Beethoven and his Foreign Pianos

Declassifying the Classics - Project One

Tom Beghin (Principal Investigator) Chris Maene (Associate researcher) and Tilman Skowroneck (Associate Researcher).

Abstract

When it comes to Ludwig van Beethoven and his pianos, the question of “what was” is often obscured by “what could have been.” Statements by the revered composer such as “The piano must break!” or “I hope the time will come when the harp and the piano will become two totally different instruments” are two examples among many that have helped create a story in which extreme ambition (easily mistaken for “vision”) and dissatisfaction with available technologies are seen as colliding with one another.


This project, on the contrary, takes historical technology as point of departure for the study of Beethoven’s art.  It challenges, furthermore, a notion promoted by Newman (1988) and reinforced through a complete recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by Bilson, Beghin et al. (1997) that Beethoven remained “true to his Viennese pianos and pianism.”  We instead make Beethoven’s two “foreign” pianos the focal points of our study, while inhabiting the persona of a Viennese-trained pianist.  A replica of Beethoven’s 1817 Broadwood—the first in modern times—has been finished since 2013, and we now get ready to construct—again for the first time—Beethoven’s 1803 Erard.

There is urgent musicological reason for taking these instruments seriously: the traditional dismissal of Erard as “irrelevant” because it was an “unsolicited gift” has been turned on its head by Rose (2005), who shows that it was Beethoven himself who ordered the French piano; and, in spite of it being a prestigious gift (arguably more self-serving for the giver than the receiver), Beethoven clung to his English instrument until the end of his life, not coincidentally (as we hope to show) during the hardships of his increased deafness.

Our hypothesis is that by studying these “foreign” pianos from the perspective of Beethoven’s music, we will discover “man vs. machine” interactions that will force us to refine and revise our understanding of Beethoven’s rhetoric and style.
  

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