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.