Friday, March 10, 2017

Ye Olde Keyboards

No. 242 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week’s podcast features works performed using “old keyboards” – that is to say, keyboard instruments that pre-date the acoustic “grand piano”. A brief history of these instruments (and their active principles) is in order.

The earliest known keyboard instrument was the Ancient Greek hydraulis, a type of pipe organ, invented in the third century BC. From its invention until the fourteenth century, the organ remained the only keyboard instrument. Often, the organ did not feature a keyboard at all, but rather buttons or large levers operated by a whole hand.

The clavichord and its more prevalent cousin the harpsichord appeared during the 14th century. They are plucked string instruments; the player depresses a key that rocks over a pivot in the middle of its length. The other end of the key lifts a jack (a long strip of wood) that holds a small plectrum (a wedge-shaped piece of quill), which plucks the string. As such, the player doesn’t control the “loudness” of the sound, nor its duration.

In 1440, Arnault de Zwolle described what is believed to be the first keyboard instrument which used tangent action - a small slip of wood similar in shape to a harpsichord jack (or similar to an unleathered hammer) which strikes the string to produce sound. Christoph Gottlieb Schroter claimed that he invented the new tangent piano by letting blank harpsichord jacks hit the strings, also incorporating dampers into the action.

The creation of the tangent piano, and the fortepiano, were the results of attempts to remedy the lack of dynamics in harpsichord sound. Both the tangent piano and fortepiano offered a variety of sound that was appealing to the changes in classical music, which featured more expressiveness and intensity than the harpsichord could offer.

Starting in Beethoven's time, the fortepiano began a period of steady evolution, overtaking the harpsichord in popularity by 1800. It then slowly evolved to the massive modern iron-framed giant of 88 keys we know as the modern grand piano. In its current form, the piano is a product of the late 19th century, and is far removed in both sound and appearance from the fortepianos known to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. In fact, the modern piano is significantly different from even the 19th-century pianos used by Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms.

Keyboard instruments were further developed in the early twentieth century. Early electromechanical instruments, such as the Ondes Martenot, appeared early in the century, followed by the pioneering work in analogue electronics by Dr. Robert Moog.

All of the works programmed today are concerti for keyboard and orchestra, featuring one of the harpsichord, tangent piano or fortepiano. The first selection, one of Sir Thomas Arne’s six “keyboard concerti” is performed today by Trevor Pinnock on the harpsichord.
The tangent piano's popularity lasted for such a short time that very little music was written for it. It is possible that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's keyboard concerti were written for this instrument or for the fortepiano. Miklos Spanyi released recordings of them on the tangent piano, and one of these is featured in our podcast.

Among the great classical masters who wrote keyboard concerti in the Classical period, Antonio Salieri left us with two, one of which is performed here by Paul Badura-Skoda on the fortepiano.

The 20th century harpsichordist Wanda Landowska was responsible for the composition of several contemporary pieces of music for the instrument, notably Manuel de Falla's harpsichord concerto and his El retablo de Maese Pedro. It is at the premiere of the latter piece at the salon of Winnaretta Singer, that Francis Poulenc and Landowska met for the first time. Poulenc composed his Concert champêtre in 1928 at her request. The concerto concludes our podcast for this week.

I bethink thee shall loveth this musick too