Sakura Salon 03/29/2015 – Franz Lizst

Liszt

Before Beatlemania, there was Lizstomania!

When you think of rock n’ roll, Franz Liszt might not be the first name that comes to mind. But the classical pianist, born over 200 years ago, was in many ways the first rock star of all time.

In the mid-19th century, Liszt was tearing up the polite salons and concert halls of Europe with his virtuoso performances. Women would literally attack him: tear bits of his clothing, fight over broken piano strings and locks of his shoulder-length hair. Europe had never seen anything like it. It was a phenomenon the great German poet Heinrich Heine dubbed “Lisztomania.”

“We hear about women throwing their clothes onto the stage and taking his cigar butts and placing them in their cleavages,” says Stephen Hough, a world-renowned concert pianist.

Liszt also revolutionized the art of performance.

“Liszt was a very dynamic personality,” Hough says. “He was someone who seduced people — not just in a sexual way, but in a dramatic way. He was someone who, like a great speaker, was able to capture an audience.”

Before Franz Liszt, no one thought a solo pianist could hold anyone’s attention, let alone captivate an audience. Liszt set out across Europe in 1839 to prove the conventional wisdom wrong. As part of that mission, he made a radical decision to never bring his scores onstage.

“Before Liszt, it was considered almost in bad taste to play from memory,” Hough explains. “Chopin once chided a student: It looked almost arrogant, as if you were pretending that the piece you were playing was by you. Liszt saw that playing the piano, especially for a whole evening in front of an audience, it was a theatrical event that needed not just musical things happening but physical things on the stage.”

Liszt deliberately placed the piano in profile to the audience so they could see his face. He’d whip his head around while he played, his long hair flying, beads of sweat shooting into the crowd. He was the first performer to stride out from the wings of the concert hall to take his seat at the piano.

Everything we recognize about the modern piano recital — think Keith Jarrett, Glenn Gould, Tori Amos or Elton John — Liszt did first. Even the name “recital” was his invention.

 

But although his life was the kind many musicians dream of, Liszt walked away from it all in his 30s.

“He wasn’t someone who thought life just consisted of food, drink and all the pleasure you could wring out of it. He was someone who was always searching,” Hough says. “I mean, he even considered the priesthood in his teens. So, he was never going to be satisfied just with pleasing the countesses. I think he also realized how superficial a lot of audiences’ appreciation might be, and he wanted to retire and to do something more meaningful.”

Later on in his life, Liszt became interested in conducting, and he re-defined that role as well: He started to work with individual musicians to help them shape the sounds that he was after.

“Before Liszt, a conductor was someone who just facilitated the performance, who would keep people together or beat the time, indicate the entries,” Hough says. “After Liszt, that was no longer the case; a conductor was someone who shaped the music in an intense musical way, who played the orchestra as an instrument.”

And, of course, Liszt would go on to compose around 1,400 works. He died in 1886, but all through the 20th century, his influence could be heard — in the works of fellow Hungarian composers Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, as well as in the writing of his son-in-law, Richard Wagner.

 

Playlist:

Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S141 – No.3 in G sharp minor (“La Campanella”)

3 Etudes de Concert, S.144 – No. 3 in D flat “Un sospiro” (Allegro affettuoso)

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Ellens Gesang III, D. 839, Op. 52, No. 6, ‘Ave Maria’

LIZST TRANSCRIPTION – Ellens Gesang III (Ave Maria), S558 no.12 (after Schubert’s D839)

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Erlkönig, D. 328

LIZST TRANSCRIPTION – Erlkönig, S.558 No.4 (after Schubert D.328)

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (Piano Version)

Liebestraum No.3 in A flat, S.541 No.3

Réminiscences de Don Juan, S. 418

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Salon 12/7/14 – Piano Music of Erik Satie

In the midst of an art opening at a Paris gallery in 1902, Ambient music was born. Erik Satie and his cronies, after begging everyone in the gallery to ignore them, broke out into what they called Furniture Music–that is, background music–music as wallpaper, music to be purposely not listened to. The patrons of the gallery, thrilled to see musicians performing in their midst, ceased talking and politely watched, despite Satie’s frantic efforts to get them to pay no attention.

 “I have never written a note I didn’t mean.” – Erik Satie

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You’ve heard his work in movies, commercials, even on “Sesame Street.” He was the quintessential “artist’s artist,” a man who, as one critic wrote, “had the no-doubt gratifying sensation of seeing the times catch up with him.”

