Music Forum


 The early piano or fortepiano


by Ilario Gregoletto

Fortepiano by Bartolomeo Cristofori of 1722 in the Musical Instruments Museum of Roma.

The invention of the “gravecembalo”(extended harpsichord with piano and forte) is due to Bartolomeo Cristofori (Padua 4 May 1655 – Florence 27 January 1731), harpsichord maker at the Medici Court of Florence between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Of the three surviving instruments, (next is the image of the one preserved in Rome), Cristofori conceives the new instrument around 1698; the official communication of the invention takes place in 1711 by Scipione Maffei in the „Giornale de ‚Letterati d’Italia”(The journal of italian literates published in Venice, in which the instrument is called “gravicembalo” with piano and forte since it is in fact, in terms of construction criteria, of an Italian harpsichord in a false case from which Cristofori removes the jacks of the pinch system and adapts a hammer mechanism.

For centuries, therefore, the idea that the rope can be struck rather than pinched has been smoldering under the ashes. The moment comes at the end of the 17th century when Hebenstreit Pantaleon invents in 1687 what we could define a super-psalter – in the sense of a psalter that is four times larger than the normal instrument used up to then, armed with 185 strings (grouped in choirs of three strings each) for an extension of 6 octaves, partly of gut and partly of metal, which he plays with psaltery sticks but, in this case, covered with leather.

Pantaleon, evidently very skilled also in personal relationships, it was a huge success in the European courts thirsty for novelty, even more so if a little exotic. Fans and musicians are impressed by the fact that he manages to create effects never heard before: in the meantime he can play pianissimo or fortissimo at will, without having to use stops, and in addition he obtains effects of crescendo and diminuendo never heard before, if not, to a much lesser extent, with the voice or with other melodic instruments, but never with a similar instrument; moreover, the instrument itself has an unusual (for that time) basic sound power, which fills very large and crowded rooms. We recall that the Dresden orchestra – a city of extraordinary musical vitality – astounded in its time (early 18th century) because it had the ability to do crescendo and diminuendo, while all the other musical ensembles still adopted a terraced sound in correspondence with the sections, episodes, engraved, in which the composition was divisible. At an exhibition by Pantaleon Hebenstreit in 1705 in Paris, at the court of Louis XIV, the King gives the instrument the name of Pantaleone. Pantaleon Hebenstreit continues to tour Europe with his Pantaleone; he became a „Pantaleonist” in the Dresden orchestra around 1727, and had instruments made by Gottfried Silbermann. Theinstrument, meanwhile, is being adopted in numerous European courts.

a detail of a percussion psalter (Hackbrett) by Giovanni Francesco Caroelli, 1722

We do not know if Cristofori had also had the opportunity to hear a performance by Pantaleon Hebenstreit. It is known for sure that, inspired by an audition of a Hebenstreit concert, a German organ builder and harpsichord maker, the Schroeter, built in 1717 and presented (but perhaps preceded by the Parisian Jean Marius who in 1716 had presented 4 projects for the construction of a hammer instrument) percussion psalters with keyboard and with a mechanism that acts from above.

The pantaleone characterized the chronicles for almost a century until around 1770 (still in 1767 we remember the performance in London of a certain Georg Nölli with an instrument of 276 strings, perhaps with four strings for choir). Although conceived in the middle of the Baroque period, as already mentioned by Bartolomeo Cristofori, it will have to wait until the second half of the eighteenth century for the fortepiano to begin to spread in the regions of Europe, thanks to the work of the Austrian builders (Vienna will be the „capital of the fortepiano” in those years) and, at the end of the century, French and English builders.

The new keyboard instrument, in fact, proposes new aesthetic concepts, ahead of its time. We will have to wait for a new generation of musicians (and listeners, let’s not forget it) for the fortepiano to begin to impose itself on the music scene, until it definitively established itself between the 18th and 19th centuries, to become the protagonist instrument of a new musical season and the instrument preferred by an increasingly large audience of enthusiasts, listeners and performers.

