January 7, 2010

Beethoven's fortes

The word on the street is that Beethoven's pianos didn't last long: snapped strings, broken keys, even a cracked frame now and then...  This kind of keyboard mayhem, we are told, was unavoidable because what Beethoven meant by  fff  called for much greater volume of sound than could be extracted from those Broadwood pianos of his day.  I’m sure this much is true.  I wonder, however, if this is the whole story.  Much of what is known about the man suggests that his idea of  fff  might have included some amount of ugliness and brutality in addition to loudness.  After all, Hummel could play forte on exactly the same pianos without snapping strings or breaking keys.  And even the young Liszt – in his bombastic period – was not known for inflicting serious damage on his pianos.