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Exploring Music: Played On The "Soft loud"

The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985

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David M. Greene


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Just as violoncello (little big viol) got shortened to cello, the most popular of keyboard in­struments became a piano so long ago that most people are unaware that that is, so to speak, its nickname. Thus they are likely to be puzzled when they see it abbreviated to pf, which may look to them like an objection or a small sup­pressed burp. It is generally agreed among the savants that the proper name is pianoforte (the last element being pronounced "forty".

We can't be sure what its inventor, the Floren­tine Bartolomeo Cristofori, called it when he set to work in 1698 to build the prototype. Two years later a Medici musical inventory listed it as an arpicembalo (harp-harpsichord? keyboard harp? cembalo was short for clavicembalo - a keyed cymbal!). In 1711 one Scipione Maffei wrote the first known article on the instrument, which he called a gravicembalo col piano e forte (heavy harpsichord with loud and soft [not to mention plumbing, electricity, and solar heat]). Thus, what we call a piano is a "soft," and, pro­perly, a "softloud," because one can effect a con­trolled range of dynamics on it, as one cannot with the harpsichord.

When the piano caught on, as it did in the late-18th century, it became, like the motor car in more recent times, the nonpareil status sym­bol, and much effort was expended by the manufacturers on improving it-to increasingly Lincoln-Continental dimensions. Among the ob­vious changes were the addition of three octaves of range, an iron frame, and metal, or metal­wound, strings. (The early virtuosi busted up their instruments in concert because the latter were too fragile to withstand, say, the pouncing for which Leopold de Meyer, the "Lion Pianist," was famous. One could probably use the strings of a modern Steinway for a trampoline-but don't try! My insurance doesn't cover it.)

About 35 years ago the "original instrument'' fad began to gather steam, and, sure enough, pianists here and there began playing early pianos. There are those persons who regard this as tantamount to junking the Cadillac for a Duryea; on the other hand it offered hope and employment to those unwilling to meet (or in­capable of meeting) Horowitz and Rubinstein on their own turf. Now I have one of the earliest recordings of such a venture, an Allegro LP of Mozart pieces played by Erwin Bodky (1896-1958). The record terms the instrument simply an "early pianoforte" or a "Stein piano." Subsequent records for SPA by Lonny Epstein were played on "an authentic reproduction of Mozart's grand piano." (I just negotiated two floorsworth of steps on a gout-swollen foot to check that out for you, you nit-picking perfectionists!)

I don't recall when people began seeking dif­ferentiating nomenclature, but I have recollections of "Hammerklavier" recitals on (I think) fair­ly early DGG-Archiv discs. Hammerklavier (Hammer-keyboard) was, as you know, used by Beethoven, who was, most likely, merely trying to protect his native tongue from Italian pollution (as Percy Grainger attempted later for English). I should guess that fortepiano began to .take hold in the 1960s and now is understood to signify pre-1830-or-so pianos. My 40-year-old Harvard Dictionary calls this an "old term for a piano," but Grove says that in the early days it was quite interchangeable with pianoforte.

Nowadays there are many performers who specialize in old pianos. Among them is Mary Sadovnikoff, a St. Paul (-i, Minn.) girl, a graduate of Harvard and Brandeis, a pupil of (among others) Nadia Boulanger, a teacher at several prestigious Northeastern colleges, and, presently, a resident of Rhode Island. Ms. Sadovnikoff first tangled publicly with an Old Piano in Boston in 1974, and, having emerged triumphant, went on, despite her relative youth, to become an Olde Pianiste. She also built her own instrument from a kit, though presently she plays a replica of a Dulcken piano made by Philip Belt, on which she has also recorded two Mozart records for Titanic. Here she essays three works by Joseph Haydn.

We know that Haydn wrote (or began) 47 keyboard sonatas and eight other miscellaneous works for solo keyboard. (There are other pieces attributed to him.) It is likely that only the late compositions were expressly meant for piano. The G major Sonata is one of a set of six published in 1780 and dedicated to the Auen­brugger sisters, a pair of talented Viennese amateurs. These middle-period works are pro­bably "either/or" (harpsichord or piano).

The Andante and Variations, also sometimes listed as "sonata," is a late work, written in Vien­na in 1793 between the London visits, and is almost certainly for piano. The E-flat Sonata, perhaps the best-known of the series, is even more obviously pianistic, and some scholars speculate that it was influenced by the young Beethoven. It is Haydn's biggest sonata, and, written in London in 1794, one of his three last-though he lived another 15 years.

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