Political revolutions as French Revolution, changed social customs due to a profound change in society itself with the advent of the bourgeois classes (the fortepiano will be the instrument for excellence of the bourgeois class and will identify itself deeply with it), the growing interest demonstrated by musicians such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and his brother Johann Christian, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and most recently Franz Schubert (for the Viennese area); the multiplication of public performances with the progressive development of a supplied literature designed for the new instrument; the ability and dedication of builders who are particularly sensitive to technical improvements and innovations and open to conversations with composers and teachers; these factors, in addition to the prodromes of Pantaleon Hebenstreit, determined the rise after 1750 of numerous craft shops in London, Augusta, especially Vienna, Dresden, Magdeburg, Paris, marking the initial phase of the history of the piano. The end of the eighteenth century saw the elaboration of specific construction plans, different types of mechanics, almost industrial management criteria. The well-known manufacturer Stein made an average of 25 grand instruments per year and produced a total of 700 one during his activity; in the same years only Vienna – in which 300 shops were able to operate between 1815 and 1833 – boasts names of famous craftsmen such as A. Walter, J.A. Stein, M. Müller, J.A. Streicher, J.W. Schantz, A. Zierer, C. Loeschen and many more.


W.A.Mozart: Fuga in Sol minore, KV.401

Grand piano by Johann Andreas Stein about 1770/1780 years, with knee levers for resonance stop this is the instrument where Mozart played his compositions original fortepiano belonged to the de Chiusole family in Rovereto like in the upper image.


W.A.Mozart Andante with variations in G major – original fortepiano belonged to De Chiusole family, about 1790

The institution of the concert, as we are still used to considering it, will favor the diffusion of the new instrument and at the same time will itself be possible thanks to the continuous innovations that will characterize this musical machine, aimed at an ever greater mechanical perfection, aiming in turn to an ever greater beauty of sound, dictated by the evolution of a wholly Western sound taste, and finally, to an ever greater sound power.

In the early nineteenth century, the concert will come out definitively, from the walls of the living rooms where a few lucky fans could enjoy the first fruits of this or that composer, still a performer of himself; at the same time, the figure of the musician takes on new connotations. Ludwig van Beethoven among the first embodies the figure of the emancipated artist, no longer lackey in the service of a noble protector. Only twenty years have passed since Mozart went to the Prince of Colloredo with a kick in the butt: times have really changed! No longer the frock coat that the prince stopped to reward the performance of Mozart who was little more than a child, nor silver snuffboxes with some gold coins (or exchange-compensations of a similar nature) for the Mozart concert as a teenager, now Beethoven can negotiate on a par with Prince Lichnowski, protector, of course, but friend above all.

The concert takes place in large rooms, often it is the composer-performer himself who acts as his own impresario: the concert is now an institution within the reach of ever wider audiences and the musician rises to the top of culture, a figure recognized in for all to see. Even in the post mortem recognition the terms change substantially: following Mozart’s coffin, his wife and a few others, and we don’t even know where he was buried; Beethoven’s funeral will be attended by a massive mass of ordinary people.

Within the instrument park, the spread of the fortepiano throughout the nineteenth century was at the top; there was no family that did not own at least one, you want the cheapest fortepiano a table, you want the most expensive concert model, grand. So much so that at the end of the same century, after the transition between fortepiano and piano, the American piano companies, new productive forces of the most advanced model, agreed to a roundup of as many fortepiano tables as possible, an operation considered necessary to unlock a market that was now showing signs of fatigue; a huge pyre of tools was made, which was mercilessly set on fire;

Italy and Germany, which boast the birthplace of Cristofori first, Schröter and Silbermann later, finally had to submit to the domination of technology of the Viennese school. In fact, the mechanical solutions proposed by the three manufacturers did not immediately meet the market’s favor, to speak in modern terms, and their inventions would later converge in the so-called English mechanics, developed precisely in the Anglo-Saxon country at the end of the second half of the 18th century.

In the first period of the emergence of the fortepiano, the resistance was not few. We recall the episode of J. S. Bach who was able, for the first time in 1733, to play a fortepiano in Dresden. It is an instrument of Silbermann, a renowned organ builder, and the German composer is perplexed by the novelty. His judgment is decidedly negative: he complains of imperfect mechanics, of sound; in short, the instrument does not respond to his expectations, and dispenses advice for making improvements ..

We do not know whether Silbermann took Bach’s observations into account or not. The episode is undoubtedly significant but, in my opinion, not so much to emphasize the fact that the German composer did not like the instrument as to the too disconcerting novelty aspect, so much so as to displace the great musician; the harpsichord is too different from the fortepiano, too distant from each other both in the instrument-instrumental relationship and in the aesthetic of the sound.

