An Italian may have invented the piano – but when 63-year old Paolo Fazioli was a child, the Italians certainly weren’t making them any more. “The idea was stolen by the Germans, who were very wealthy. They developed the piano.”
Unrefined and sometimes brutal, the current look and sound of the piano was hardly in line with the more colourful and elegant characteristics of Italian design, says Fazioli, who as a budding pianist yearned for a lighter tone and faster keyboard action. But his musical ambitions didn’t seem of much use to the family’s furniture business, based in Sacile, a small village 30 miles north of Venice.
So to please his family, Fazioli studied mechanical engineering in Rome. But to satisfy his own interests, he went on to become a pianist at the Conservatory Rossini in Peassaro. “My dream was the piano.” And through combining his education in both “the mechanical and the artistic”, Fazioli determined to build his own piano.
His family wasn’t so keen: “There was a lot of scepticism”. But while, 30 years ago, they refused to fund his idea, “they gave me something much more important” – a corner of the furniture factory and the chance to use the machinery and workers when the need arose. Without money for marketing, his pianos would have to be of high quality – “because the quality would do the advertising by itself.”
Fazioli brought together a team of mechanical engineers, acoustic physicists and wood technologists, painstakingly experimenting on an instrument that had changed little since the 1930s. They placed adjustable magnets under each key, allowing the pianist to alter the feel of touch, and introduced the same red spruce from the Fiemme Valley as had been used by Stradivari for his famous violins. “I thought, why isn’t anyone using the same wood Stradivari used? If it’s good for that instrument, there’s no reason it wouldn’t be nice for a piano.”
Within two years, Fazioli had made his first piano, exhibiting it at the Frankfurt Fair in 1980. By 1984, Italian pianists such as Aldo Ciccolini were using it at La Scala in Milan. But it wasn’t until 1987, when the late Russian pianist Lazar Berman chose to use a Fazioli at Carnegie Hall for Liszt’s Piano Concerto in A, that the pianos began to get the recognition they deserved. Harold C Schonberg, the influential New York Times music critic, remarked: “There could be no denying the impact of the instrument”.
But getting to Carnegie Hall wasn’t easy. Rivals tried to persuade the concert hall owners not to use Fazioli’s pianos. “It was a lot of work to try and convince everyone.” But Berman wanted the piano and, as Fazioli himself says, at “the end of the day the risk was mine”.
At that point, Fazioli was making 40 hand-made pianos a year. Today, with his one factory in Sacile just down the road from his family’s old furniture plant, he’s turning out 110, with annual revenues of e6m. He is still innovating, having recently set up a research department. And when he gets the chance, he practices in the specially-constructed concert hall next to his factory. And despite his ambivalence toward German pianos, composers are another matter. He plays “Schumann and Schubert. But Schumann is my favourite”.