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Malcolm Bilson: Beethoven Wouldn't Recognize Today's Pianos

photo of Malcolm Bilson
Malcolm Bilson is a champion of the fortepiano, a predecessor of the modern grand piano. His lectures and academic papers take performers and conservatories to task for misinterpreting or disregarding composers' expressive markings.

Most people are used to hearing Beethoven played on a modern piano. But Beethoven actually played on an earlier version of the instrument, known as a fortepiano.

During a weekend visit to Case Western Reserve University, pianist and scholar Malcolm Bilson performed a recital on an instrument very similar to what Beethoven would have played. It differs from the modern Steinway in a handful of ways.

If Beethoven saw a big, black Steinway, he'd say, 'What is that?'

For one thing, most people are used to seeing a piano painted black. But the instrument Bilson played has a light, natural finish. It's also much more compact than a typical concert grand piano.

"If Beethoven saw a big, black Steinway, he'd say, 'What is that?'" Bilson said.

Yes and no
That raises an important question for pianists that Bilson has been dealing with for more than 40 years: Is there anything wrong with playing Beethoven on a modern piano?

"The answer is, as the Germans like to say, 'jein.' Sort of ja and nein together," Bilson said.

The first innovations that led to today's piano came around 1700, when an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristoforiwas trying to improve on the design of the then-ubiquitous harpsichord. More than 100 years before Cristofori, Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieliwas one of the first composers to specify loud and quiet playing in a piece of music for brass instruments.

The harpsichord was problematic because it made sound by plucking the strings inside the instrument. If the plucking mechanism was too fast, according to Bilson, it would miss the string altogether. Too slow, and it wouldn't make any sound. That meant composers and performers could generally only work within a narrow range of dynamics.

"Cristofori threw out the plucking mechanism, and put in a mechanism where when you press down the key, a little hammer is flung up at the string," Bilson said. "He called his instrument gravicembalo col piano e forte, a harpsichord that can play both soft and loud."

A longer keyboard makes a unique sound
The modern piano is also bigger than the instruments Mozart and Beethoven were used to. A longer keyboard means the modern piano must cross strings over each other to save space. The fortepiano's more compact profile allows the strings to lay parallel to each other along the length of the instrument. This has important implications for the fortepiano's unique sound.

Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, for example, begins with a loud chord played on the lower half of the keyboard. On a Steinway, the effect of playing several low notes close together can be muddy. But on a fortepiano, the sound is much clearer and likely closer to what Beethoven imagined.

“There are seven notes here, (and) you can hear them all,” Bilson said.

The notes on a fortepiano also don't ring for as long as they do on a modern, more resonant piano. According to Bilson, composers took that into account when they were writing for the instrument. Bilson said he used to play the second movement of Mozart's Sonata in C major, K. 330 in a very connected kind of way, using the sustain pedal. But when he looked closely at Mozart's own markings, he realized Mozart actually wanted more space between the notes.

"It's Mozart, and it should sing," Bilson said. "But if you read Mozart's expressive marks, these little slurs and dots and things, it's clear that that's what he wants."

Having an instrument that would allow him to play exactly what Mozart and Beethoven notated is what got Bilson hooked on the fortepiano.

"It wasn't the charming, quaint sound of the old piano that got me going," Bilson said. "It was the expression."

Hear Bilson performing on the fortepiano: