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Mois Année
Capture d’écran 2020-11-02 à 13.17.27.
"Let's discover the Galilee
with Mozart "
May 2021

Mozart’s Fortepiano
From plucked string to struck string


If Mozart used the harpsichord in his youth, he then abandoned it in favor of the Pianoforte.

What is it about? of a specially "loud" piano? of a little-known variety of keyboard instrument? of an instrument that preceded the piano, somewhere between the harpsichord and today's modern piano?


Throughout the baroque and pre-classical period (from 1600 to 1750), the harpsichord had been the central point of all musical performance and no one disputed its supremacy. With its pre-established “games”, its hierarchical keyboards (one then two) it corresponded perfectly to a monarchical society where each was worth the role it occupied. The large harpsichord was a prestigious instrument and a ceremonial piece of furniture with refined decorations. It adorned mansions, castles and palaces, among the well-to-do bourgeois, members of the nobility and royal families.





It certainly had wonderful qualities, but not (or very little) that of varying the loudness. Indeed, by virtue of its craftsmanship, the old instrument was devoid of any means of gradation in the nuances, that is to say of the passage at will from "loud" to "soft", from "forte" to "piano". The plectrum of the "Jack"[1] plucking the string invariably gave the same timbre no matter how powerful the harpsichordist touched it.


[1] The jack is the mechanism that allows the string of the harpsichord to be plucked. The plectrum is made of bird quill or leather. It plucks the string while going up pushed by the keylever. When the plectrum is descending, the felt damper touches the string causing the note to cease.


But this quality there, the pianoforte has very easily: with each note, with each key, the greater or lesser pressure of the finger makes it possible to control the power of the sound, with a very wide amplitude ... the "PIANOFORTE" or "FORTEPIANO”, as its name suggests[2], is an instrument that allows you to play soft and strong, to bring more expression.


If I strike hard, - Mozart wrote[3] - whether I let my fingers rest on the notes or lift them, the tone dies away at the same instant that it is heard. Strike the keys as I choose, the tone always remains even, never either jarring or failing to sound


The new instrument thus allows everyone to express simply and flexibly the slightest inflection, the slightest emotion. Under a fragile appearance, it has a sound which, following the registers and the touch, is filled with a rich gravity of all the harmonics, sign of well-born instruments. It allows melodic lines of crystalline purity and also contains an underlying wild character often solicited in the works of "Sturm und Drang"[4]. This is precisely what an era with new aspirations demanded: the era of the philosophers, of the “Age of Enlightenment”, which put the individual emotion of man at the center of reflection and creation, and which prepared the way French Revolution.



[2] Only Italy has still retained, including for the more powerful contemporary versions, the terminology of "Pianoforte". reserving the term “Forte-piano” for instruments from the 18th century. Elsewhere one uses either the term keyboard or the abbreviation "piano" reserving for instruments of the 18th century the term "pianoforte".

[3] Cf. Mozart letter to Leopold on 17 October 1777.

[4] "Sturm und Drang" (Tempest and Passion) is originally the title of a drama by Klinger performed in 1777. The characteristics of this movement applied to the musical genre are: the diversity of rhythms, the use of the minor mode and its affective dimension, the taste for chiaroscuro, muffled sounds, the recovery of counterpoint for expressive purposes.


Over the years, the pianoforte will become the center of a new musical and artistic language: Romanticism[5].


Subsequently, the progress of the foundry will make it possible to imagine instruments which are not exclusively made of wood, and which will have a more powerful sound, in particular with the design of heavy metal frames which are suitable for pianos likely to be used in larger concert halls open to a larger audience ... Voltaire, while calling the pianoforte “ a boilermaker's instrument in comparison to the harpsichord ”[6] in a fierce criticism, certainly did not anticipate the introduction of the foundry in the manufacture of pianos.


Technically, the pianoforte uses the principle of struck strings.


This principle is as old as music. One thinks, for example, of certain instruments of the Middle Ages of the family of table zithers very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries such as the “tympanon”, the “cymbalum”, the “santur” and their very numerous cousins ​​or derivatives. in the western or eastern world


[5] See our developments in our previous news letter “Papa Haydn” Part N°1

[6] See : Voltaire’s letter to Mme du Deffand 8 Dec. 1774





It was between 1709 and 1717 that Bartolomeo Cristofori[7] in Italy, Jean Marius[8] in France and Gottlieb Schröter[9] in Germany experimented with the basics of the hammer mechanism. Of the three inventors Marius disappeared forgotten, Schröter claimed the priority of an invention of which certain details recall that, earlier of Cristofori. Today it is the latter who is considered the initiator of the pianoforte with his “Gravecembalo col piano e forte[10]. However, the sound effect of this instrument still remained close to the harpsichord even though Cristofori had brought to the playing revolutionary possibilities of progressive dynamic nuances. Cristofori died in 1731 without his work having really seduced. Cristofori, Marius and Schröter made no profit from their inventions as is often the case. It was a newcomer Gottfried Silbermann whose mechanics were inspired by both Schröter and Cristofori who benefited from their efforts.


