How the Piano Changed Music (1/3)

Which instrument did you first hear playing live? The chances are that it was a piano. Adrian Jack shows the history of the wood and ivory box which has become the first lady of musical instruments.

The piano on the beach in Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film is one of cinema’s most memorable images. The film’s soundtrack by Michael Nyman won huge audiences. Today 12 per cent of the UK’s population plays a piano, and despite its cumbersome size it’s the one by which other instruments are tuned and around which most composers have worked. But how did it come into being? And in what ways has it been used by the great solo keyboard composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt?

The piano has had a central place in music since the middle of the eighteenth century when it began to supplant the harpsichord. From the 1770s keyboard sonatas by classical composers like Clementi, Mozart and Haydn, and even the first 20 sonatas by Beethoven (1793-1803) were published for harpsichord or piano. Haydn probably didn’t own a piano until the 1780s, but in 1790 he wrote to a friend: ‘It’s a pity Your Grace doesn’t own a Schantz fortepiano, on which everything is better expressed. I know I ought to have composed this Sonata in accordance with the capabilities of your harpsichord, but I found this impossible because I was no longer accustomed to it.’

From harpsichord to piano
Some time before 1720, perhaps as early as 1700, the Florentine instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori developed a ‘harpsichord with loud and soft’ – in effect, a grand piano: it was wing-shaped, like the harpsichord, though – oddly enough – not as loud as the most powerful harpsichords of the time. The strings were struck with hammers, which fell back immediately without rebounding – by means of an ‘escapement’ – while an independent damper mechanism allowed the string to vibrate as long as the key was held down and returned when it was released. Only three pianos definitely built by Cristofori survive – in New York, Rome and Leipzig – and in two of them there is an ‘una corda’ stop, like the modern ‘soft pedal’, which moves the key sideways so that each hammer strikes only one of the two strings for each note. Mechanically, Cristofori’s pianos were unsurpassed until about 1800, and they were the basis of the Saxon Gottfried Silbermann’s pianos – eventually approved by J S Bach after Silbermann made improvements – Broadwood’s pianos in England, and from the 1770s onwards Érard’s pianos in France. As well as Cristofori’s ‘una corda’ hand stop, Silbermann added one to keep the dampers raised after the keys had been released, equivalent to the right pedal on the modern piano.

Despite the mechanical sophistication of Cristofori’s prototype, most German and Viennese piano makers throughout the rest of the eighteenth century used a similar action – many even without an escapement to stop the hammers rebounding, so that the strings tended to jangle, as Mozart complained. The principle of the so-called ‘Viennese’ action was to pivot the hammers in forks at the back of the keys instead of in a fixed rail above them. This made for a lighter, shallower touch than Cristofori’s or Silbermann’s, and it was well suited to sparkling passage work. German and Viennese pianos also had a variety of levers, or later, pedals to alter the sound or add percussive effects. Composers rarely, if ever, specified when to use them. In one of Haydn’s last sonatas, he says ‘open pedal’ over a very quiet passage, but his meaning is ambiguous. And Beethoven’s blanket instruction ‘senza sordini’ at the start of the Moonlight Sonata’s first movement means ‘use the damper pedal’ but doesn’t tell you when to change it. Even today, pedalling is too subtle a matter to be fully notated.

Some of the best makers of the Viennese action were Johann Andreas Stein of Augsburg, whome both Mozart and Beethoven visited; Anton Walter, whom Mozart favoured in later years; Schantz, who was probably the supplier of Haydn’s first piano, and Graf, who gave a piano to Beethoven – though it was of limited use to him because of his deafness. Graf also provided a piano for Chopin’s 1829 debut in Vienna and made an instrument for Clara Schumann which was eventually owned by Brahms. A romantic picture of the young Liszt surrounded by admirers shows him playing a Graf piano, but then he tried all makes of instrument. At a concert Liszt gave in Vienna in 1838, he broke strings on two Graf pianos in succession. Liszt’s playing created a need for pianos which were stronger, louder and which had a faster action, and he did much to make Bösendorfer’s reputation when he found that their pianos didn’t break under his onslaughts.

But pianos with light Viennese actions were preferred by many pianists and composers in the German-speaking world right up to Brahms, and Bösendorfer only stopped making them in 1909. But the technical initiative moved elsewhere – first to England, then to France, and finally to America. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Viennese pianos met strong competition from John Broadwood in London, whose heavier, louder instruments with an expanded range impressed Haydn. Their action was based on Cristofori’s. The piano which Broadwood gave Beethoven in 1818 was recently played on a well-publicised tour by Melvyn Tan, but Beethoven had already exceeded its six-octave range in two of his sonatas, Opus 101 and 106, the Hammerklavier.

The standard range for early pianos was five octaves – like harpsichords – and the earliest music to exploit their unique qualities was sonatas by Clementi, Mozart and Haydn from the 1770s. While Clementi and Mozart were virtuosos, Haydn was not; but he wrote for pianists who were outstanding, like Therese Jansen, who was a pupil of Clementi and settled in London. Mozart despised Clementi for being merely flashy – Clementi specialised in double thirds and octaves – and in England, at least, enthusiasm for Haydn’s music soon put Clementi in the shade.

In the 1790s Clementi started his own piano manufacturing business and went on world tours to promote his product. He also employed the pianist-composers Johann Baptist Cramer and John Field to demonstrate his pianos. Cramer’s studies of 1804 and 1810 were admired both by Beethoven and Schumann – they survive today mainly as educational pieces, alongside quantities of music by other composers who lived for a while in London in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, like Kalkbrenner and Dussek (said to have been the first pianist to turn his right profile to the audience, instead of his back). But it was the Irish-born John Field – noted for his sensitivity and use of the pedal to sustain harmonies – who showed how the piano could sing, and his Nocturnes anticipated Chopin’s by 20 years. Having studied and established his reputation in London, Field spent the rest of his life in Russia. But Field’s intimate pieces pale in comparison with Chopin’s and also with those of Schumann, who made something quite new from cycles of character pieces, in works like Carnaval and Kinderszenen.

After Broadwood’s vast improvement on Cristofori’s principles, the next major mechanical development came in Paris. In 1808 Sebastien Érard patented the first repetition action, which supported heavier hammers more efficiently than before, and in 1821 his nephew Pierre Érard patented the double escapement, which remains the basis of modern piano action. This made rapid repeated notes easier to play.

Érard’s rival in France was the firm started by the multi-faceted Ignace Pleyel – composer, publisher, business man – the French equivalent of Muzio Clementi in England. Pleyel was a pupil of Haydn and befriended Chopin, so he linked two worlds which seem radically separate to us today. Chopin made his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel and eventually owned a Pleyel grand of 1839, though he also played Érard’s pianos.

Throughout the history of the piano, composers have both exploited and challenged the features and limitations of the instruments they knew. Some of the music’s impact can undoubtedly be lost when it is performed on a modern piano and regained when a period instrument is used. But a copy of an early instrument is likely to be more practical than the genuine article, and Andreas Staier gets revelatory results from a copy of a Walter piano on his recording of the late sonatas by Haydn. The contrast in the music seem much more explosive and dramatic than on a modern piano. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata burst the pianos of his day apart, but the rapid double octaves towards the end of his Waldstein Sonata are most easily played on a light, Viennese instrument of his own time. In his demands for volume, strength and rapid response in pianos, Beethoven was almost 50 years ahead of his time: no wonder he broke the strings of several pianos. In the Hammerklavier, his most massive sonata, a sense of heroic struggle is essential: the music shouldn’t sound slick. Serkin conveys this more profoundly than any.

Classic CD magazine, 1995


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