Fortepiano and Pianoforte were interchangeable terms until recent times.

Today the word fortepiano is generally reserved for instruments made before 1830, or copies of them. Such instruments differ from the modern piano in their appearance, in their touch and in the resulting tone. The distinctive timbres of the 'fortepiano' arise from the following factors:

  • low string tensions (less than a quarter of the strain on modern pianos),
  • the absence of iron framing,
  • the use of soft leather covering to the hammers — not compressed felt as used in modern times. (Some eighteenth-century instruments had other covering materials, for example cork, or had plain wooden hammers — a notable feature of some early German instruments).

Earliest fortepianos

Bartolomeo Cristofori, working for Prince Ferdinando dei Medici in Florence, is worthily credited with making the first fortepiano, which was recorded among Ferdinando's possessions in 1700. Cristofori named it gravicembalo col piano e forte, meaning 'harpsichord with soft and loud' — but unlike a conventional 'cembalo' it did not pluck the strings, but had small hammers striking them. This is confirmed in an inventory which described the instrument in detail. Many more examples followed, supplied to Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome, and other notables, including Scarlatti's most famous pupil Queen Maria Barbara in Spain.

The appearance of Cristofori's fortepiano was originally very much more attractive than the famous 1720 piano in New York might suggest. They were provided with an outer case, as here, sometimes very elaborately carved and painted. This photo shows the 1726 Cristofori fortepiano (Grassi Museum, Leipzig) as it was when photographed c.1910. The legs are likely of early eighteenth century date, but they were lost or discarded in World War II. The keys are of boxwood, with ebony sharps. It has just four octaves, C to c3. NOTE: there are no pedals, or hand stops inside to disengage the dampers.

Cristofori's 'Piano-fortes' were:

  • very expensive,
  • not easy to maintain,
  • and not very loud, as contemporary reports emphasise. (Do not be deceived by some modern 'copies' using higher string tensions and harder leather on the hammers).

Only three examples from Cristofori have survived.

Despite its perceived limitations, many musicians were interested in this new invention, so similar instruments, inspired by Cristofori's pioneering work, were made in northern Germany, Portugal, Spain and England in the period before 1750. Their soft leather hammer coverings, usually laid over a hollow cylindrical head, gave them a sweet and expressive tone, but this restricted their use in ensemble where Italian harpsichords of that time, with their clear articulation and bright tone, had a worthwhile advantage. Nevertheless, for solos, or to accompany a singer, these early fortepianos, if in good condition, were highly prized because keyboard players soon discovered that they could follow the phrasing and emphasis of the voice, making gradations of soft and loud, and strong accents where required. Most examples continued to be made with only four octaves, C to c3 in Italy, or C to d3 in Portugal, perhaps reflecting their anticipated use in vocal accompaniments. (You can read more about such instruments in chapter 1, The Pianoforte in the Classical Era, by Michael Cole, Oxford University Press, 1998, and in The Early Pianoforte, Stewart Pollens, Cambridge, 1995). There is also a new paper published on this site regarding the earliest pianos seen in Britain [see Home Page for links].

Fortepiano in England

Until 1775 the harpsichord continued to be the instrument of choice for concerts and opera productions but during the 1760s several makers were working on new designs that would make the fortepiano a more reliable and desirable instrument.

Although he wasn't first in this field Americus Backers, a Dutch-born harpsichord maker resident in London, made the most influential innovations. He promoted his newly perfected instruments with a public exhibition at the Thatched House, near St James Palace, which lasted for three weeks during February 1771. He called his instrument 'An Original Forte Piano' adding that it was entirely his own invention.

