Fortepiano and Pianoforte were interchangeable terms until recent times.

Today the term 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, rather than compressed felt as used in modern times. (Some eighteenth-century instruments had other covering materials or none, for example cork, or plain wooden hammers - a notable feature of the instruments of Spath of Regensburg).

Earliest fortepianos

Bartolomeo Cristofori, working for Prince Ferdinando dei Medici in Florence, is worthily credited with making the first example, 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.

Christofori fortepiano, 1726

The appearance of Cristofori's fortepiano was originally very elaborately carved and painted, as may be seen in the picture here. This shows the 1726 Cristofori fortepiano (now in Leipzig) as it was when photographed c.1910. Such extravagant casework was not unusual in Florence in the early eighteenth century. The keys were of boxwood, with ebony sharps. It has just four octaves, C to c3.

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 have survived. The oldest, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is dated 1720.

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 limited their use in ensemble, where contemporary Italian harpsichords, with their clear articulation and bright tone, had a worthwhile advantage. Yet for solos, or to accompany a singer, these early fortepianos were highly prized because the keyboard player 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).

Fortepiano in England

Until 1770 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 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, next to St James Palace, which lasted for three weeks during February 1771. He called his instrument 'An Original Forte Piano' declaring 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 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 sold his first 'grand Piano-forte' in January 1785. (The oldest known survivor is dated 1787.) After this Broadwood's production of such instruments took off at a phenomenal rate, so that from 1794 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 similar to that invented by 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. When Joseph Haydn returned to Vienna after his second visit to London he took a similar piano — made by Longman & Broderip.

Broadwood Grand, 1802

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

From 1791 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 easier third part). Using Stein's fortepianos the concerto was a great success. Understandably, 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 stop 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. 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-operated lever to disengage the dampers. But some of his pupils added a 'moderator', operated sometimes by hand, sometimes by knee, which produced a softer, veiled tone by interposing strips of 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 some 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 built, in the early 1780s, the only piano Mozart ever owned. However, students need to be aware that this instrument 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.] It is now owned by the Mozart Foundation in Salzburg (see below). For a special exhibition in 2014 it was returned to Mozart's appartment on the Domgasse in Vienna, but has since returned to Salzburg.

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. Consequently the player needs a great deal of skill to exploit a full dynamic range on such instruments, which is in any case much restricted compared with later instruments. English and French pianos certainly have more depth of tone, but Viennese instruments gained in the facility of fast scales and passage work, and in 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     Stiftung Mozarteum, Salzburg

Twin knee levers provide the sustained tone, which originally was provided by a handstop inside the piano; the surviving handstop in the centre, above keys, provides the 'moderator'. There is considerable doubt about Mozart's use of these knee levers to sustain the tone because, as Dr Richard Maunder observed some years ago, in 1785 this instrument stood on top of a pedal department, rather like an organist's pedal board. So it is clear that in playing concertos with this addition, as he certainly did, it would have been unnecessary to sustain 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, such a knee lever, the upper parts can be played with precise articulation, even inserting staccato notes over a sustained bass.

Subsequently, fortepianos in the Viennese style, were made in all parts of the Hapsburg empire, notably in Italy, and Bohemia. The standard keyboard range on Viennese style fortepianos was extended from five octaves (which was standard until c.1800), to 5½ octaves, and then to six octaves from 1815. These six octave pianos begin at FF in the bass, whereas English six octave grand pianos usually began at CC. Viennese fortepianos increased in their power of tone during the early decades of the nineteenth century, as a result of using thicker strings and heavier hammers. Around 1815 Viennese makers began to adopt the Parisian fashion of providing numerous pedals for a variety of tone colours.


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