The Keyboard Instruments
The Piano-forte — Its History — Clavichord, Virginal and Spinet — Anecdote of Queen Elizabeth — An Old Harpsichord — Piano-forte Playing in the Time of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven
I WONDER how many young people who sit down to practise or take a lesson at the piano-forte know the story of the instrument now familiar in every household of the civilized world. Look at it as we have it to‑day, almost perfect in size and quality and tone. It is capable of producing the fullest and the softest sounds, just as its name indicates, for piano means soft, and forte means loud. Can you realize that little more than a hundred years ago pianos were a rarity? Only one or two makers produced any instruments worthy of the name, and few households possessed one. "But," I can hear my young readers exclaim, "the music we play on our pianos—Bach and Haydn, as well as old English airs—were certainly played on some horizontal instrument." Of course they were, but not on our kind of piano-fortes; and the story I am going to tell will take you back far into the sixteenth century, when ladies of rank, and monks and nuns, and some troubadours, had the instruments from which our piano is descended. Such were known as the clavichord and virginal.
The clavichord was perfected about 1500, and the name was derived from clavi (a key) and chorda (a string); so you see at once that it contained the two principal elements of our piano-forte. Although it went out of use in Bach's day, yet that dear old master, whose gavottes all our young people are playing now, loved to use it. The piano-forte had been invented, but Bach loved his old clavichord. As he sat thrumming it, I think he liked to fancy himself away in the early sixteenth-century days, when Henry the Seventh's court enjoyed madrigals and queer little bits of music on the same sort of an instrument. Following the clavichord, we have that graceful, romantic instrument called the virginal. This was an improvement on the clavichord; and towards the close of the sixteenth century we find its name in poetry, romance, biography—indeed in history.
The virginal produced a low, tinkling sort of sound not
unlike that of the German zither. Only ladies of quality,
musicians, or nuns or monks in convents, performed upon the
virginal; and so I think we associate it with all the grace
and beauty and the slow stateliness of that romantic epoch.
When I think of a virginal it seems to me to bring many
suggestions of rich colors, softly fading lights, the flash
of jewels or the movement of white hands, of oak
wainscoting and tapestried walls—perhaps some very sad and
sorrowing heart, perhaps some young and hopeful one, but
something that is picturesque and dreamy. Perhaps we would
not think it so sweet an instrument to‑day, but assuredly in
the sixteenth century it moved people to very tender,
elevated thoughts. Shakespeare wrote of it with deep
feeling, and there are some quaint lines of Spenser's about
In 1583 Sir James Melvil was sent by Mary Stuart to England as ambassador, and in his memoirs he relates how he heard Queen Elizabeth play. He says that Lord Hunsden took him up into a "quiet gallery," where, unknown to the queen, he might hear her play. The two gentlemen stood outside a tapestried door-way, from within which came the soft tinkle, tinkle of the virginal. I wish he had told us what the Queen was playing. Presently, it appears, his curiosity to see her Majesty overcame his prudence, and he softly raised the curtain and went into the room. The queen played on "a melody which ravished him," he says, but for some moments did not see any one was listening. Is it not a pretty picture?
At that time the Queen had not lost the charm of youth, and in her splendid dress, with her head down-bent, her figure at the quaint virginal against the rich and sombre colors of the room, must have looked charming to the silent Scotch gentleman just inside the door-way listening in rapt attention. It is so poetic a picture of the time we can almost hear her music; and if we read on a little farther, we see that the Queen, suddenly seeing Sir James, came forward, remonstrating with him for having come in, for, she said, she was not used to play before people, but only to "shun melancholy." Then she sat down upon a low cushion, and honest Sir James, according to the custom of the time, fell upon his knees before her. The Queen, with a truly feminine spirit, inquired whether he thought she or Mary Queen of Scots played the best. Sir James said that his sovereign played "reasonably for a queen." This answer would not serve to‑day, as the Queen of England is one of the most perfect of amateur musicians.
The virginal and spinet belong to the same period. From them, as need of a more elaborate performance grew, we have the harpsichord. A very fine harpsichord looked something like a grand piano, but it had two rows of keys, one upper and one lower. I shall not here go into a description of the harpsichord. It is only needful to say that it was the outgrowth of clavichord and virginal and spinet, and had some of the defects as well as the good points of all three.