Erik Alfred Leslie Satie was born in 1866, and was raised in Paris during an age in which the Wagnerian music model reached its zenith in Europe. He began music lessons at the age of 15, but without much success – though some thought he had talent and potential, his playing was at various times called “insignificant and laborious” and Satie the student, “worthless.”

In the 1890s he joined the Rosicrucian church, and was introduced to the mystical strains of Gregorian and plainsong chant that would permeate his music for the rest of his life. Satie quickly became bored by the Rosicrucians, though, and decided to create his own church, which he called “L’Eglise Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur.” For this he published an “official” manifesto that functioned primarily as soapbox upon which to rant against music critics.

Satie supported his one-member church by playing in the famous cabaret, the Chat Noir, where he met a young composer named Claude Debussy. Satie held strong influence over Debussy, instructing him to avoid all popular Wagnerian influences of the time. As he claimed, “There is no need for the orchestra to grimace when a character comes on stage. . . . What we have to do is create musical scenery . . . in which the characters move and talk.”

Debussy and friend Maurice Ravel began writing Satie-inspired pared-down music that eventually morphed French Impressionism. Debussy and Ravel only acknowledged Satie’s influence many years later, as firmly established composers. But, while Impressionism flourished, Satie stayed in the cabarets, and stayed very poor, even called Monsieur le Pauvre by his friends. By the turn of the century he moved to a cheap industrial suburb of Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life, walking several miles each day to play at the cabarets and back home every night with hammer in his pocket for protection.

It was around this time that Satie began wearing his trademark gray velvet suits, earning himself the nickname “the velvet gentleman.” He detested the sun, and tried to go outside only during bleak days. He washed only with pumice stone, never soap, but perhaps his most extreme behaviors centered around food: he “never spoke while eating, for fear of strangling himself,” and only ate white foods. His list? Eggs, sugar, shredded bones, animal fat, salt, coconuts, rice, turnips, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish.

In 1905, at the age of 40, Satie enrolled again in the conservatory to learn the “proper” classical techniques of counterpoint and theory. Surrounded by students half his age, he honed his skills and graduated top of class. With the classical training however, his music continued to become more bizarre. He began scribbling mysterious directions all over his scores and gave a running commentary of dialogue, puns, and absurdities: to be jealous of one’s playmate who has a big head, the war song of the King of Beans, canine song, to profit by the corns on his feet to grab his hoop, and indoors voice. The titles, too, were remarkable: Veritable Flabby Preludes (for a Dog), Sketches and Exasperations of A Big Boob Made of Wood, Menus for Childish Purposes, and Desiccated Embryos, to name just a few.

Spring of 1917 marked the premiere of the balletParade, a synthesis between literature and music, visual art and dance, fashion and poetry. For many, it was a long-awaited unification of art with everyday life, and an overdue break with the stifling bindings of Wagnerian late-romanticism.

The collaboration of poet, artist, and enfant terrible Jean Cocteau with the 48-year-old Satie began some three years prior, when the two had met as witnesses in a wedding. The charming Cocteau had attached himself to the Ballet Russes, becoming, in one critic’s words Diaghilev’s “court jester” and “house pixie.” While artists championed Parade, critics panned it, and the piece outraged so many people that there was a riot the first night it opened. Satie, Cocteau, and a few of their cronies even found themselves facing a libel suit in court, culminating being labeled “cultural anarchists,” and eight days of jail time for Satie.

Cocteau and Satie thrived on scandal however, and Parade became something of a cult object. Thanks to the high standing of Diaghilev and Picasso (not to mention a scathing press) Satie became something of a celebrity. Shortly after the premiere Satie’s newfound popularity found him at the center of a group of composers that would become known as Les Six. Satie collaborated with Les Six for the next several years and continued his interest in ballets, culminating in the 1924 premiere of Relâche.

Four decades of bourbon and absinthe had caught up with the composer however, and shortly after this event Satie became ill with cirrhosis of the liver and died. Though largely forgotten in the years following his death in 1925, during the 1960s Satie’s music began to surface as an anecdote to more traditional classical music, and has risen in popularity ever since.

 

Tonight’s Playlist

  1.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Gnossiennes – No. 1 – Lent (5:37)
  2.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Gnossiennes – No. 2 – Avec étonnement (2:58)
  3.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Gnossiennes – No. 3 – Lent (4:05)
  4.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Gnossiennes – No. 4 (2:51)
  5.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Gnossiennes – No. 5 (3:03)
  6.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Gnossiennes – No. 6 (2:40)
  7.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: Le Piccadilly (1:36)
  8.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: La diva de l’empire (2:15)
  9.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: The dreamy fish (5:34)
  10.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: The Angora Ox (7:39)
  11.    Reinbert de Leeuw – Satie: Petite ouverture à danser (2:17)
  12.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: Je te veux (5:12)
  13.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: 3 Gymnopédies – No.1 (3:39)
  14.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: 3 Gymnopédies – No.2 (3:29)
  15.    Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Satie: 3 Gymnopédies – No.3 (3:07

Sakura Salon 8/10/14 – Beethoven Piano Sonatas

The fortepiano vs, the pianoforte

The fortepiano was the precursor of the modern piano, and was invented by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. He called his instrument “gravecembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud).

