The Fortepiano

The roots of both the English and continental fortepianos are found in the design imagined by Schroter and the instruments created by Silbermann during the early to mid eighteenth century. During the period 1780-1800 the fortepiano in central Europe was a fully developed instrument with about a century of history behind it. By this point it had been so fully adapted that instrument builders had ceased production of the harpsichord in favour of the newer instrument, creating an industry of surprising proportions. Hundreds of makers were spread across the continent with the heaviest concentration in Vienna. Some aspects of construction became common to all makers, but the variables gave the individual makers’ instruments their characteristic voices. South German builders Johann Andreas Stein and Johann Jacob Konnicke of Orschleben, Brunswick, as well as Anton Walter of Vienna all addressed similar problems and came up with individual and very different instruments. 


It is important to remember that the piano of today is not the same as that of Beethoven's time, and this fact must be considered when performing Beethoven's piano music. Even in his lifetime, there were several important changes to the instrument, notably in the extension of the range from around 5 octaves in 1785 to over 6 at the end of his life. The most obvious difference with a modern instrument is the frame which changed from wood to iron. In 1825, Babcock patented the all over iron frame which was not at first completely successful but it is an important development which led to Henry Steinway, Jr. on Dec 20th 1859 taking out the patent for over stringing for grand piano - patenting number 26,532. This was a turning point for Steinways and the modern piano.


Most of Beethoven's early pianos would have been Viennese in make, but unfortunately none of the instruments made by Walter, Streicher or Schanz for Beethoven still exist. In the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna, there is a 1785 Walter of the type Beethoven would have been familiar with - although having just over 5 octaves, it has a far superior tone to Beethoven's 1803 Erard. Indeed Beethoven thought particularly highly of Anton Walter's pianos, but his desire for a true Una Corda pedal was only fulfilled when the manufacturer Erard presented him in 1803 with an instrument that had such a device. Beethoven was not particularly satisfied with this instrument and a year later he was requesting a piano from Stein (son of the famous Johann Andreas Stein whose pianos had so impressed Mozart). It seems that he preferred the makes of Stein and Streicher, but one of the problems he faced was durability - as his deafness progressed he doubtless was demanding more tone from the piano and these instruments were not as hardy as today's modern makes!


The tonal ideals for Viennese pianos of the period 1810 to 1825 circle about brilliance, lightness and clarity, and mainly about tone colour. There is variety of colour from bass to treble and from one of the possible pedal effects, or combinations, to another. The fortepiano action as featured in Stein instruments was established by the 1770’s and changed very little over the years of production by Johann Andreas. Although the individual hammers became slightly larger, the range expanded slightly, and the hammer shanks slightly heavier during the 1790’s, the design principle remained surprisingly constant. The most prized early pianos and the type most often reproduced by the builders of today are the continental instruments of both South German and Viennese builders such as Stein, Konnicke, Walter, Schanz, Heilmann. 


Function of the piano key

As the key is depressed - The Hammer (2) strikes the string. At the same time the Damper (1), is raised.

Klavier Verkaufsraum

Piano factory 1800

The saleroom (Pleyel).

Beethoven Reference Site  © 2010


Compass : 6 and half octave. Beethovenhaus, Bonn

This instrument of 1825 was fitted with 4 strings to some of the keys instead of the usual 3 - quadruplestrung from D to f4, triplestrung from C1 to Cis. This was not a success as the wire had to be thinner to avoid an increase in tension. The extra string appears not to have been added specially for Beethoven's needs, but rather as an experiment of the time. (Modern Bluthner pianos have 4 strings in the treble register). According to contemporary accounts it was fitted on the advice of Johann Maelzel, (who had constructed hearing aids for Beethoven), with an extra sound board over the strings to which a hearing aid shaped like a shell would have been added - unfortunately both items have been lost.

Walter Pianoforte


A 5 octave Walter piano of the 1790's. Beethoven thought highly of these instruments as did Mozart. Haydn however preferred Schanz and said of Walter that they were 'expensive with only one instrument in ten being a good one.' In 1802 Beethoven requested a piano from Walter providing it was Mahogany and had a proper una corda stop - a device that only the English manufactures could provide at that time. Walter was unable to comply for technical reasons.

Erard Pianoforte


The 1803 Erard (which is in the Kunsthistoriches Museum Vienna). This instrument is very similar in design and construction to a Broadwood of the same date. It has 4 pedals : lute-stop, sustaining, sourdine and una corda.

Graf Pianoforte
Broadwood Pianoforte


Manufactured: Late 1817 By: John Broadwood & Son At: Great Pulteney Street. Golden Square. London. England


Description: 6 octave grand pianoforte, approximately 76" long. Case of Spanish mahogany, inlaid with marquetry and ormolu. 

Triple stringed throughout.Two pedals: the left is soft; the right is divided in two: the right to dampen the treble and the left the bass. Brass carrying-handles formed as laurel wreaths.