Historical Performance

18th Century Pianos: Design, Style, Music

Although the earliest pianos were invented at the beginning of the eighteenth-century, it was not until the 1780s that the piano began to usurp the harpsichord as the keyboard instrument of choice (Rowland, 1993, p.13). There were two distinct schools of piano building – English and Viennese – and it was only late in the nineteenth century that a standardised, uniform design based primarily on the English action was used across the continent: in 1870, Brahms was gifted a piano from Streicher, which was to stay with the composer until his death in 1897; the instrument was built in the Viennese manner, with leather-covered hammers, and Brahms was particularly taken with its aural characteristics – this despite the 1880-era Steinway being not too dissimilar to that of the present day.

The action of a piano is, perhaps, its most important and defining feature. Unlike that of the harpsichord[1], the piano’s mechanics allows for a gradation of dynamics; a hammer strikes a string at varying velocities, transferring more kinetic energy into the string the more forceful a key is struck. This was first achieved with Cristofori’s (1655-1731) single-escapement action (around 1700), which allowed the hammer to use its momentum to become free from the key and reset itself regardless of whether the key was depressed. Both the English and Viennese actions used a single-escapement design – the double-escapement (which allowed for greater rapidity in repetition) was not invented until 1821 by Sebastian Erard; however, whilst the English design was more a direct evolution from Cristofori, the Viennese action was developed by J.A. Stein (1770), and mounted the hammer on the key and pointing towards the front of the key (fig. 1). The hammer, therefore, ‘rose with the back of the key’, and resulted in a ‘shallower, lighter, [and] more nimble touch’ (Grover, 1976). The English action, however, mounted the hammers, pointed away from the key front, on a rail above the keys (fig. 2). John Broadwood innovated upon Cristofori’s design, adding a regulating screw, and omitted the ‘intermediate lever so that the jack acted directly against the hammer butt’. This allowed the hammer to be given more momentum, but its ‘corollary was that a heavier, deeper touch was required, making rapid passages difficult to play’ (Grover, 1976).

Fig. 1. Viennese action, Stein, 1786 (Grover, 1976).
Fig. 2. English action, Broadwood, 1795 (Grover, 1976).

During Haydn’s (1732-1809) two visits to London (1791-1792, & 1794-1795), he wrote several works for keyboard instruments, including a set of sonatas for the London-based pianist Therese Jansen-Bartolozzi, who was the dedicatee for a number of compositions by composers such as Dussek and her tutor Clementi. It would have been in London that Haydn, for the first time, would have ‘heard a performance of a solo piano sonata as part of a larger formal concert’ (Beghin, 2014, p.568), and whilst Vienna did not see a purpose-built concert hall until 1831, one may contend that the characteristics of the English piano lent itself better to large-scale solo performances than its Viennese counterpart; that ‘the wonderful touch of the Viennese action allows for the subtlest graduations of volume’ (Burnett, 2004, p.151) implicates the more confined environment of an domestic setting, and the greater power of the English action as described above for the larger concert venues of metropolitan London.

The French Overture introduction (Ex.1) of Haydn’s 1794 E-flat Major sonata, Hob.XVI:52, utilises copious ‘thick’ chords that are ‘the most conspicuous sign of the influence of English pianos on Haydn’s keyboard style’ (Komlós, 1995, p.74), and Beghin (2013, p.568) equates the grand opening to the ‘English custom of rising to speak’. Whilst scholars, such as Ratner (1980, p.413), contend that these opening chords ‘would sound magnificently sonorous and percussive played on a harpsichord’, the work ‘was obviously written for the pianoforte, and was thus described in the London first edition’ (Harrison, 1997, p.8). This is a ‘public sonata on the grand scale’ (Landon, 1976, p.450) and, therefore, its introduction must be well suited to its concert venue. The achievement of such power would only be possible on the ‘more orchestral’ (Beghin, 2014, p.568) English piano, and many London-based composers used similar openings to Haydn: Beghin (2014, p.567) points to Dussek’s piano sonata in G major, Op13, no. 3 as an example.

