Beethoven and the Harpsichord


In 1783, twelve-year-old Beethoven became the “cembalist” (keyboard player) for the theater orchestra in Bonn. As assistant to Christian Gottlob Neefe, the chief organist in Bonn, the young Beethoven was responsible for taking over when Neefe was away and when he could not accompany. Beethoven biographer Alexander Thayer writes, “In those days, every orchestra was provided with a harpsichord or pianoforte, seated at which the director guided the performance, playing from the score. Here, then, was in part the origin of that marvelous power, with which in later years Beethoven astonished his contemporaries, of reading and playing the most difficult and involved scores at first sight.”

Thayer suggests that Beethoven’s earliest keyboard lessons as a child were on the pianoforte, but one of the few witnesses of these lessons only states that they were at the “Klavier” (the generic German word for “keyboard”). History has not recorded whether the Beethoven family had an early fortepiano, harpsichord, or clavichord at home.

Because the harpsichord was still very much in use during this period, many of the publishers of Beethoven's early music for fortepiano marketed it for either instrument. The title pages of Beethoven’s earliest keyboard works read as follows:

1782: “Variations pour le Clavecin Sur une Marche de Mr, Dresler” (Variations for the Harpsichord on a March by Mr. Dres[s]ler), WoO 63, published in 1782
1782-83: “Drei Sonaten fürs Klavier” (Three Sonatas for Keyboard”), WoO 47, published in 1783
1783: “Rondo Allegretto,” WoO 48, published in 1783
“Rondo Allegretto,” WoO 49, published in 1783
1783: “un Concert pour le Clavecin ou Fortepiano,” WoO 4, published in 1890, title on the solo keyboard part of the manuscript
1785: “trios quatuors p[o]ur le clave[c]in violino viola e Basso,” WoO 36, published in 1828, title from the manuscript

Thus, the earliest printings and ms. of his keyboard works state that they are either for harpsichord, “Klavier” (keyboard), or fortepiano. In fact, Beethoven’s keyboard works published during his First Period (which ends in 1802) frequently list the harpsichord as the first possible instrument (see the entries in bold below). This is a list of all of Beethoven’s works with opus numbers for keyboard alone or with other instruments during the First Period:

Opus 1 trios, published in 1795: “”Pour le Piano-Forte Violin, et Violoncelle”
Opus 2 sonatas, published in 1795: “Pour le Clavecin ou Piano-Forte”
Opus 5 sonatas, published in 1797: “pour Le Clavecin ou Piano = Forte avec un Violoncelle”
Opus 6 sonata (four-hands), published in 1797: “Pour le Clavecin ou Forte-Piano”
Opus 7, published in 1797: “pour le Clavecin ou Piano-Forte”
Opus 10, published in 1798: “pour le Clavecin ou Piano Forte”
Opus 11, published in 1798: “pour le Piano-Forte avec un Clarinette ou Violon, et Violoncelle”
Opus 12 (violin and piano), published in 1798-99: “Per il Clavicembalo o Forte-Piano)
Opus 13 sonata, published in 1799: “Pour le Clavecin ou Piano-Forte”
Opus 14 sonatas, published in 1799: “pour le Piano-Forte”
Opus 15 (1st Concerto), published in 1801: “pour le Forte-Piano”
Opus 16 wind quintet, published in 1801: “pour le Forte-Piano avec …”
Opus 17 horn sonata, published in 1801: “pour le Forte-Piano avec …”
Opus 19 (2nd Concerto), published in 1801: “pour le Pianoforte”
Opus 22 sonata, published in 1802: “pour le Piano Forte”
Opus 23-24 violin sonatas, published in 1801: pour le Piano Forte avec …”
Opus 26 sonata, published in 1802: “pour le Clavecin ou Forte-Piano”
Opus 27 sonatas, published in 1802: “per il Clavicembalo o Piano-Forte”
Opus 28 sonata, published in 1802: “pour le Pianoforte”

All the remaining title pages for keyboard specify Pianoforte. It is surprising to read that the “Moonlight” Sonata was advertised as either for harpsichord or fortepiano since it takes full advantage of the fortepiano, but there is a commercial recording of the work on harpsichord.
Thus, by 1802-03, the pianoforte had replaced the harpsichord as the popular home keyboard instrument to such an extent that publishers no longer felt that listing the harpsichord on the title pages had any value.

Beethoven’s teacher Neefe, however, wrote in 1787 (when Beethoven was 16) that the Elector of Bonn was spending a great amount of money on music, instruments, and virtuosi. He added, “The pianoforte is especially liked; there are here several Hammerclaviere by Stein of Augsburg, and other correspondingly good instruments.” As a teenager, therefore, Beethoven probably had access to some of the finest fortepianos being built in Western Europe.