The Pianoforte in the Classical Era

The Pianoforte in the Classical Era

The Pianoforte in the Classical Era

The Pianoforte in the Classical Era


In a period of only thirty years in the second half of the eighteenth century European musical culture underwent a remarkable transformation. In 1765 the harpsichord was the indispensable item in almost every concert and in every home where music was practised; the sound of the pianoforte was virtually unknown to most music lovers. Yet by 1795 the situation was entirely reversed. The pianoforte was indispensable and the harpsichord had become all but obsolete - except in the most backward and conservative establishments. Three hundred years of harpsichord dominance had ended, and workshops that had been busy producing them either ceased trading or switched hurriedly to the new hammer-action instruments. What precipitated this amazing capitulation was, of course, new styles in musical composition and performance. While baroque counterpoint might be ideally suited to the harpsichord, the new keyboard music required above all expression. Not only loud and soft sounds, which the harpsichord could be contrived to imitate, but diminuendi and crescendi, sudden accents and an arresting quietness, which it was powerless to perform; these became the essential elements in any accomplished performance. For song accompaniments, too, the pianoforte was found to be ideal, with a sweet tone that supported the voice, and a dynamic flexibility that permitted it to follow the vocal line or to prepare the appropriate effect. The Pianoforte in the Classical Era charts the progress of this revolution in musical aesthetics and experience, detailing the extraordinary variety of sounds and musical resources built into the keyboard instruments in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Wherever possible the author returns to original sources - a wide variety of previously unreported documents, as well as surviving instruments - to reconstruct a history of the pianoforte that departs radically from earlier theories of many of the most fundamental issues. A wide range of instruments, each carefully described, is placed in a precise chronological and cultural setting. New insights are offered into the parameters that governed the performance of keyboard music in the Classical Era.


Within twenty-five years--that is to say, between 1765 and 1790--the pianoforte became the dominant instrument in European music. Though it had been rather neglected in previous decades, it suddenly acquired pre-eminent status: an indispensable item for the home, a solo instrument for public concerts, an item of trade in itself, and often the most significant element in music publishers' catalogues. In London alone at least twenty instrument makers were able to establish themselves in new businesses that were solely concerned with manufacturing pianofortes. In earlier decades no one had ever earned his living in this way. The contagion quickly spread, across Europe and to North America. In almost every major city newly-founded workshops were turning out these fashionable instruments as fast as they could. Composers sat at the pianoforte to try out their ideas; theatres introduced them to accompany musical items; and every young woman with social pretensions and the slightest talent applied herself to learning to play. It was nothing less than a revolution.

The Pianoforte in the Classical Era aims to chronicle the history of the instrument from the 1760s, when this belated period of enthusiasm and development began, to the second decade of the nineteenth century. This, of course, covers the active periods in the lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, so most readers will be happy with the book's title. Good arguments can be advanced for choosing different terminal dates, but the reasons for selecting these particular years will be explained at the appropriate place.

Connecting the instruments as Mozart knew them, with the gleaming, ebonized concert grands now familiar in public entertainments, lies an enormous saga of scientific development. It is a history that deserves to be examined and retold in its entirety. Nevertheless, one book cannot cover the whole of the instrument's evolution without resorting to over-simplification and aggravating omissions. To deal with it adequately, the story must be broken up into manageable pieces; hence the limited period treated here. Having decided, for better or worse, on the historical extent of the study, there remain some difficult choices in deciding on the internal organization. Many possible approaches were considered, so perhaps, with a word or two of explanation, the unconventional plan of the book may be made clearer.

It is a perfectly natural expectation that anything describing itself as a history ought to present matters in a more or less chronological sequence--but in this field of study a strictly chronological system is simply unworkable. The . . .

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