Technical Library

EARLY PIANO I: Introducing the Fortepiano

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Cristofori’s gravecemablo col piano e forte 1720 26K jpeg
Cristofori’s 1720 gravecembalo col piano e forte
from the Crosby Brown Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Introducing the fortepiano…

Isn’t it a shame that today we play so much music on our beloved modern “piano”, that in fact was not intended for it? The further back in time one goes, the greater the differences between the instrument of the composer and the ubiquitous keyboard of today.

Depending which book you read, we’re told the piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. Reports of the time called his instrument a gravecembalo col piano e forte, meaning simply, “harpsichord with soft and loud”.

Three of Cristofori’s pianofortes have survived, and can be found in museums in New York (1720), Rome (1722) and Leipzig (1726). From the outside, all look pretty much similar to eighteenth-century Italian harpsichords. Cristofori’s genius lay in his action design—the ability for his hammer to excite the string and then instantly rebound, leaving it free to resonate. This is called the “escapement”, and without some form of it or another on piano-type instruments, the tone produced is not really usable.

Poor Cristofori may have died without realizing the enormous change his instrument would bring to Western music. It was probably with some sadness that we should note it wasn’t until 1732 that one of his own countrymen, Ludovico Giustini, published the first pieces for the new instrument—Sonate da cimbalo di piano, e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti, and it was probably at least another half-century before the instrument had reached sufficient refinement to be considered suitable by composers we now regard as the greatest ever: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

The terms Fortepiano and Pianoforte have often been used interchangeably throughout history. In fact, even today, in the old Eastern bloc countries, they don’t know what a pianoforte is, preferring to use the word Fortepiano.

We know the keyboard of today as the Pianoforte or just Piano for short—which is a silly name for such a loud instrument: It would be much more sensible for something which can be successfully pitted against a 110-piece modern symphony orchestra to be commonly known as the Forte! Our modern piano grew out of the English style of instrument, and I prefer to use the word Fortepiano specifically to mean early instruments with the Viennese action. Major piano makers ceased production of this type of instrument before 1900, but somewhat surprizingly, smaller boutique makes continued until the mid-1920s.

Young Mozart highly praised the instruments of Stein, although he was never fortunate enough to be able to own one. If you visit his birthplace in Salzburg, you will see a piano built by Walter. (“No photos, please, and oh no! you mustn’t touch it!”) The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries marked a rapid change in the development of keyboard instruments. There is no better music than that of Beethoven to illustrate this. His was a special case—genius combined with progressive deafness— and it is sometimes interesting to contemplate what he might have heard in his inner ear late in his life: Was it indeed still the five-octave piano of his youth, but with more notes? You can actually play his music up to 1801 within the five-octave compass. Highly recommended you try the Pathetique on the instrument of its conception, because it will give you quite a different perception from the comical bloodbath it makes on the modern grand.

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Stein Fortepiano action model by Philip Belt 1984

(I’ve often been accused of being anti-piano, but nothing in fact could be further from the truth. Horses for courses, please. I should say here that most of the musicians, instrument makers and music lovers I know who have embarked on the marvelous voyage of discovery of early instruments have come to their realization from an urgency integral to the very music itself, rather than any mere antiquarian interest. The modern piano is especially suited for playing orchestral or opera reductions, or reasonably faithfully interpreting the post WWII repertoire, but, hey, if you’ve found this page, there’s no need for me to preach to the converted!)

The distinguishing feature of the Viennese action is the suspension of the leather-covered hammer in a fork (called the kapsel), set into the rear of the key. When the key is depressed, the beak end of the hammer shank catches under the hook of the sprung prell lever. The hammer is allowed to travel almost all the way to the string, and at the last minute the prell flips back and the beak leather slides up the face of the prell, effecting the escapement. The hammer rebounds from the string, and (in later actions) is caught by the leather of the backcheck until such time as the key is released, allowing the whole cycle to be repeated.

Great sensitivity and refinement of touch are possible with this arrangement, because (unlike the English system with its separately suspended hammers pushed by rods and levers towards the strings) the finger is in direct mechanical connection with the string at the crucial moment of impact.

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Carey Beebe demonstrating the Viennese fortepiano action.
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“I must tell you right now about Stein’s pianofortes… No matter how I decide to touch the keys, the tone is always even, never scratchy, louder or softer, or non-existent…
When you play on his keys, the hammers rebound at the instant they strike the strings, whether or not you continue to depress the keys…”

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, letter to his father from Augsburg, October 17, 1777

Fortepiano 18K jpeg The Fortepiano after Stein

Double strung throughout
Hand operated moderator, knee lever sustain
One 61+1-note reverse keyboard FF–f''' A415/A440
Honduras mahogany roundtail case
Four turned and fluted legs, solid frame and panel lid
Viennese action setup by Carey Beebe
Kangaroo skin hammer coverings
D. Jacques Way Stonington 1986

Available for hire.

Fortepiano action 14K jpeg

“It is unfortunate that, although so many play the fortepiano, there are nevertheless so few who strive to handle it according to its true nature…”

— Andreas Streicher, 1801

For the performer, it is no small revelation to at last have an instrument which makes sense of all the scales, arpeggios and Alberti figures that abound in Mozart’s music. The shallow key dip and light touch allow for great rapidity of playing. The double-stringing imposes only about 1500kg force of tension on the wooden frame, offering a bright, clear tone. The dampers are raised by a knee-lever, and a knob in the middle of the nameboard above the keys operates the moderator, interposing a strip of thin cloth between hammer and string to provide a muted effect.

If you choose the appropriate repertoire, you don’t notice any limitation at all with the Fortepiano’s 61-notes, but rather a great feeling of power at one with the instrument, the extremities of compass exactly delimiting the music. This cohesion of purpose and tool found in the work of virtually all crafts, is something which is sadly missing with the performance of earlier music on modern instruments—it’s been remarked elsewhere that Mozart on the piano is not unlike a cook breaking eggs with a hammer!

Modern interest was aroused in the possibilities of the early piano by European pioneers like Paul Badura-Skoda and Jörg Demus. The recordings of these players were initially confined to too-often tinny and out of tune original instruments, far past their prime or poorly ‘restored’ or prepared: This was sadly characteristic of the 60s and 70s, and despite the impeccable intentions of the musicians concerned, probably spoilt the concept for many otherwise open-minded listeners. Malcolm Bilson, who began after ‘the Father of the Fortepiano’, Phil Belt, dropped around one of his first reproduction instruments to try, still provides great impetus to modern makers, players and teachers. His Fortepiano Summer Schools in the 1980s were an inspiration, and many of the musicians who attended those schools at Cornell University, along with his Doctoral graduates, have spread the word around the globe. Bilson’s DG Archiv recordings of the complete Mozart Concerti with the English Baroque Soloists were a milestone.

“Mozart Unexpurgated—Scatological and other Songs, Canons, and Piano Variations” CD cover 31K jpeg

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Geoffrey Lancaster performing
an excerpt of Mozart’s K398
Variations in F on a theme by Paisiello
from the Tall Poppies CD TP009
Mozart Unexpurgated
—Scatological and other Songs,
Canons, and Piano Variations

Several Australians have achieved prominence in the Fortepiano performance world—quite remarkable considering our small population:

Early Piano index:

CBH Icon 1K gif Early Piano Bibliography
CBH Icon 1K gif First Fortepiano concerts in China
CBH Icon 1K gif Square pianoforte restoration report
CBH Icon 1K gif Technical Library overview
CBH Icon 1K gif Harpsichords Australia Home Page