In his “Moonlight” Sonata, Opus 27 Nr. 2, Beethoven directs the pianist to play the entire opening movement “with great delicacy and without damper.”
While this pedal indication would lead to nothing but blurred, dissonant noise on the modern piano, it made perfect sense on the early fortepianos of Beethoven’s time.
Briefly charting the evolution of the piano from its origins in Italy to the present day. Then provided a detailed examination of how the fortepiano’s pedal and damper mechanism changed over time, and how these changes affected playing techniques using specific examples in the repertoire.
Also the introduction of Janissary pedals, bassoon stops, and other “bells and whistles” by some late 18th and early 19th century piano builders, and how these gimmicks applied to keyboard repertoire of that time period.
The earliest type of stringed keyboard instrument is a clavichord. The first clavichord’s existence is from 1404. When the key is pressed, a tangent rises and strikes a pair of strings. When the note is held, the player is able to control the pressure on the string. This allows the player to produce a vibrato effect known as “bebung”. In “fretted” clavichords, several keys could strike a single string or pair of strings at different places to make the correct pitch. By the early 17th century, the instrument grew to contain longer strings and a larger soundboard. The clavichord was only suitable for domestic use or small salon and it was great popular in central Europe, especially in Germany.
Virginal, spinet and harpsichords all belong to the same basic action mechanism in which strings are activated by a plucking action. The first documented reference date to a virginal is 1460. The typical virginal is like a small harpsichord with only one string per note. The virginal is normally rectangular in shape. Both its strings and keyboard run parallel to the side of the casework. The virginal was the favorite instrument of keyboard composers in Shakespeare’s time.
As the key is pressed, the jack rises, lifting the damper and causing the plectrum to pluck the string. The string will vibrate until it loses all the energy. The spinet originated in Italy; then English builders improved it in the late 17th century. Various kinds of spinets were developed, for instance, the “octave spinet”. Its strings are pitched an octave higher than normal. The spinet comes in different shapes, including the wing-shaped “bentside spinet” dating from 1631.Double manual spinet and spinets fitted with a pedal board were made later. Its shape permits longer strings that allow the instrument to increase the volume and expand the range to as much as five octaves.
All these instruments were too quiet for concert performance. To get more sound the string needed to be thicker and longer. To contain much longer strings the strings needed to run perpendicular to the keyboard. As early as the 15th century, the harpsichord form reached its peak in the period of Bach and Handel. “Forte” and “piano” stops were built to introduce various effects. The harpsichord was unable to provide dynamic control of each note. Later two and three strings per note were operated. A second manual appeared in the 17th century. To control additional sets of strings, builders developed multiple keyboards with couplers and stops. Until the early 19th century, the harpsichord enjoyed its great popularity.
About 1700, Bartolommeo Cristofori built a hammer mechanism that produces desired dynamic response. The Italian instrument maker called it a gravicembalo col piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and loud). Cristorfori originated several further improvements, such as an overhead damper system and a strengthened framework to support heavier strings. His escapement mechanism with hammers brought about a main transformation in keyboard instruments. He substituted a little hammer for the jack and added more strings to support the sound. In the 18th century, many builders attempted to apply the upright design to the pianoforte.
The escapement mechanism enabled the hammer to fall back after striking the strings, ready to receive a new impulse and to give a new stroke. Also the mechanism allowed the string to be struck harder than on a clavichord so that it could produce more sound and used thicker strings at higher tensions than on a harpsichord.
In 1716, Jean Marius designed some models with hammers striking down to the strings and other model with striking upward below the strings. The pantaleon, a huge dulcimer played by two single hammers, invented by a German inventor about 1705, may have influenced Marius. With the advice of J.S.Bach, Gottfried Silbermann was able to make the first pianoforte with equal sonority along its range of keys in 1745. The striking action that was used for this piano became known as “English” action. In 1735, Friederici invented the first upright piano with vertical strings. German builders adapted Christofori’s piano-forte to the traditional rectangular shape of the clavichord. This new model was known as “square piano” or “table piano.” The high tension of the shorter strings forced new developments in metal bracing of the wooden frame. The new square pianos by Backers became very fashionable and remained popular until about 1900. The square piano was expensive so a more affordable instrument, “portable” and “miniature” piano, was designed for traveling and had a smaller span than the norm.