Visually, the instrument looks like a harpsichord in scale. Mozart’s fortepiano has 61 notes as compared to the modern piano’s 88 keys.

The keyboard is reverse color, meaning that the naturals are black and the sharps and flats are white. In historic times, this was done for economic reasons — it took less ivory for the sharps and flats.

The fortepiano has a wooden frame while the modern piano has a metal one.

There are only two strings per note instead of the three on the modern piano.

The hammers are covered by leather instead of hard felt.

The damper pedal is not operated by the foot, but by a knee lever. The rate of decay is greater on a fortepiano (sound dies away faster).

Tonally, the fortepiano varies from bass to treble — the bass notes have a slightly “buzzy” quality while the treble notes are more “tinkly.” The modern piano has a more even tonal quality from top to bottom.
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique)

Grave – Molto allegro e con brio
Adagio cantabile
Rondo: Allegro

This Sonata represents one of the few cases in which the popular title came from the composer himself – its full name is ‘Grande sonate pathétique’ (pathetic in the sense of ‘suffering’, rather than the English sense of ‘pitiful’). It was written in 1798, a time when Beethoven was beginning to become aware of his encroaching deafness and yet was leading a relatively contented domestic life.

The dramatic Grave introduction to the Pathétique is the most powerful opening to any of his sonatas to this date and its music becomes an intrinsic part of the movement through its reappearances at the beginning of the development and coda. There is an almost ‘orchestral’ texture to much of the piano writing, with chords marked forte-piano at the opening and a timpani-like left-hand accompaniment to the Allegro’s main theme.

The Adagio cantabile is in one of the simplest of forms: three statements of a heartfelt theme separated by short episodes and followed by a brief coda – there is no attempt at development as such.

The Sonata ends with a straightforward rondo that, despite its minor key, only recaptures the general character of the rest of the work in the sforzando chords of the coda, the remainder being more delicate and even humorous.
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (Moonlight)

Adagio sostenuto
Allegretto
Presto agitato

The popular nickname of the ‘Moonlight’ for the second sonata of Op. 27 may be a fair title for the first movement, but the rest of the work contains some of the most turbulent music Beethoven ever wrote. Much has been said of Countess Guicciardi, or at least Beethoven’s feelings for her, being the Sonata’s inspiration, but, as she herself recalled, it was not dedicated to her until after another work intended for her had had to be reassigned to another patron.

This is again designated as a ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’. There is no standard fast first movement. Instead, the Sonata opens with a slow movement, a calm and poetic, virtually athematic Adagio sostenuto. It is followed without a break by a short D flat major scherzo, with a dramatic, syncopated trio, and the hectic, often ferocious Presto agitato concludes the Sonata in a mood about as far away from the Adagio as is possible.

 

 

Sakura Salon 3/23/14 – Claude Debussy piano music

Claude Debussy is generally considered the dominant figure in the transition from the late romantic style to that of the twentieth century. Born in St. Germain de Fleurville, France in 1862, Debussy studied at the famous Paris Conservatory from the age of ten to twenty-two and awarded the Prix de Rome in 1884.

Debussy’s principal influences included the music of Russia, the exotic colors of Asian music (which he first heard at the Paris International Exposition in 1889), and the ideas of writers and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire. Following the production of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902 and the completion of his popular orchestral work La Mer (The Sea) (1905) Debussy was soon recognized as a leading composer of early twentieth-century.

Due to certain aspects of Debussy’s style, his music is usually classified as a musical counterpart to the artistic movement known as impressionism. Like the paintings of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Debussy’s music (and musical impressionism in general) conveys a feeling of vagueness rather than sharply defined articulation. For example, the exotic tone colors, sensuous harmonies, imperceptible metrical pulse, and tonal ambiguity–all characteristics of Debussy’s style–seem to accurately reflect the spirit of ethereal paintings like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise(1874).

