The roots of both the English and continental fortepianos are found in the design
imagined by Schroter and the instruments created by Silbermann during the early to
mid eighteenth century. During the period 1780-1800 the fortepiano in central Europe
was a fully developed instrument with about a century of history behind it. By this
point it had been so fully adapted that instrument builders had ceased production
of the harpsichord in favour of the newer instrument, creating an industry of surprising
proportions. Hundreds of makers were spread across the continent with the heaviest
concentration in Vienna. Some aspects of construction became common to all makers,
but the variables gave the individual makers’ instruments their characteristic voices.
South German builders Johann Andreas Stein and Johann Jacob Konnicke of Orschleben,
Brunswick, as well as Anton Walter of Vienna all addressed similar problems and came
up with individual and very different instruments.
It is important to remember that the piano of today is not the same as that of Beethoven's
time, and this fact must be considered when performing Beethoven's piano music. Even
in his lifetime, there were several important changes to the instrument, notably
in the extension of the range from around 5 octaves in 1785 to over 6 at the end
of his life. The most obvious difference with a modern instrument is the frame which
changed from wood to iron. In 1825, Babcock patented the all over iron frame which
was not at first completely successful but it is an important development which led
to Henry Steinway, Jr. on Dec 20th 1859 taking out the patent for over stringing
for grand piano - patenting number 26,532. This was a turning point for Steinways
and the modern piano.
Most of Beethoven's early pianos would have been Viennese in make, but unfortunately
none of the instruments made by Walter, Streicher or Schanz for Beethoven still exist.
In the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna, there is a 1785 Walter of the type Beethoven
would have been familiar with - although having just over 5 octaves, it has a far
superior tone to Beethoven's 1803 Erard. Indeed Beethoven thought particularly highly
of Anton Walter's pianos, but his desire for a true Una Corda pedal was only fulfilled
when the manufacturer Erard presented him in 1803 with an instrument that had such
a device. Beethoven was not particularly satisfied with this instrument and a year
later he was requesting a piano from Stein (son of the famous Johann Andreas Stein
whose pianos had so impressed Mozart). It seems that he preferred the makes of Stein
and Streicher, but one of the problems he faced was durability - as his deafness
progressed he doubtless was demanding more tone from the piano and these instruments
were not as hardy as today's modern makes!
The tonal ideals for Viennese pianos of the period 1810 to 1825 circle about brilliance,
lightness and clarity, and mainly about tone colour. There is variety of colour from
bass to treble and from one of the possible pedal effects, or combinations, to another.
The fortepiano action as featured in Stein instruments was established by the 1770’s
and changed very little over the years of production by Johann Andreas. Although
the individual hammers became slightly larger, the range expanded slightly, and the
hammer shanks slightly heavier during the 1790’s, the design principle remained surprisingly
constant. The most prized early pianos and the type most often reproduced by the
builders of today are the continental instruments of both South German and Viennese
builders such as Stein, Konnicke, Walter, Schanz, Heilmann.
Function of the piano key
As the key is depressed - The Hammer (2) strikes the string. At the same time the
Damper (1), is raised.
This instrument of 1825 was fitted with 4 strings to some of the keys instead of
the usual 3 - quadruplestrung from D to f4, triplestrung from C1 to Cis. This was
not a success as the wire had to be thinner to avoid an increase in tension. The
extra string appears not to have been added specially for Beethoven's needs, but
rather as an experiment of the time. (Modern Bluthner pianos have 4 strings in the
treble register). According to contemporary accounts it was fitted on the advice
of Johann Maelzel, (who had constructed hearing aids for Beethoven), with an extra
sound board over the strings to which a hearing aid shaped like a shell would have
been added - unfortunately both items have been lost.
A 5 octave Walter piano of the 1790's. Beethoven thought highly of these instruments
as did Mozart. Haydn however preferred Schanz and said of Walter that they were 'expensive
with only one instrument in ten being a good one.' In 1802 Beethoven requested a
piano from Walter providing it was Mahogany and had a proper una corda stop - a device
that only the English manufactures could provide at that time. Walter was unable
to comply for technical reasons.
The 1803 Erard (which is in the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna). This instrument
is very similar in design and construction to a Broadwood of the same date. It has
4 pedals : lute-stop, sustaining, sourdine and una corda.
Manufactured: Late 1817 By: John Broadwood & Son At: Great Pulteney Street. Golden
Square. London. England
Description: 6 octave grand pianoforte, approximately 76" long. Case of Spanish mahogany,
inlaid with marquetry and ormolu.
Triple stringed throughout.Two pedals: the left is soft; the right is divided in
two: the right to dampen the treble and the left the bass. Brass carrying-handles
formed as laurel wreaths.