As we all know, a proper young Regency Miss was expected to be proficient in a number of ladylike skills. Art was one of them—watercolors and sketching with pencil and pastels were deemed desirable talents. As was music, especially playing the pianoforte. Well, I confess that aside from a short stint playing the clarinet in junior school, I have no musical training whatsoever. So I would have been persona non grata at the ton’s musicales.
However, aware of my woeful lack of knowledge, I have recently downloaded a Yale University lecture course on “Listening to Music,” which has been wonderfully interesting and educational. (You can get it for free here.) And I thought I would share a few of the things I’ve learned about the history of the piano in the Georgian/Regency era. (Just in case the patronesses of Almack’s hit us with a pop quiz.)
The piano was invented around 1700 by the Bartolomeo Cristofori , Keeper of Instruments for the Grand Prince of Florence. Its proper name was the pianoforte, meaning ‘soft-loud’ because it could produce a greater range of dynamic tones than the harpsichord, which had been the main keyboard instrument since the 15th century. (In the harpsichord, strings are plucked, while the piano’s sounds are made by hammers striking the strings.) The harpsichord is synonymous with Baroque music, which runs from 1600-1750. Bach, Handel, Vivaldi—all the great composers of the time wrote masterworks for the instrument.
It was Mozart who led the change to the piano. He liked the sound, shading and dynamic range of tones, and many of his sonatas and concertos were composed specifically for the piano. The early pianos were small, and encompassed only five octaves. They had only one string for the hammer to strike (in a modern grand piano there are three strings per key.) It’s interesting to note that keyboards over the centuries have always had a great deal of variation. There are 12 notes in the Western musical scale, but how they were arranged (the black and white keys) gets a little complicated, and was often dictated by musical “style. For example, the early keyboard were influenced by the notes used in Gregorian chants. But I digress, so let’s fast forward back to the Regency era.
Beethoven arrived in Vienna, the musical capitol of the world, in 1797, six years after Mozart’s death. His playing of the piano shocked the musical cognoscenti. It was a physical, aggressive, powerful style, made possible because the actual instrument was getting bigger and more powerful. Technical developments allowed bigger, stronger soundboards, reinforced with iron, and more keys. The English firm of Broadwood and Sons became a real player in instrument-making at the turn of the century, and in 1817 they sent Beethoven a free piano (the celebrity endorsement game was already in full swing), which had two strings per note. (It still exists and is on display in a museum in Pest, Hungary.)
Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas and 5 piano concertos, the most famous of which is the Emperor Concerto. Contemporary accounts say that “he has much fire, but he pounds a bit too much.” Which might, of course, be because the poor fellow was going deaf!
On that note, I shall lift my fingers from the keyboard and turn things over to you. Do you play the piano? Or any musical instrument? Do you enjoy listening to music—and lastly, do you have a favorite composer? I’ve been having such a wonderful time discovering the joys of classical music, and really love Mozart and Beethoven, especially his symphonies.