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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Word About the Viennese Fortepiano

by Craig Tomlinson, Harpsichord and Fortepiano maker

Mozart did not specify if the recitatives in Don Giovanni were to be accompanied with a harpsichord or with a fortepiano. Both instruments were appropriate and both instruments were available to Mozart. His own undated fortepiano had been purchased from the Viennese builder, Anton Walter early in 1780 and was used extensively in his compositions over the next decade until his death in 1791. 
Young Mozart at the piano

Anton Walter’s fortepianos were on the cutting edge of Viennese piano technology. Their single escapement actions incorporated the newly designed back-check, designed to eliminate multiple hammer strikes when a key was struck by an over-zealous player. They had a slightly larger range than many keyboard instruments of the day: a whopping 63 notes, from FF to g3.  Mozart’s piano had a hand lever used to raise the damper rail to sustain the notes played. Only after Mozart’s death were pianos fitted with knee levers and later with pedals for raising the dampers off of the strings.  
In this production of Don Giovanni a fortepiano based on two of Walter’s instruments is being used. Built in West Vancouver in 2004, it has a typical Viennese reverse keyboard with black ebony naturals and white bone accidentals. This is a carryover from the French harpsichord tradition. All of the woods used in the construction are traditional including the soundboard that was cut from spruce logs purchased in the Bavarian town of Mittenwald. As well, European beech and Swiss pear are used extensively. The outer case is veneered in walnut.  

Viennese piano actions are quick and snappy. The sound is clear and very delicate with a relatively short sustain. The force needed to depress a key lever on a Viennese fortepiano is only about a quarter of what it is on a modern piano and the dip of the key is only about half as much. Thus, playing the Viennese fortepiano involves none of the athleticism exercised by modern piano virtuosos but, like harpsichord, it requires an exquisite sensitivity of touch. 

Fortepiano slideshow:

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