Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Dynamics Of The Pianoforte

A Tales repeat post [with a couple of changes]

In most of the Baroque period the main keyboard instrument was the harpsichord.  If you see this instrument in person you might think it is a combination of a miniature grand piano and an organ [on those harpsichords with a double manual (two keyboards, one above the other)].  Other harpsichords have a single manual-one keyboard [where it looks more like a piano].   When you hear a harpsichord being played, it makes the sound of neither a piano nor an organ. The sound is more like a harp plucking a combination of strings in a chord sound  The reason the sound is different is because of what happens to the strings in the back when a key is played. When the harpsichord player pushes down on a key on the manual, the resulting action is a movement upward plucking one or more strings in the back of the harpsichord. Because of this plucking action and because there are no pedals on a harpsichord, the dynamics are not very wide. Dynamics basically mean the volume of the sound [soft/loud].  Because of the plucking action up when the key is depressed, the range of volume is basically, medium to medium loud.  A very small range.  When you hear a harpsichord used in a piece, you know you are almost surely listening to a piece in the Baroque era of music [in the 17th and early 18th century].

grand piano
In the early 18th century in Italy came the invention of the pianoforte [the early stages of the modern piano]. It was called pianoforte because the player could play notes very, very soft all the way up to very, very loud.  Thus the Italian words piano [soft] and forte [loud].  Different notes can actually be played piano and forte at the same time.  The reason the piano player can play notes very loud or very soft, unlike the harpsichord, is because of what happens to the strings in the back of the piano when a key on the keyboard is played.  When the piano [pianoforte] player presses down on a key, the resulting action in the back of the piano is a hammer like action with a pin striking up on an individual string or a set of two or three strings-not a plucking action of the strings like the harpsichord. So, if the piano player pushes the key down very easily, the note will sound soft. The harder he presses down on the key means the harder the hammer pin hits the corresponding string or strings which means the louder the resulting sound of the note. Also, the pianoforte player has pedals that can lengthen the sound even after the hand is removed from the keys.

Therefore, not just the sound of the piano and harpsichord are very different, but also the dynamics. The pianoforte was available at the end of the Baroque period and used almost exclusively [instead of the harpsichord] in the Classical, Romantic, and modern eras.

To see the difference in dynamics between the harpsichord and the pianoforte [now known as piano] let us listen to the quintessential Baroque composer J.S. Bach and his keyboard concerto in d minor. First listen to the first movement of the concerto played by the harpsichord.  Then listen to the first movement of the same concerto by Bach, played with a piano.   See if you can tell the relative constant dynamics of the harpsichord, compared to the wide ranging dynamics of the piano.  Also, if you listen closely at the piano, you can hear soft notes and louder notes played at the same time. That is why the piano is such a wonderful instrument.  Along with the clarinet, it is my favorite instrument.

In this Baroque piece see if you can also pick up the polyphony that is a characteristic of the Baroque era of music.

Please turn up the volume and enjoy the great Johann Sebastian Bach.  Remember to keep the volume the same for both videos and listen to the greater dynamics of the pianoforte.

Note:  the original video I found is no longer available on You Tube and could only find this version with the music, I hope you will listen closely to hear the harpsichord when played.

J.S. Bach: Harpsichord concerto in d minor [BWV 1052] movement 1, Allegro:

J.S. Bach: Piano Concerto in d minor [BWV 1052] movement 1, Allegro:


Pamela said...

Though the delicacy of the touch is lost with the modern piano, I much prefer the richness of sound over the harpsichord. But one has to marvel as the craftsmanship of the earlier instruments. For their time, they were a product of genius from mechanical engineers.

Big Mike said...

Yes, I agree was genius. Thanks!

Bryan said...

I have to disagree with Pamela, something about the harpsichord just clicks with me. Maybe because it's sounds so different from the traditional piano, but I just love it. For some reason it reminds me of the Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I believe it was played whenever they came out... at least I hope it was otherwise I sound crazy!

Big Mike said...

There is no wrong answer Bryan. Some people like chocolate ice cream others vanilla. I happen to love the piano like Pamela.
Thanks Bryan!