Our grandmothers played upon harpsichords. They were tinkling little affairs, yet I fancy that Mozart's and Haydn's music must have sounded very quaint and pleasing upon them. Where have they all vanished to, I wonder? Along with the flowery brocaded gowns, the slender fans, the powder and patches and paint, of that dear old time?
In an old house I once visited, a harpsichord of seventeen hundred and something used to stand neglected and disused in an upper hall. Sometimes we children thrummed waltzes upon it; sometimes I remember our getting out a faded old music-book with the picture of a shepherdess on it, and picking out the funny little songs that were printed there a hundred years ago. On the fly-leaf of the book was written, in a very flourishy hand, "To Isabel, from J—." Who was Isabel, and who was J—, we used to wonder.
I can fancy that the music she played to please her mamma and papa, and perhaps her uncles and aunts, was of a very primitive order, for when harpsichords were used young ladies were not at all proficient. Music was then considered a "genteel" sort of accomplishment, and good masters were very rare, and never tried to make their pupils do more than strike the notes correctly and in good "dum-dum" sort of time. Consider our advantages now; and yet I fancy those young people of Isabel's day valued their musical instruction much more than we do ours.
Well, then, from this pretty, picturesque harpsichord period we find ourselves by slow degrees in that of the piano, and I suppose the first thing you will wish to know is how a piano-forte differs from these other instruments of which I have been writing. The principal difference is that the strings are struck with a hammer. About the beginning of the eighteenth century this idea had originated with three men at once—an Italian named Cristofari, a Frenchman named Marius, and a German named Schroter; but all investigators seem convinced that Cristofari was the real originator. His ideas were the best. So, later in the century, when harpsichords began to be thought incomplete, different makers tried to produce something better, and the result was the primitive piano-forte.
At this time the composer Sebastian Bach was in Berlin. Frederick the Great was eager to hear him play; and as that famous sovereign possessed several of the new piano-fortes (or forte-pianos, as they then were called), Bach came one evening to the palace, where a crowd of gay ladies and gentlemen were assembled.
The composer had to go from room to room, trying first one of the new pianos, then another. These instruments were manufactured in Germany; but, later, English and French pianos took the palm, and about the beginning of this century American ladies were growing proficient in the art of piano-playing—proficient at least for that day. Have you not all seen your grandmammas' music-books, in which "The Battle of Prague" is an honored "piece?" True, there were hundreds of nobler works, but only public performers seem to have attempted them.
Let us see to what degree piano-forte playing had progressed when Mozart died, in 1792, and when the great master, Ludwig von Beethoven, was a young man just entering on his career of work.
To begin with, let us look at the pianos of that day. Although the harpsichord had been greatly improved upon, the keys and strings yet needed something to aid elasticity of touch. In Bach's day it had been the custom to strike the key, drawing the fingers inward slightly, and a suppleness of wrist, which masters think so much of at present, was not considered valuable. But with Haydn and Mozart came a need of something finer in the piano-forte itself, and musicians felt strongly the necessity of an improvement in the instrument whereby they could make more gradual effects. Many efforts to alter the strings and hammers for this purpose proved unsuccessful; but at last the main difficulties were overcome, and before Beethoven's death, in 1827, pianos of various degrees of excellence were in use, with all the desired improvements. To this more than to anything else we owe the improvement in piano-forte playing.
At concerts during this period the piano was largely used, and also in private houses; but lessons from the best masters were rare, and, unless the pupil designed to pursue a musical career, few except the leading people of society studied piano-forte music. In general, the interest in it was not great. Poor Beethoven used often to writhe under what he considered personal slights. A story is told of his once being at the house of Prince —— with Ries, the famous musician. They were invited to play together, and while in the midst of their performance a young nobleman at the lower end of the salon talked quite loudly with his companion. Beethoven glared at him once or twice in vain, and finally lifting Ries's hands from the piano, he called out, "Stop! I will not play for such dogs!" and away he went, in spite of every attempt to an apology.
Such interruptions to music in a drawing-room occur often enough now; but in the beginning of this century, as I said, piano-forte performances were confined to a much smaller number, and naturally appreciation was not general. On the other hand, if a child showed any ability, it was kept very closely to study. Mozart had pupils who thought nothing of five hours' practice a day; and Beethoven, when a boy, was kept to the piano for hours by means of a good beating every time he left it.