Silbermann action

Still some time will have to pass for Bach, now at the end of his years, but still active, in 1747 in Potsdam, in the presence of Frederick the Great, to have the opportunity to play on an instrument also by Silbermann and proclaim its sure success for the future. ; However, three decades had passed and Bach, a figure of a musician in continuous evolution, also due to a sort of rivalry with his three children, had, alongside the explorations of an Art of Fugue or Musical Offering, in the meantime able to welcome the new trends , increasingly approaching the expressive genre and the new frontiers of keyboard technique (see compositions such as the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the Goldberg Variations, the Capriccio over the distance of his beloved brother – the latter a sort of anticipation of the Sonata Les Adieu op. 81 by Ludvig van Beethoven)

The mechanics of Cristofori, Schröter and Silbermann, albeit with the necessary differences, are similar to each other; they have in common the principle that the hammer is pushed against the string by means of a second lever by a „pivot” or trigger that gives a considerable kinetic force to the hammer shank. This is an interesting fact that denotes, once again, an identity of sound taste that unites Italy and Germany and, in particular, the Venetian musical environment always particularly linked to the German world (it is no coincidence that the scientific news appears in the Giornale dè Letterati published in Venice). Venice and, in a broad sense, the Republic of Venice had always had contact with the German and surrounding territory; we think of the well-known seventeenth-century composer Agostino Steffani of Castelfranco, ambassador in Germanic territory, or of Anna Bon, a talented flutist and composer, in correspondence with C. Ph. E. Bach; or, again, the relationships maintained by Vivaldi for his publications at Le Céne in Amsterdam; not to go back to the sixteenth century with the presence of Flemish composers in Venice such as Adriano Willaert.

After Cristofori and Silberman, in the first phase of placing on the market, it was the Viennese type who met the favor of composers, concert performers, amateurs. Its phonic emission was appreciable over the entire range, and a different sensation of touch for the player compared to English mechanics (which had actually welcomed much of the same mechanics invented by Cristofori) was established at the end of the eighteenth century in particular with Anton Walter and Andreas Stein, in the example with knee pads (the precursors of the resonance and piano pedals); Stein’s daughter Nannette, later married to Streicher, took up the inheritance. The affection shown by Mozart for the instruments of Stein and Walter is equal to that of Beethoven for the Streicher fortepianos and to that felt by Haydn for the instruments manufactured by Schantz; and even in the years that followed, composers often became deeply attached to specific examples, for example Ignace Moscheles to the Viennese Loeschen, Schubert to the Viennese Conrad Graaf; the romantics preferred French instruments: Chopin the Pleyel fortepianos, Liszt the Erard for their marked phonic qualities and mechanical characteristics.

Grandpiano Anton Walter 1780

In summary, the supremacy at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries belongs to the Austrian Empire which, composite in its various identities, manages to condition other cultures even outside its borders both from a technological point of view and for musical taste. Viennese mechanics (which is divided into two branches: prellmechanik – without escapement – and German-action or German mechanics after the application of the escapement by the by Stein in 1777), in which the action of the hammer is much simplified compared to the experiences matured by Cristofori and the German precursors. The success of this mechanism will be complete after the innovations of Andreas Stein and Anton Walter, the two leading manufacturers who, at the end of the 18th century, will bring this mechanism to complete evolution, no longer modified until its disappearance.

In addition to the strengthening of the instrument’s structure, which progressively enlarges but which essentially maintains the basic morphological characteristics, the evolution of the fortepiano is essentially characterized by the changes made to the mechanics: without prejudice to the principle

of percussion given by a covered wooden hammer in leather, it is the way in which this hammer is thrown against the strings that is decisive and makes the difference between the various schools that will alternate on the musical scene, replacing, chronologically, one with the other. Between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century the Viennese fortepiano will present two variants: with a truncated and square tail, as in the Walter fortepiano illustrated above; with rounded tail (according to modern usage) as seen in the Stein fortepiano (see photo above). This derives from different construction criteria that will last for a long time, even if the rounded shape will prevail which ensures greater strength to the structural part of the tail where the thicker strings are hooked, which emit the low notes.