In Debussy’s music, clearly delineated harmonic progressions, melodies, and rhythms are purposely avoided to evoke mood and atmosphere rather than concrete images. In the work entitled La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral), Debussy utilizes a compositional device known as parallel chords (or planing) to dilute the sense of directed motion found in traditional progressions. It should be noted that it it took a while for the critics and the listening public to warm up to this new and bold experiment in harmonic freedom.

The colorful harmonies suggests Debussy was guided simply by that which he found pleasing to the ear rather than some “rule” of traditional harmonic practice. In 1890 Debussy’s professor at the Paris Conservatory commented on Debussy’s use of parallel chords in the following way: “I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Debussy simply replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

Debussy was fond of unusual scale patterns. Medieval church modes and numerous scales from the orient were used extensively. One such scale is the pentatonic scale. As implied by the name, this scale utilizes a total of five notes (e.g., corresponding to the black keys of the piano keyboard) rather than the traditional eight.  The whole-tone scale is another frequently encountered scale pattern in the music of Debussy. This scale consists of six different notes with no intervening half-steps.

 

Reverie

Written in 1890, Debussy’s Reverie was one of his first solo piano works to make an impact. Even at this early stage in his career, it’s clear to see traits of that signature Debussy sound.

However, the young Debussy had not quite developed the style that would earmark him as one of his generation’s most notable talents. There are no fireworks here, no sudden explosions in texture that would come to characterize his later works – this is more of a meditation, the perfect precursor to exploring those later works.

The gently repetitive theme that opens the work feels like a descent into sleepy dream-world (as the title suggests), and as the textures become ever richer the dreams only become more lush and addictive

 

Various Preludes

Claude Debussy composed his two books of Préludes between late 1909 and early 1913. Each book contains 12 Preludes. A novelty about these Préludes is that the titles are not printed as a header above the first page, but as a footer on the last page, almost like an afterthought, suggesting that the title is inspired by the music and not the other way around. Here follows a description of some of the items recorded here.

La Puerto del Vino (The Gate of Wine) describes the Spanish life and the passionate temperament of the Spanish people that Debussy had imagined, based on a postcard he had received of the Moorish gate by the Alhambra Palace in Granada. A habanera rhythm is often heard in the left hand while the right hand imitates flamenco-style singing and guitar.

Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (The Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers) was inspired by one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in J.M. Barrie’s children’s book, “Peter Pan in Kensington Garden”. Robert Godet had sent the book to Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (nicknamed “Chouchou”) as a Christmas present in 1912.

 Ondine is a wicked water nymph who seduces innocent fishermen into the destructive waters of the sea. (Near Sakura?)   Although her outward appearance is beautiful, her hidden intentions are deadly.

 Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) was inspired by the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th. A hint of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, is heard near the end of the piece.

 Les Collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) depicts life in the small city of Anacapri, on the Island of Capri off the Italian mainland, which is famous for its joyous folksongs and folkdances.

La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The Terrace for Moonlight Audiences) is based on a description of the coronation festivities of George the V as Emperor of India that Debussy had read in the December 1912 edition of “Le Temps” magazine. The article had been submitted by Rene Puaux as part of his “Lettres des Indes” series.

 La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) belongs to the lost city of Y’s that has sunken to the bottom of the sea as a punishment. It emerges for a brief moment each morning to remind the people of their sins, but then slowly resubmerges. The cathedral bells and monks’ chants may be heard through the mist of dawn.

Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the Snow) portrays a frozen landscape in the dead of winter.

Bruyeres (Heather) is a low-growing mauve flower. One can hear birds calling or the sounds of a shepherd’s flute a distance from the heather field.

 La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) paints a serene picture of the Scottish maiden with hair of gold from Leconte de Lisle’s poem.

 Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Evening Air) is based on a line of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, “Harmonie du soir”.

General Lavine Eccentric has indeed been described as “eccentric,” which is as apt a description as any I suppose. What “General Lavine” really reminds me of though is some of the music that Thelonious Monk would compose 40 years later.

 

Suite Bergamasque

The creation of this set of four pieces remains shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. In 1890, when Debussy was 28 and virtually unknown, he composed four brief pieces for piano but did not publish them. He came back to this music fifteen years later, in 1905. By this time, Debussy had become famous (or infamous): in the intervening years he had composed Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the String Quartet, Pelléas et Mélisande , and La mer. Now he composed two new piano pieces, L’isle joyeuse and Masques, and intended to publish them along with the four pieces from 1890, but eventually he thought better of this plan. He published the new pieces separately, and he revised the earlier set and published it in 1905 under the title Suite Bergamasque. How much of this music is the work of an unknown music student in Paris and how much of it is the work the established and sophisticated composer he had become by 1905? No one is sure.

