated to New York in 1962 to accept a job with Steinway & Sons. Three years later, he became the piano maker's chief piano technician, a role he took over from legendary tuner Bill Hupfer.

DW-WORLD.DE: Mr. Mohr, how did your relationship to music begin?

Franz Mohr: I grew up with music. I went to the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne where I studied the violin. Then I developed tremendous physical problems with my left wrist. It was terrible. I had to take breaks and visited all kinds of doctors and finally had to come to the very painful decision that I couldn't become a performing artist but had to do something else with my life.

125 Jahre Steinway-Flügel aus Hamburg
A classicImage: dpa - Report

I saw an ad in a German music magazine that Rudolf Ibach Sohn -- the oldest piano manufacturing company in Germany, founded in 1774 -- was looking for apprentices. I was already 24 years old at that time, but I thought, this also has something to do with music -- why don't I try it? They accepted me and I just loved working with my hands and learning about all the phases of piano building.

The ultimate dream in the music world -- at least as a piano technician -- is Steinway. Around 1954, I applied for a job as a concert piano tuner for a concert management company in Duesseldorf, which was also a Steinway dealer. And I got the job! For the first time, I started to work on Steinways and I really fell in love with them, both as a technician and as a musician.

What is special about Steinway pianos?

Not only the design of a the piano, but also the quality of wood which goes into the piano are very important -- especially when it comes to the sound board. With this quality of wood you have a tremendously wide spectrum of tone colors.

All the other instruments are mass produced, including Yamaha -- nothing against Yamaha, but they build over 800 pianos a day and they have to use any kind of wood they come across. Their soundboard is, for instance, much thicker. That counts for brilliance, which you need in any piano, but nothing else. You play a pianissimo and it's still too loud.

We build Steinways in two factories, in Hamburg and New York, and we build 13 pianos a day. That is the difference. A Steinway piano gets better and better all the time because of the quality of wood we use.

In 1962, you accepted a job as a piano technician with Steinway & Sons in New York. Did you have any difficulties adjusting to American culture when you came?

No, of course not. We fell in love with America. Let me tell you a story: I'd worked for many great artists in Germany and had tuned for Rudolf Serkin there and in America. The first thing he said to me when I visited him in Vermont to work on his three concert grand pianos was, "Franz, now we are in America where things are not so complicated. Now you can call me Rudy." Until that time he had always been "Herr Professor".

Wladimir Samojlowitsch Horowitz Kalenderblatt
Vladimir HorowitzImage: dpa

When your predecessor Bill Hupfer retired in 1965 you took his position as chief piano technician. At that point, you began working with Vladimir Horowitz, who you toured with and tuned for until his sudden death in 1989. What was Horowitz like as a person?

Of course, he was difficult and had a very complex personality. You never knew when he would blow up and scream and whatever. It took a long time before we really became such good friends. Many times before a concert he would say, "Franz, you are the most important person here!"

Horowitz was an accomplished Steinway artist in Russia when he was 19 years old. When he ran away from Russia "with a thousand rubles in his shoes", as he always said, he came to Berlin. And immediately all the German piano companies -- Bösendorf, Bechstein, Blühtner -- they all wanted him to try their pianos so he would play their product. He tried them all, but there was never any doubt in his mind about Steinway.

After his death, I still traveled with his piano. We will take the Horowitz piano to Japan soon and I'm going with the piano.

Who else played Horowitz's piano?

In his lifetime, only one person. That was Murray Perahia. He was flabbergasted, of course, that Horowitz let him play it. But after the first piece he came back and said, "Franz, I'm sorry but I cannot handle it."

Each Steinway is different -- it feels different and sound different. And each artist has different requirements. Horowitz died and we wanted to send the piano on tour. But I was so afraid: who would be able to manage that piano? I did have to change a few things, but people just love it.

What was it like to tour with Horowitz?

It was wonderful! Horowitz only played on Sundays and the rehearsals were always Saturdays and the rest of the week I could go sightseeing. He said, "Franz bring your wife and your children, I'll pay." I knew exactly what he wanted in the piano and it was a wonderful relationship -- I was part of the family.

Glenn Gould
Glenn GouldImage: dpa/Arte

As soon as you arrived in the US in 1962, you had the chance to work with Glenn Gould, who was known for being somewhat eccentric. How did you get along with him?

My predecessor, Bill Hupfer, had recording session at the famous 30th Street Columbia record studio where he tuned for Glenn Gould. He fell into disgrace with Glenn Gould and I had been in America for just a few days.

Bill should have known better: he went to Glenn just before the recording session, put his hand on his shoulder, and asked him how he was doing. Later Glenn claimed his shoulder had been dislocated because the tuner had slapped him on the shoulder, which wasn't true. He had to cancel concerts and had a lawsuit with Steinway.

Bill couldn't tune for him anymore, so I was sent by Steinway to take care of Glenn Gould. Over the years we became very good friends. I went nearly every month to Toronto to do his recording in the later years. He knew that I would come to Toronto with Rubenstein or Horowitz or Serkin and he would never go to anyone's concert. But he knew that I was coming and he would pick me up at the airport and make sure we spent the evening together, listening to recordings and talking.

You know so many of the top pianists from the 20th century -- both musically and personally. Do you see any patterns? What makes them great?

In German we call it "Ausstrahlung" -- a presence, a communication from the stage to the people, which many people do not have. If you have this, it doesn't even matter if you play a lot of wrong notes. Of course, Rubenstein, Horowitz and Serkin had this.

Franz Mohr lives in New York and, though nearing 80, he still travels regularly as a piano technician, teacher and lecturer. He currently tours with Italian pianist Mauricio Pollini. Mohr's book, "My Life With the Great Pianists", has been translated into seven languages and is available at most online bookstores.