After Bartolomeo Cristofori, it will be another Italian, composer, pianist, entrepreneur, publisher, the Roman Muzio Clementi (Rome 1752- Evesham, Worcestershire 1832) who will collect the legacy of the Florentine harpsichord. Convinced supporter of the technology linked to the invention of Cristofori, who moved to England as a teenager following a patron admired by his musical qualities, he will contribute significantly to the rise of English mechanics, already at the end of the 18th century, with valuable advice to John Broadwood, the most important builder of fortepianos in English at the time. In 1800 Clementi opened a fortepiano factory in London, allying himself with Collard, in order to promote his fortepiano ideal with English or push-button mechanics, which owes much to Cristofori’s mechanics. Clementi will spend many years of his life on important trips to Europe. The first took him, in 1780, to Vienna where he competed with W.A. Mozart in the presence of the Emperor; it is on this occasion that Mozart, in a letter to his father Leopold, defined him with contempt as a „cowardly mechanic”, referring to the particular playing style of Italian. These testimonies should be read not so much to the letter (the winner of the competition was, incidentally, Mozart) but in the light of factors that go beyond the strictly musical and interpretative data. Clementi goes to Vienna as a composer, pianist and teacher, and promotes his compositional style intimately linked to the type of fortepiano with English mechanics. The phonic, expressive, stylistic result is completely different from that given by a Viennese fortepiano (with Viennese mechanics, therefore). The competition announced by the Emperor, however, takes place on a Viennese instrument. Therefore, Clementi is very disadvantaged in the fight, his technique and the musical path linked to it (Mozart will underline in his letter, in negative of course, the passages in ‚double thirds’ – in a certain sense a technical novelty – of the Roman composer) it is not well suited to the instrument with Viennese mechanics, which still responds to a harpsichord aesthetic; certainly Clementi will have deeply regretted his instruments.

After 1780 the Italian will undertake many other stays, stopping for long periods in the most important cities of Europe, always with the aim of promoting his compositional ideas and his style, his instruments and his publishing house which in the meantime had founded. In his long stops (overall he will remain almost thirty years away from home) he will also have the opportunity to carry out his fundamental activity as a teacher of the fortepiano, which will be crowned by the drafting and publication of the monumental Gradus ad Parnassum, a sum of the knowledge of the time in fact of piano technique, still adopted today in the ordinary course of modern piano. Clementi musically embodies the figure of the Enlightenment. In his Gradus ad Parnassum (a sort of performative encyclopedia of the technical problems related to pianism then in the maturation phase, explored in the form of the study; of the musical forms of classical derivation that from the harpsichord are adapted, expanding them, to the fortepiano: prelude, fugue, suite , sonata time, bipartite sonata, rondeau etc .; of the sonata form that in those years was settling with other composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven) he collects the legacy of the Encyclopedias for that aspect addressed to the educational path, so dear to a Jean Jacque Rosseau. As a teacher he will train pianists and teachers at his school such as Cramer, Moscheles, Kalkbrenner, still adopted today in the training path of the modern pianist, and an English composer and pianist, John Field, (inventor of the nocturnal piano) who will particularly influence the style of the great Frederyk Chopin .


Beethoven: 6 Variations on ‘Ich denke dein’ D Major, WoO 74

L.van Beethoven: 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67

Original Fortepiano Bartolomeo Cosner with ‘Turcherie’– Civic Museum of town Feltre

Granpiano, with 2 pedals by John Broadwood (on the left there is the ‘sordino’ or moderator, on the right the dampers lifting). This instrument was a gift for Ludwig van Beethoven.

About a century after the invention of Bartolomeo Cristofori, the time is ripe for the application of his ingenious invention. John Broadwood, whose factory still operated well into the twentieth century, was the one who sent as a gift to L. van Beethoven in the last years of his life an instrument with 4 strings per choir because the master could hear something despite his almost total deafness. The journey of this instrument was absolutely adventurous: by ship from England across the Strait of Gibraltar to Trieste and then on an ox cart to Vienna. The instrument arrived very poorly and its rearrangement was entrusted to her friend Nanette Streicher – nee Stein, who had taken over the management of the fortepiano factory when her husband passed away. Beethoven had numerous fortepianos that determined the stylistic evolution of his compositions, and in particular the 32 Sonatas for solo piano. It is known that until 1803 he composed on Viennese instruments: in 1801 he used an instrument by Walter, in 1802 he owned one by Jakesch and one by Bohak (or Pohak) and in 1803 one by Moser.

In this ‘symphonic’ piece almost like a ‘grand opera’ and not a ‘military’ one, the use of ‘turcherie’ as an orchestral effect seemed justified.