The title is just as elusive. Bergamasque in one sense refers to something old or antique, but Bergamo is also the traditional home of Harlequin of the commedia dell’arte, a dramatic form to which Debussy was much drawn. In his Suite Bergamasque, Debussy set out consciously to evoke the keyboard music of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and three of the movements of Suite Bergamasque are in forms that come directly from that music.

 

Suite Bergamasque I. Prelude

The opening Prélude springs to life with a great flourish and then often has an improvisatory air, as if the pianist might be making it up on the spot. It contrasts a flowing, elegant opening idea with a quiet and falling second subject, and Debussy drives the movement to a forceful close.

Suite Bergamasque II. Menuet

The Menuet is not in the minuet-and-trio form of Haydn and Mozart, nor does it even look back to the earlier French minuet. Instead, it evokes the graceful spirit of that formal dance form. Debussy’s marking is pianissimo et très délicatment, and its many grace-notes, triplets, and runs evoke the “archaic” sound of the clavecin or harpsichord.

 Suite Bergamasque III. Claire de Lune

The great exception in the Suite Bergamasque is its third movement, which does not look back to an earlier keyboard style. Clair de lune has become so familiar as an impressionistic portrait of moonlight that it is surprising to learn that in its earliest version this music had nothing to do with moonlight. In 1890 Debussy had originally titled this piece Promenade Sentimentale, and the music acquired its familiar name only when it was revised in 1905. This music fully deserves its popularity–no matter how over-familiar it may have become, Debussy’s fluid rhythms, haunting melodies, and delicate shading continue to work their hold on listeners (and pianists).

 Suite Bergamasque IV. Passepied

Debussy rounds off the suite with the Passepied, which was originally a sailors’ dance from Brittany (its title means “pass-foot”). In its original form, a passepied was in triple meter, but Debussy’s movement is in duple meter throughout. Beneath the crisp staccato of the left hand (which is heard in almost every measure), the right hand lays out two ideas: the sharp-edged opening theme and a more flowing second. For all its elegance, this movement is extremely difficult for the performer, and it ends beautifully, with a falling shimmer of eighth-notes that wink out on two final chords marked triple piano.

 

Salon at Sakura #4 10/14/12 The Piano

For our fourth Salon, we discussed the piano, and listened to some representative works:

  1. Bach Fugue in g minor – a clavichord piece
  2. Handel Sarabande – harpsichord
  3. Mozart Piano Sonata #13 in B Flat KV.333 – First movement
  4. Beethoven Piano Sonata #8 in c minor Op.13 Pathetique – First movement
  5. Beethoven Piano Sonata #8 in c minor Op,13 Pathetique – Second movement
  6. Chopin Ballade #1 in g minor Op.23
  7. Chopin Ballade #4 in f mino Op.52
  8. Debussy Reverie
  9. Debussy Claire de Lune
  10. Bartok Allegro Barbaro

A very short history of the Piano

Many instruments we know today arise from the simple fact that a taut string set to vibrating will produce a musical tone.  The guitar, the violin, the cello and all manner of keyboard instruments produce their tone from such vibrating strings.

At first, these strings were attached and stretched over bows, gourds, and boxes to amplify the sound; they were fastened by ties, pegs and pins; and they were plucked, bowed or struck to produce sounds.

Eventually, a family of stringed instruments with a keyboard evolved in Europe in the 14th century. The earliest of these was a dulcimer – a closed, shallow box over which stretched wires were struck with two wooden hammers. The dulcimer led to the development of the clavichord, which also appeared in the 14th century. These were followed by the spinet, virginal, clavecin, gravicembalo, and finally, the harpsichord in the 15th century.

The clavichord and harpsichord were especially important instruments in the development of the piano.  In a clavichord the strings are struck by small metal blades called tangents, while in a harpsichord the strings are plucked by quills.

The clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, but it was much too quiet for large performances.

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Want  some  Action?

When we discuss action, what do we mean?

The action is in general terms the mechanical process of how the instrument translates what the fingers do when pressing a key, into a musical tone.  Pianists will also talk about how the action feels, meaning how the touch of the piano responds to their playing

See the daigram later in this post.

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The harpsichord on the other hand produced a sufficiently loud sound, but the quill could only pluck the strings with unvarying force and hence an unvarying volume of sound.   Therefore, performing artists on the harpsichord could not convey the same degree of musical expression as that of most other instruments, including the clavichord.