Ex.1: Haydn; Hob.XVI:52, movt. 1, bb.1-2. The French Overture opening of the sonata. (Henle)

The damping system on the English piano was far less efficient in design than on the Viennese instrument, and, therefore, resulted in possessing far greater resonance and ‘substantial after-ring’ (Oort, 2000, p.75). Viennese pianos were equipped with dampers ‘all the way up to the highest f… in order to avoid a “confusion in sounds”’; however, this resulted in ‘a “great dryness” (Oort, 2000, p.75, quoting Fréderic Kalkbrenner (1785-1849).  It is the Viennese dampers (Fig. 3) that bare greater resemblance to the modern piano: the bass damper is a wedge covered in leather (the modern instrument uses felt), and a flat pad which dampens the trichord & bichord strings in the treble. The English damper, on the other hand, consisted of ‘light wooden clamps’ held together by ‘strips of cloth, the edges of which rest[ed] on the strings’ (Oort, 2000, p.75). Although today the resonance and after-ring allowed by the English method would be ‘incorrectly’ (Oort, 2000, p.75) viewed as wholly unsatisfactory, as English manufacturers ‘could easily have adopted a more effective system’, one must ‘conclude that this particular sound effect was based on a different musical aesthetic’ (Oort, 2000, p.75).

Fig.3. Piano dampers:
(a) an English piano damper
(b) a bass Viennese piano damper
(c) a treble Viennese piano damper
(Oort, 2000, p.75)

Composers anticipated the instrument and deployed a ‘counter-resonance [method of] notation’; short notes were notated with extra care ‘in order to get the sharp cut-off that they wanted’ (Oort, 2000, p.80), and were often interpolated with rests which provided a specified musical space for the accumulated sound to dissipate. Lock (2004, p.29) suggests bar 43, and the fermata chord coupled with the rest in bar 46 in the first movement of Haydn’s sonata Hob.XVI:52 (Ex.2), and Oort (2000, p.81) points to ‘the characteristic fermata at the end of both the first and second phrase’ of the third movement. The rest that follows the introduction of the first movement (Ex. 1, b.2) allows the grand swell to relax and prepares aural space for the gentle echo (b. 3) to occur. Indeed, the notation of the opening of the C major sonata (Ex.3), Hob.XVI:50, implicates a Viennese sound on the English instrument (Oort, 2000, p.80): a gentle piano dynamic, light, staccato articulations, and rests providing space. Furthermore, later in the movement, the direction ‘open pedal’ (bb.73-74, & 120-123) is given – perhaps a juxtaposition of the two styles.The more effective damping of the Viennese piano, however, was more suitable for the crisp, humorous displays of music such as the opening of the 1790 Sonata in E-flat Major (Ex.4) that Haydn composed for his great friend Mare von Gennzinger (Hob.XVI:49).

Ex.2: Haydn; Hob.XVI:52, movt. 1, bb.41-47.
Notated space for sounds to dissipate.
Ex.3. Haydn; Hob.XVI:50, movt. 1, bb.1-7
The Viennese style in a London sonata 
Ex.4. Haydn; Hob.XVI:49, movt. 1, bb.1-11
Crisper music for a crisper piano

The less efficient damping of the English design also meant that ‘legato playing suited English pianofortes’ more than their Viennese counterparts, and, therefore, ‘it was heard more in London than on the continent’ (Komlós, 1995, p.139). Legato was ‘adopted as a basic touch’, with ‘legato being implied in unslurred passages’ (Oort, 2000, p.78). Here we can compare the more lyrical lines following the opening in the E-flat sonatas (49 & 52) which were separated in conception by only four years; however, they are philosophically rooted in differing ideology: one conceived for a virtuoso and ‘public performance’ (Downs, 1992, p.463), and the other for an, albeit talented, amateur. The Gennzinger sonata (Ex.6) is more disconnected and clinical, whereas the Jansen-Bartolozzi (Ex. 4) is a longer conjunct line, utilising almost romantic chromatism. Lock (2004, p.33) also notes the adagio second movements of sonatas no.52 and no.50, where ‘Haydn indulged in the new sonorities available to him’, and that the slow tempo ‘allows the sound to die away enough for us to enjoy every subtlety of the music without letting the cantabile line be broken off’. ‘The mellow, romantic tone of some of the London slow movements is quite a new colour in Haydn’s palette’ (Komlós, 1995, p.75), and was inspired by the English instrument.

