The Beethoven Center’s keyboard collection demonstrates the fundamental differences
between the three most common keyboard instruments of the 18th and 19th centuries--the
clavichord, the harpsichord, and the fortepiano--in comparison with the modern piano.
The two primary keyboard instruments of the Baroque period (1600-1750) were the harpsichord and clavichord. When the keys of a harpsichord were pressed, a corresponding string was plucked, which denied the musician any dynamic control; an entire set of strings could be added if the musician desired more sound. The clavichord’s mechanism of touching the string with a hammer allowed for slight dynamic variation, but the instrument remained better suited for softer and more intimate performances.
Both the harpsichord and clavichord lacked the capacity to play in large rooms or with ensembles, leading Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence to invent the pianoforte in 1700. Although it didn’t gain popularity until the 1770s, the pianoforte was quickly becoming a standard throughout Western Europe by the 1790s. Individual builders often took slightly different approaches to the action and use of the pedals, but the build and mechanism remained consistent: the frame was the same as that of the harpsichord, and the strings were struck with leather-covered hammers. These hammers allowed players to strike the strings with varying force to produce both loud ("forte") or soft ("piano") tones, thus the name fortepiano or pianoforte.
The Beethoven Center owns four historical keyboard instruments, including three fortepianos and a clavichord. A harpsichord is also currently on loan from David Wendel. All four instruments are currently on exhibit in the Beethoven Center, along with a Steinway L for use in the Schiro Program Room.
Find out about mini-concerts featuring the historical keyboards.