How Do They Sound?
The voice of keyboard instruments has evolved in the last five hundred years, changed by the way that the strings are made to sing, and the body of the instrument itself. Innovators sought to increase the instrument’s volume and expressiveness.
When your finger strikes the keyboard on a harpsichord, a quill plucks a string. All notes are of equal duration and volume, yet it can be played very fast. Strike a key on a fortepiano and a hammer raps the string with the force you used, allowing subtle variations in volume and expression.
The modern piano amplifies the qualities of the fortepiano, with even greater control and volume. The powerful sound is mostly achieved by strengthening the hammers, strings and frame. The marvelous subtlety of the modern piano comes from improved control of string vibration through dampers and pedals, all in direct response to the player’s touch.
Explore the history of the piano through the evolution of seven different keyboards on display at The Schubert Club Museum. Listen to a sample piece, and compare the same piece of music, Mozart’s“Twinkle, Twinkle”, being played on seven different instruments.
17th Century Italian Harpsichord
The harpsichord was the uncontested queen of 16th- and 17th-century European music. Developed in the 1400s in Italy, it is essentially a plucked string instrument like a lute and harp.
Because the strings are plucked, not struck, the sound is crisp. Think of the music of Bach: each note stands out strongly, in spite of the dizzyingly fast playing. Typical of its time, this keyboard is constructed entirely out of wood except for the strings and plucking mechanism.
Copy of 1726 Cristofori Fortepiano, Sutherland (1997)
Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the fortepiano around 1700, while under the patronage of the Medici family in Florence. Unlike the plucked string of the harpsichord, the hammered string of the fortepiano allows the performer to express subtle variations in volume. Its name – “fortepiano,” means “loud-soft.” Today, only three Cristofori fortepianos survive. The Schubert Club commissioned this copy to allow us to hear his revolutionary innovation.
Taws 1791 Square Piano
The square piano originated in Germany around 1742 and, unlike Cristofori’s fortepiano, almost immediately became the most popular piano style from St. Petersburg to London, and beyond. The maker of this piano, Charles Taws, emigrated from Scotland and settled in Philadelphia in 1787. This instrument is thought to be the earliest American piano both signed and dated by its maker.
The first square pianos were inexpensive and promoted domestic music-making. By mid-century they were being mass produced by several US companies.”It has long been the custom with wretched Forte Piano makers in the city, to bribe needy or sordid musicians, for the purpose of recommending their bad instruments to the incautious buyer.” Charles Taws and Sons advertisement in Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, February 21, 1816
Grand Piano John Broadwood, a Scottish cabinetmaker, took over Burkat Shudi’s harpsichord company in 1771, and the business went on to become the world’s largest piano manufacturer. The first grand appeared in 1781.Broadwood developed the “English grand action,” more powerful than the “Viennese action” in French and German pianos. He also enhanced the dynamic capability of the fortepiano by revising the pedals and stringing. This and heavier hammers accounted for the distinctive touch.
In 1818, Broadwood, a master of self-promotion, presented Beethoven with a grand piano, causing the composer to exclaim: “I shall regard it as an altar upon which I shall place the most beautiful offerings of my spirit to the divine Apollo.”
1830 Kisting Fortepiano of first half of the 19th century.
This piano was originally owned by Adolph von Menzel, one of the most celebrated German painters in the 19th century, who regularly held musical recitals at his home in Berlin. Among those who played on this instrument were Robert and Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Felix Mendelssohn. The piano has a light Viennese action, well-suited to the music of the era. Donated to the Schubert Club in 1972, this instrument was the beginning of the museum’s keyboard collection.
Christian Heinrich Kisting began piano manufacture on Potsdam in 1799. In 1815 he moved his business to Berlin, giving himself the title ‘Court instrument maker.’ In 1828 his son joined the firm. Kisting pianos are mentioned in the writings of E.T.A. Hoffman and other German writers.
Stein 1830 Square Piano
This square piano is a product of a piano dynasty. The patriarch, Johann Andreas Stein, pioneered the Viennese action, distinct from Broadwood’s English. Its small, leather-covered hammers have a very light, responsive touch. Stein’s daughter, Nannette, inherited the piano gene. She moved to Vienna in 1794, and married piano-maker Johann Andreas Streicher, her business partner. Like the Broadwood, the Stein piano appealed to the burgeoning middle class. This piano touted the affluence and sophistication of its owners, while adding the bright sound of music to the domestic scene.
Should a piano player seek nourishment for the soul, and should he be fond not only of precise but also gentle, melting play, he could choose no better instrument than one by Stein.” From Musical Yearbook of Vienna and Prague, 1796
Erard 1844 Upright Piano
Sebastien Erard patented his double escapement action in 1821, which combined the “Viennese” and “English actions”—a marriage of responsiveness with force that allows rapid repetition of notes. His instruments soon gained high regard among performers. Hungarian-born Franz Liszt was associated with Erard pianos from the start of his career. Liszt’s father and Erard struck a business deal: young Liszt would play Erard’s pianos if the maker shipped them to concerts.
On the inside of this upright, Liszt wrote in French in 1844, “I confess to having played wrong notes and scribbled wretched music on this charming instrument.”
Streicher 1869 Grand Piano
Johann Baptist Streicher continued the piano-building business of his mother Nannette and grandfather Johann Andreas Stein, taking over the firm in 1833. This piano represents the height of 19th-century Viennese piano construction, responding to the ongoing demand, especially from composer-performers, for an increase in volume and power from the relatively new grand piano. Streicher gave a nearly identical piano to Brahms, who used it until the end of his life. It’s smooth, clear tone and fast action is especially complimentary to his style.
To his friend Clara Schumann Brahms wrote, “I have a beautiful grand piano from Streicher. With it he wants to demonstrate [his] latest achievements to me, and I believe that if he made a similar one for you, you would be pleased [with it].”
Bechstein 1878 Grand Piano
With its sturdy iron frame and velvety tone, Bechstein’s concert grands were preferred by leading pianists in Europe. This piano, from the Austrian summer house of music patron John DeBodo, was played by Anton Rubinstein, Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, Bela Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, and Ernö von Dohnányi.
After World War II, the son of the original owner moved to Pennsylvania where he taught piano. His favorite student, Margaret Baxtresser, inherited the piano on DeBodo’s death in 1967 and bequeathed it to The Schubert Club in 2006.
Ms. Baxtresser taught at Kent State University where many prominent performers played on her extraordinary Bechstein piano, including Malcolm Frager, André Watts, Garrick Ohlsson, Ruth Laredo, Rudolph Firkusny and Lorin Maazel.
All sound recordings by James Callahan with narration by Melissa Ousley.