Wednesday, 7 January 2009

I'm a fermata - Hold me...

Much of the most widely admired piano repertoire, for example, that of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, was composed for a type of instrument that is rather different from the modern instruments on which this music is normally performed today. Even the music of the Romantics, including Liszt, Chopin, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms, was written for pianos substantially different from ours.

During the Classical era, when pianos first became used widely by important composers, the piano was only somewhat more robust than in Cristofori's time. It was during the period from about 1790 to 1870 that most of the important changes were made that created the modern piano:

  • An increase in pitch range, from five octaves to the modern standard of seven and 1/3 octaves.
  • Iron framing, culminating in the single-piece cast iron frame
  • Ultra-tough steel strings, with three strings per note in the upper 2/3 of the instrument's range
  • Felt hammers
  • Cross-stringing
  • The repetition action
  • In general, an enormous increase in weight and robustness. A modern Steinway Model D weighs 480 kg (990 lb), about six times the weight of a late 18th century Stein piano.

The hammers and action became much heavier, so that the touch (keyweight) of a modern piano is several times heavier than that of an 18th century piano.

The prototype of the modern piano, with all of these changes in place, was exhibited to general acclaim by Steinway at the Paris exhibition of 1867; by about 1900, most leading piano manufacturers had incorporated most of these changes.
These huge changes in the piano have somewhat vexing consequences for musical performance. The problem is that much of the most widely admired piano repertoire was composed for a type of instrument that is very different from the modern instruments on which this music is normally performed today. The greatest difference is in the pianos used by the composers of the Classical era; for example, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. But lesser differences are found for later composers as well.

The music of the early Romantics, such as Chopin and Schumann--and even of still later composers --was written for pianos substantially different from ours.

One view that is sometimes taken is that these composers were dissatisfied with their pianos, and in fact were writing visionary "music of the future" with a more robust sound in mind. This view is perhaps plausible in the case of Beethoven, who composed at the beginning of the era of piano growth. However, many aspects of earlier music can be mentioned suggesting that it was composed very much with contemporary instruments in mind. It is these aspects that raise the greatest difficulties when a performer attempts to render earlier works on a modern instrument

Grand Pianos
Grand pianos have the frame and strings placed horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. This makes the grand piano a large instrument, for which the ideal setting is a spacious room with high ceilings for proper resonance. There are several sizes of grand piano. Manufacturers and models vary, but a rough generalization distinguishes the "concert grand" (between about 2.2 m to 3 m long) from the "parlor grand" (about 1.7 m to 2.2 m) and the smaller "baby grand" (which may be shorter than it is wide).

All else being equal, longer pianos with longer strings have better sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings. Inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones (known as partials, partial tones, or harmonics) depart from whole multiples of the fundamental frequency. Pianos with shorter, thicker, and stiffer strings (e.g., baby grands) have more inharmonicity. The longer strings on a concert grand can vibrate more freely than the shorter, thicker strings on a baby grand, which means that a concert grand's strings will have truer overtones. This is partly because the strings will be tuned closer to equal temperament in relation to the standard pitch with less "stretching" in the piano tuning (See: Piano tuning). Full-size grands are usually used for public concerts, whereas smaller grands, introduced by Sohmer & Co. in 1884, are often chosen for domestic use where space and cost are considerations.

Photograph details: Nikon D40, Focal Length 19mm, Opteka o.2x magnification fish eye lens adapter, ISO-800, exp: 1 sec, F-stop f/3.5

1) Wikipedia
2) Wikipedia
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