What’s in a name—pianoforte, fortepiano, piano? We can all agree that it is a keyboard instrument whose mechanism involves hammers, originally covered with leather, now felt, that strike the strings. Its mechanism differs from its forerunner the clavier, an instrument whose strings are struck by small metal hammers, or the harpsichord whose strings are plucked by crow or turkey quills, now made of delrin.
The piano, an eighteenth century invention, evolved through lots of experimentation with mechanisms to produce a functioning instrument. The Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) is considered the inventor of the piano as we know it today. He called his instrument Clavicembalo col Piano e Forte (keyboard with soft and loud, depending on the force used to strike keys). Because the instrument had the ability to sustain tone and gradations of volume, it quickly gained popularity. By 1768, the piano was used as a solo instrument in concert performances. Three instruments built by Christofori exist in museums today.
To hear the sound of one of these instruments, watch this:
Now, listen to Barenboim play the same sonata on a modern piano:
As you may recall from earlier blog posts, Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792 and made his mark in the city, first as a pianist, then a composer. During Beethoven’s Viennese days, the piano drastically changed in character depending on the builder. According to Chris Maene, Belgian piano and harpsichord manufacturer, Beethoven played seven different fortepianos built by Stein(1786), Walter (1795), Erard (1803), Fritz (1811), Streicher (1814), Broadwood (1817), and Graf (1826). Distinct differences in touch, feel, power, and color can be drawn between instruments depending on their maker. These pianos offered specific opportunities and limitations, and the above elements affected the way Beethoven composed for each instrument.
To view photos and descriptions of these pianos, read this article from Pianist Magazine.
In his last decade of life, Beethoven owned two pianos, one built by Broadwood of London and one by Graf of Vienna. Viennese pianos possessed light and speedy keyboard action, allowing rapid execution of notes in clear sharp tones. English pianos had a more powerful sonority: rich, solid, robust resonance. Beethoven’s late sonatas Op 109, 110, and 112, plus Hammerklavier, clearly reflect both a spirit and drama that assures us that he took full advantage of the range and capacities these instruments offered.
To more clearly understand and appreciate the sound of the instruments built for and played by Beethoven, please listen to David Breitman perform Sonata No 15 on a replica of the Walter instrument.
Or Malcolm Bilson performing the first movement of the Tempest.
Or Beethoven’s’ Moonlight Sonata (Anton Walter by Paul McNulty).
Then listen to Murray Perahia performing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, 3rd movement, performed on a modern piano.
As performers, are we obliged to simply play the notes on the page and follow signs of instructions, such a dynamic and pedaling, or do we need to consider the limitations of the instruments dating from the particular period during which the composition was written? Does that knowledge enlighten us as we attempt to communicate that composer’s music to our audiences?
On Thursday, October 15, Grass Roots TV will broadcast our next Music From the Library concert with Amanda Gessler performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas Op 109 and 111. Amanda has engaged in scholarly exploration of Beethoven scores—the notes, the dynamic markings, and pedaling—and she has studied with internationally known teachers, most recently Richard Goode of New York.
Amanda’s sharing of her musical talent and knowledge of Beethoven’s music will bring joy to your ears. Tune in to Grass Roots TV, channel 12, to watch the concert on October 15 at 5:30PM. This concert will also be available to view on YouTube and Facebook following the Thursday broadcast.