He fell in love with an unusual piano in the home of his childhood sweetheart.
And although he cannot read music, he has made a career of building replicas of the piano that Mozart is believed to have played.
They aren’t the pianos commonly built by the Starr Piano Company or those found in churches and concert halls. They are fortepianos, with a unique look and sound.
Hagerstown native Philip Belt spent most of his life handcrafting instruments that transport musicians and their audiences back into the era of Mozart and Bach. Now, the 88-year-old is retired and has donated the first piano he built to the Hagerstown Arts Place and Museum.
“(Belt), in his own way and era, was as inspired as Charlie Teetor to build something that nobody else could,” said Tom Butters of Hagerstown Arts Place and Museum. “The Hagerstown museum is a community museum that pays tribute to the inventors and entrepreneurs of this area, and Phil Belt is certainly one of those persons.”
The square piano, a replica of a German piano made in the mid-1700s, is displayed in the museum’s Newcomb Room.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Belt said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
A boy who enjoyed making model airplanes, Belt built his career from scratch.
His first job after graduating from Hagerstown High School in 1945 was to deliver cattle and horses to war-torn Poland. Back home, he began working in a New Castle music store tuning and repairing instruments of all kinds.
Belt cannot read music, but he had a natural ability to tune pianos.
His relationship with music and musical instruments is spiritual for him and he believes his past lives helped shape his work. He said that as a boy in a past life, he worked in a piano-maker’s shop carving tiny and delicate pieces.
It was during Belt’s tenure with the New Castle music store that he was assigned to tune a piano in the Cambridge City home of a childhood sweetheart. On that day in 1959, his former sweetheart showed him a family treasure, an antique German square piano brought to America by the family in the 1700s.
Fascinated, he began to contemplate building his own. Belt later bought the family’s piano and it is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
His completed his replica of the square piano in the early 1960s. He continued to be inspired by each antique piano he encountered.
Because of the quality of his work, he was soon invited to the Smithsonian Institution to make drawings of an early piano there so he could create a replica.
On a trip to Europe, he visited the Mozart house without hope of getting close to the Mozart piano. But a fortunate turn of conversation led the curator to allow him to take the measurements of the Anton Walter-made piano.
“I never dreamed I would see it,” he recalls.
Belt went on to make several copies of the piano.
Malcolm Bilson, the Frederick J. Whitton Professor of Music at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., calls Belt a pioneer in replica Mozart piano production.
“The Mozart-era piano is as different from today’s Steinways and Yamahas as a Model T is from the cars we have today. They produce quite a different sound, but more importantly, they play differently and inspire players to a very different kind of musical expression. We all understand that sopranos with a light or a heavy voice will express musical lines in a different way,” Bilson said.
“There were several builders both here and in Europe engaged in trying to build these instruments, but Philip Belt stands out as the only one at that time to build a totally convincing, well-balanced instrument. It was in no case a curiosity, but a piano as perfect in its own way as any modern piano.”
Bilson purchased one of Belt’s 1960s instruments and later commissioned another. In the 1980s, Bilson recorded all the Mozart Piano Concertos using his Belt-built fortepiano, as the modern replicas have come to be known.
“It (the piano) reveals the way it should be played,” Belt said.
Belt restored an original fortepiano, created by Johann Andreas Stein in the late 1700s, that was part of the Toledo Museum of Art’s collection. He went on to make replica kits from that design that he sold for a while.
Like a symphony with several movements, Belt’s life has undergone many changes. By 1982, he had been married five times and lived in several states. Through a pen-pal program, he became acquainted with a woman in the Philippines.
Belt met and married his wife, Merlinda, in Manilla that year and they remain married 32 years later.
“The way we met, it’s just a work of God,” she said.
They have three children, and Belt has six others, among them a son who is deceased.
The Belts lived in the Philippines for a while, but it was not conducive to Belt’s piano making and the family returned to Indiana in the 1990s.
Belt’s career led him to create 46 pianos. His works are scattered throughout the world. The final Mozart replica he constructed is now in New Zealand.
Each one was a work of love and each was hard to let go.
“It feels like you’re getting rid of your children,” Belt said. “It fells like it’s going off to someplace you’ll never see it again.”
A stroke slowed Belt’s craftsmanship abilities and he quietly slipped into retirement.
“I sit here and look out the window about all day,” Belt said. “My hands don’t work like they used to.”
But his pianos play on.
More on Belt’s life work
Malcolm Bilson is the Frederick J. Whitton Professor of Music at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He has owned two pianos made by Philip Belt.
These are Bilson’s complete thoughts on Philip Belt and Belt’s life’s work:
“In the last half century, the classical music world has undergone a rather important shift in the kinds of performance we hear in concerts and recordings and being taught in conservatories and music schools all over the world. It started just after the second world war with the advent of the so-called Urtext (ur is a German word meaning original or first) editions of the classics. Previously, if you wanted to learn Bach Preludes and Fugues or Mozart Piano Sonatas the only editions available were heavily edited in the late 19th century by famous virtuosi of that period. Now, we wanted a score that told us exactly what those composers put down in their notation so that we might get as close as possible to the aesthetics of their time.
“But then another phenomenon appeared: perhaps it is not just our music scores that are not right, but perhaps the instruments we play today (almost all unchanged since the late 19th century) are also quite different from those the composer heard, and for which he wrote his music.
“In comes Philip Belt, in my opinion one of the most important pioneers in this whole enterprise, with his Mozart Piano. Later, these late 18th century instruments became known as ‘fortepianos,’ but not in 1969. The Mozart-era piano is as different from today’s Steinways and Yamahas as a Model T is from the cars we have today. They produce quite a different sound, but more importantly, they play differently and inspire players to a very different kind of musical expression. (We all understand that sopranos with a light or a heavy voice will express musical lines in a different way.) There were several builders both here and in Europe engaged in trying to build these instruments, but Philip Belt stands out as the only one at that time to build a totally convincing, well-balanced instrument. It was in no case a curiosity, but a piano as perfect in its own way as any modern piano.
“I was fortunate to get one of his first instruments, changing it a few years later for a somewhat different model. It was on that instrument in the 1980s that I recorded all the Mozart Piano Concertos with Sir John Eliot Gardiner for Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv. (Some of these recordings can be found, illegally I suppose, on YouTube.) In those recordings (still selling well after 25 years), all the instruments are typical of those used in Mozart’s time, not merely the piano.
“The early work of Philip Belt can hardly be overestimated in helping the entire musical endeavor move forward. There are now many fine builders, producing copies of virtually all the greatest masters of the past, makers whose pianos were praised and treasured by Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. One of those fine builders was in my house recently, and I played him a recording I had made in 1972 on my first Belt piano. His mouth fell open, and he said, ‘My whole idea of this movement has changed. I thought that no one could make such a good piano before the mid-1980s!’”