The first piano was invented about 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker in Padua, Italy. Cristofori replaced the plucking-quill action of the harpsichord with a newly designed striking-hammer action, whose force could be precisely controlled by the player (see more later in this article). Thus was born the gravicembalo col piano e forte (keyboard instrument with soft and loud). This name was later shortened to pianoforte, then fortepiano, and finally just piano. In the 1700s the new instrument, made mostly by craftsmen in their shops, spread quietly through upper-class Europe.

In the 1800s the piano spread more quickly through the middle classes, and across the ocean to North America. Riding along with the Industrial Revolution, piano-making evolved from a craft into an industry. Many important changes took place during the 19th century: The upright piano was invented; the modern grand piano action was invented, incorporating the best aspects of the previous rival actions; the cast-iron plate was invented, vastly strengthening the structure and allowing the strings to be stretched at a higher tension, thus increasing the power and volume of sound; the range of the instrument was extended from about five octaves to the present seven-plus octaves; and, toward the end of the century, the square piano died out, leaving just grands of various sizes and the full-size upright.

By 1880, most of these changes were in place; the pianos made today are not very different from those of a hundred years ago.  However, subtle changes have been made and continue to be made.  Many of those changes have been made in tonal color, often making newer piano’s tones less subtle and brighter in order to cut through larger orchestras and modern recording mixes (often pianos used in pop music are of a much brighter timbre), and to accommodate modern ears.    Of course, every piano is different.

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Size does matter.  Really.

In pianos, size IS directly related to musical quality.   Although many other factors also contribute to tonal quality, all else being equal, the longer strings of larger pianos, especially in the bass and mid-range sections, give off a deeper, truer, more consonant tonal quality than the strings of smaller pianos. The treble and bass blend better and the result is more pleasing to the ear.

 Verticals

Measured by height, from the floor to the top of the piano.

Spinet – <40”

Console – 40”-44”

Studio – 44”-47”

Upright – 48”+

Grands

Measured by length with the lid closed from the very front of the piano (keyboard end) to the very back (the tail). Lengths start at 4′ 6″ and go to over 10′ (even longer in some experimental models).  Note that there are no set definitions, the below is a guideline only.

Petite – 4’6” – 4’10”

Baby, or Small – 4’11” – 5’9”

Parlor – 5’10” – 6’4”

Semiconcert, or Ballroom – 6’5” – 7’

Concert – 7’+

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What types of pianos are there?

In today’s world, the main division is between acoustic and digital pianos.  However, this article is solely about acoustic pianos.

There are two major types of acoustic pianos produced today, upright (or vertical) and grand pianos.  Within those two categories, there are numerous subdivisions.  But before we go on, let’s take a little tangent to discuss another type of piano that was popular in the Victorian era, the square grand piano.

The square piano, or square grand as it is sometimes called, looks like a rectangular box on legs, and was very popular as a home piano during the 19th century. Its ornate Victorian case makes very pretty furniture — but it also makes a terrible musical instrument for 21st-century playing and practicing, due to tone and performance that is limited by narrow soundboards, simple actions and string spacing that made proper hammer alignment difficult.  Tuning, servicing, and repair are difficult and expensive, very few piano technicians know how to do it, and parts are hard to come by. These are gorgeous instruments, but not the best musical ones.

Verticals

There are various types of vertical pianos, generally based upon the size of the piano (see sidebar).  Please note that verticals are somewhat compromised musically in comparison to grand pianos because of size constraints, and changes to the action necessitated by the layout (for example, verticals rely on springs in the action whereas grands rely more on gravity), and these compromises get larger as the piano gets smaller.

  • Spinets and consoles  – Spinets were very popular in the post–World War II period, but in recent years have nearly died out.  Both spinet and console actions must be compromised somewhat in size or placement within the piano to fit them into pianos of this size.  The tone is also compromised by the shorter strings and smaller soundboard.  For this reason, manufacturers concentrate on the furniture component of spinets and consoles and make them in a variety of decorator styles.  They are suitable for beginning students and for those who simply want a nice-looking piece of furniture in the home. Once students progress to an intermediate or advanced stage, they are likely to need a larger instrument.
  • Studio– Studio pianos are more serious instruments, and are called studios because they are commonly found in the practice rooms of music schools. Manufacturers make them in both attractive furniture styles for the home and in functional, durable, but aesthetically bland styles for school and other institutional use.
  • Uprights – Uprights are the best musically for verticals.  New ones top out at about 52″, but in the early part of the 20th century they were made even taller.  Most uprights are made in an attractive, black, traditional or institutional style, but are also available with exotic veneers, inlays, and other touches of elegance.

The width of a vertical piano is usually a little under five feet and the depth around two feet; however, these dimensions are not significantly related to musical quality.

