Instruments | Pianoforte | Early Romantic | Classical

Although the terms ‘fortepiano’ and ‘pianoforte’ were used indiscriminately by musicians of the time, for the sake of clarity the former term is now specifically used to indicate keyboard instruments of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the latter to mean the modern instrument.

The piano displaced the harpsichord musically and socially, taking over the latter’s role in domestic music-making. A piano was an acquisition that brought with it an implicit confirmation of social standing. Although the modern world is used to plain wooden casework, the nineteenth century saw some highly decorated instruments being made. The part played by the piano in social relationships can be gauged from its appearance in the arts. Domestic music-making provided a meeting-ground for young men and women in a society increasingly inhibited about such contacts. The piano skills of Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) indicated that the piano could play a significant role in courtship at the beginning of the nineteenth century. By contrast, later in the century, the upright piano in the background of the painting The Awakening Conscience (1853) by the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt suggests that it was seen as playing a part in seduction as well.

Competition for the Amateur

Towards the end of the Romantic age, the (usually upright) piano faced several competitors in the amateur market. One of these was the player piano, now usually known by the trade name of ‘pianola’. A second was the gramophone. The piano had been used throughout the nineteenth century to play not simply the recognized piano repertory, but also arrangements of popular tunes from opera and operetta, and reductions of orchestral works. As such, it had acted as the standard private window on to the world of art music, matched in the public arena by choirs and brass bands. The gramophone and the piano roll made this repertory widely available even to those possessing no instrumental music skills.

Economics of Piano-Making

Throughout the Romantic period, the economics of the piano continued to encourage experiment. Unlike violins, but like woodwind instruments, pianos wear out. Where a violin, sympathetically used, matures, a piano slowly deteriorates. There is therefore a continual need for a supply of new instruments. In addition, a piano is a sizeable investment. Customers want to be assured of the highest quality and the latest research, just as they now are when buying a computer or a car. Finally, the development of the repertory was a continual stimulus to solving problems and meeting the demands made by ever-more ambitious composers.

By the end of the eighteenth century, there was a number of competing companies producing fortepianos according to different methods of construction. These are often referred to as the English and the Viennese ‘actions’, since the significant difference was in the way the mechanism for producing the notes ‘acted’.

Pianoforte Makers

Johann Andreas Stein of Augsburg (1728–92) was the maker of instruments that both Mozart and Beethoven knew....

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