Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Mozart Piano Sonatas

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for October 23, 2018, was titled “Fine Dining”. The post featured Ronald Brautigan’s revelatory performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas recorded on modern copies of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century pianos built by Paul McNulty (born in Houston in 1953).

(These early pianos are often referred to as “fortepianos”, which simply means “loud-soft.” By definition, a fortepiano is an early piano that employs thin, harpsichord-like strings; leather-covered – as opposed to felt – hammers; a wooden harp; and lacks any metal bracing. The term fortepiano, then, designates pianos built from the invention of the instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime before the year 1700 to approximately 1825, when larger metal harped and thicker stringed pianos – proto-modern pianos, as they were – began to become the norm.)

Ronald Brautigam
Ronald Brautigam (born 1954)

The title of that post – “Fine Dining” – referred to the crow I was obligated to eat as a result of Brautigam’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I wrote:

“For lo these many years, I have always looked down on the fortepiano: those early pianos distinguished by their wood-framed (as opposed to metal-framed) harps, built between 1700 and 1825. In my ignorance, I have long considered wooden-harped pianos to be transitional instruments, prototypes, transiting the temporal space between the invention of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori to the Erards and Pleyels of the 1830s and finally to the Steinways of the 1860s (now THAT’S a piano!, or so I thought).”

Yes, Beethoven routinely destroyed the lightweight fortepianos of his time. Yes, yes: he was constantly begging piano builders to design and build larger, more sonorous instruments. And yes, yes, yes: the demands Beethoven often made on the pianos of his time would seem to indicate that he was composing for an “idealized” instrument, one that simply didn’t yet exist. 


Beethoven’s dissatisfaction with the pianos of his time blinded me to the fact that whether he liked them or hated those pianos, he did indeed compose his piano music for them and the sorts of timbral color, nuance, and velocity he could draw from them

The piano music of Mozart presents us with no like conundrum; it is music gorgeously fit to the fortepianos of his time.

Mozart and the Piano

Mozart at the piano with his sister Maria Anna and father Leopold
Mozart (1756-1791) at the piano with his sister Maria Anna, circa 1780; to the right is his father Leopold and in the medallion at the rear a portrait of his deceased mother Anna Maria

June of 1764 saw the Mozart family on tour in London. The ad copy the 8-year-old Wolfgang’s Mozart’s father Leopold prepared for a performance on June 5, 1764 is most telling:

“Master Mozart, taking the opportunity of representing to the Public the greatest prodigy that Europe or Human Nature has to boast of. Everybody will be astonished to hear a Child of so tender [an] age play the harpsichord [italics mine] in such perfection – it surmounts all [that is] fantastic, and is hard to express which is more astonishing, his execution upon the harpsichord playing at sight, or his own composition.” 

Leopold Mozart was indeed a huckster. But his ad copy tells us something important, and that is that the young Wolfgang’s primary keyboard instrument was indeed the harpsichord. (Back home in Salzburg, the Mozart family owned a big one, built sometime around 1750 by Christian Ernst Friederici Of Gera, in central eastern Germany.) 

So: Mozart grew up playing the harpsichord, an instrument incapable of dynamic gradations; that is, of getting progressively louder or softer or of accenting certain notes over others. 

We do not know exactly when Mozart first played a piano, though here are a few things that we do know.

Up until the 1760’s, pianos were still considered as being something of a “novelty”. They were expensive to build and most variable in quality. They were also scarce: it is likely that at the time Mozart was born in 1756 there was only one piano in his hometown of Salzburg, an instrument built by Andreas Stein and owned by the Salzburg’s archbishop.

Johann Christian (J. C.) Bach
Johann Christian (J. C.) Bach (1735-1782)

We know that Johann Christian Bach – the eleventh and youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach – gave the world’s first piano recital in London in 1768. We know that the Mozart spent a significant amount of time with J. C. Bach while the Mozart family lived in London in 1764 and 1765, so we suspect that the 8 and 9-year-old Mozart played his first piano there, in the English capitol. 

We know – thanks to an article in a contemporary journal called “Schubart’s German Chronicle – that Mozart performed on a piano in the Munich home of one “Herr Albert” in early 1775.

And we know that by 1777 – by the age of 21 – Mozart was thoroughly familiar with the piano. In October of 1777, he visited the workshop of Andreas Stein in the German city of Augsburg and was blown away by the pianos he played. He wrote a long letter to his father in which he described Stein’s pianos at length and, in doing so, revealed his own knowledge of and fascination with this still “new” instrument. We quote the letter in brief part:

  “I shall begin with Stein’s pianofortes. Before I had seen any of his make, Späth’s claviers had always been my favorites. But now I much prefer Stein’s, for they damp ever so much better than [Späth’s] instruments. 

“In whatever way I touch the keys, the tone never jars; in a word, it is always even. It is true that he does not sell a pianoforte of this kind for less than three hundred gulden, but the trouble and the labor which Stein puts into the making of it cannot be paid for. His instruments have this special advantage over others [in] that they are made with escape action. Only one maker in a hundred bothers about this. But without an escapement it is impossible to avoid jangling and vibration after the note is struck. [And] he guarantees that the sounding-board will neither break nor split.” 

Back, then, to what we know. We know that by the time Mozart wrote the just quoted letter – in October of 1777 – he had “made the switch” from harpsichord to the piano. Of this switch the eminent American music scholar Nathan Broder writes:

“By the end of 1777, Mozart found pianos wherever he went; and the reports of his contemporaries combined with information yielded by [his manuscripts] leave no doubt that all the [keyboard] works from that time on must have been intended for the piano. Mozart’s mature piano style, to be sure, contains many elements that started life in answer to the needs of an instrument with plucked strings [meaning the harpsichord]; but its most characteristic elements are those made possible by an instrument that employed hammers instead of quills. Thus embellishments, being no longer needed to emphasize particular tones, tend to disappear; the melodic line acquires a more flowing, song-like character, and sustained tones appear more frequently and are used with greater effect.” 

Broder touches on a key issue here. Mozart’s adoption of the piano was not just a matter of a young dude being attracted to a new technology. Oh no, it’s much more than that, because for Mozart, the piano and his innately lyric proclivities as a composer went together like the proverbial horse and carriage.… continue reading only on Patreon!

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