The importance of knowing the nuts and bolts of your piano.
If you think a collection of two hundred year old instruments just belongs in a museum and is not relevant to you - read on!
Complex artefacts in general have a long evolution and have received their improvements (and sometimes their flaws) from technicians and makers who spent long hours on trial and error attempts to adapt those devices to their imagined ideals. It is only time which decides when an improvement is successful, but in any case all improvements can still be challenged in the future. Complex artefacts that need human manipulation will probably give their best when the operator understands the way they function. If that person goes further and studies their history and evolution then they may become even more expert. I can’t think of a professional driver who doesn’t know the main parts the car is made of and the consequences of driving without correcting faults or misadjustments. The same is true for pianists. Although there are (at least for the moment) piano technicians who can take care of the maintenance just as mechanics take care of a car, the pianist will benefit enormously from studying the way pianos work and, even better, studying their evolution.
All the great composers before the 1820s wrote their music having in mind the instruments that were available at the time: pianofortes. Needless to say they couldn’t write for an instrument that was still to come. Now, what changed in the 1820s and 1830s? in Birmingham around that time Webster and Horsfall, the company that provided the first transatlantic telegraph cable in 1865, found out that adding manganese to iron makes steel wire much stronger.
But making strings from this modern steel came at a cost: the new strings needed more tension to keep them tight enough to be musically usable. This led to various attempts to solve the problem until eventually the cast iron frame was invented. This also met the requirements of an extended compass and the addition of a third string per note for longer sustain as well as the introduction of big felt hammers. These new stiffer strings also added another inconvenience for tuners and people with sharp ears: the acoustic effect known as inharmonicity. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century this flirtation between technical development and the expressive requirements of the composers had turned into a stable marriage when composers were satisfied with the piano as it was. Improvements were then directed towards acoustics, economics, durability, etc., but most of the technical specifications were in place.
And there are other aspects of the instrument that are related to the performance of period music, like the temperament of its tuning or the use of pedals with their variety of effects. Viennese pianos such as those Mozart and Haydn used, were different from the English ones. French pianos also had their own characteristics. But understanding the evolution of the piano and its basic acoustic principles won’t be of much use if performers can’t translate them into useful insights when playing.
Travelling back to the present and considering all this, wouldn’t it be useful to know if your piano is well adjusted and regulated, or if the una corda pedal is meant to strike only one string? Do you know why your piano may make a twanging sound despite being recently tuned? Why certain pedal indications in a score don’t make sense?
The best way to appreciate all these subtleties is to have them demonstrated on a selection of pianofortes that led to the modern piano. There are not many places where students and amateurs are welcome to come and play on historic instruments, but luckily The Finchcocks Charity in Tunbridge Wells, Kent is one of them. The Charity offers individual and small group visits as well as opportunities for recordings, bursaries and a specialised library on early keyboards. There you can also learn more about and play the predecessors of the piano and the fortepiano: the harpsichord, spinet and clavichord.
By Cesar Hernandez. (2020)
C H is conservator of the Richard Burnett Collection and tuner and technician of early stringed keyboard instruments in England. Article originally written for The Finchcocks Charity.