There was also a vertical harpsichord called clavicytherium that provided with a set of hammers. Prior to 1770 in France, harpsichord builder designed new pianos called “tinker’s instrument”. By the 1780, the English and Viennese pianos were the main types of pianos with distinct characteristics. The English action is more complex, the hammers strike the strings in a direct way. The English had a more powerful sonority and rich resonance. The Viennese piano was characterized by producing clear and sharp tones; its hammers tend to stroke the strings as they hit it. The English style of piano became fashionable by the time Paris became the center of the musical world while the Viennese style of piano no longer attracted attention. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action, which made possible extreme rapid repetition. The invention changed finger technique and encouraged Franz Liszt to compose his Douze Etudes Transcendantes. In 1825, Alphaeus Babcock designed a full cast-iron frame to support greater string tension. It combines all the refinements of its ancestors as well as additional improvement. The most important improvement is the use of cross stringing invented by Alphaeus Babcock. The cross stringing was invented for achieving richness of tone by passing more strings over the soundboard. In the early 19th century short-living few inventions appeared, including “Giraffe”, and the “piano-secretary”. The modern piano developed between 1830 and 1850 in two basic models, grand and upright.
The earlier pianos had hand stops, known as “buff stop”; which works by pressing a strip of buffalo leather up against the strings. This hand stops requires the piano player to lift hands from the keyboard. Around 1765 knee levers were introduced on the pianos made in Germany. During the middle 1760s, dampers consisted of wooden levers placed above the strings. Each damper had soft leather pressed down by a spring made of whalebone. Both the bass and treble registers had separate dampers Damper activations into both bass and the treble area was common until 1820. In 1777, Adam Beyer designed pianos with a pedal that had a cleft foot which controls the both dampers individually. This kind of foot-controlled pedaling mechanism improved in London and Paris and in Augsburg between 1783 and 1789. By pressing half of the pedal, all the bass dampers could be lifted or alternately, all the treble dampers, and pressing both pedals together lifted the entire damper of the strings. This mechanism was used until around 1830, and then piano builders replaced it with single damper pedal. Broadwood improved dampening mechanism by placing the dampers under the strings. A similar device was built in France that allowed the dampers to rapidly stop the sound of the lower part while letting the sound of the upper part continue to ring. Another type of piano, pedal piano, had an independent pedal board added to the piano in order to produce and sustain line of bass notes with the feet. It could double tones played with fingers. Notes played by the feet could also be held regardless of what the hands were playing at the moment. This mechanism required an extra set of strings. Erard built a pedal board in which those extra strings no longer needed.
There were national trends in instrument making; the countries which tended to use knee levers on harpsichord tended to use it on pianos, and the countries that used many devices tended to use a number of pedals or levers on pianos. In the middle of the 18th century a number of harpsichords were made with tone-modifying device. In England, double-manual instruments attached two pedals: machine and swell pedals. The machine pedal allowed the performer to change register from a “full” sound to a quieter sound. The swell became a regular feature of English harpsichord. In France, piano makers preferred to have knee levers for their sound- modifying device. Taskin used a knee lever device that was close to the machine pedal of the English pianos. He added four or five other knee lever for controlling the individual register of the harpsichord. Peau de buffle, soft leather, and plectra knee levers were designed to give more gentle sounds. Later, the French preferred using both foot pedal and knee lever. In Italy, the machine mechanism produced in 1700. Generally, outside of England and France, piano makers avoided attaching pedals and knee levers in the late 18th century.
The pedal piano mechanism logically led to the sostenuto pedal. In 1844 the sostenuto pedal mechanism was first shown in Paris. It enables the player to sustain specific tones without affecting other notes. American Steinway makers popularized the sostenuto pedal in 1876 and advertised it to the public as a “tone-sustaining” pedal.
The Verschiebung pedal mechanism was closely related to the una corda pedal of today’s grand piano. This mechanism moves the hammers so that hammers could strike only one string of each pair. Cristofori’s three surviving grand pianos all have una corda that operated by knobs at either end of the keyboard. Other piano builders took up the mechanism soon after it introduced by Cristofori in 1726.
On the pianos of the late 18th century and early 19th century, the piano could shift from tre corde (three-strings) to either due corde (two-strings) or una corde (one-string) position. This does not exist on today’s grand piano. In the second movement of Concerto No. 4, Beethoven distinguishes between una corda, due corde, and tre corde, “gradually two and then all strings”, which is impossible for today’s piano. On the modern upright piano, the una corda pedal makes the hammers of the treble section hit two strings and the hammers of the bass section hit one or two strings. The sound of the una corda on early pianos essentially modified timbre and color of the tone, which hit only one string, than it does on the modern piano.
