Jan. 10, 2016: Fortepiano or Pianoforte?
Most of us are familiar with the ubiquitous ‘piano’ found in many homes, concert halls, schools and other public places. We may not know that the full name is ‘pianoforte’, which literally means ‘soft-loud’. The ancestor of our modern piano is now called ‘fortepiano’, meaning ‘loud-soft’. The significance of these names relates to the previous keyboard instrument, the harpsichord, on which the strings are literally plucked by a quill (or a piece of plastic) when the key is depressed. It is impossible to make the sound louder or softer except by coupling two sets of strings together. The fortepiano mechanism hits the string(s) with a leather-covered hammer, which produces a louder or softer sound depending on the force with which the player depresses the key. This was a distinct advantage for more expressive playing than is possible on the harpsichord.
An Italian harpsichord builder named Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the hammer escapement action around 1700. This permitted the keys to fall way from the strings and vibrate freely. His first fortepianos were very similar to his harpsichords except that he used two strings per note. Like the harpsichord the early piano had a wooden frame which was affected by changes in temperature and humidity and required frequent tuning. In the almost 200 years from Cristofori’s invention until the piano more or less reached its current form around 1900 all kinds of innovations were tried. More notes were added and the frames were strengthened with metal frames and/or braces. The stronger frames made the instruments more stable and made possible the use of thicker strings strung under more pressure, all of which meant the instruments became louder. During Beethoven’s lifetime the evolution sped up; from about 1800 his increasing deafness prompted Beethoven to ask various piano makers for louder instruments which he could hear.
Pedals in various permutations were introduced until the usual three found on today’s pianos became the norm. On a modern grand piano the right pedal lifts all the dampers off the strings. The left pedal is called ‘una corda’ and shifts the entire mechanism so that the hammers hit only one or two strings, making the sound softer. The middle pedal lifts the dampers on only the notes originally struck, enabling the player to sustain the few desired notes while playing others either with or without the regular damper pedal. The earliest fortepianos had pedal levers built on the underside of the keyboard which the player pushed up with the knees. As the fortepiano evolved as many as six pedals operated by the player’s feet were introduced. The damper pedal raised all the dampers; the keyboard shift was similar to the modern ‘una corda’ pedal, shifting the action to play fewer strings. The ‘bassoon’ pedal placed a wooden bar covered with parchment over the bass strings, producing a buzzing sound. The moderator pedal placed a layer of cloth or soft leather between the hammers and the strings, affecting essentially a softer sound, but also a distinct change of timbre. Various other short-lived ideas included the “Janissary” (Turkish military band) pedal, which activated cymbals, bells, or drums.
The beautiful instrument which David Kim will play on the Chamber Music Corvallis concert on Feb. 5, 7:30 pm at the First United Methodist Church is a replica of an 1830 Graf fortepiano by R.J. Regier in Freeporte, Maine. It has 6 ½ octaves (compared to 7 1/3 on a modern piano), measures eight feet in length and has four pedals mounted on a beautiful lyre.
Read more about the upcoming concert here, and read about the musicians David Kim and Lauren Basney here!