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Classic and Romantic Pianos  

by Kenneth Drake, Professor Emeritus in the School of Music of the University of Illinois

  The sounds and the touch of a piano from the past beguile one to hear the music as though through the ears of one who lived in that era. However tempting the thought that the sound of such a piano is what a musician of 1800 heard, we cannot avoid hearing the sound of the period piano through the sonority and brilliance of the modern piano. We are left to imagine the first thoughts of those who were present when Beethoven’s Broadwood was uncrated, set up and played in a warehouse in Vienna that winter day in 1818. The heavy door of time has closed to us the innocent anticipation of that moment.

One reads that pianists who played this unfamiliar English piano thought the tone was beautiful if also that the action was heavy. While we are accustomed to a much heavier action, it is in the lesser sonority of the early piano, so easily dismissed as a deficiency, that we meet ear-to-ear, mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart the Beethoven of life, not of the history book. With respect to the capacity of his piano the Beethoven of life, to use the words of Hubert Kessler – “reached beyond his grasp.” Donald Frances Tovey observed in his edition of the Sonatas that the fortissimo staccato triplets in the A-minor section in the last movement of the Sonata Op. 2 No. 2 must be forced on the modern piano: "…the early piano sounded formidable because it was obviously displaying its full strength, whereas the modern piano sounds weak in them [the fortissimo triplets] because it can make so much more noise in other ways.” Only with purposeful effort can one re-create on the modern piano the remainder of the image that lies outside the frame of the painting.

On the piano of that day the effect of the Sonata Pathétique no doubt sounded like incomprehensible noise-making to many of Beethoven’s contemporaries. Czerny, roughly age 10, played the sonata for Beethoven at their first meeting, as did Moscheles for his teacher, only to be warned that playing such music could ruin young pianists, who ought to be playing Bach and Mozart. To the young, however, the piece must have meant the release of unbounded passion, a driving purpose of creative life as yet untouched by electronic technology and the standardization of competitions and "higher education." Beethoven would assuredly ask us, as he did Schuppanzig – “Does he believe I think about his wretched fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?”


"Mois je suis Bacchus qui pressure pour les hommes le nectar delicieux"

Depending upon personal belief, the spirit between the notes of a Beethoven sonata alone brings to life the sound of any piano, then or now. Pianists may hone their technique for the demands of later repertoire, only to feel under-challenged by the fewer notes in classic works. It is human then to compensate with speed and metronomic tempos, too easily accepted benchmarks of competence. Artur Schnabel said that he played the notes as well as many other pianists, but that it was in the pauses between the notes that the art lives. Czerny wrote that the first movement of Op. 111 should be played with all the passion that the difficulty of its passages requires. It is in the lesser sonority of the piano of the first decades of the 19th century that the passion becomes physically real and the philosophical answer embodied in the sonata implicit. To maintain that one should not play the C-minor Sonata unless, like Beethoven, one needs it may not be an extreme position to take; the spirit that cannot be seen but lives in the pianistic re-creation of struggle and resignation speaks only in extremis. An excerpt from Albert Einstein’s My Credo is relevant:

The most beautiful and deepest experience a person can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principal of religion as well as of all endeavor in art and in science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.


Within the lower dynamic range of the piano of the classic period and its thinner, more transparent sound the eloquence of pauses and silences, the shock of subito dynamics, the speech inflections of articulation slurs, and the nuances of light and shade become obvious. The student of whatever age encounters in the early piano a teacher for sensitivity of touch, for subtlety of articulation, for pacing of tempos, and for understanding musical syntax. As one example, the slurred two-note figure in the opening lines of the Mozart Sonata K. 333, beginning with the appoggiatura in the first sixteenth-note group, is a musical thought that recurs with increasing frequency until it is consummated in the sweep upward to the slurred f – e-flat at the top of Mozart’s keyboard. Details that were heard as meaningful on the piano of the past tend to be obscured in the opulent sonority, sustained singing quality, and wider keyboard compass of the modern piano.

Although pianists will continue to play Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert sonatas in large halls, the early piano places the solo sonatas of these composers in historical perspective: music to be played primarily by oneself for oneself at a time when solo sonatas were considered inappropriate repertoire for public concerts. One reads in Arthur Loesser’s Men, Women and Pianos (p. 422) that Clara Schumann, making her debut in Vienna in 1837, ten years after Beethoven’s death, was the first pianist to program Beethoven sonatas. As late as 1848 the concert director of the series in London on which the pianist Charles Hallé was to appear attempted to dissuade him from playing a Beethoven sonata because it had never been done there before on a public recital.

The spontaneity, creativity, informality and personal effect of concertizing in the 19th century, when such events had the freshness of jazz concerts today, are compared in Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age – Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press, 2008) with the prerequisite solemn decorum and scholarly adherence to the printed page of a piano recital today. The breadth of research, the detailed documentation, and the vividness of presentation make this book difficult to put aside for any reader who is interested in the evolution of the present-day piano recital.

The pianos in this personal collection include four generations of English Broadwood grands from 1806, 1816, 1829 and 1860. The founder of the firm, John Broadwood, was a Scottish cabinetmaker who emigrated to London in 1761 and began working for a Swiss harpsichord builder, Burkat Tschudi, anglicized Shudi. Following his marriage to Shudi’s daughter Barbara in 1769, John became head of the firm in 1771. Drawing upon the expertise of others, he introduced significant innovations in piano design, including the English “pushing” action, a tonally more satisfactory striking point of the hammer on the string, a strengthened case and the pedal lyre. (The history of the Broadwood family and the development of piano building through successive generations is told in David Wainwright’s Broadwood by Appointment – A History, published originally by Quiller Press in London in 1982, a book as interesting to the layman as to the professional musician.)

  Those interested in reading and learning more about period pianos and their place in music history can find helpful information in the following:
  Burnett, Richard, Company of Pianos, ( Finchcocks Press, 2004)
  Hamilton, Kenneth, After the Golden Age, Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, (Oxford University Press, 2008)
  Loesser, Arthur, Men, Women and Pianos, A Social History, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954)
  Wainwright, David, Broadwood by Appoinrtment, A History, (Quiller Press, London, 1982)
  Surrey History Centre (Broadwood Record Books)
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