Ex.5. Haydn; Hob.XVI:49, movt. 1, bb.11-27
The Gennzinger Sonata
Ex..6. Haydn; Hob.XVI:52, movt. 1, bb.5-10
The first Jansen-Bartolozzi Sonata

The tone of the English piano also contributed to its legato abilities: ‘The melody and the legato acquire on this instrument a particular charm and harmonic sonority though the fullness of the tone’ (Hummel quoted in Oort, 2000, p.77). The Viennese piano, however, had a more ‘flute-like tone “which distinguishes well from [an] accompanying orchestra”’ (Hummel in Oort, 2000, p.77). Perhaps the more orchestral sound of the English piano mentioned earlier meant that it was more difficult to differentiate between the piano and the remainder of the ensemble. The Viennese instrument was also ‘much admired [for its] difference in tone between the different registers of the instrument’ (Oort, 2000, p.76) – this was because Viennese builders used only one bridge – much like the harpsichord – which meant that the balance in tone was favoured towards the bass region. The English piano had a more homogenous colour, partly thanks to Broadwood’s invention of the divided bridge, although its treble region was ‘particularly powerful’ (Oort, 2000, p.76) in comparison to its bass. ‘On the English grand piano, the use of the full range of the keyboard produces a rich, resonant sound’ (Komlós, 1995, p.75) – again it is in Haydn’s London sonatas where this is displayed. The last movement of Hob.XVI:50 makes extensive use of the enlarged range of the piano initiated by Dussek – who ‘induced John Broadwood to extend the standard five-octave compass of his instruments’, and Hob.XVI:52 utilises the ‘music-box register’ (Sisman, 2007, p.294) of the English piano (Ex. 7) – the treble region of the Viennese instrument would be underwhelming for such music.

Ex..7.1. Haydn; Hob.XVI:52, movt. 1, bb.8-13
The transition: a higher accompanying figure and descending melody
Ex..7.2. Haydn; Hob.XVI:52, movt. 1, bb.27-30
The second subject in the ‘music-box register’

Another technical difference in the two instruments was the implementation of a device to lift the dampers. English grand pianos were fitted with a sustaining pedal ‘from the start’ (Komlós, 1995, p.23), as well as a true una corda pedal (in the 1830s this became impractical due to special constraints (Rowland, 1993, p.20)), and, in 1806, Broadwood fitted his pianos with two sustaining pedals ‘so that the treble and bass dampers could be raised separately’ (Rowland, 1993, p.20). The Viennese piano, on the other hand, first had the dampers raised by hand operated stops; however, pianists were not satisfied with this, and the stops were replaced by knee operated levers – much like the swell on a harmonium. The turn of the nineteenth-century saw knee levers be replaced by the easier and more comfortable to use pedal system used by the English builders (Interestingly some Viennese pianos such as the 1778 Walter piano mentioned by Rowland (1993, p.18) included a ‘moderator’ – equivalent to the modern upright piano’s celeste rail). The beginning of the nineteenth-century also saw the standardisation of the number of devices on a piano (Rowland, 1993, p.18); this may partially be due to greater competition stifling innovation in an attempt to cut costs. Standardised parts allowed for easier mass production, thus lower cost, but also meant that alterations to designs were more complicated and risk inclusive – innovations were related to undercutting completion rather than improving upon the instrument.

The differences between English and Viennese pianos offers a unique insight into compositional material of the period, and how the ‘increasingly professional’ (Beghin, 2007, p.170) pianist may have performed the work. It is interesting to note how the instrument evolved into its present form, the corresponding changes in the diverse musical aesthetics of the composers and performers, and how they viewed the piano at various stages during its development. Some early pianos, including the one owned by Domenico Scarlatti’s student, Princess Maria Barbara of Portugal, were converted into harpsichords – along with ‘a number of eighteenth-century musicians’ (Rowland, 1993, p.8) – they must have been dissatisfied with the instrument, or alternatively, and more likely in the case of Maria Barbara, the conversions were made as the pianos had either been rendered obsolete by technological developments, or that the higher string tension required by the hammer-action may have begun to cause structural defection: ‘conversion to quilled action (lighter stringing) would have been a means of rescuing an instrument from the predicament either of structural failure or of obsolescence’ (Sutherland, 1995, p.250).

In 1794, Hummel delivered a concert at the Burgtheater on an ‘englisches grand Piano-Forte’ (Maunder, 1998, p.112) that he had bought during his time in London – perhaps the first time an English-built piano was played in Vienna; later, however, Hummel is known to have preferred the Viennese instrument. The Viennese piano builder Andreas Streicher wrote in reply to Gottfried Härtel commenting that ‘he could not agree with the heavier touch and greater key dip that Clementi required’ (Oort, 2000, p.75). One may wonder what he may have thought about the larger 11mm key dip and more weighted touch of the modern instrument, following the ascendency and ontogeny of the English action.


[1] Although, of course, a harpsichordist can create dynamic effects and emphasis with attention to timings, and the rippling of chords; a 2006 study Penttinen also found that dynamics are present on the harpsichord, albeit with more subtlety than on the piano.


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