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Fortepianos | Schantz | Graf

Fortepianos

What is a Fortepiano?

It is an early  piano. Sometimes the word is used specifically to refer to the Viennese grand pianos which were built from about 1770 to c.1825.  These were the instruments that Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven  all used. It was a significant period of development of the early piano and Vienna was a special centre of piano making.

What are the differences between a fortepiano and a modern piano?


As the piano developed further it became much more powerful. The first fortepianos were quieter than the harpsichords of the day. The strings were made of soft iron and brass, these gave way to high tensile steel wire. Fortepianos did not need an iron frame to support their tension, although tuning stability was never a strong point.
The action is very light to play  and the keys only fall less than half the depth of a modern piano. The Viennese action was more responsive than any other action of the day and was in fact a simpler action to make than many other types. The dampers are very efficient and the hammers, which are tiny, are covered in leather. The tone is clear and precise and although the dynamic range is small it is very expressive.

Why such a small compass?

Even in Mozart's day keyboards only extended to five octaves, this was the norm. It was gradually extended to over seven octaves by about 1850. The balance and tone of the fortepiano from bass to treble gives a clear bass that does not 'boom'.

Why are the white notes black?

Fashion. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most  keyboard instruments in central Europe were made with ebony naturals. (Possibly because there was little trade that involved ivory.)

What, no pedals?

Like most fortepianos of this period  knee levers operated the sustain and the soft moderator. English makers were using pedals at this time though. Many of the earliest fortepianos were fitted with hand-stops.

When was the piano invented?

Bartolomeo Cristofori invented and built the first fortepiano around 1700 in Florence. Three of his instruments survive and they look very much like the Italian harpsichords that were being built at that time. The harpsichord, universal since before 1500, could not play loudly and softly according to the player's touch.  Cristofori realised that instead of a plucking action  a hammer action would solve the problem. He understood fully the technical problems and designed an action that could  do nearly everything a modern piano action can. JS Bach criticised these early pianos for being sluggish to play and dull in tone (compared to a harpsichord  that is the case). they were complicated to make and probably very temperamental so they remained quite a rare instrument for some time. Makers experimented with many different actions and tones (including bare wooden hammers to imitate the brightness of a harpsichord) .
The introduction of the Viennese action was one of the first milestones in piano making.