In about 1781, Mozart wrote three songs (K. 390–92) to texts by the Breslau theologian and best-selling novelist Johann Timotheus Hermes (1738–1821, see Konrad and Staehelin 1991, 133-34). The songs were not published in the composer’s lifetime, and there is no evidence that Hermes knew of Mozart’s settings. Hermes did however make reference to Mozart in this article on the relative merits of the clavichord (“Clavier”) and the fortepiano.
In March 1785 Hermes had published an article on Georg Noelli (1727–1789), musician to Duke Frederick of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and virtuoso on the pantaleon (or pantalon). This instrument was a kind of large dulcimer; from Hermes’ description the instrument he saw was evidently the original hand-struck form invented by Noelli’s teacher Pantaleon Hebenstreit (1668–1750). Hermes attacked the popularity of both the fortepiano and the later mechanical form of the pantaleon in Silesia, describing the fortepiano as a “box of noise [Lärmkasten], where one sound drums, another rattles, another buzzes.” (196) In contrast, Hermes praised the clavichord although he recognized that it required a distinctive style of playing (see Richards 2001, 157–58). He also complained about the lack of quality clavichord builders in Silesia.
A response to Hermes’ article by Johann Georg Anschütz (1743–1807), a pastor in Peterwitz, appeared five months later. While acknowledging that some fortepianos were affected by “miserable rattling” (elendes Klapperwerk), Anschütz praised his own fortepiano, an instrument built by Gottfried Helbig (d. 1795) of Liegnitz in Silesia. Anschütz described the instrument as “splendid and beautiful, and a true pleasure to play” (108), and considered that one values a good fortepiano the same as a good clavichord.
In November 1785 Hermes published the above article. He continued his opposition to the fortepiano, and in this passage urged parents to have their children learn the clavichord instead, lamenting the low performance standards of house tutors on that instrument. He makes an exception, however, for the fortepianos played in Vienna and built “somewhere in the [Holy Roman] Empire” (Silesia was at this time mostly a possession of Prussia). Mozart writes for these instruments, and therefore they have to be good.
It appears that Hermes’ complaint is not so much about the tone quality of the fortepiano but the noisiness of its action and the lack of subtlety in its touch compared to the clavichord. Perhaps the “Mozart” fortepiano that Hermes had in mind featured the escape action recently pioneered by Johann Andreas Stein, which offered a considerable technical improvement on previous instruments and may have been unknown at this stage in Breslau.