Grandpiano by Sébastien Erard, 1801 (Finchcocks Collection, Richard Burnett, Gondhurst, Kent). The four pedals are: bassoon, dampers lifter, moderator, one string.

The Beethovenian style changes with the Sonata op. 53, dedicated to Count Waldstein: in 1803 he had received as a gift a fortepiano from Erard of Paris (a move by the French manufacturer to advertise himself), therefore an instrument with French mechanics; in 1804 he also has a S.A.Vogel of Budapest (this too, probably, a gift); between 1810 and 1815 his sympathies are for the fortepianos of Schanz, which he always recommends to those who wanted to buy a new instrument and he himself declares to own one. In 1817 he has a Kirschbaum and in 1818, Broadwod’s instrument whose troubles we have told. In 1825 a Graaf is documented that Beethoven declared to be the preferred instrument and remained so until 1827, the year of his death.

Around the second decade of the nineteenth century the Viennese instrument (but sometimes also the Erards, French instruments) for about fifteen years, was equipped with turcherie (as well as the organs of the time, especially in the north Italian area) which was evidently the result of a particular historical moment: on the one hand the discovery of the exotic with the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt and with the Near East to be identified and exorcised at the same time: Turkey; on the other, the Napoleonic wars first, the Congress of Vienna then. The romantic Europe of the time certainly could not help but incorporate the exotic charm of the East (Egypt or Turkey) into its own culture. Here, then, in those years a rage of sphinxes in cabinetmaking (the golden legs and in the shape of a half-length sphinx of the fortepiano J. Brodmann with his Egyptian-style chair, for example, or of moretti similar to caryatids of the fortepiano Haschka reproduced below), but also the compositional style is influenced by it. Therefore, between 1810 and 1825 approximately the Viennese fortepiano will often be equipped with turcherie: bells, cymbal and bass drum, all operated by special pedals.

Here some photos of a fortepiano Anton Zierer to explain what pedals move:

In upper photo is possible to see the front of the piano Anton Zierer with the six pedals on the Lyra:

the pedal sixth moves all three gadgets of the Turkish system; if the pedal is well adjusted and so also the three devices, it is possible to activate only the little bells that ring first, then the cymbals and finally the drum whose mallet final head strikes internally against the soundboard;

of course must be well regulated because there is the risk, otherwise, of breaking through the soundboard itself.

In this second photo we are inner the instrument and we see the ‘head’ of the mallet of the drum that strikes against the sounboard.

From left to right, the first pedal moves the bassoon

the second pedal is a partial raising of dampers in the part of ‘soprano’ (very useful when playng four hands music);

the third moves the moderator or ‘sordino’;

the fourth is 1 string device like in modern pianos;

the fifth pedal rises completely all the dampers;

Beethoven: from Three Marches for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 45: II.

Vivace in E-Flat Major – here you can hear various gadget under the name of Turkish device (drum, bells and music cymbals, bassoon)

In the Trio we have introduced a large use of the bassoon to characterize the obstinate element almost a forced march…

In the Haschka instrument reproduced above, we see an incredible accuracy in the wood inlays and bronzes decorations – which can be better appreciated in the following color photo of another instrument by the same author.

With instruments of this type we are at the apex of the evolution of the Viennese fortepiano not only for the sumptuousness of the piece of furniture but also for the balance achieved in the relationship between mechanics and structure of the instrument, which will soon have to give way to the French and English ones.

Wanting to take a quick look at the chronological evolution of the devices that the Viennese fortepiano was equipped with, in addition to the raising of the dampers (the pedal of the „forte” or resonance of the current piano), present since the invention of the instrument, we have the sordino (also called moderator), a thin felt cloth to be placed between the hammer and the string to obtain an artificial „piano” (the Beethovenian prescription on the title page of the Moonlight Sonata is famous and equally misrepresented, as the most common lesson reports that it is performed with the pedal „una corda” while the Beethovenian intention is that the interpreter uses only the lightness of the fingers and does not use the mute to create an artificial piano, which is obtained precisely with this mechanism); both of these effects are always operated by the two knee pads as they are two basic mechanisms in the fortepiano.

