The Keys to Jane’s Pianoforte
What’s a fortepiano? What’s a pianoforte? How do they differ from our modern piano (formally called pianoforte), and what would Jane have played?
Beginning in the 1970s, Frank Hubbard, the Massachusetts based eminent builder of harpsichords, began to build a different Instrument that was dubbed “fortepiano.” After years of success building harpsichords, the keyboard of the Baroque Era championed by 17″‘ and 18th century composers culminating with I. S. Bach, Hubbard realized the time had come to introduce the fragile and at that time almost unknown keyboard instrument that emerged and evolved throughout the 18th century and that was known interchangeably as a fortepiano or pianoforte. The model Hubbard chose to replicate by 1979 was the 1/84 Instrument championed by none other than Mozart. Other instrument builders produced other versions of this fragile and magical instrument that, in Its original guise, had evolved out of existence by the 1870s. Fortepiano and pianoforte mean “loudsoft” in the first case and “softloud” in the second. This designation is important since the name helps distinguish this type of instrument from the harpsichord that, unlike the early pianos under discussion, cannot change the degree of loudness or softness by delicate or strong strikes of a key. What made the early pianos survive was their ability to change the dynamics of any given note by enabling them to play softly with a soft touch and loudly with a strong touch. I have always said that if a harpsichord’s sound makes me think of diamonds and if the modem piano’s tone is golden, then the fragile predecessor of the modem piano sounds like silver.
Certainly, the consensus of the directors of films based on Jane Austen’s books is to give her beloved characters the opportunity to play the instruments of the 1790s rather than those of 1810 and beyond. Like Beethoven’s Broadwood piano, they were already more substantial in their tone and construction and wider In their range; they were created for the repertoire after the world touched by Jane. Along with the earlier piano goes the earlier repertoire by such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, and Beethoven. Though the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice uses a beautifully scored soundtrack featuring the piano very heavily, the Instrument ismodem, and the music emulates that of Schubert more than the earlier composers; therefore, to my way of thinking it is a little beyond the ken of Jane Austen and her musical “ladies.”
At the 2006 JASNA AGM, I did Find out that the pianoforte at Chawton Cottage was never actually owned by Jane, though it is of the appropriate type that could have been her instrument. Since instruments were evolving about as quickly in a decade as today’s computers evolve in a period of six months, many different sizes and models would have existed at the same time. Some pianos were grand, and some, much smaller like Jane’s, resemble a tiny square grand piano.
So delicate an Instrument does play an important role in the Austen books In a way that a modem Instrument could not suffice. The modem instrument is simply too loud. How could Elinor and Lucy Steele have discussed Mr. F. while a modern piano rumbled and thundered behind them? They needed Marianne’s playing on the delicate instrument of her era to create a shimmering curtain of music, which was soft enough to allow the girls to converse and hear each other speak yet was loud enough to prevent others from hearing their conversations.
Pianos of the era of Jane Austen may be found in this country. If one travels to Washington D.C., a trip to the Music Collection of the Smithsonian Institute will allow one to see original instruments from the harpsichord to the pianos of Jane’s times and beyond. In 1979 I played on an Instrument from the 1790s, a real one, not a modem replica. A trip to historic Williamsburg, where Colonial music can be heard on street corners and in taverns, also gives one a chance to see at the Governor’s Palace, which one can imagine is an American Pemberly, both a harpsichord and a pianoforte (or fortepiano). Dancing was so important to the early residents of Williamsburg that a large hall at the Palace was made with a specially “sprung” floor to facilitate dancing.
Other historical instruments Include the massive and noble harpsichord at Mt. Vernon. George Washington purchased it for his wife’s granddaughter. It is located in an alcove where it can be heard in the wing of the house used either for dining or dancing. We know George Washington loved to dance. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, had his instruments located in the music room, ready at hand to be played no matter what was going around him. The piano is tiny, possibly as small and delicate as that given to Jane Fairfax. It is so small that there is scarcely room for Jefferson to place his violin on its top surface. In this music room, these two small instruments are on one wall, and their sounds would be soft enough that other activities taking place In that room would not be interrupted. On another wall, there is a backgammon board, and there are plenty of chairs to accommodate those who would have discussed philosophy, politics, science, art, literature, gardening, Inventions, the construction of the University of Virginia, or anything else the Host of Monticello cared to discuss. And after such intense discussions, what would Thomas Jefferson have done? He would have called for music and have performed it himself. Jane would have felt at home there.