It looked like an English harpsichord, but inside it had a new type of hammer mechanism which was so easy to adjust that any musician could attend to the 'regulation' of the action — the only tool needed being a standard tuning hammer, supplied with the instrument. Also, of great historical importance, this was the earliest fortepiano to have a pedal at the right for raising the dampers (the 'loud pedal' as so many people now say), and another to the left (often called the 'soft pedal'). Pressing this made the keyboard move about 3mm to the right so that each hammer struck only one string, leaving the other unisons to vibrate sympathetically. This produces a novel tone colour, not available on any modern piano - or indeed on Viennese fortepianos. Backers 'Forte Piano' was produced with two strings per note, or three, at various prices. [To read more about Backers' life and work click here]

After Backers' untimely death in January 1778 his designs were replicated by Scotsman Robert Stodart, who had formerly made harpsichords with John Broadwood, but left to set up his own workshop in Wardour Street in 1774. Later, about 1784, Broadwood himself recognised that these newly improved instruments had a great future: his sales ledgers show that he first sold a 'grand Piano-forte' in January 1785. (Perhaps this was made by someone else? Maybe Stodart. The oldest known survivor bearing Broadwood's name is dated 1787.) From this point on Broadwood's production of such instruments took off at a phenomenal rate, so that from 1794 his sales ledgers suggest that he was selling a hundred every year. (There must have been much out-sourcing to make such phenomenal sales possible.) All known John Broadwood grand pianos from the 18th century have three strings for each note, and their hammer mechanism is very obviously derived from Backers'. They also have the same two pedals. These instruments had a higher string tension than those of Cristofori or his imitators, so they have a stronger and richer tone, but they continued to rely on a wholly wooden construction. In 1795 when Joseph Haydn returned to Vienna after his second visit to London he took home a similar piano — supplied by Longman & Broderip.

Broadwood Grand, 1802

An 'elegant' Grand piano by Broadwood, 1802, 5½ octaves

From 1792 onwards most [but not all] London-made fortepianos had a 5½ octave keyboard, from FF to c4, or sometimes six octaves from CC to c4. An example of this latter type, made in 1817, was presented by Thomas Broadwood to Beethoven.

Fortepiano in France

In 1792 Sebastian Erard, displaced from Paris in the aftermath of the Revolution, set up a workshop in Great Marlborough Street, London. There he immediately began to adapt and develop the designs he saw in Broadwood's grand pianos. He was a great thinker and practical instrument maker and the instrument he developed, the French grand piano, had truly wonderful musical resources which unhappily are rarely heard today. His return to Paris marked the beginning of a golden period for pianoforte development and manufacture in that city. He presented grand pianos from his workshop to Haydn in 1800, and to Beethoven three years later.

Though very similar to English pianos in their construction, their array of pedals placed a great variety of sonorities at the player's disposal. Most often they have the two 'English' pedals mentioned above, plus a soft 'jeu céleste' and a harp or lute sound. French treatises of the period explain how to use the pedals in various combinations so as to create sonorities to suit the given music. Besides these extra sonorities Erard's pianos also included many subtle changes to the mechanism, making them among the most sophisticated works of craftsmanship ever produced. This culminated in Erard's invention and eventual perfection (1821) of a very complicated 'repetition action' which forms the basis of modern concert grand actions today.

Fortepiano in Germany & Austria

The most commonly encountered fortepianos today are of the German or Viennese type, of which a great many modern replicas have been made. Their origin is to be found in the instruments made by Johann Andreas Stein in Augsburg (Southern Germany) from the early 1770s. Mozart played a concert in the magnificent Goldenersaal in Augsburg in October 1777, in which he played his concerto for three claviers, originally written for Countess Lodron and her two daughters in 1773/4. Joining Mozart for this piece were J.M.Demmler (cathedral organist) and Stein himself (playing the simpler third part). Using Stein's fortepianos this concerto was a great success. Mozart was very enthusiastic about Stein's new invention. Count Wolfegg, from Salzburg, who must have heard young Wolfgang dozens of times before, exclaimed excitedly 'I never heard anything like this in my life!'

Externally, these instruments looked like typical south German harpsichords, with a double-curved (i.e. S-form) bentside and sloping cheeks, usually standing on four lathe-turned legs. But inside they had a novel hammer mechanism, very different from Cristofori's.

