In Beethoven's Pathetique, how do you play the fortepiano chords in the third movement (rondo)? I can easily do this on a wind instrument by changing wind speed, but on piano, I have no idea how to play it.

I tried using the 'delayed pedal' method where you strike the chord as if it were staccato and pressing the damper pedal a few moments later, but that doesn't give me a good result because it is very hard to time accurately, leading to chords that are often too loud or soft.

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    A little ironic that it's difficult to play 'forte-piano' on a 'piano-forte'... – Tim Oct 2 '18 at 7:12

Throughout classical piano music, there are nonsensical dynamics markings that are impossible to execute literally. If you think playing one note fp is hard, there are many places where classical composers ask a pianist to play (or at least start) a crescendo on a long held note. This practice persisted at least well into the 20th century.

These kinds of markings aren't meant to be taken literally. In this case, just treat fp as a big accent - play a loud note followed by soft notes.

Because of the decay on a piano (and it was more significant back in Beethoven's day), every note is fp anyway - it's just that when a note is followed by other loud notes, we've learned to suspend our disbelief and aurally pretend that the piano can actually sustain volume.

  • Surely there are enough different dynamics markings to use when a composer wants something particular. Can't think why anyone would write something that is probably impossible to execute. Dynamics should be there to explain exactly what the composer wants. – Tim Oct 2 '18 at 9:20
  • @Tim: They are there to explain what the composer wants the music to 'feel like', not how a computer is supposed to execute the music. Can I play a crescendo on one note? Of course not. But I can do things that enhance the illusion of a crescendo on one note. Actual exchange between me and a cellist (regarding something in a Beethoven cello sonata): Cellist: Can you play a crescendo on that note? Me: Uh.. this is a piano. Cellist: I've worked with enough pianists; you know what I mean. Me: Yeah I guess I do. – Alexander Woo Oct 2 '18 at 18:24
  • "Nonsensical"? No, it's definitely possible, as András Schiff demonstrates. – 200_success May 3 at 18:52

That's how I would do it. Play a staccato chord, then 'catch' the sound with the damper pedal. It takes a fair bit of practice, but when you time it right, and play the notes at the correct volume, that's it - job done.

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    Considering the Pathetique was written for a Viennese action wood-frame piano where this trick is even harder to pull off than on a modern piano (as well as other historical evidence), this is certainly not what Beethoven intended. – Alexander Woo Sep 30 '18 at 20:20
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    @AlexanderWoo - this is what I would do. Ludwig maybe did it differently. Looking forward to your answer. – Tim Oct 1 '18 at 7:03
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    @AlexanderWoo (and others) why not start by listening to several recordings to learn what dynamics are produced by professionals -- they may have their own set of interpretations, too. – Carl Witthoft Oct 1 '18 at 13:19

In piano music, fp (forte-piano) chords are played as if they are forte, then immediately followed by piano-volume (i.e. quiet) music. So I'd recommend you do just that--play the forte chord loud, and the following music quietly.

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    That's not fp on one note. It's f on one note, p on the next! – Laurence Payne Sep 30 '18 at 10:21
  • I'd still recommend the same thing. Play exactly as notated dynamics-wise. I remember notating similarly disparate dynamics for consecutive chords in one of my works. – Dekkadeci Sep 30 '18 at 11:29
  • This is not a helpful answer - literally just describing what “fp” means. – jjmusicnotes Sep 30 '18 at 13:01
  • @jjmusicnotes - I made it clearer that I recommend playing the passage exactly as indicated dynamics-wise--no fancy pedalling required. – Dekkadeci Sep 30 '18 at 18:43
  • @Dekkadeci I think OP was asking how to play one single note/chord fp. – Kevin H Sep 30 '18 at 21:11

Fortepiano and Sforzando basically mean the same thing in piano scores. Just treat the fp as an sfz(big accent on the first chord, quiet after the chord) and you'll do fine. I go a bit to the extreme with my own interpretation, a forte dynamic followed by a dynamic closer to pianissimo than piano, a mezzo pianissimo in a sense. But, you don't have to do that. Just treat fp as if Beethoven wrote sfz, since they are equivalent in piano scores.

The edition I have shows separate forte and piano dynamics but that is just an editor's choice.

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