Playing on Top of the Keys and Underneath the Keys

A conversation from 18 Nov 2011 about early pianos, period pianos, and concerts in Andratx. It begins with a discussion about a museum in Florence. If there’s interest I’ll convert the audio file to something I can post on YouTube.

Patrick: The guy who made up the first escapement action for the piano. Won’t come to me now. Anyway, this little piano museum in Concert Hall is named after him. So we went there to hear …

JP: This was Vienna you said?

Patrick: No, in Florence.

Patrick: So the guy who made the first pianos, it’s named after him. And they were doing all the Beethoven sonatas and several concerts with pianos from the period.

JP: Aha!!

Patrick: So, of course, modern piano sounds nothing like the pianos from the period.

JP: Yeah, ja.

Patrick: If you want to know what it sounded like to Beethoven, you’ve got to play it on a piano from the period.

JP: And poke your eardrums out.

Patrick: Mm hm, why? Oh yeah!! Oh yeah, that’s a good way to go. That was only toward the end.

JP: Yeah!

Patrick: But forte piano… forte piano, it was a revelation. It really sounds different. So then I really became interested and I was thinking I should get one. Rumiko got a piano from 1840 rebuilt, so that sounds like a pretty authentic forte piano. Of course that’s still later than Beethoven.

JP: Because he is what 1803? He was active during the Napoleonic times.

Patrick: 1790 something until 18 something, 1840? I don’t know his dates. But the piano really sounded …. Of course, that’s what Haydn was writing for too. And the Haydn trios–which we played a lot of Hayden trios, almost all of them — they sound so different. The left hand of the — normally, the cello in the Haydn trios duplicate what’s happening to the left hand of the piano. When it’s a forte piano playing, it really sounds like the same instruments, the cello or the piano, they mix so well.

But with the modern piano there is quite a difference. The hammers are different, the attack is different, the escapement is different, so you can’t repeat the notes as fast, so that limits your tempi. Just like the bows, the early bows would bounce sooner when you start doing this stuff, so that can tell you more about the tempi that they played in those days. So that the early music players generally speaking, play the fast movements slower than modern musicians, and slow movements faster than modern musicians.

So, if you’re playing Beethoven with a modern instrument and you get repeated things, the bouncing, the staccato, is sooner with an old bow. So that changes your mind about how fast to play things.

JP: Yeah, that’s interesting.

Patrick: But also the sounds are very different, and the tension on the strings is much less, and the strings, the violin strings were gut strings.

JP: They were tuned… the tuning has risen over the years until they finally had to play to the standard of 440 Hz for A.

Patrick: Yeah, 440 is sort of the world’s standard. 442 if you’re going to be playing with wind instruments. The Berlin Philharmonic is about 442, the Moscow Philharmonic is about 448.

JP: Why so high?

Patrick: Gives you more power. Louder.

JP: Yeah, but the higher the pitch, the more tension in the strings.

Patrick: Yeah, and that’s hard on the instruments.

JP: Yeah, especially instruments that were built for, you know, for 420.

Patrick: Yeah, well, mostly they’re 430. Mozart’s time was 430. Bach, it depends on which city you’re playing in.

JP: okay

Patrick: You go by the organs or the flutes from the period to determine what the pitch was that he wrote for.

JP: Right!

Patrick: So mostly for instruments for a half tone lower than now, which means 392 I think.

JP: Oh, okay. Yeah, I’m not sure. I know 440 has some nice mathematical characteristics in terms of …

Patrick: Yeah, but it was never, until recently, the official pitch.

JP: Yeah, right.

Patrick: That’s new.

JP: Yeah, I think that when they had you decide on a pitch because people were breaking instruments. They said, we’ve got to come to, agree on something here or at least recognize something and …

Patrick: I think they were determined by the wind instruments. The guy is a manufacturer in flutes.

JP: The difference between 440 and 442 is so fine. I mean it’s audible….

Patrick: We had a guy here playing clarinet. He came for a concert in Andratx, first concert in a series I did there. The piano tuner came and went. He left the piano at 440. The clarinet player came with his instrument and if he pulled it out any farther it would be out of tune on almost all of the notes. So he left before the concert started and said “I can’t play with this piano.” The difference was too great. Possibly the piano tuner also tuned it a little low because it was already down, you know, and he just didn’t bother to take the whole thing up because then he would have had to tune it twice.

JP: Right, right.

Patrick: Because if he tuned it up, and everything was down, then he’d have to tune it up again. Then he went home. He went to the other side of the island where he lived and there was no way to get him back in time to retune it with the people coming in, having paid for the concert.

Patrick: The clarinet player had leff a note in the piano. I didn’t know he wasn’t there.

JP: Oh, oh

Patrick: So everybody is sitting down waiting and I open the piano…

JP: Oh, boy!

Patrick: Yeah, so, and I canceled the first concert in the series, a new series in a castle in Andratx. It was going to be a great success. It was a full house that first night, on the patio of this castle. After that it kind of went ….. Anyway, the damp caused so many problems with that Steinway. There was a singer who came for the next concert. Gundel Deckert, a German pianist, was playing with him. I was turning pages and when she pushed the keys down, they would stick, so I was going underneath and pushing them back up. {Laughter} So she was playing on top of the keys and I was playing underneath the keys.

JP: Wow!

Patrick: That was a weird night.

Patrick: A couple of the concerts came out okay. The wind quintet, because they can play anywhere. They go up and down in pitch according to the temperature anyway.

JP: Yeah, okay.

Patrick: But the bassoon drops more and the oboe drops less, the flute, you know. And so you have to sort of keep it warm while you’re not playing.

Patrick: Blow into it without making a sound and warm it up before you blow your first note. Then condensation starts and it goes out into the ear of the guy in the first row.

Patrick: But, uh… so that Beethoven, that was it, that’s what got me off and then …

JP: Yeah, and I do believe that, that the pianist I was thinking of was Edwin Fischer, I think it was Fischer.

Patrick: Philadelphia, I believe, teaching ??? if I’m not mistaken, anyway.