Fortepiano: a key to the music of the past
As one of the few pianofortists in China, Wang Yuehan considers it her responsibility to introduce the ancient instrument to the public and help people better understand its appeal through her performances.
“When I play Mozart’s music on the fortepiano, it authentically reminds me of the music of his time,” Wang told the Shanghai Daily. “I have the impression of communicating with the great musicians in person. The pianoforte helps me to better understand the reason and the logic of their composition.”
With a softer sound and a smaller frame, the pianoforte is a piano used from the mid-eighteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century, for which composers of the classical era, in particular Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven wrote their piano music.
The old pianoforte became obsolete at the end of the 19th century due to its demanding craftsmanship and high cost. It was revived in the 20th century following the rise of interest in historically informed performance.
Wang’s interest in the pianoforte was cultivated while studying at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in the United States.
“I was drawn to his timbre,” she said. “The sound is warm and intimate.
“In addition, the fortepiano does not have a strict tutorial. My teachers have also researched and explored how to play the fortepiano themselves. There is no authority. Learning progress becomes a exploration on my initiative.”
Wang said a fortepiano is more sensitive than a modern piano, requiring a different approach and force and more precise control ability from a player.
“Playing the musical scores on a pianoforte helped me better understand how these great composers created the classics,” she added.
“Some exquisite tunes and short tempos can be better demonstrated by a fortepiano compared to a modern piano. Some higher notes are simply missing because of a fortepiano’s limited tonal range.”
Wang received her master’s degree from the Jacobs School of Music in 2017, with a double major in piano and pianoforte. She returned to China and has been researching and playing the fortepiano ever since.
“Some people have asked me why I’m spending my time on a niche instrument that’s already phased out by time,” she said. “But I have my reasons.
“For music students, learning the fortepiano can help them better understand the history and development of classical music. In China, the fortepiano is still a selective course. To date, the instrument is only available in three music academies in China.”
She added, “For the public, I hope my demonstration can capture the spirit of great composers and the essence of their music. I hope more people can attend fortepiano concerts and lectures and learn to know the instrument.”
Before graduating from the Jacobs School of Music, Wang purchased a Czech-made fortepiano, a replica of a fortepiano made by Viennese piano maker Anton Walter in 1805.
Walter was one of the most famous fortepiano makers of the late 18th century. Mozart bought a Walter pianoforte in 1782 at the age of 26 and used it in all of his public performances until his death.
The Walter 1805 pianoforte has a completely wooden structure without a metal frame above the soundboard.
Compared to modern pianos, it has a smaller range of five and a half octaves, which has already expanded considerably from the five octaves commonly seen in the 18th century. The pedals are placed under the keyboard, which are controlled by the player’s knees instead of the feet.
Due to its exquisite all-wood structure, the fortepiano is sensitive to the environment. Temperature and humidity can greatly influence its sound. Wang keeps her air conditioner and humidifier on all day at home for the fortepiano. After taking the instrument to a new city, she spends a lot of time changing her sound.
Wang was born and raised in Wuhan, Hubei Province.
She is presenting a recital for her comrades in Wuhan and Changsha in Hunan Province next weekend. His last recital was held at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center before the National Day holiday. Some of the programs were from his first personal album “Mozart Fantasie & Rondo”, released last year.
Turning 32 next month, Wang plans to release her second personal album “Beloved” on her birthday. The album will include eight piano sonatas by Mozart. Producer Feng Hanying, who has worked with famous Chinese pianists such as Fu Cong and Lang Lang, took charge of the recording.
Wang revealed that she had already ordered a new fortepiano for herself.
“The new fortepiano has a slightly wider range, which will allow me to play Schubert’s works and Beethoven’s later compositions in the future,” she said.