From the early nineteenth century in addition to these two devices that were therefore always present, we also find the bassoon register: a parchment paper that was lowered at will on the bass strings through a mechanism regulated by a knob placed at left on the front panel of the instrument, the sound obtained, similar to a buzz, can sometimes approach that of a hurdy-gurdy if the musical line of the left hand is treated by the composer in order to exploit this particular sound. When the instrument is permanently equipped with a pedal board and therefore will now be of considerable size, in addition to the aforementioned stops, a string or lateral movement of the fingerboard will be added as in modern grand instruments. The one string causes the hammer to hit only one string of the three that make up the choir, thus obtaining a lighter and more velvety sound. You can also find a special pedal for the partial lifting of the dampers that affects only the right area of the keyboard, that is the treble, designed for four-handed performances; as very often, in this repertoire, there is the need that the performer on the right can enrich his musical line by lifting the damps, without however affecting the clarity and transparency of the musical line that is on the bass, as instead it would inevitably happen with a single damper pedal as is found today in modern instruments. This is a proof of how widespread the four-hand chamber repertoire was then and held in high regard. Lastly, the pedal that will move the turkey appears, always located at the far right of the row of pedals and therefore operated exclusively by the player on the right. It should be noted that the latter effect is found exclusively in the four-handed repertoire, never in the solo repertoire.

It is worth specifying that in spite of this rich series of sonic possibilities the composers never indicated in their scores if, how, where and when to use such effects. Although from Beethoven onwards there are indications regarding the signs of f, ff, p, pp, ppp, dim. cresc., and so on, they never bothered to indicate the appearance of one sound effect rather than another (except in the unique case of the aforementioned explicit indication on the title page of the Beethovenian Sonata op. ‚). It is a real shame, if not a serious and penalizing lack for us today, and it concerns not only literature and the instruments we are talking about but practically all musical literature, even from centuries ago: Bach himself, for example, never indicates only one organ recording and much less harpsichord. The interpreter who wants to approach the revival of repertoires with contemporary instruments will therefore have to carry out research and executive practice for a long time, making use of contemporary treaties as much as

possible in order to get closer to the taste of the time and make sensible stylistic recovery operations. In our case, for example, we could be facilitated by the fact that a military march written in the period in which the fortepiano with turcherie is attested will be in its musical revival certainly made with the use of such sounds that will fully render the color effects typical of a band.


Turkish system where we see the three bells of different dimensions with three wooden fingers to play the bells, and the brass plate.

another image where we can see on the left the long Black box of the bassoon and on the right the little box of the plates and back the bells.In the center the box with dampers.

Another original Fortepiano – Bartolomeo Cosner 1815 with ‘Turcherie’ – on wich we have recorded the CD with music of Weber and Beethoven you can hear


Weber: 6 Petites pièces faciles pour piano à 4 mains, Op. 3, No. 5: Marcia in C Major

This vaguely turquoise piece was characterized by the use of the bassoon, clearly outlined at the beginning of the piece itself and in the central part as well as by the bells alone and together with the drum; the effect is certainly comic, as is the central character of this piece.

In this period the Viennese instruments are still entirely made of wood, that is, they do not have those iron reinforcement bars that will soon arrive above the soundboard in order to strengthen the structure. (the first to adopt them seems to have been J. Broadwood in 1808). This solution was imposed, first with a single iron bar, then with two and finally with three, as the tensions of the strings, gradually increasing, meant that a simple wooden structure, however well studied and calibrated , was led to deform to the point of making the instrument useless. In fact, any structure in order to perform the functions for which it was designed cannot and beyond its “critical mass”: for example, in order to obtain an increasingly powerful and grave sound, the appropriate string must be inspired more and more. However, it is a process that cannot be developed indefinitely and at a certain point it was possible to progress only by finding a different solution: covering the rope itself with another one wound in a spiral. One of the major problems for the strong tops, whether they are tail or table, is precisely that of the bending and torsion of the structure subjected to the increasing tension of the strings.

In short, the history of the fortepiano is endowed by the continuous search for greater sound volume, so:

_ Viennese mechanics: thin soft iron strings rich in carbon, thin hammers covered with deerskin, harpsichord structure;

_ English mechanics: thicker strings in soft iron purer of carbon, more taut and thicker hammers covered in leather, more massive structure of the instrument;

_ French mechanics: even thicker strings in even purer soft iron, but also steel strings, even greater tensions, thicker hammers covered in leather but also in felt, an even more massive structure with the need for reinforcements in iron bars.

With Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Franz Schubert (1798-1828) the Austrian musical environment reached its apex, as well as the Viennese fortepiano that is intimately linked to them. One – the musicians – could not have existed without the other – the world of builders – and vice versa. In order to open one’s own business, it was then necessary, after a long internship in the workshop, to produce the masterpiece: an instrument that was judged by a special commission and was perfect. After five years the license could only be renewed by proposing the patent of some new technological solution that the others had not yet reached, and so on. It was therefore a system for fueling ruthless competition between the various artisans and for continually encouraging innovations. With Schubert we are in the last season of the Viennese fortepiano; musical taste is in fact evolving to full romanticism, with composers such as Frederyk Chopin and Franz Liszt. Their musical aesthetics will find full realization in symbiosis with the new instruments equipped with the most perfected and ductile French and English mechanics: Chopin will prefer the instruments built by Ignace Pleyel; Liszt will prefer those of Sebastien Erard. But the English instruments of Broadwod and Collar & Collard (formerly Clementi) were also renowned in England.

Alongside the production of concert grand instruments, then as now there was an equally thriving production of home or „chamber” instruments. The choice of the type of instruments was much wider at the time than today, it was not limited only to the „upright” or „wall” piano that the market today offers.


Weber: 6 Petites pièces faciles pour piano à 4 mains, Op. 3, No. 3: Menuetto in B-Flat Major

The most popular chamber instrument was undoubtedly the “table” fortepiano, so called because it could be presented, once closed, as an elegant table and as proof of this, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was also equipped with a shelf for books or drawers cleverly inserted between the legs that supported it.


Soon the structure becomes more massive, as can be seen in the following photograph of an instrument by Clementi.

As we have already mentioned, among his many activities, he had founded a factory that exclusively produced table fortepianos much sought after by the bourgeoisie who delighted in music. The instruments were particularly cared for in the external appearance so as to fit perfectly into the furnishings of the most elegant homes. From the images it can be seen that in the table instruments of

the XVIII century, for exclusively domestic use, in general any device is missing and in particular they do not have a pedal board or even knee pads, always present instead in the grand instruments; moreover, the extension is still equal to about five octaves, like a harpsichord, and is, after all, still little more than a harpsichord in terms of tone and sound power. The musical literature performed in the home did not yet have great demands, on an instrument of such characteristics it was difficult to deal with the great repertoire of the time (for example a Sonata by the last Beethoven) and it was limited above all to chamber music, where the role of the keyboard instrument was more contained. In the instrument depicted on p. 17, built in 1825 with the Clementi trademark, there are instead the two traditional sordino pedals (generally on the left) and the resonance pedal, proving that these devices were now an essential requirement. In this period the range of the keyboard exceeds six octaves even in table instruments and the instruments are equipped with English mechanics.

In addition to the very popular table fortepiano, there were, however, other models that were the result of the imagination of the builders and organological reminiscences from previous centuries.

As we have already mentioned, the fortepiano is essentially a psalter – so is the harpsichord – to which a mechanized keyboard has been applied. The plucked psaltery was played vertically held in the lap of the performer, so it was natural to also create a keyboard instrument that developed vertically:

naturally the first was a ‘vertical harpsichord’ with a regular keyboard and called a ‘claviciterio’. Technological research and the need to have a more present sound, perhaps, or perhaps trivially the need to save space

by exploiting, as today, the space in height, could be the reasons for the creation of this instrument that never had the diffusion of the horizontal brother. but which, however, is always found in the various centuries. Even in the 19th century,therefore, the solution was adopted of creating fortepiani that developed in height with the most varied shapes but which all recalled the experiences of the past.

The first to have this idea in reality was once again, an Italian, Domenico Del Mela, who was the first in 1739 to have practically applied hammer mechanics to a claviciterio. In the comparison between the images it is worth noting the similarity and continuity of forms between the various instruments belonging to such different eras. In the upper image, a ‘vertical fortepiano’ absolutely out of the ordinary for the monumentality of the architectural system that is revealed to our eyes and for the organological equipment – note the six pedals. This type of instrument was called ‘fortepiano a giraffe’, a name that is all a program and well describes its exotic taste. The identity with the claviciterio reproduced in Praetorius’ table two centuries earlier is completely out of the question.

There were equally impressive instruments but with a more traditional shape, as illustrated below, which combined useful with pleasure as they brought together a library and a musical instrument in the same piece of furniture. The fortepiano called cabinet (wardrobe, walk-in closet), although less elegant than the French one, was quite successful by combining the traditional line of the external furniture, similar to that of a wardrobe, without excessive frills, with this practical aspect. With regard to the instrument itself, structurally it was a fortepiano with the tail placed vertically, as already seen with regard to the giraffe-shaped fortepiano, but which does not reveal itself to the listener and the performer only when the cabinet doors itself.

