The History of the Pianoforte: A Documentary in Sound, by Eva Badura-Skoda

October 1, 2000

History of the PianoforteThe History of the Pianoforte: A Documentary in Sound, by Eva Badura-Skoda. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Ninety-minute video. ISBN: 0-253-33582-5.

Those who have attempted the dauntingly abstract task of reconstructing the piano's early history can be grateful for this enlightening contribution by musicologist Eva Badura-Skoda, enhanced by the performances and commentary of her husband, Paul. The Badura-Skodas have impressive credentials to undertake this project, and their extensive knowledge of the subject is matched by an obvious, impassioned enthusiasm. This video, which contains footage originally shot for Austrian television, allows the viewer to see and hear over thirty historic instruments and, in addition to Badura-Skoda, the performers include such accomplished artists as Malcolm Bilson, Jörg Demus, and Rudolf Scholz. The chronological narrative is clear, beginning in Florence with a richly detailed discussion of Cristofori's invention and then quickly moving to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the home of his only surviving playable instrument. An interview with Stewart Pollens, who exquisitely restored this 1720 cembalo con martelli (harpsichord with hammers), is complemented by Badura-Skoda's sensitive rendition of Scarlatti's Sonata in B minor, K. 87, an especially rare treat for those who may never have heard this beautiful instrument.

The confusing tapestry of eighteenth-century developments and innovations is presented with extreme clarity, as the film focuses on each major builder in turn, many of whom produced curious hybrids, like the dual-manual harpsichord-piano built by Giovanni Ferrini in 1746. Many "purists" who have argued against performing music of the pre-classical period on the piano may be given to re-examining their positions when confronted with the knowledge that Scarlatti was comfortable with Italian pianoforte developments (his famous contest with Handel in 1709 was even conducted on a Cristofori instrument), and that his pupil the Infanta Maria Barbara of Spain purchased five "hammered" harpsichords during her lifetime. The film also presents instruments few serious musicians have ever heard, such as the large dulcimer ("pantaleon") built about 1704 by Gottfried Silbermann for Pantaleon Hebenstreit, which in appearance resembles a keyless harpsichord. Hebenstreit was said to be the only musician capable of performing on his instrument with mallets, probably inducing Silbermann to later modify it with a detachable hammered keyboard, which rests atop the strings and delivers a strikingly beautiful sound. Bach scholars will also be intrigued by the inclusion of a 1746 Silbermann instrument housed at the Pottsdam-Sanssouci court of Frederick the Great (who owned fifteen Silbermann instruments), similar to the one on which Bach improvised the main theme to his Musical Offering.

The film offers a renewed appreciation for the several generations of German musicians who, like Beethoven, believed the piano was a German invention, for it confirms that many of its most significant developments originated in Germany and Austria. Evidently it was Silbermann himself who first used the term "pianoforte" as a noun in 1733, and it was Silbermann who first devised a mechanism for manipulating the instrument's dampers. The late eighteenth-century fascination with all sorts of pedals is graphically depicted, as Badura-Skoda offers an instructive contrast between damper devices on instruments made from 1781 to 1795 by Stirnemann, Schantz, and Broadwood. Unfortunately, the fortepiano pedale which Mozart ordered from Anton Walter has not survived, but on a modern replica Badura-Skoda offers a fascinating demonstration of the Concerto in D minor, K. 466, as the composer originally intended it, accompanied by rich bass tones. By 1800, there were over one hundred makers in Vienna and, understandably, the city became a center for both innovation and occasional whimsy. One of the most novel delights of the entire film is Badura-Skoda's demonstration of a six-pedal Viennese piano built by George Hasska about 1816. Here renditions of Beethoven's "Pathètique" Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 and a Schubert "Landler" are offset by Mozart's "Rondo alla turca" (from the Sonata in A major, K. 331) to demonstrate the percussive "Turkish" stop, and an improvised boogie-woogie to demonstrate Hasska's "bassoon" stop, which places parchment against the strings. The often discussed but rarely heard Broadwood which includes a split damper pedal is also featured, as Badura-Skoda demonstrates how it facilitates the slow movement from Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sonata in D major, op. 28.

Often the playing itself is extraordinarily beautiful and the listener may wish that time constraints did not necessitate reducing the selections to brief fragments. Particularly memorable segments include Gerlinde Otto's presentation of the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in E-flat, K. 282, on an instrument built by Johann Andreas Stein about 1784 (similar to one owned by Mozart); Malcolm Bilson's sensitive performance of the opening of Haydn's Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI:20, on a Schantz fortepiano from about 1790 (now owned by the Badura-Skodas); and Jörg Demus's exquisite reading of Schumann's "Abschied" from Waldenszenen, op. 82, on a Viennese instrument built by Michael Schweighofer about 1846. There is also an abundance of ensemble playing, as Badura-Skoda and Demus are joined by Hans Kann for the Mozart "Triple" Concerto, K. 242, performed simultaneously on a Schantz, a Walter, and a Broadwood. Badura-Skoda and Bilson then join forces to play Beethoven excerpts on the Schantz and the Walter, followed by Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448. Equally fascinating is the dialogue they share on an 1817 Broadwood and an 1822-23 instrument built by Conrad Graf. Here performances of two late Beethoven Sonatas are followed by some spirited ensemble work as they divide up the finale to Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata in D minor, op. 31, no. 2.

Conrad Graf is properly honored as a maker of extraordinary gifts, and Badura-Skoda performs on the instrument Graf built for Beethoven about 1822 with a "Turkish" stop and bell included at the composer's request. It is believed this was the piano at which Beethoven conceived portions of the ninth Symphony and, when rendered on this instrument, the genesis of the "German band" effect from the finale becomes far more apparent. Badura-Skoda also offers a portion of the Schubert "Wanderer" Fantasia, D. 760 on an 1825 Graf. The nineteenth-century survey also addresses Chopin and Liszt, as Gerlinde Otto performs Chopin's "cello" Etude in C-sharp minor, op. 25, no. 7, on an Érard from about 1835, and Jorge Prats delivers a spectacular performance of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 on an 1870 Bösendorfer.

The film suffers from a few minor flaws. The Österreichischer Rundfunk (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) still makes its original forty-five-minute version (Die Geschichte des Hammerklaviers) available to broadcasting professionals throughout the world, and the cutting and splicing necessary to adapt its product for English-speaking audiences has not always been seamless. Some viewers may be disconcerted by the sudden intrusion of German-language narration under the English dubbing as Mme. Badura-Skoda stands before the Germanisches National-Museum in Nürnberg, and another awkward shift occurs when Henry Steinway apologizes in German for his imperfect command of the language before shifting to English. A more serious concern appears in the last ten minutes when, despite the brief interview with Steinway, the film seems to deteriorate into a commercial for the Bösendorfer firm (Paul Badura-Skoda has long been a Bösendorfer artist). Despite the fact that Bechstein, Blüthner, and Steinway are given token recognition, the Bösendorfer plant is the only factory visited, and at the very least, many may regard the film's claim that the Bösendorfer ranks as the "Rolls Royce of modern pianos" as controversial. But on the whole, the film offers glimpses of rare instruments whose qualities are beautifully nurtured by superb artists. One of its chief advantages is that brief segments may be extracted to support classroom activities from a variety of periods, making it useful for courses in music appreciation, music history, and keyboard literature. The serious researcher will also benefit from hearing instruments drawn from so many diverse periods and locations, and this film should be a welcome addition to the library of every professional pianist.

4027 Last modified on October 17, 2018