The origins of the modern piano

Updated: May 25, 2020

In modern times, the piano is an instrument that is technically solid. The instrument is developed and designed in a way that it can handle a large pallet of playing techniques. But it hasn't always been this way and to what extent did the instrument manufacturing change the expectations placed on performers.

The origins of the modern pianoforte originate around C. 1780, which in the historical context of the development can be defined as a crucial period in the manufacturing of keyboard instruments, where a shift in the use of the harpsichord to the new fortepiano starts to happen. “Despite the fact that a piano was first heard in public in Paris as early as 1768. From 1780 onwards, the piano was used as the main keyboard instrument” (Rowland, 1998, 21) At this point in the historical development of the piano, instrumental design was very much driven by the music demand on the repertoire being written. Subsequent to this “The instruments of Vienna and London have produced two different schools” (Kalkbrenner, 1830, 10) The way these two schools have produced different techniques is evident to the attributes associated with them. “The pianists of Vienna are especially distinguished for the precision, clearness and rapidity if their execution.” (Kalkbrenner, 1830, 10)

It is first important to understand how both instrument’s technical specifications compare. The most notable visual difference between the Viennese and English piano externally, is the shape of the instrument. The ‘English’ is described as looking “heavier, and is square in the tail”, with a thicker body and internal bracing, in contrast the “Viennese’ piano is more elegant” (Rowland 1998, 22) with a thicker base board. The biggest internal difference lies in the hammer action, The Viennese “hammers are very light and are usually mounted on the key mechanism itself” (Rowland 1998, 23) This resulted in the ‘Viennese’ having a lightness and precision seen in Figure 1.0, which was favoured by a lot of the well known classical composers, “Mozart praised the instruments of Johann Andreas Stein (1728-92), a German builder. In about 1783 Mozart bought a Viennese piano by Anton Walter (1752-1826). Haydn recommended the Viennese pianos of Wenzel Schantz (1750-90)” (Latcham, 1993, 29)

It is noted in history that many of the great composers for the keyboard instrument had personal preferences to design and manufactures, subsequently shaping how their works where written. In 1777 Mozart wrote, “[b]efore I had seen Stein’s work, I favoured Spät’s Claviers. But now I must give Stein’s Claviers preference because they have a much better damper than the Regensburg instruments.” Evidence of this can be found in the writing of Mozart’s later keyboard works such as K466 and K467 that have been written for the lighter Viennese instrument in mind. This can be clearly seen in the first four bars of the piano solo of K467, where the score expects the performer to have an awareness of being almost weightless in a sense. The entry of the piano, could be described as floating and doesn’t “enter boldly, with music the orchestra has already introduced, but hesitantly, ushered in by oboe, bassoon, and flute.” (Huscher, 1, 2017)

In older recording of K467 such as one under the direction of Tadeusz Karolak, that are performed on an instrument that is closer in design to the Walter piano owned my Mozart, it can be noted that rubato is used generously throughout and the dynamics of the piano to orchestra is significantly unbalanced, placing more emphasis on the accompanying melodies of the oboe. This differs from performances that are played on the modern instruments, which are played with less rubato and is generally more precise over the semiquavers runs. The balance is a lot more even and there is much more presence in the dialogue between the oboe and the piano at the solo entrance. This observation could be a result to the technical developments in the instruments action and frame. These observations can also be supported by the Viennese action, known for its precision when developed in the 18th century, but not well regulated compared to the modern piano action seen in figure 3.0. It can also be concluded the the dynamic differences and balance are a result of lower volume of the Viennese instrument in the design of the case due to a more “substantial baseboard” (Rowland, 1998, 22)

Further evidence of these differences which supports the original statement can be found in the comparison of reviews of notable performances. In a letter from Mozart commenting on a performance of the concerto, He describes semiquaver runs as being played in a “clumsy manner. But the… when she comes to a passage which ought flow like oil and which necessitates a change in finger, she doesn’t” (Anderson, 90, 1986). If we now compare this performance on a period instrument, to one played on the likes of a modern concert grand, noticeable differences can be seen in the approach to playing the semiquaver passages. “: phrases are carefully tailored to rise to their natural peaks and fall away in the softest of pianissimo” (Nagley, 1980, 35)

Although there is a great deal of supporting evidence that the differences of these performances are due to the period and modern instruments that are being used. It is important to recognise Mozart’s use of rubato in the late 18th century. “Mozart was particularly admired for his expressive playing…One of the noteworthy aspects of Mozart’s expressive playing was his use of rubato.” (Rowland, 1998, 27) This evidence could contradict the earlier findings that the expectations are no different between the 18th century and today. This evidence could suggest that expectations of the performer are down to unchanged contextual reasonings behind a performance.

As well as major developments in the manufacturing of keyboard instruments in the 18th century, a shift in the function of music was taking place “by In the 19th century, the function of music was changing. Music now represented a new found openness of ones inner emotions and feelings and also “embraced a number of philosophical and aesthetic concerns that are not necessarily confined to music’. (Beard and Kenneth, 2005, 12) This could be seen in ever expanding library of keyboard repertoire being composed with more demand on the technical proficiency of the performer, this also mean that the music being composed required a more technically advanced instrument. In 1803 Beethoven received his Erard piano. Even in 1803, the importance of a composer receiving a new instrument and the subsequent effect it would have on their compositional language was “expected to interest scholars as much as (Beethoven’s) personal, artistic or political developments” (Skowroneck, 2002, 523)

Beethoven is a clear figure that helps demonstrate that new instrumental design shifted the expectations of the performer. We can see this in his Sonata No.23 in F minor which is colloquially known as the ‘Appassionata’, meaning passionate in Italian. The expectation of a modern pianist is to convey expression, which relies of a combination of technical factors, including tempo, dynamics and rubato. These factors become even more significant when it is realised that this sonata is the first sonata of Beethoven’s composed on his new Erard piano. The sonata can be known for its “unprecedented fervor is abetted by the extreme contrast of dynamics, suddenly leaping from pp to ff, and by the time signature of 12/8 marked allegro assai, which belies the initial rocking lyricism to suggest the tension and sheer drama that is to come.” (Gutmann, 2009) These types of dynamics would have only been able to be executed to their full potential on an instrument such as the piano produced by Erard which was “a larger keyboard instrument with a sturdier action than its Viennese counterparts” (Skowroneck, 2002, 523)

Although the potential for more expressive playing can be found in the developed action and build of the Erard piano, the expectations of performers still did not change until later in the 19th century. Zvi Meniker performance of the first movements demonstrates this with the way that he interprets the meaning of ‘Appassionata’ with his use of tempo and rubato over dynamic differences. This can be seen at Bar 51 in figure 4.0. where in the modern day performance Meniker has expectations to perform the semiquavers with precision and power, yet he chooses to reflect the performance practice of the late 18th century using the rubato and tempo as the technique of choice to express passion.

It is evident that the fast paced developments of the keyboard instrument throughout the 18th and 19th century, combined with the colliding views on instrument building practices of various manufactures and schools, have substantially changed composers musical language. Although the musical language of keyboard music has changed throughout this period of time, a huge amount of variations in piano design has created no solid evidence that the expectations on a performer have shifted because of this. Instead, the musical language of the composers have had more of direct effect on how keyboard works are performed and interpreted.

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