The fortepiano pictured here, made in the year 2000 for Smith College, and now mine as of May 2007, is a 5 1/2 octave (FF – c’’’’) instrument made by Paul McNulty (http://www.fortepiano.eu/) after the design of Walter & Sohn of Vienna. It is mahogany with brass trim, and features moderator and sustaining knee levers, the equivalent of pedals on the modern piano. The moderator inserts a piece of cloth between the hammer and the strings, thereby softening and mellowing the sound. The sustaining knee lever is the equivalent to the damper (right) pedal on the modern piano.
Paul McNulty, an American living in Divišov, Czech Republic, is one of the most highly respected builders working today.
The first pianos, made by Bartolomeo Cristofori about 300 years ago, were named pianoforte or fortepiano (soft-loud or loud-soft) because, unlike the harpsichord, they could play both soft and loud, with the dynamic controlled by the player’s touch. The only other keyboard instrument, with such touch control was the clavichord, whose overall sound was considered too soft for use in concert.
Contemporary usage has ironically shortened the modern instrument’s name to “piano,” and in the past twenty years the term “fortepiano” has come to signify historical pianos, or reproductions of historical pianos.
The earliest fortepianos had a range of five octaves (FF – f’’’), similar to that of the harpsichord. As time went on, this range increased, as can be seen most poignantly in the piano sonatas of Beethoven, in which the highest and lowest notes become farther and farther apart as the sonatas continue.
Because this McNulty fortepiano represents ideas from a number of different Walter instruments in existence around the turn of the 18th century, it is difficult to date it, though I like to attribute it to circa 1803. It is perhaps interesting to note that between 1780 and 1820 there were over 300 Viennese piano builders registered in the guild, and most of them did not date their work. The graceful curve of this piano’s case is not a Walter feature, but rather typical of Ferdinand Hofmann, the guild president at that time.
Why I Play a Copy of a Walter Fortepiano
(based on text originally published in the CD booklet of Fantasies for Fortepiano)
Why do I play this fortepiano? Essentially for two reasons: because it is close to the instruments for which this music was composed, and because it casts new light on the music I play.
My instrument is perfectly suited to the “Moonlight” Sonata, composed in 1801. Some other works I play might be more appropriate to the 5-octave pianos that were used in the 1780s, but one plays what one has, and the differences between 5-octave and 51/2-octave instruments are not that great. What is great is the difference between a fortepiano from circa 1803 and the modern piano from circa 1875 (by which time, except for a number of mechanical improvements, the modern piano had assumed its definitive design).
What do we notice about this very beautiful instrument, so different from the modern piano? First, and most obviously, its size and scale. This fortepiano is physically far smaller and far more intimate than the modern piano. Its range is 5 octaves rather than the current 7 octaves. It is made almost entirely of wood, and needs no iron plates to accommodate the higher tension of the wider and thicker strings that give the modern piano its bigger, thicker and longer-lasting sound. The scale of the instrument matches the scale of the music written for it: early Beethoven is one thing, late Prokofiev, for example, quite another.
This instrument was made to be played in a relatively small room. Each note has a clear initial attack, a fast decay, and a clean release. A smaller, lighter hammer, covered with leather, not felt, produces the clear attack. The clear release results from dampers that are mostly covered with leather in the bass and middle range.
The life of the tone as described above is ideal for the detailed nuance and articulation of the music of the classic period; playing this instrument, I feel at ease in interpreting the notes, as well as the spaces between the notes. Because I can control a greater variety and precision of releases and attacks, more tools are available to me than would otherwise be the case for the creation of expressive nuances.
On the early pianos, the keys are narrower, the key dip (the distance to the keybed from the top to the bottom of the stroke) is smaller, and the action is much lighter. These differences enable me to play fast octave passages (e.g., end of the Haydn Fantasia in C Major, approach to the recapitulation in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto), as octave glissandi, rather than as individual notes. The joy of the slide adds to the merriment. Malcolm Bilson has said that the relationship between the musical message and the feel of the keyboard is a subtle but important one for interpretation. On the fortepiano, as Penny Crawford says, you don’t project tone, but rather musical ideas and gestures.
The faster decay allows for the use of longer pedals. I have chosen to record the Adagio of the “Moonlight” Sonata without dampers, as Beethoven indicates at the beginning of the movement. With no pedal changes, some of the harmonies blur slightly and then clear, and certain kinds of moaning effects in the melody become noticeable. The resulting sound is ghostly, and to me, poignant. Playing the Adagio on the fortepiano allows me better to understand what Beethoven’s pupil Czerny wrote about the movement: “It is a night scene, in which the voice of a complaining spirit is heard at a distance.”
This fortepiano also has more attack or definition at the beginning of the sound. As Malcolm Bilson has often said, the fortepiano, unlike the modern instrument, can growl. While the modern piano homogenizes everything, the early piano can misbehave and surprise: its register differences are more pronounced, and its tone has more variety of character at different dynamic levels. Well-defined attack and fast decay make possible clear textures: Alberti bass accompaniments achieve an equality with the melody not heard on the modern piano.
In 1985, Will Crutchfield wrote in the NY Times: “From this perspective, the most central virtue of historical performance practice is that it can offer performers a freedom of choice, a multiplicity of “right” ways to play. The specialization it demands can be liberating rather than limiting…. In contrast to the enervating, dully anarchic international melting pot, it offers the chance to create for oneself an interpretive process of discipline and integrity, and to develop individual freedom within a coherent style.”
For me, playing on this instrument has totally renewed my relationship to classic period music. As a hybrid consisting of the best of many different instruments, this piano has a unique character and beauty in the spirit of an earlier time.
Special Thanks: Rob Loomis
It would not be possible for me to practice and perform on my two fortepianos without the generous help and collaboration of tuner and technician Rob Loomis, RPT. He has spent countless hours making sure that the instruments are fine-tuned and ready for the stresses and strains of performance. From help with moving, to the care of their cases, to moral support for concerts and recordings, he has been a mainstay of my fortepiano career. I am very grateful to him for his knowledge and expertise.