Also: pianoforte piano-forte Hammerklavier
Title: Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”; Alexei Lubimov, fortepiano. Label: Erato. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 4509-94356-2. Track: 3.
The fortepiano is a struck box-zither chordophone of European origin with a mechanically elaborate key-driven mechanism provided for each string course. It is the immediate precursor of the modern-day piano. Pictured in the gallery on this page are two fortepianos: the first is a replica, made in 1983 by R. J. Regier of Freeport, Maine, of an extant piano that was made in Vienna, Austria, by Conrad Graf around 1824; the second was manufactured in London in 1804 by the company of John Broadwood and Son (see first detail image, which shows the maker's label located just above the keyboard). Most of the great piano literature (sonatas, concertos, and chamber music with piano) written between the final few decades of the eighteenth century and the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth was composed with the sound and the touch of the fortepiano in mind--this would include the late works of Mozart and Haydn and the entire keyboard output of Beethoven and Schubert. In their time, fortepianos were hand crafted and expensive instruments affordable only to members of the upper classes and professional musicians who concertized across Europe (their fortepianos were often gifts from manufacturers), although less grand models of the instrument (often rectangular in shape) were becoming available to an emerging middle class clientele throughout the first half of the 19th century. Changes to the design of, the materials used for, and the manufacture of fortepianos were constantly in flux, and by 1860 the modern piano had superseded instruments such as the ones pictured on this page. Interest in restoring period instruments and making replicas of them emerged in the final half of the 20th century, and a few skilled craftsmen such as R. J. Regier provide fine instruments for a limited market of institutions, such as university music departments, and professional fortepianists, who concertize and make commercial recordings of the instrument’s original repertoire. On the first of the two audio clips on this page an original 1824 Graf fortepiano is heard; on the second clip an 1806 Broadwood is being played.
[The description to follow is of the Graf fortepiano, the first one pictured in the gallery.] The plane of the strings of a fortepiano is positioned horizontally, parallel to the ground, and encased in a wing-shaped wood frame, which accommodates longer string lengths towards one side of the instrument, and progressively shorter ones toward the other side. Just below and parallel to the strings is a large, thin, wooden soundboard comprised of slats of wood glued together and reinforced on its bottom side by a number of struts. Two curved pressure bridges are glued to the top face of the soundboard; the instrument’s strings press down on the bridges, which facilitates the transference of the strings’ vibrational energy to the soundboard. One bridge services the heavier bass string courses (from C1 to G-sharp2), the other bridge the remaining string courses (A2-F7). The strings themselves, made of metal and held at a moderately-high level of tension, are attached at both their ends to a heavy, wing-shaped hardwood frame that edges of which are attached to the interior walls of the similarly shaped wooden casing, which has a closed bottom. The end of each string that is closest to the keyboard is wound around a metal tuning friction pin that is imbedded in a wooden pin block. The other end of each string is looped around a metal hitch pin on the curved side of the string carrier frame that is opposite its pin-block side. In the second detail image part of one of the instrument’s bridges can be seen as well as the hitch pins for several of the bass register notes; the blue felt seen between the bridge and the hitch pins silences any unwanted overtones that this segment of the strings might give off. A string-course's actual speaking length is determined by where it comes in firm contact, near its pin-block end, with a ridge nut that is part of the string carrier frame, and where it comes into firm contact with the top of the soundboard bridge over which it passes. For the fortepiano pictured in the first gallery image, the speaking length of the lowest-pitched course is 76.5 inches while that of the highest-pitched course is 2.5 inches. While 68 discrete pitches can be produced on this fortepiano, the instrument uses many more strings (both wire and wire-wound wire) than that number implies. Its string coursing and string designs are as follows: the five lowest notes have double-course strings that have a steel wire core wound with copper wire; the next 16 notes have triple-course strings of brass; and the final 47 notes have triple course steel strings. The strings are struck, as a result of the player depressing the keyboard lever keys, from below by leather- and felt-padded hammers. The intervening mechanism between a note’s key and its hammer (called its ‘action’) is quite complex, consisting of levers, springs, pads, bars, rods and dampers all engineered into a narrow structure that is .5 inch in width. The padding on the hammers attenuates the highest overtones of the metal strings to produce a strong, yet not overly bright tone. Shown in the third detail image is the action of this piano removed from its case. Foot pedals control parameters of the instrument's sound such as the sustaining or dampening of sounding strings and their volume (as determined by, on multi-course strings, how many of the strings are actually struck by the hammer). One pedal introduces a timbral change to the bottom three octaves of notes described as ‘bassoon’. The case of the instrument, veneered with American black walnut, has a closed bottom side and is topped off with a heavy hinged lid that can be left closed (somewhat muting the overall volume of the instrument) or in a fully open position (as pictured).