Stein's fortepiano, 1790

Stein fortepiano, 1790    Photo: Stadtmuseum, Munich

About the action: During the 1760s square piano makers in western Germany had devised a system wherein each key had a small hammer mounted on the far end, pivoted in a little wooden fork (Kapsel in German); thus each hammer was attached directly to its key with the hammer head pointing towards the player. These hammers were activated on a see-saw principle. (They were in effect 2-armed levers.) As your finger pressed the key the little hammer was lifted until the back end (the beak or Schnabel) was caught by an overhanging bar; this flipped up the head of the hammer to impact the strings. To this simple 'flip-action', common in German square pianos by 1775, Stein added a spring-loaded pawl (replacing the flip bar) which meant that the hammer could 'escape' just before it hit the strings: it sounded the note, but then fell back instantly, leaving the strings to vibrate freely with no danger of blocking the tone, even if you held down the key. This clever improvement gave Stein's pianos a very easy and expressive touch. His apprentices, Schiedmayer, Schmidt, Dulcken, Conrad, Schauz, and others took this very successful design and produced similar fortepianos all over the German-speaking territories, and beyond. Stein did not as a rule fit any pedals or handstops to his fortepianos, excepting for a knee-lever to disengage the dampers. But some of his pupils added a 'moderator', originally operated by hand, on later examples by knee. This produced a softer, veiled tone by interposing strips of soft leather or finely woven cloth between the hammers and strings, but no authentic Stein fortepiano has this as an original fitment. Stein's fortepianos generally have two strings per note, but later examples have three strings per note in the top octave, to strengthen the tone.

In Vienna Stein's concept was further developed by Anton Walter. He it was who made, in the early 1780s, the only piano Mozart ever owned (now owned by the Mozart Foundation in Salzburg). However, students need to be aware that this instrument is not in original condition as it was refurbished and modified internally for Mozart's widow, Constanze, c.1808. [The exact nature of its original mechanism remains the subject of some debate.]

After 1790 Anton Walter began fixing his hammers not in a wooden fork but in a brass clip (or bracket) screwed into the back of each key. He also made many other more subtle changes, which often go unnoticed, the aim of each of them being to make the repetition as fast and reliable as possible. Since most early fortepiano players in Vienna were accustomed to the touch of the clavichord a very shallow action was preferred, so their favoured key movement was barely half that found in modern pianos. And since the hammers are quite small, especially in the treble, the touch requires much less finger pressure. However, to achieve this shallow key movement the hammers must be placed much closer to the strings than on French or English fortepianos. [To do this the keyboard and hammers are raised on a sled or a ramp.] With such a shallow touch the player needs a great skill to exploit a full dynamic range, which is in any case much restricted compared with later instruments. English and French pianos certainly have more depth of tone, but Viennese instruments are much liked for the facility of fast scales and passage work, and their crisp articulation. (To learn more about German and Viennese fortepianos see The Pianoforte in the Classical Era, Oxford, 1998, by Michael Cole. Or to read more about Mozart's own fortepiano, shown below, see Mozarts Hammerflügel, Salzburg, 2000, Edited by Rudolf Angermüller. Text mostly in German.)

Mozart's Fortepiano

Mozart's Fortepiano

Twin knee levers provide the sustained tone, but originally this was provided by handstops inside the piano; the surviving handstop above middle C provides the 'moderator'. There is considerable doubt about Mozart's use of knee levers to sustain the tone because, as Richard Maunder observed some years ago, in 1785 when used in his pianoforte concertos in Vienna, this instrument stood on top of a pedal department, with separate strings and hammers, but visually rather like an organist's pedal board. This pedal department was carted out to concerts in Vienna, but as Leopold Mozart remarked, it was very heavy. So it is clear that in playing concertos with this addition, as he certainly did, Mozart would not have sustained bass harmonies in the modern way. 'Pedal notes' were literally that. The benefit of this system is that by holding selected notes with the pedal rather than using a general sustaining device, the upper parts can be played with precise articulation, even inserting staccato notes over a sustained bass. Evidence for this can be seen marked in Mozart's manuscripts, but cannot be played that way on modern pianos.

Subsequently, fortepianos in the Viennese style, were made in all parts of the Hapsburg empire, notably in Italy, and Bohemia. The standard keyboard range in Viennese-style fortepianos was five octaves (FF-f3) until the late 1790s, then extended to 5½ octaves in the first decade of the nineteenth century (FF-c4 was standard by 1815), and then to six octaves. These six octave pianos begin at FF in the bass, whereas contemporary English six octave grand pianos usually began at CC. Viennese makers began to adopt the Parisian fashion of providing numerous pedals (rather than knee levers) for a variety of tone colours around 1810.


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