A few years later, Cristofori's technique was taken up, continued and perfected in particular by Gottfried Silbermann in Germany, by Zumpe, Schudi, Broadwood in England, Pleyel in France ...


Without going into technical detail, two types of mechanics ended up coexisting until the end of the 19th century:


English mechanics (also used in French pianofortes, for example on the pianos of Ignace Pleyel[11]), known as push-button, requires a great tension of the strings and therefore a rather massive general structure of the instrument: it is this technique which has finally endured on current large concert pianos, thanks to the improvement brought about by the so-called “double escapement” system invented by Sébastien Erard (see below).


The Viennese mechanism known as "Prellmechanik", is lighter than the English mechanism with a very small hammer covered with leather, and a simple escapement system which multiplies the force of the fingers. Vienna then plays the role of musical capital of Europe. It is the most important centerpiece of the pianoforte, this instrument which has already established its supremacy over the harpsichord. This is the type of instrument, made by Andreas Stein[12], for which Mozart, Haydn or the young Beethoven wrote. In addition, Stein is credited with introducing knee-lever for disengaging all the dampers from the strings, (precursor to the equivalent of modern piano pedals). Such a device had been devised by Gottfried Silbermann in the 1740s but, operated by two hand levers it required the use of the player's hands to operate them and therefore could only be deployed in music during pauses.


In the game of competition, Anglo-French mechanics supplanted Viennese mechanics, yet the great and magnificent Bösendörfer’s of the 1890s are still animated by Viennese specificities.


[7] Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) and his « Gravecembalo col piano e forte » (harpsichord with piano & loud).

[8] Jean Marius (??) and his « mallet harpsichords ».

[9] Gottlieb Schröter (1699-1782).

[10] A copy of this instrument dated 1720 still in working condition exists in the Metropolitan Museum.

[11] Ignace Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831), compositeur, élève de Haydn éditeur conçoit son premier pianoforte en 1802

[12] Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792). Nearly thirty years older than Mozart, Stein trained in his father’s workshop, an organ builder based in the province of Baden. At the age of 20, he went to study at J.A. Silbermann in Strasbourg. His interest in the pianoforte certainly dates from this stay and was confirmed during his participation in the work of Franz J. Späth's workshop in Regensburg. At 23, he established his own workshop in Augsburg, first as an organ builder, but soon as a pianoforte maker. His experiments and inventions brought a lot to the new instrument.


During the great tour of Europe Wolfgang and Leopold had already stopped in Augsburg from June 22 to July 6, 1763 where Leopold had purchased a small travel clavichord by Stein. But it was during the second trip from September 23, 1777 to January 15, 1779, during the (unsuccessful) job search tour leading him to Paris, that again Augsburg on October 11, 1777, Mozart visited Johann Andreas Stein and befriended him.





"Here and in Munich, - writes Mozart to his father again - I have already played my six sonatas quite frequently. The last one in D major has a very good effect on Stein's pianoforte. The place to press with the knee is better done in him than in others. As soon as I touch it, it works; and it is enough to withdraw the knee just a little so that there is not the slightest resonance (…) Now, I must prefer Stein’s instruments… His instruments have this special advantage over others that they are made with escape action. Only one maker in a hundred bothers about this. But without an escapement it is impossible to avoid jangling and vibration after the note is struck. When you touch the keys, the hammers fall back again the moment after they have struck the strings, whether you hold down the keys or release them.”[13]


In 1781, Mozart bought an Anton Walter[14] fortepiano which he would use until his death in 1791. On this instrument, the artist would write the last works of his life. For 10 years, his pianoforte will be transported wherever Mozart will travel.


[13] Cf. Mozart’s letter to Leopold on October 17, 1777 op. cit.

[14] Gabriel Anton Walter (1752-1826) born in Neuhausen near Stuttgart, moved to Vienna as an organ and instrument maker. In 1781, Mozart turned to him, despite his great admiration for Stein's pianofortes.


In 1781 or 1982 Mozart is supposed to have composed his 12 variations in C major on « Ah ! vous dirai-je maman », (variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star") an old French gallant song that became a well-known nursery rhyme to children after the lyrics had been "adapted ".