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The player of the fortepiano sits on a bench facing the instrument’s keyboard (see fourth detail image) and uses all the fingers of both hands to depress the keys individually, sequentially, or in combination with varying degrees of force. The keyboard is arranged in a chromatic configuration, which repeats with each successive octave, with the white keys producing the diatonic C Major scale and the black keys dividing all of the whole tones in that scale into half steps. Within its 6½-octave range from C1 to F7 it is fully chromatic (68 discrete notes). [The Broadwood, by comparison, has a 5½-octave range from F1 to C7, just 58 notes.] The piano action is very sensitive to the performer’s touch, and a wide range of dynamics is possible. An equally wide range of articulations is possible on the piano, from legato to rapid-fire re-articulations of the same note, scale passages, and arpeggiations. Both feet are used to operate the instrument’s four pedals, each of which controls mechanisms that affect some aspect of sound production (the number of strings in each course that are struck, whether the sound of notes are sustained or damped, or their timbre). Piano notation is written on the grand staff at pitch, although very low and very high passages can be transposed up and down an octave, respectively, to avoid excessive numbers of ledger lines.
The origin of the fortepiano ultimately resides in the harpsichord and its inability to accommodate changing 18th century desires amongst keyboard performers and composers to explore the emotional potential of dynamic variation. Especially significant in regard to the harpsichord is that no matter how gently or forcefully you strike a key on its keyboard, the resulting sound will have the same dynamic level. In contrast, a hammered chordophone such as a dulcimer responds dynamically to the amount of energy being applied to its string courses resulting in a wide dynamic range and the ability to produce gradual modulations in volume (crescendos and diminuendos). In the early 18th century, keyboard instrument makers began experimenting with hammer actions instead of plucking actions, and the individual credited with creating the first piano is Bartolomeo Cristifori (1655-1730) of Florence, Italy; three of his pianos from the 1720s survive. From this beginning, the history of the fortepiano is largely focused on improving two design challenges: 1) how to engineer a faster and touch-sensitive action that will allow the hammers to drop immediately after striking their strings and be prepared almost immediately for another articulation; and 2) increase the dynamic range of the instrument, especially the louder end of its range. Cristifiori’s action design was but the starting point for a century’s worth of experimentation on the part of many makers all over Europe, and it was in 1821 that the Frenchman Sébastien Érard patented an action that would eventually become the standard for the modern piano. Around the same time makers started experimenting with metal frame string carriers that would absorb the pressure resulting from the use of higher gauge strings held at greater tension, a combination necessary to meet 19th century performers’ demands for louder instruments. Such metal framing would solve the bowing/warping problem many period instruments experienced as thicker strings under greater tension began to be used; many period fortepianos, including this collection’s Broadwood, are unplayable today because they predated the use of metal string carriers. By 1860, the date we are using as the beginning of the era of the modern piano, instruments were being made with the Érard action, cast iron string carriers, heavy gauge steel strings, and with no bottom board for their casing. See the entry for ‘piano’ for the post-1860 evolution of the piano.
Fisher, Charles P. 1986. “Piano,” in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Don Randel, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, pp. 629-638.
Ripin, Edwin M., et. al. “Pianoforte [piano],” in Grove Music Online. Accessed December 15 2014: http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/21631?q=piano&search=quick&source=omo_gmo&pos=3&_start=1#firsthit
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)314.122-8 chordophone--true board zither (the plane of the strings is parallel with that of the string bearer): with resonator box (box zither); the resonator is made from slats; with keyboard
Design and Playing Features
String carrier design: zither - board
Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard
String courses: double at unison
Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut
String tension control: friction pin
Method of sounding: striking (indirect)
Pitches per string course: one
95 in. length (first instrument) 47.5 in. width (first instrument) 90 in. length (second instrument) 43 in. wide (second instrument)
R. J. Regier
6.5 octave after Conrad Graf ca. 1824