Early Pianos the FAQs What is a piano? The mechanics of a piano are complex. When you press the fretboard, you lift a small hammer, which then hits the string. To prevent the string from continuing to sound, a damper then falls on the string. The soundboard, also called the soul of the piano, amplifies the sound. This mechanism has been further refined over the course of more than three centuries. An ordinary piano already has more than 12,000 parts, of which about 10,000 are moving. What is the difference between a grand and a square piano? With a grand piano, the strings run in line or in the same direction as the keys, just like large harpsichords. In a square piano, the strings run transversely, in other words parallel to the keyboard, just like a spinet or clavichord. Square pianos are much smaller, more manageable, easier to move, and cheaper to make. In the second half of the 18th century, square pianos became all the rage, first in England and then throughout Europe. Since square pianos are smaller than grand pianos, they also create a more modest level of sound. What is a harpsichord? If you pull on a stretched string and let it go, a sound is created, a sound wave. The sound is amplified by a sound box. This is how a simple harp works: you move the tightened strings with your fingers. The same applies with a harpsichord: a pin is pulled along the string, just like a harp. The pin or quill, used to be made from the same material as the pen tip on feather quill pens. Thanks to the building of the mechanism, the pin always pulls in the right place along the string. And by using the keys, which trigger the pins to pluck the strings, you can quite quickly play a tune. What is a spinet? With large harpsichords, the strings run in the same direction as the keys. In other words, if you sit in front of the keys to play the instrument, the strings are vertical. With smaller harpsichord-type instruments, such as a virginal or a spinet, the strings are more diagonal or horizontal to the keys. With a square piano, the strings are also transverse. That is why a square piano is also often called a ‘spinet’. But that is not entirely correct. A spinet is more of a harpsichord while a square piano is a piano. What is a clavichord? A clavichord is hit with a metal hammer against the string, in contrast to the harpsichord, where a pin pulls along the string like a finger on a harp. The advantage is that you can hit the string harder or softer. The disadvantage is that – especially if you hit harder – the strings quickly go out of tune. Like a virginal and a spinet, the strings run across rather than straight. The clavichord is the predecessor of the square piano. How does an early fortepiano differs from a later piano? Early fortepianos still sound a lot like harpsichords, or harps. But the taste changed: in Beethoven’s time at the turn of the 19th century, the sound of the piano gradually developed towards a fuller sound. Just listen to the difference between the Heilmann fortepiano and the fortepiano which was built by André Stein two decades later. And if you compare the sound of that Stein fortpiano with that built by Graf thirty years later, you can hear the sound become richer and fuller. How does a fortepiano differ from a modern piano? The difference is easy to see: a fortepiano is strung straight: all strings run right next to each other. You call a piano ‘modern’ when the strings cross each other. When strings cross each other, they start to sing along with each other. This makes the sound a bit woollier: you no longer really hear each string sound separately, so you do not hear each tone separately. Just listen to a harpsichord or an early fortepiano: each string is a different note. Because composers like Mozart started writing their piano music on the kind of early fortepianos in which each key forms a separate tone – after all, they didn’t know any different – their works are based on that. In the 19th century, Romantic composers looked more for sound clouds and the modern piano is very suitable for this. The modern crossover piano came into use around 1860, but some piano builders, such as Erard, continued to build fortepianos until the end of the 19th century. How an early piano differs even more from a later piano? Early pianos have fewer strings than the current pianos. You can see that immediately: early pianos have fewer keys. In Beethoven’s time, piano builders were encouraged to develop larger pianos. Beethoven himself contributed greatly to this: during his life the keyboard size grew significantly. Beethoven placed the piano at the centre of the orchestra. The halls in which they played were also enlarged. This meant that the piano builder was asked to build grand pianos with more sound volume. In order to be able to produce more sound volume, the pianos became bigger: more keys, more strings per key, a larger sound box. The more strings, the greater the force that was put on the sound box, so the heavier it had to be performed. What distinguishes music from the Romantics with composers such as Mozart? In Mozart’s time, the notes were still separate, while the romanticism is characterised by sound clouds. Just look at how Chopin’s hands move across the keys. Mozart moves his hands straight forward while Chopin moves his hands side-to-side, fluidly across the keys.The timbre of the piano also develops from the sound, which resembles a harpsichord, to an increasingly fuller sound and ultimately to the woollier sound of the modern piano. Remarkably, the timbre of the piano of the late 19th century is still more or less the norm, even for piano music from a century earlier. That is actually quite remarkable, because based on research into early pianos, we now know much more about the specific timbre that composers of the time, such as Mozart and Beethoven, were familiar with. The technique for playing an early piano is also very different from that of a modern piano. In short, if you really want to have an idea of the interaction between the composer and his piano, you must be able to play on an instrument comparable to that available to him at the time. That is exactly what we do in our festival. Because early pianos have their own timbre, they are also a source of inspiration for contemporary composers. Other than timbre, how do early pianos differ from modern pianos? There was a lot of experimentation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Piano builders had to keep coming up with new models to outperform their competitors. There were always new features, such as a hammer catcher (hammer check), so that when playing quickly, the hammer did not return, but also experimented with all kinds of pedals. For example, the bassoon (bassoon) and the janissaries bell and drum. However, it was the mechanics that really developed. A fortepiano from Vienna with its Viennese mechanics sounded very different/more classic to a Broadwood from England which soon resembled the sound of a modern piano. Erard developed mechanics, enabling the musician to play much faster, a head start that set this French piano sound apart from its English competitors for decades. Today’s pianos and concert grand pianos are almost standardised, but it is the great diversity and variety of features so characteristic to early pianos, that make their music so surprising. The ‘Mozart’ grand piano does not exist, any more than ‘the Viennese grand piano’ or ‘the English table piano’: those who only play copies of a Walther or a Stein will lose the variety that the late 18th and early 19th centuries has to offer completely out of sight. Fortunately, Museum Geelvinck’s collection offers the opportunity to play different instruments side by side. Why are no more square pianos being built? At the time, square pianos were easy to use, compact in size and cheaper than grand pianos. At the time, many more square pianos were built than grand pianos, ten times as much until the upright piano became fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. The first upright piano was built in the late 18th century. Museum Geelvinck has one of the earliest in its collection. But in the mid-19th century, the mechanism of the upright piano was simplified to such an extent that it was soon a third cheaper to produce than a table piano. Very soon, piano producers switched to mass production of the cheaper and easier to maintain upright piano. Didn’t find the answer you were looking for? Drop us an email and we will see what we can do!