History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 July 2007

The Early Piano, with Susanne Dunlap

Whenever listening to or reading about music in the early part of the 19th century it’s always worth remembering that pianos were not really the same as the big, growling concert grands of today. As late as the end of the 18th century, composers still often wrote for the more established harpsichord.

But the harpsichord had a limited emotional range. Because it operated by plucking a string when a key was depressed, the level of volume was the same no matter how one pressed the key. Changes had to be achieved globally, either by pulling a stop that placed a damping piece of felt or leather across the strings, or by having two different keyboards set to two different timbres.

Cristofori’s Pianoforte, invented in the late 17th century, took the action of the intimate clavichord (a chamber instrument where a hammer tapped a string rather than plucked it), and made it audible to more than a handful of nearby listeners. The reason for the low volume of the clavichord was simply that once the hammer struck the string, it remained in contact with it, which damped its sound almost immediately. Cristofori invented a mechanism that would allow the hammer to fall away from the string once it was struck, and let the sound resonate. This was called an escapement mechanism.

(The clavichord, though, could do something a piano could not and never would: it allowed the player to vibrate the pitch my leaning into or jiggling the key. A very expressive instrument, but unfortunately, without amplification, not suitable for a concert environment.)

In the early 18th century, Gottfried Silbermann invented the sustaining pedal, the one that lifts all the dampers away from the strings and keeps the sound resonating even after the player lifts her hands off the keys.

The Romantic era was all about expression over symmetry, breaking the boundaries, being more emotional and heartfelt. In literature, the era more or less started with Goethe in the 18th century. The Sorrows of Young Werther was the watershed book that everyone read, and it captured the mood of the age.

The pianoforte rose to prominence at around the same time. But as with all new musical instruments, use and invention went hand-in-hand. As composers discovered that the pianoforte was capable of wide variations in tone and volume, they wrote music of increasing complexity and technical virtuosity for it. At first, the piano’s range was very similar to that of a harpsichord, which was limited by size and by the amount of tension that could be placed on the frame. Initially, pianos suffered from the same limitations. In particular the Viennese instruments that Mozart and Haydn wrote for were quite delicate, with their wooden frames, two strings to a note, and leather-covered hammers. Their sound is very different from that of a modern piano, and the keyboards are shorter—only five octaves.

In around 1820, development of the piano really burgeoned in London and Paris. Frames were stronger, and the keyboard expanded to seven octaves. A Bostonian maker invented the cast-iron frame, which allowed heavier strings at much higher tensions to be used (the modern concert grand supports 20 tons of tension), and Sebastian Erard invented his double-escapement mechanism. It was this that solved the final technical problem of the pianoforte: The difficulty of playing rapidly-repeated notes. Erard’s mechanism not only allowed the hammer to fall away, but caught it so that it was almost instantly ready to be thrown back against the strings again.

Throughout the 19th century pianos became heavier and stronger, until finally settling on the form they have today: 88 keys (7 ½ octaves), usually three pedals, and cast-iron frames with two or three strings per note, some of them in the lower ranges wrapped around to make them heavier and stronger.

The piano became the parlor instrument of choice in the 19th century. Every middle-class or higher home had one for the daughters to perform on. Early parlor pianos were square, some were upright, some small grands. Unlike stringed or wind instruments, anyone could strike a note and make a sound that did not offend the ear, which was probably one reason why keyboard instruments were so popular. And music—playing the piano or spinet or singing—was an accomplishment that was expected of a marriageable young lady.

The piece that Anne plays at Marie’s salon is Chopin’s study Op. 10 #3. Here are a few different recordings where you can find this piece.

Agustin Anievas Maurizio Pollini Murray Perahia

Chopin’s music is usually played on a modern piano as is Liszt’s, because they were composing for an instrument that was pretty similar. If you want to explore the sound of earlier pianos, look for performances by Malcolm Bilson, John Van Buskirk, and Melvyn Tan. These artists have recorded music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other earlier composers.

A few useful definitions:

A keyboard instrument where the sound is produced when the key lifts a plectrum to pluck a string or strings.

Very similar to a harpsichord, but smaller and with only one string to a note. Very much a parlor instrument.

Virginal (or Virginals)
A spinet without legs, usually set upon a table to play. Common in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. No one knows where the name came from. I wonder if it’s from the fact that virgins were encouraged to play it?

A keyboard instrument where the keys raise hammers to strike strings and remain in contact with them. Very similar to a harpsichord in appearance, but extremely quiet.

A keyboard instrument where sound is produced by sending a hammer upwards to strike a string and fall away from the string so that the sound can resonate.

The modern term for an early pianoforte, usually applied to those without Erard’s double-escapement mechanism.


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wow, thanks Susanne for that post. I've always wondered what the differences were between all the different instruments that led up to the modern piano. Personally Chopin is one of my favorite composers. I could listen to his music for hours.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is very cool. One of my friends owns and plays the virginal. It's very different from listening to a piano.

Susanne, have you been to Fenton House in London? Last time I was there it was filed with music students practicing on all the historic instruments.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Wonderful, succinct history, Suzanne. I've had harpsichord lessons over the years--the hardest aspect of harpsichord "technique" is learning to "articulate" the melody line
for emphasis (in place of using the dynamic range of the piano). Articulation is the very subtle lifting of the finger to make a tiny, tiny "sound" space before the next note. Just a smidge--a staccato touch is too much.

I found this much more difficult than playing Chopin on the piano,
which is challenging enough.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post!! I went ot an event once at a house with several period harpischords and pianofortes. It was fascinating to them and note the differences from a modern piano. So interesting what you way about the style of music developing along with the capabilities of the instrument.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Cool, Susanne. I always wondered what the difference was between and spint, virginal and pianoforte.

Very helpful! Thanks.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

er, that's a spinet. It would help if I could spell. ;-)

2:38 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Susanne, this is a fabulous post!! Thank you so much for this information. I had no idea that the Regency keyboard was only five octaves. For some reason, I'd assumed that by then they were the same size as today's piano.

12:48 AM  
Blogger Atherley said...

Great summary! If I may add that the term was originally "forte e piano," Italian for "loud and soft," and was derived from the fact that the intrument could do just that: play loud (forte) and soft (piano).

"Virginal" was little more than a poetic name for a popular keyboard instrument that literally sat on a tabletop in the home and was considered suitable for a girl or woman to play because it didn't distort her face or figure, unlike recorders, transverse ("German") flutes and viols (precursors of modern violins).

Lynna, playing harpsichord is a hoot, is it not? I definitely could not go from playing Beethoven on the Beckstein to Bach on the Bannister!

3:46 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online