What is a fortepiano, anyway?

Carl Crosier plays a duet with his teacher, Else Geissmar, on the fortepiano (1983)

Carl Crosier plays a duet with his teacher, Else Geissmar, on the fortepiano (1983)

For this weekend’s all-Mozart concerts, we have advertised the fact that it will be the debut of our fortepiano, built by Philip Belt. You may be wondering what the heck is a fortepiano anyway, and why do some people call it a pianoforte?

The fortepiano was the precursor of the modern piano, and was invented by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. He called his instrument “gravecembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud). I would commend an excellent article on the birth of the piano, written by Carey Beebe, who by way, maintains both the church’s harpsichord and our fortepiano.

  • Visually, the instrument looks like a harpsichord in scale. Our fortepiano has 61 notes as compared to the modern piano’s 88 keys.
  • The keyboard is reverse color, meaning that the naturals are black and the sharps and flats are white. In historic times, this was done for economic reasons — it took less ivory for the sharps and flats.
  • The fortepiano has a wooden frame while the modern piano has a metal one.
  • There are only two strings per note instead of the three on the modern piano.
  • The hammers are covered by leather instead of hard felt.
  • The damper pedal is not operated  by the foot, but by a knee lever. The rate of decay is greater on a fortepiano (sound dies away faster).
  • Tonally, the fortepiano varies from bass to treble — the bass notes have a slightly “buzzy” quality while the treble notes are more “tinkly.” The modern piano has a more even tonal quality from top to bottom.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the fortepiano which we are using in these concerts came from the estate of Carl Crosier’s piano teacher in college, Else Geissmar. When she turned 65, she decided she didn’t have the strength to play modern Steinway pianos anymore, and commissioned Philip Belt (called the “Father of the modern fortepiano”) to build this one in 1970, after an instrument by Johann Andreas Stein, 1773. We visited Else in her home after she acquired it and absolutely fell in love with the instrument. I remember her saying “Carl, you were my best student and some day you’ll have this piano!”

The Crosiers' fortepiano.

The Crosiers' fortepiano.

Although Mozart himself never owned an instrument by Stein, this is what he had to say about them: “I must tell you right now about Stein’s pianofortes . . . No matter how I decide to touch the keys, the tone is always even, never scratchy, louder or softer, or non-existent. . . When you play on his keys, the hammers rebound at the instant they strike the strings, whether or not you continue to depress the keys.” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, letter to his father from Augsburg, October 17, 1777). Even Mozart called it a pianoforte instead of a fortepiano! (Now I’m totally confused!) 

By the way, the fortepiano is tuned in “Vallotti tuning”  (after Francesco Antonio Vallotti, 1697-1780) and if you want a complete explanation, you can find it on Carey Beebe’s website.

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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5 Responses to What is a fortepiano, anyway?

  1. Richard Braley says:

    Q: What is a fortepiano, anyway?
    A: Halfway between a thirtepiano and a fiftepiano.

    Can’t believe I actually posted this. However, with my penchant for creating cartoons, many of which are puns, I guess it was a natural answer to the question.

  2. Cynthia Brigham says:

    Hello. Loved reading about your fortepiano performances. I would like to contact Phil Belt and wonder if you could help me locate him. I knew him years ago and have a fortepiano album he gave me. It’s a favorite of mine but after all these years of use, it’s showing signs of wear; if I could find the same or more music played on his fortepianos, I’d REALLY love it! Phil and I used to get together regularly with Carl Hewitt and a group of friends in Chesterfield, CT. If you can provide any information about Phil, I’d really love to reconnect with him. Thanks… and keep playing his amazing fortepiano. ~Cynthia Brigham

  3. Pingback: Our fortepiano is famous (maybe and maybe not!) | Another Year of Insanity

  4. This is great! I met Philip Belt in the late 1980’s in Hartford, Ct. I have often wondered about him. I was taking piano lessons when I met him and he was kind enough to show me his workshop and collection of pianos. A very interesting man with amazing talent!

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