Let’s see in the following image how the structure inside such an instrument, completely analogous to the one reproduced above, could be intelligently exploited.

Among the unusual shapes, however attributable to the examples just illustrated, the fortepiano reproduced below also stands out, in the shape of a lyre, dating back to 1825.

From the monumentality of the Empire Style we move on to the simpler “piano”, that is the real vertical fortepiano with the meaning that we today attribute to this term; instrument from the early nineteenth century, almost identical in shape to the current one, but in truth not very widespread in the early nineteenth century. The reason for this lack of success can presumably be explained by the fact that in those years it was the Viennese piano that held the supremacy of diffusion, in particular the table fortepiano with Viennese mechanics; it will take a few more decades and the progressive change in taste with the advent of full romanticism and the consequent decline of Viennese mechanics, as well as changed social conditions for the new instrument to invade the homes of the petty bourgeoisie. It seems that the invention of the vertical fortepiano, the piano, dates back to Isaac Hawkins who patented it in 1800.

In the upper image, an 1812 instrument built by the British Wilkinson and Wornum. They were cheap instruments, easily transportable, with keyboards, for the time, reduced to just five octaves or a little more. When Frederyk Chopin, for health reasons, stayed in Palma de Mallorca in 1838/39, an almost uninhabited fishing island in those times, in the isolated Valldemosa convent, he will have an instrument like the one next to it transported there, a small Pleyel, on which he will compose some of his most poignant preludes. All the instruments illustrated make use of English mechanics. It should be noted that Viennese technology never produced instruments like the two small pianos illustrated here. They are the result of a very advanced industrial world such as the English and French, now careful to meet the most disparate market needs that the new and powerful social class, which was rapidly replacing the noble one, required. As we have already mentioned, the role played by the bourgeoisie in decreeing the absolute success of the fortepiano was fundamental.

Now at the end of the fortepiano’s evolutionary parable, the second image shows an anticipation of the Art Nouveau style, due to the essentiality and characteristics of the absolutely innovative design, all the more so if we consider the year of production of the instrument. Both Pape’s and Lichtenthal’s instruments were in fact produced in 1840. The console shape, however, is quite uncommon for the fortepiano and testifies, especially in this case, in addition to the variety of shapes, the commercial concern that the instrument finds suitable placement among the furniture of the house. Instruments such as Lichtenthal’s could also be placed on the first ships of the line that connected Europe to the Americas, in which case the instrument could be conceived with the interesting possibility of having the tip-up keyboard. retractable, in order to avoid accidents to people in case of rough sea.

A greeting with the hope that this article may have met your favor.


Ilario Gregoletto has learned degrees in piano and harpsichord with studies in organ and early wind instruments at the Conservatory Benedetto Marcello in Venice. He has devoted himself to early music for over thirty years. He began with music of the late Middle Ages and its instruments arriving at Classicism with fortepiano and harpsichord. Prof. Gregoletto has played about one thousand concerts in Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Greece, Germany, Holland and Belgium. He has been Professor of Harpsichord for over twenty years in Italian Conservatories and, from 1991, at the Conservatory of Udine. From 2004 is furthermore teacher at the Conservatory Buzzolla in Adria (History of Ornamentation) and from 2005 at the Ca’ Foscari University (TARS Department) in Venice (History of Musical Instruments). He has recorded as harpsichord continuist, harpsichord soloist, fortepiano soloist in duo and in ensemble, with labels Rivoalto, Tactus and Brilliant, and recently, with Marius Bartoccini, a CD with the complete 4 hands sonata by Frantisek Xaver Dusek and the complete 4 hands sonata by L.Kozeluch for the Brilliant label on his original Schanz fortepiano.

He is interested in the conservation of early instruments and has with E. Modena a wide collection of wind and string copies of instruments from medieval to baroque period, harpsichord copies and original fortepianos from the second half of XVIII’ s. to late XIX’ s. Ilario Gregoletto has published in Recercare an important article about an original 18th century Venetian fortepiano of Luigi Hoffer, one of two extant restaured instrument of this type which can still be played and of which he is the owner. (The other instrument belonged to Gioacchino Rossini).

Via G. Lioni 111 – 31209 Vittorio Veneto (TV) Italy


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