In first movement of the “Sonata quasi una fantasia” Op.27 No.2 Beethoven indicated “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” (“This whole piece ought to be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers”). The modern piano has a much longer sustain time than the instruments of Beethoven’s period. Generally in many other pieces, when Beethoven uses the expression “senza sordino” the pedal should be pressed and should stay depressed until the indication “con sordino” marked. If a pianist follows this indication on modern piano it will make blurry and dissonant noises and will not make musical sense. To deal with this problem when performing on the modern piano, pianists use similar pedaling to what Beethoven asked, but must make some changes to avoid excessive dissonance. Casa Ricordi’s edition of the music has pedal marks throughout the first movement of the Sonata. Another option for performing on the modern piano is half pedaling. A son of Artur Schnabel, Austrian pianist Karl Ulrich Schnabel, wrote a book, Modern Technique of the Pedal, about pedaling technique that studied certain classical composers’ pieces in depth. It was published in 1619 in New York. In his book Schnabel suggested a solution for pedaling in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that makes use of partial changes throughout the first movement might be the best solution in order to produce better results on the modern piano. He also advised that “1/2 pedal” needs to be released on staccato notes and changed with each harmonic change in the last movement of the Sonata.
The well-known musicologist Howard Ferguson suggested a different solution in his book Keyboard Interpretation From The 14th To The 19th Century. Before starting to play the piece the player should slightly depress the lowest eight notes on the keyboard, then applythe sostenuto pedal. This means all these notes will be held. In this case, the player will have an advantage of using both una corda and sostenuto pedals. The damper pedal is required to make proper changes of pedal with the harmony. This pedaling will produce the misterioso effect that Beethoven seems to want in this nocturne-like piece.
Beethoven played different kinds of keyboard instruments during the fifty-seven years of his life. In Beethoven’s late period, he was familiar with both Viennese and English pianos and composed for each of them. Knowledgeable pianists of that time could determine which type of piano the composer may have intended for his various pieces. The Viennese pianos Beethoven played were rather delicate instruments. His playing was described as orchestral, and the pianos he played could not stand up to the elemental force: he snapped the strings of Viennese pianos. In his period, his powerful playing could scarcely have been imagined before he appeared as virtuoso pianist. In 1826, the hammers were covered with layers of leather in pianos made by Erard in Paris. The instrument produced a different kind of tone that Beethoven expected to hear. Beethoven himself used the word “Hammerklavier” to describe the instrument in order to emphasis the principle of the hammer-action mechanism which makes possible on the piano the variation in volume between soft and loud. Beethoven’s Sonata Op.106 was specially written for this instrument and its subtitle is the clear indication that it was intended for performance on just such an instrument.
During the late 18th century, Turkish music became popular in Europe and composers attempted to imitate the sounds on the piano. A janissary was a Turkish soldier in the from 14th to the early 19th century. Turkish armies marched to the sound of drums and percussion. Mozart was one of the important composers influenced by it. Mozart’s final movement, Allegretto alla turca, of the Sonata K.331 imitated Turkish janissary music. The janissary pedal was one of the early pedal devices that were to add all kinds of rattling noises to the normal piano sound. Viennese pianos operated with a “janissary music” stop that was applied by foot pedal or knee levers. Janissary stops often includes bass drum, bells and cymbals, and sometimes tambourines and triangles. Mozart’s Turkish Rondo intended to be played on piano builder, Johan Fritz’s, grand piano. This instrument included a drum, cymbals and bells. The drum was struck with a large beater linked to striking the underside of the soundboard. The bells sounded provided by a metal beater linked to a foot pedal. In addition it had a bassoon stop operated by a knee lever.
The bassoon stop was located beneath the bells and lowered a roll of parchment on to the strings causing them to buzz. The buzzing was supposed to resemble the sound of a bassoon. Tthis effect was the first attempt to use the piano as a replacement for an orchestra. Other well- known examples of the Turkish music are the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No.100 and finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. These pedal mechanisms gradually disappeared and finally this evolution came to today’s basic three pedals.
Banowetz, Joseph. Elder, Dean. The Pianist’s Guide To Pedaling. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Crombie, David. Piano. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1995.
Gillespie, John. Five Centuries Of Keyboard Music: A Historical Survey Of Music For
Harpsichord And Piano. New York: Dover Publications, 1972.
Rowland, David. A History of Pianoforte pedaling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Schnabel, Karl Ulrich. Modern Technique Of The Pedal: A Piano Pedal Study. New York: Mills Music, 1954.