From Academic Kids

Fortepiano designates the early version of the piano, as it existed from its invention by Cristofori around 1710 up to the early 19th century.



The fortepiano has leather-covered hammers and thin, harpsichord-like strings. It has a much lighter case construction than the modern piano, and except for 19th century examples (already evolving towards the modern piano), it has no metal frame or bracing.

The range of the fortepiano was about five octaves for most of its existence, though in later fortepianos one sees the early stages of the piano's gradual evolution to its current standard range of 7 1/3 octaves. Mozart wrote his piano music for instruments of about five octaves; Beethoven's music reflects the gradual range expansion as the instrument evolved.

History of the fortepiano

The fortepiano was invented by the harpsichord maker Christofori around 1709-10. Later well known makers of fortepianos include Johann Andreas Stein, who made instruments which were particularly favoured by Mozart, and Anton Walter, who was also one of Mozart's friends. Stein put the wood used in his instruments through a very severe weathering process, and this included the generation of cracks in the wood, into which he would then insert wedges. This gave his instruments a considerable longevity, on which Mozart commented, and there are several instruments still surviving today. Walter's instruments appear to have been developed to produce a more powerful sound.

The sound of the fortepiano

Like the modern piano, the fortepiano can vary the sound volume of each note, depending on the player’s touch.

The tone of the fortepiano is quite different from that of the modern piano, being softer with less sustain. Sforzando accents tend to stand out more than on the modern piano, as they differ from softer notes in timbre as well as volume, and decay rapidly.

Fortepianos also tend to have quite different tone quality in their different registers--noble and slightly buzzing in the bass, "tinkling" in the high treble, and more rounded in the mid range. In comparison, modern pianos are rather more uniform in sound through their range.

Obsolescence and revival

From the late 18th century, the fortepiano underwent extensive technological development and thus evolved into the modern piano; for details, see Piano. The older type of instrument ceased to be made.

In the late 19th century, the early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch built three fortepianos. However, this attempted revival of the fortepiano was evidently several decades ahead of its time, and did not lead to widespread adoption of the instrument.

It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the fortepiano was effectively revived, as part of the authentic performance movement that began in that era and continues to this day. Old fortepianos were restored, and new ones were built along the lines of the old. This revival closely resembled the 20th century revival of the harpsichord, though occurring somewhat later in time. Among the more prominent modern builders have been Philip Belt, Paul McNulty, and Rodney Regier. As with harpsichords, fortepianos are sometimes built from kits purchased from expert makers (1 (, 2 (

The reintroduction of the fortepiano has permitted performance of 18th and early 19th century music on the instruments for which it was written, yielding new insights into this music; for detailed discussion, see Piano.

A number of modern pianists have achieved distinction in fortepiano performance, for example Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin, Trevor Pinnock, Gustav Leonhardt and Jörg Demus.

Opinions about the fortepiano

People's opinions about fortepiano sound vary widely, both from person to person and from instrument to instrument. Here are three representative opinions about fortepianos:

Although I am a lover of performances on authentic instruments the fortepiano was one of the least successful instruments and the most deserving of improvement. I am not always comfortable with the sound made by many fortepianos and however fine a performance may be I find it difficult at times to get past the often unpleasant sound.
--Michael Cookson (
A frequent initial reaction to the sound of the fortepiano is that it is less beautiful than that of a fine modern concert grand piano. I believe that such a reaction will usually be changed if the player listens to good recordings. The clear sound and relatively short sustain of the fortepiano tends to favor the special elements of style in the music of Haydn and Mozart. The sound is different but not inferior.
--Howland Auchincloss (
This reproduction of a 1730 Cristofori - the greatest of all makers and often the most underrated - by Denzel Wright based on one made for Scarlatti’s patron Queen Maria Barbara of Spain makes a gorgeous sound. Yes it can be metallic and subdued in climaxes but it has a marvellous delicacy and, especially in the expressive sonatas, a profoundly beautiful sound.
--Gary Higginson (

Etymology and usage

"Fortepiano" is Italian for "loud-soft", just as the formal name for the modern piano, "pianoforte", is "soft-loud". Both are abbreviations of Cristofori's original name for his invention: gravecembalo col (or di) piano e forte, "harpsichord with soft and loud".

The term fortepiano is somewhat specialist in its connotations, and does not preclude using the more general term piano to designate the same instrument. Thus, usages like "Cristofori invented the piano" or "Mozart's piano concertos" are currently common and would probably be considered acceptable by most musicians. Fortepiano is used in contexts where it is important to make the precise identity of the instrument clear, as in (for instance) "a fortepiano recital by Malcolm Bilson". For further discussion see 1 (

See also

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