A Little More On Music

A cool article showing how the advancements in making pianos have changed the sounds of music from what their composers may have heard.

The prime example of what I’m talking about is perhaps the most famous piece ever written: Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Hector Berlioz called its murmuring, mournful first movement, “one of those poems that human language does not know how to interpret.” At the beginning, Beethoven directs the performer to hold down the sustain pedal through the whole first movement, so the strings are never damped. With the pianos of Beethoven’s time, on which the sustain of the strings was shorter than today, the effect was subtle, one harmony melting into another. On a modern piano, with its longer sustain, the effect of holding the pedal down would be a tonal traffic jam. Today you have to fake the effect, and it never quite works as intended. Here’s Alfred Brendel playing the beginning of the “Moonlight” about as well as anyone on the ubiquitous modern Steinway.

Compare that to Gayle Martin Henry playing a piano from around 1805 by the Viennese maker Caspar Katholnig.

The sound is startlingly different from a modern piano and takes a while to get used to. These instruments were mostly played in small to medium-size rooms. The sound is intimate; you hear wood and felt and leather. The voicing is varied through the registers rather than the homogenous sound of modern pianos. On the Katholnig, the effect of holding the pedal down in the “Moonlight” has a ghostly effect, most obvious in the longer-sustaining bass notes that can sound like a distant gong. All these elements of the pianos Beethoven knew shaped the music in the first place, including the way he picked out high and low notes around the murmuring figure in the middle of the keyboard.

You’ll have to click over to the article to hear the music clips to hear what he’s talking about. It’s very cool, and something I’ve often wondered. It is a bit of a musical history musing as to what Mozart would have come up with if he had access to more modern pianos with far greater dynamic ranges.

(Found via Megan McArdle :: The Atlantic.)