Mozart's son Karl Thomas (1784-1858) will report on Anton Walter's piano:


"It is especially necessary to notice the pianoforte in the shape of a wing which my father preferred to all the others, to the point that not only did he always want to have it near him in his study room but he did not play any other. in any other public place. "


Anyone who has had the good fortune to play Mozart on a Viennese-made pianoforte will testify to the immediate impression of clarity, especially in the low octaves ... it is easy to achieve a steady velocity on an instrument whose keys require only a few grams of force to be activated[15].


Subsequently, Sébastien Erard (1752-1831) developed in 1822 a system called "double escapement" which gives a note the possibility of being replayed very quickly. The double escapement makes it possible to replay the same note twice before the hammer has completely fallen. This system eventually became widespread on all modern keyboards. Mechanical improvements then gave rise to the filing of more than 400 invention patents from 1850 to the present day and resulted in more powerful instruments although power is often obtained at the expense of

timbre, especially in the interpretation of early works[16].


During the 19th century, particularly in France, the full term “pianoforte” was affectionately shortened to “piano”. Gradually, the standard, recent, "normal" instrument was named the piano, and yet recent pianos can play louder than strong pianos!


If we come back to the pianoforte, and to the interest it arouses in the interpretation of the early classical repertoire (by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) we suggest that you compare two versions of the fantasy in D minor KWV 397. The first is performed by Emil Gilels on a modern Steinway concert piano, the second is performed by Kristian Bezuidenhout on an old Viennese-made pianoforte.


It is not a question here of comparing the interpretations of this fantasy, of judging the different tempos from one version to another ... It is a question of appreciating the harmonic richness, the qualities of clarity and velocity of the pianoforte, the expressive possibilities of singing and coloring of these single escapement instruments that a pianofortist can also, as Mozart did, move wherever he goes.


[15] See in Le Dictionnaire Mozart H.C. Robbins Landon.

[16] For Olivier Barli, if the power of the large modern grand pianos suited the great virtuosity of Liszt's works and the concert halls they claim, the privileged place for the music of past centuries remained the salon. See Pianoforte and Modern Piano in pianistic interpretation in the magazine Piano n ° 1 September 1987.



But the interest aroused by the rediscovery of interpretations on early instruments should not stop at the baroque and classical repertoires because it is of course for the pianofortes, whether they are English (or French with double escapement) or Viennese style (with a single escapement) that the romantic composers (Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann in particular) composed. We will therefore not be surprised if this way of approaching, and giving new life to the music of the past now applies to the period of Romanticism, thanks to these early instruments or copies ones at the center of which are the pianofortes. whose sounds differ according to the personality of the pianoforte’s maker[17]


In conclusion, we would like to thank Marc Ducornet, harpsichords and pianofortes’s maker, sponsor of our festivals as well as Pierre Bouyer pianofortist, for their friendly contributions to the writing of this letter.


[17] Unlike modern concert pianos, which often sound evenly, pianofortes sound different depending on the factor that created them. To be convinced, one only has to listen to Schumann's "Kreisleriana" recorded by Pierre Bouyer on two different pianofortes (fortepianos Erard 1837, Streicher 1856) and on a contemporary concert piano by Fazioli 1995. See

Illustrations & vidéos :

A/B - Harpsichords by Marc Ducornet’s workshop. See

C - Kanji Daito - François Couperin - L’Art de toucher le clavecin prélude n°2 in D Minor.

D - Daniel Isoir & La Petite Symphonie - Mozart - Concerto n°13 en do majeur K415 (Andante) for agOgiqueTV

E - Master of the St Lucy Legend - detail.

F - Cassandra playing Tympanon - miniature in De mulieribus claris by Boccace - BnF & wikimedia Commons.

G - Original Pianoforte signed Anton Walter which belonged to Mozart.

H - Pianoforte J.A. Stein copy by Marc Ducornet’s workshop - collection Pierre Bouyer.

I - Alexander Melnikov plays on Mozart’s pianoforte.

J - Steven Lubin plays Mozart - Variations in C, K.365 on “Ah ! vous dirai-je, maman” ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star").

K - Emil Gilels plays - Mozart - Fantasia No 3 in D minor, K 397

L - Kristian Bezuidenhout plays - Mozart - Fantasia No 3 in D minor, K 397

To discover on youtube Steven Devine and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Introducing the Harpsichord & Introducing Mozart’s Fortepiano.

To discover on youtube A visit to Marc Ducornet’s workshop: Facteur de Clavecin // Crafts in Versailles - the harpsichord maker's



Ernest Closson : Histoire du piano publié par Malik Sadoine - See

Pierre Bouyer : Reflexion sur le Pianoforte et le retour aux instruments anciens - See

Marc Ducornet : Les secrets du Facteur - See Le Monde 16 nov. 1978.

Marie-Adelaïde de Place : Le pianoforte en France de 1760 à 1812 - See

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