Fortepianos and a Misty Lake in the Moonlight

Historically, a keyboard isn't just a keyboard. How you hear Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata can depend on the instrument it's played on.


When Baroque or earlier music is performed, the question of whether to use period instruments often is at the forefront of the interpretive conception. Organizations like the Oregon Bach Festival and Portland Baroque Orchestra must answer this question for every performance. With keyboard repertoire or keyboard parts of a chamber or orchestral work, this might be a decision of whether to use a piano or a harpsichord. The two instruments have such different sound, however, that asking which is preferred is not unlike asking whether a piece should be played on violin or flute. Thus, while pianists playing solo may choose to play on the piano music that was composed for harpsichord, Baroque and early music ensembles generally will use a harpsichord or organ for keyboard parts to satisfy aesthetic preferences and maintain historical integrity.

During the Classical era, fortepianos (early versions of the piano) began supplanting harpsichords and organs as the keyboard instrument of choice for secular keyboard music. While the earliest keyboard compositions of Haydn were written for the harpsichord, the fortepiano had supplanted the harpsichord by the time of Beethoven and Schubert. Today, keyboard music of the Classical era generally is performed on a modern piano, but the decision of whether to use a period piano (fortepiano) or modern piano can be interesting.

Fortepianist Tom Beghin, in a screen shot from the video below, demonstrating Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” From a demonstration at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent, Belgium, March 3, 2015.

The original invention of the piano was of an instrument that, unlike a harpsichord or organ, could vary the dynamic level of individual notes (and unlike a clavichord, could play at volume levels suitable for performance). The instrument was called a fortepiano, which translates to loud-soft. Just over 300 years of development have led to numerous improvements on the original design. The development of an iron plate on which strings could be mounted at great tension enabled the instruments to play with much greater volume and a wider dynamic range than prior ones lacking the iron plate. The name was changed to pianoforte (meaning soft-loud) to distinguish these instruments from fortepianos. We’ll use the term “piano” for pianos that have an iron plate, and “fortepiano” for earlier instruments that lack one (although some would argue that the distinction is blurrier). Fortepianos also have a different style of hammer that strikes the strings to make a tone, and other differences, endowing them with a tonal quality that is different from that of a modern piano.

While most pianists consider the improvements over the years to fortepianos (and subsequently to pianos) to have led to the modern piano having improved tonal qualities and enhanced expressive capabilities, Beethoven’s celebrated Moonlight Sonata is an interesting case study. In almost all editions of the score, going back to the first edition published by Cappi & Diabelli in 1803, the first movement includes the composer’s instruction “sempre pianissimo e senza sordino,” which translates to “always very soft and without damper.” (The plural sordini, or dampers, is found in some later editions).

On a piano, when a note is played, the damper is raised to allow the string(s) associated with the note to vibrate. When the note is released, the damper re-engages with the string(s) to stop the vibration, and the note ceases to sound. The sustain, or damper pedal, will keep the dampers disengaged so that any note played will continue to sound after the key is released (and because all of the dampers are released by the pedal, some or all of the remaining strings will resonate sympathetically with the tone). Thus, “always without dampers” taken literally would mean holding the sustain pedal down for the entire movement. On a modern piano this would be infeasible, because as harmonies change, the sustain of tones would be sufficient to cause different harmonies to blend together into a discordant white noise. Pianists today generally would recognize the problem with a literal interpretation on a modern piano of the composer’s instruction, and would assume that the composer meant always to play without dampers, but to change the pedal as harmonies change so that only a single harmony is sustained at any point in time. An edition of the score by Beethoven interpreter par excellence Artur Schnabel was published by Curzi of Milan in 1949, and notates such a pedaling.

However, an interesting edition was published by G. Schirmer of New York in 1896 edited by Sigmund Lebert, Hans von Bulow, and others. The directive was changed to “sempre pp e con sordini,” which translates to “always very soft and with dampers.” The editors nonetheless notated some use of the damper pedal, and also included the footnote: A more frequent use of the pedal than is marked by the editor, and limited to the most essential passages, is allowable; it is not advisable, however, to take the original directions “sempre sensa sordini” (i.e. always without dampers) too literally. (The italics added are from the present author, and not in the published score).

This raises the question of what was Beethoven’s intention. Did Beethoven mean, “always play without dampers, but change the damper pedal (or knee lever on a fortepiano, in Beethoven’s day) to avoid the blurring of different harmonies”? If the pedaling were to be left to the interpretation of the player (as is fairly common), why notate any instruction at all? These questions are answered insightfully by the internationally acclaimed fortepianist Tom Beghin, a recognized authority on historically accurate 18th and 19th century keyboard performance. He notes in the video above that fortepianos have less tonal sustain than a modern piano, so that the dampers may stay disengaged for the full performance of the introductory movement of the Moonlight Sonata, with only a minor blurring of harmonies. He describes the resulting background effect as being like “those shadows on a moonlit lake,” as opposed to the (equally valid) interpretation on modern pianos (with damper pedal changes when harmonies change) that I find to be more like the brooding emotion of someone longing for something they lost.

Which do you prefer?


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