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The fortepiano: capturing the sound aesthetic for modern playing

Grappling with performing the music of early Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn on the modern piano can be a daunting experience. The modern piano is not the instrument for which their music was composed. Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn all preferred Viennese pianos (today called the fortepiano) and the traits from the inside out are distinctly different than those of the modern piano. A comparison between various physical traits of the modern Steinway D grand piano and the 1790 Walter five-octave fortepiano sheds light on the divergence between the instrument of “yesteryear” and today.

  • The modern grand weighs 990 pounds compared to the fortepiano at 187 pounds. This leaves a modern instrument capable of withstanding much more tension – 45,014 pounds of iron string tension compared to 2,094 pounds of steel string tension on the fortepiano.
  • The modern piano contains heavier keys attached to much larger and thicker hammers that are covered by felt and wool compared to keys half the weight with hammers that are covered by 1-3 thin layers of buckskin or leather on the fortepiano.
  • The key dip on the modern piano is three times that of the fortepiano and requires four times the energy to set the key in motion.
  • The modern piano covers seven and one-half octaves compared to five octaves on the fortepiano.
  • The naturals are slightly wider and longer and the sharps are slightly narrower on the modern piano.
  • One travels twice the distance in height going from the naturals to the sharps on the modern piano.

From these physical comparisons one finds a distinctly different sound aesthetic is experienced on the fortepiano. The fortepiano is rich in overtones with a silvery tone. The physical characteristics facilitates quick action, responsiveness, and great finesse. The sound on the fortepiano is quickly and crisply articulated with clear tone definition, and a variety of colors. An important characteristic on the fortepiano is its ability articulate musical thoughts. One idea may be quickly brought to the forefront and with equal ease and speed it may recede into the background. Indeed, the fortepiano is the perfect instrument for realizing music from the Classical Era. Follow the links to hear the sound aesthetic realized on the instrument for which it was composed.

How does one accomplish that different sound aesthetic on such a markedly different instrument as the modern piano? The answer begins simply — play “as if” one is playing a fortepiano. Play as if:

  • you are playing a fortepiano. This will require considerable time listening to performances on fortepiano to acquaint your ear with the sound. Take time to listen to esteemed artists such as Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin, and Tom Beghin as they perform on period instruments.
  • your instrument is capable of clear definition in the low register.
  • your instrument is capable of quicker responsiveness and crisply articulated attack/release.
  • the changes from forte to piano are more about nuance and subtlety than loud and soft.
  • you have only five octaves to achieve extremes in range.

As Tilman Skowroneck advocates in Beethoven the Pianist, we must learn what the score tells us about the music and what the score tells us to strive for or expect from the instrument—any instrument. We must continually listen to the feedback from the instrument to strive for the Classical aesthetic, making our modern piano translate the clarity, finesse, and vibrancy of the fortepiano. Doing so will provide new discoveries for energized and revitalized personal performing.

Image credit: “Fortepiano label” by Ching. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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