Grands

Grands less than 5′ long are the musical equivalent of spinets and consoles; that is, they are musically compromised and are mainly sold as pieces of furniture.  Musically, larger verticals can often be a superior instrument.

Grands between about 5′ and 5½’ are very popular.  Although slightly compromised, they can reasonably serve both musical and furniture functions and are available in many furniture styles.  Above 5½’, pianos rapidly improve, becoming professional quality at about 6′.  Pianos intended for the home or serious professional top out at about 7′ or 7½’.  These sizes may also satisfy the needs of smaller concert venues. Larger venues require concert grands, usually about 9′ long.

Widths are usually around 5′ and heights around 3′, but only the length has a bearing on musical quality.

Advantages / Disadvantages – Verticals vs Grands

Vertical Advantages

  • Takes up less space, can fit into corners
  • Lower cost
  • Easier to move

Vertical Disadvantages

  • Sound tends to bounce back into player’s face, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
  • Action is not as advanced as grand; repetition of notes is slower and less reliable in most cases, and damping is sometimes less efficient.
  • Keys are shorter than on grands, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
  • Cabinetwork is usually less elegant and less impressive.

Vertical pianos are suitable for those with simpler musical needs, or where budget and space constraints preclude buying a grand. Despite the disadvantages noted above, some of the larger, more expensive verticals do musically rival smaller, less expensive grands. They may be a good choice where space is at a premium but a more subtle control of musical expression is desired.

Grand Advantages

  • Sound develops in a more aesthetically pleasing manner by bouncing off nearby surfaces and blending before reaching player’s ears, making it easier to control musical expression.
  • More sophisticated action than in a vertical. Grand action has a repetition lever to aid in the speed and reliability of repetition of notes, and is gravity-assisted, rather than dependent on artificial contrivances (springs, straps) to return hammers to rest.
  • Longer keys provide better leverage, allowing for significantly greater control of musical expression.
  • Casework is usually more elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

Grand Disadvantages

  • Takes up more space
  • Higher cost
  • Harder to move

It’s a Bit Damp!

Dampening is the process of stopping the strings from vibrating, thereby stopping the tone.

A piano has dampers made of felt that rest on the strings.  When  a key is pressed, the damper for that key is lifted off of the string, and when the key is released the damper falls back onto the string.

A piano also has a damper pedal which when pressed down, lifts all of the dampers off of every string, regardless of whether the key is pressed down or not.  The dampers are not dropped back onto the strings until the pedal is released.

For all of you gearheads out there!

Going back to our short history, remember that while the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, it was too quiet for large performances. Alternatively, the harpsichord produced a sufficiently loud sound, but had little expressive control over each note. The piano was created as an attempt to combine loudness with control, avoiding the trade-offs of both of these other instruments.

Cristofori’s  major breakthrough was solving the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the string, but not remain in contact with it (as a tangent remains in contact with a clavichord string) because this would dampen the sound. (The hammers are made of felt and if they stayed in contact with the string, would stop the vibrations).  Moreover, the hammer must return to its rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori’s piano action was a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that followed. His early instruments were made with thin strings, and were much quieter than the modern piano—but compared to the clavichord (the only previous keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance via the keyboard) they were much louder and had more sustain (the length of time a tone sustains itself).

Fortepian - mechanizm angielski.svg

Action of a grand piano
Damper (15)
String (16)
Plate (17)
Agraffe (18)
Tuning pin (19)
Pin block (20)
Back check (11)
Damper lever (12)
Damper tray (13)
Spoon (14)
(10) Hammer
(9) Repetition lever
(8) Hammer shank
(7) Drop screw
(6) Hammer flange screw
(5) Jack
(4) Regulating screw
(3) Wippen
(2) Capstan
(1) Key

Renner Piano Action Diagram

Yes, dear, you’ve changed….

I had mentioned previously that relatively little has changed in the past 100 years of piano making.  However, the many years before that saw vast changes, meaning that the pianos played by Mozart, Beethoven and even Chopin were quite different from the modern instrument.   Today’s pianos are much more powerful and sonorous.

The changes were made due to a constant desire for performers and composers for a more powerful and more sustained sound.  The Industrial Revolution enabled manufacturers to meet those desires.

At first, the robustness of the piano itself was continually strengthened, allowing for more of both of these ideals.  Eventually this led to the cast iron frame, the ultimate solution to the problem of structural integrity as the strings were gradually made thicker, tenser, and more numerous (in a modern grand the total string tension can approach 20 tons).