The misery of a musical career at that time was certainly lack of general understanding of the art. Musicians had to procure for themselves noble patrons—rich ladies or gentlemen who would help them on in their divine art, patronize their concerts, get pensions for them, or in some cases offer them homes where they might work unmolested by debt and other domestic trouble. In this way Beethoven lived a great part of the time at the house of Princess Lichnowsky, in Vienna. Mozart was also indebted to some friends for hospitality and influence, and indeed, where the public were so often unappreciative, private patronage had to be sought for, in order that the world might have many of the noble harmonies we possess to‑day.
In those days the famous composers or musicians were the only teachers, so that any young student who cared for his work had admirable opportunity to improve. Mozart gave lessons of great length, and seems to have enjoyed them heartily. Haydn had many pupils, one of whom was Beethoven; and we read that he paid Haydn eighteen cents a lesson!
During that period which includes the last years of Mozart's life and the first of Beethoven's, between 1780 and 1792, the way was being laid for Beethoven's grandest work, and yet we can hardly call it a transition state; that is to say, a period of time when any art is undergoing a change which shall affect its whole purpose. But with Beethoven came the perfection of the sonata and the symphony, and all performers, whether in public or private, who attempted his works were compelled to understand technique and the use of their fingers on the key-board; so that we may say, justly enough, that with Beethoven we seem almost to begin a new era in piano-forte music.
I have told you the step upward old Bach made; then Haydn went still farther, preparing the way for Beethoven's perfect work. Mozart's brilliancy and delicacy, both as a performer and a composer, helped the movement on in every way, and during the first quarter of this century a number of men came into fame as masters in execution and composition as well. Indeed, with the beginning of this century piano-playing had reached a period of excellence which allowed a master to indulge all his feelings and ideas in composing for this instrument.
In 1787 Beethoven, then a lad of about seventeen, visited Mozart in Vienna. It was about the time that "Don Giovanni" was being produced, and Mozart's mind was full of its importance, so that the visit seemed of much less consequence to him than to Beethoven. The latter seated himself at the piano, Mozart standing by waiting, good-humoredly, for one of the usual performances of "prodigies" whose parents destine them for the public. But the lad played so brilliantly that Mozart could not but believe that he was executing a well-prepared piece. Beethoven felt this, and eagerly begged Mozart to give him a theme and let him vary upon it.
To this Mozart consented, and presently the room seemed to vibrate with the rush of harmony beneath Beethoven's touch. Mozart listened in silent admiration, and going softly upon tiptoe into the next room, said to some friends assembled there,
"Pay attention to him. He will make a noise in the world some day or other"—a prophecy soon fulfilled.
Beethoven's touch was strong and masterly, but rather heavy, and as his deafness increased, his performances on the piano were almost painful to listen to. His left hand often remained unconsciously on the wrong chord. Mozart never lost the brilliancy of his playing. Haydn, it is said, made the piano "sing"; but to the musicians who followed Beethoven we owe the perfection of piano-forte playing and instruction. Moscheles, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and others realized the highest art in execution. Not very long ago a lady was recounting to me scenes in which, according to her description, Mendelssohn and Moscheles performed actual marvels at the piano, the delicacy and lightness of both their styles reminding her "of a forest full of delicious birds."
In the period of which I speak now—that is, the beginning of this century—you will remember how little public appreciation of art existed, and how hard the greatest men toiled for all they obtained. But love of art is powerful. It will carry any one of you over the roughest places; and, in looking at your well-arranged exercises, try to remember those patient, eager students of eighty years ago, to whom every bit of help came so slowly that we of to‑day ought to think our pathway cleared of every thorn.
As time went on, and the interest in the instrument grew, the mechanism of the piano-forte was improved, and at this date (1881) it is considered perfect. Here and there as you play, as you listen to the sounds of the little hammer falling on the strings, let your thoughts wander back to Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth of England, with their virginals and spinets—indeed, farther into the realm of poetic, dreamy sound, for beyond these were clavicytheriums, citoles and citherns, dulcimers and psalteries, and in the East, among the people whom we see now in sculpture, a whole line of lyres and harps and lutes.
It may not seem that so far away as early Egyptian days was the first idea of our piano, yet certainly such is the case. In some far Eastern country you might see, graven in stone of centuries gone by, a figure holding an instrument dimly shadowing that on which you now may play all written music.