It is known that J.S.Bach was acquainted with the fortepiano at least twice in his life, in 1726 when he played one of Silbermann's experimental models (and mildly criticized it), and toward the end during his famous visit to Potsdam, where he supposedly got the inspiration for the Musical Offering. It is further known that the mysterious instrument that appeared at the Zimmermann café around the time that Bach was director of the Collegium Musicum was some sort of "louder" or otherwise more powerful clavier built in Berlin, suitable for outdoor performances.

Is it possible that this unspecified instrument might have been some form of early fortepiano like the ones Silbermann was working on at the time? Are there any recordings of Bach's keyboard concertos (which he wrote for this instrument) on the fortepiano?

  • I think any answer to this question would be mere speculation. It is interesting, though. Jan 23, 2018 at 18:22
  • Indeed, I am expecting an answer that can offer state-of-the-art viewpoints on this matter, and possibly even a personal opinion, certainly not a definitive yes/no answer. The intent was at least to spark discussion. (Though I am still looking for recordings of the concertos on fortepianos)
    – giobrach
    Jan 23, 2018 at 20:14
  • Do you mean recordings on piano or grand piano (simply not on harpsichord)? I have them by Schiff. Just look under Bach Klavierkonzerte CD. Aug 18, 2020 at 11:24
  • 1
    @AlbrechtHügli: The word fortepiano usually means a wood-framed historical piano (or replica of such) no later than the time of Beethoven and Schubert, though sometimes usage is stretched a generation to pianos of the time of Chopin and Schumann. Aug 18, 2020 at 16:09
  • "some sort of louder instrument": see baroquemusic.org/bargerhpschd.html "Recent research has established that for his weekly concerts at Zimmermann's Coffee House Bach had a double manual harpsichord (16', 3x8', 4') mounted on a pedal harpsichord (2x16', 3x8') made by Zacharias Hildebrandt, who was both harpsichord builder, and organ builder under the direction of Bach's friend and colleague Gottfried Silbermann." I don't doubt that Bach would have performed the keyboard concertos on a (suitable) fortepiano, but that doesn't imply that any of them was written for the fortepiano.
    – phoog
    Jun 9, 2022 at 8:50

2 Answers 2


According to a quite new recording of well-tempered clavier Vincent Bernhardt (page German only), very short French text at the recording label, Cafe Zimmermann had a harpsichord with 4 registers, including a 16 foot register and a Lautenzug (lute stop or nasale stop, see Encyclopedia Britannica) built in the workshop of Zacharias Hildebrandt. This would contradict the assumption, that migration towards pianoforte started there.



According to Eva Badura-Skoda, not only could have, but "probably" did. In "Did Bach Compose 'Pianoforte Concertos'?" (2000), she lays out evidence (primarily a history of the terms used to reference the fortepiano) ...

Considering this terminological situation it appears to be a grave error to claim that the word "cembalo" found in eighteenth-century documents always meant a harpsichord with quills. A hammer-harpsichord might have been meant instead, even in Johann Sebastian Bach's time. (6)

... that the "new kind of cembalo" mentioned in the Zimmermann concert announcement ...

Gracious permission having been received from His Electoral and Royal Highness that the collegia musica may be resumed after their interruption, a fine concert is to be presented by the Bach Collegium Musicum tomorrow, Wednesday, June 17, at Zimmermanns Garden on Grimmischen Stein-Weg at four o'clock, with weekly continuation. At this occasion, a new kind of cembalo, which has not been heard heretofore [ein neues Clavicymbel, dergleichen allhier noch nicht gehöret worden ], will be used. The public [Liebhaber] and specialists [Virtuosen] are cordially invited. (6)

... could well have been an improved Silbermann, ...

Taking an unprejudiced view of the early history of the piano, the creation of its name around 1732 and the new findings regarding the slow acceptance of it, one is bound to conclude from this document that the instrument Bach played on this occasion was probably the "nuovo cembalo," namely, Silbermann's new fortepiano. (7)

... though she acknowledges another possibility (a Lautenwerk) in the accompanying footnote.

theoretically, it might also have been a "Lautenwerk," a stringed keyboard instrument, which, if built in the form of Flügel, was likewise sometimes called "cembalo." But these instruments were in existence since 1713. (7n8)

Badura-Skoda gives an expanded account in "The Eighteenth-Century Fortepiano Grand and Its Patrons: From Scarlatti to Beethoven" (Indiana University Press, 2017, Chapter 5, "Johann Sebastian Bach and the 'Piano et Forte'", 150 - 181).


I have not found any.

Robert Hill and Ivo Sillamaa have both recorded Bach concertos on fortepianos, but their respective instruments are either too early (K Hill after B Cristofori; thus, before 1731, the year Cristofori died) or too late (Chris Maene after Anton Walter, 1795).

There are performances on Silbermann fortepianos of other Bach works: for example, the Courante from the first Partita and the Chromatic Fantasy.

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