The double escapement action, which permitted a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position, was invented.

Overstringing also was invented.   This is a special arrangement of strings within the case: the strings are placed in a vertically overlapping slanted arrangement, with two bridges on the soundboard instead of just one. The purpose of the overstrung scale was to permit longer strings to fit within the case of the piano.

grand piano diagram

A little bit (but not too much) of technical information about the piano. Important words are in italics.

A piano can be thought of as comprising four elements: mechanical, acoustical, structural, and cabinetry.

Mechanical:   When you press a piano key (usually 88 in number), the motion of your finger is transmitted through a series of levers and springs to a felt-covered wooden hammer that strikes the strings to set them vibrating. This complex system of keys, hammers, levers, and springs is known as the action. Also, when you press a key, a felt damper resting against each string lifts off, allowing the string to vibrate. When you let the key up, the damper returns to its resting place, stopping the string’s vibration. Pedals, usually three in number, are connected to the action and dampers via trapwork levers, and serve specialized functions such as sustaining and softening the sound. The right-foot pedal is called the damper or sustain pedal; it lifts all of the dampers off all the strings, allowing the strings to ring sympathetically. The other pedals are not used nearly as much by a large margin, and we need not discuss them here.

Acoustical:   Piano strings are made of steel wire for the higher-sounding notes (treble), and steel wire wrapped with copper for the lower-sounding notes (bass). They are graduated in thickness, length, and tension, and strung tightly across the structural framework of the piano. Each note has one, two, or three strings associated with it. Each such set of strings is known as a unison because all the strings in a set vibrate at the same pitch. The strings lie across narrow hardwood bridges that transmit their vibrations to a wooden soundboard, usually made of spruce in higher priced pianos. The relatively large area of the soundboard amplifies what would otherwise be a rather weak sound and broadcasts the sound to the ears. The dimensions, arrangement, and positioning of all the acoustical elements in a piano is known as the piano’s scale design. The scale design varies with the model and is a major determinant of the piano’s tone.

Structural:   The strings are strung across a gold- or bronze-colored plate (sometimes called a frame or harp) of cast iron, which is bolted to a substantial wooden framework. This heavy-duty structure is necessary to support the many tons of tension exerted by all the taut strings. A vertical, or upright, piano is one in which the structural element stands vertically, and is most commonly placed against a wall. A grand piano is one in which the structural element lies horizontally. In a vertical piano, the wooden framework consists of vertical back posts and connecting cross beams. In a grand, wooden beams and the familiar curved rim comprise the framework. One end of each string is anchored to the plate toward the rear of a grand or the bottom of a vertical piano. The other end is coiled around a tuning pin embedded in a laminated hardwood pinblock hidden under the plate at the front (grand) or top (vertical). A piano is tuned by turning each tuning pin with a special tool to make very slight adjustments in the tension of its string, and thus to the string’s frequency of vibration, or pitch.

Cabinetry: The piano’s cabinet (vertical) or case (grand) provides aesthetic beauty and some additional structural support. A grand piano’s rim is part of both the wooden structural framework and the case. Accessory parts, such as the music desk and lid, are both functional and aesthetic in purpose.

Can I have a little sympathy here?

The richness of a piano’s tone (and the reason that pianos are generally the hardest to duplicate digitally) is because of sympathetic vibration.    Obviously when a key is pressed, the original string struck by the hammer vibrates, and the tone of that string is carried through the bridge to the soundboard which will now amplify that tone.

Now remember dampening?  I mentioned earlier that when the key is released, a damper comes down that stops the tone.  Well and good –but now remember the damper pedal, which lifts all of the dampers off of every string whether the key is pressed down or not.  Not only does this sustain the notes played, the true sonorous beauty of the piano is due to the fact that with the damper pedal down and all dampers raised, this allows all strings in the harmonic progression with the keys pressed to also vibrate in what is called sympathetic vibration, adding a richness and fullness of the sound due to the many strings of a piano.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, go to a piano and without holding any pedal down, press down slowly and gently (so that no string is struck) Middle C, and the E and G above it.  You are basically not playing the note, you are simply lifting the dampers off of the strings.

Holding these three keys down, now with your left hand strike the octave C’s below middle C robustly but quickly let go.  What should happen is that the notes you struck, being dampered, stop resonating, but the C chord you are holding down should still be vibrating sympathetically, being in the harmonic progression of the notes you just played.

Although the acoustical and structural elements have been described separately, in fact the plate, wooden framework, soundboard, bridges, and strings form a single integrated unit called the strung back. A piano, then, consists of a strung back, an action, and a cabinet or case.