Historic Pianos & the Human Voice

Recently a friend from college sent an email in which he ruminated on the connection between historic pianos and the human voice. With his permission I’ve pasted his note below, along with the fascinating response from Patricia Frederick of the Frederick Collection of Historic Pianos in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. And here’s a link to a favorite animated recording of Schubert’s “Erlkönig,”created by Oxford Lieder.

The original question from my friend:

You know I’ve long been devoted to historical instrument performance, and performances employing “period” instruments and instrumentation, so the subject of performance on pianos the likes of which would have been familiar to Chopin is of great interest. I especially enjoy performances of Schubert on instruments from his period, because, while he can be interpreted with success on something modern, by the likes of Brendel, pre-eminently, the music doesn’t make proper sense without resort to the kinds of sounds with which Schubert was composing.

Hearing you talk [in a recent podcast] about the homogeneity of timbre up and down the keyboard, in today’s pianos, puts me in mind of Schubert, who fully exploited the range of sounds in the pianos of his day, and how the sounds of different registers colored his composition.

I can’t help but think that the contrasts in the registers of fortepianos and older pianos can be analogized with the register-breaks and shifting timbres, from register to register, in human voices. Is it far-fetched to think of Chopin’s pianos, and the sounds that he endeavored to coax from them, as more imitative of the human voice, from what we hear in today’s pianos?

Patricia Frederick’s reply:

Your friend’s question about producing a “singing tone” is certainly relevant to the period pianos. As Mike says, centuries of composers, including J.S. Bach, have urged keyboard players to strive for a sound as much like the human voice as possible.

As you mentioned in the interview, we give visitors some specific things to listen for, that distinguish these pianos from the modern instrument. We point out three kinds of tonal contrast that piano designers could either maximize or minimize, to varying degrees, to produce the signature sound they wanted in their instruments; and these are all analogous to elements of vocal tone:

  1. Tonal changes over the dynamic range: A piano can be designed to produce an even continuum from soft to loud, (or as Mike puts it, “A pint of sound, a quart of sound, or a gallon of sound, but all the same sound”), or it can be made to produce a sweet, mellow tone at low level, rising to a brilliant, commanding tone at the loud end of the spectrum. Erards are especially good at this. Similarly, a human voice can play with different timbres across the dynamic range.
  2. Different registers across the keyboard compass: An ideal in some piano design has been a smooth transition from low bass to high treble; whereas our 1840 Erard, as you may recall, has a big, robust bass register, while its treble notes are suggestive of the delicate, sparkling baguettes on a crystal chandelier. The two ends of the keyboard sound as though they are from entirely different worlds. Singers can similarly produce different effects with their voices – think of Schubert’s Erlkönig”, where the singer must represent the narrator, the father, the terrified child, and the forest king’s daughters, in the space of a few measures!
  3. The attack of hammer on string, and the decay of the tone produced thereby: A hammer can be made to ease into the string, creating a tone without a sharp beginning, the subsequent tone fading out very gradually; or, the hammer can have a crisp attack, releasing a lot of tonal energy right away, dropping immediately to a lower level and fading out from there. This is something akin to a singer’s enunciating the consonants in a song, so that even the softest tones are heard at the back of the hall, and everyone can understand the words. A piano with a noticeable attack and lower-level fade-out is wonderful for accompanying singers, woodwind and stringed instruments; it makes its sound, then gets out of the way of the other instruments. This is also true of solo piano music with complex textures at rapid tempo markings; the richness and slow tonal decay of the modern piano can be an impediment there.

There is what Mike or I would say about the piano’s possibilities as a “vocal” instrument.