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I recently listened to performances at the 1st International Chopin Competition of Period Instruments, and I noticed that the chords in the fortepianos used there (manufactured in the early 19th century by Pleyel and Erard) tend to continue on vibrating even after the pianists releasing the keys. It is as if their dampers are not as effective as those in modern pianos. A quick Internet search suggests that there are some professional pianists observing this.

The fortepianos reminded me of my grandmother's upright piano, which is of course modern but unmaintained for years. Its damper creates similar sound as the aforementioned fortepianos.

Thus my question is whether the observed property of the dampers in the fortepianos from that era is a bug or a feature. Is it caused by wear and tear during this 150-year period, or is it a historically accurate presentation of the kind of fortepianos that Chopin and his contemporaries played?

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First off: I assure you all the instruments used for the International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments are in top condition. Many of them are modern copies anyway so those didn’t go through 150 years of wear and tear, and they would only use originals they could restore to their prime.

Why there is a little more reverb is a result of long and complicated history which I will summarise in very general and imprecise terms (you have been warned).

Before the beginning of the 20th century, piano design was not standardised at all so every builder more or less did their own thing. Fortunately, we can distinguish some major traditions/schools of piano building.

The first one of importance to this issue is the 18th century Viennese tradition (I know, you asked about the 19th century). Of course, at all points in history instruments and music are tightly related. (Very) broadly speaking, 18th century Viennese music emulates human speech, so pianos from that time and region are very well-suited to producing clear, transparent and well-articulated sounds (so they have excellent dampers, for example).

At the end of the 18th century, a different school emerged: the London pianos with most notably Broadwood’s piano factory. The London instruments went for a bigger sound with more resonance, so they have terrible dampers (don’t get me wrong, this is by design; I just mean that they are not very effective at their only task: damping).

During the first decades of the nineteenth century the London pianos start to go out of fashion and Paris becomes a new piano centre. The two big names are Pleyel and Erard, makers of most instruments used in the ICCPI.

Both of them are somewhere in between the Viennese and London style, with Erard being closer to London and Pleyel being closer to Vienna. Chopin preferred Pleyel, Liszt preferred Erard (as did surprisingly many ICCPI competitors, but maybe the Pleyel they used was not loud enough to fill the big halls - let’s not forget they were meant for salons, mostly).

The fact that the dampers in your grandmother’s upright didn’t work so well anymore, however, is because of a lack of maintenance (unless you are in your 80s and your grandmother inherited it from her parents, who got it when they were young). From about 1850 onwards we have quite good dampers, steadily improving.

  • Thank you for an excellent and detailed answer. Is it possible for you to provide some reference that I could read about these matters? – Pteromys Dec 16 '18 at 6:25
  • @Pteromys I’m afraid that’s a bit tricky; I learned about this in a number of courses I attended, additionally I could recommend a very good book that’s only available in Dutch. Wikipedia provides almost no information about the type of sound the various brands aimed for. Ultimately, the best way to learn about the differences in sound and touch is to play instruments from the different traditions. For the technological aspects you could try this history: everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/Fortepiano/#history. Although it stops before Paris it’s quite informative about Vienna and London. – 11684 Dec 16 '18 at 11:20

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