Beethoven and His French Piano

In October 1803, a new piano came into Beethoven’s life: an Erard Frères piano en forme de clavecin or “harpsichord-shaped piano.” Beethoven’s first foreign-made piano, it bore the serial number 133, showing that it was the 133rd such grand piano the Parisian firm had built since 1797. The composer was “so enchanted with it,” a visitor reported, “that he regards all the pianos made here [i.e., in Vienna] as rubbish by comparison.” But while the sound of the French piano may have been superb, its touch was significantly heavier than any of the Viennese pianos Beethoven was used to. So he put his trust in the skills of a local piano technician, who made a series of technical adjustments. In the process, however, the unique properties of the instrument were severely compromised, and after six years of ownership Beethoven had no choice but to declare his French piano “now utterly useless.” Still holding on to it as a “souvenir,” he eventually bequeathed it to his brother Johann, who donated Beethoven’s once beloved instrument to the Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum in Linz, Austria.

As part of a project to better understand the importance of the Erard piano to Beethoven, an exact replica of the instrument was built at the Orpheus Institute for Advanced Studies & Research in Music in Ghent, Belgium, restoring Beethoven’s instrument to its pre-adjusted state. It can be heard on this recording for the first time. Tom Beghin presents new readings of a trilogy of sonatas that Beethoven started writing shortly after receiving the new instrument: Op. 53 (“Waldstein,” performed here in its original four-movement version), Op. 54, and Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), spanning the years 1803 to 1807. Two additional sonatas by contemporaries Daniel Steibelt (Op. 64, from 1805) and Louis Adam (Op. 8 No. 2, from 1801) provide an appropriately French musical context, while also representing excellence in their own right.

At the time Beethoven acquired his Erard piano, he was dreaming of relocating to Paris. He never did—but listening to this new recording we can hear how Paris came to him. Inspired by his French piano, Beethoven mastered the technique of son continu (“continuous sound”) and experimented with the sonic effects afforded by the instrument’s four pedals, following the examples of his one-time rival, Daniel Steibelt, famed for his showy virtuosity, and Louis Adam, the foremost piano professor at the recently founded Paris Conservatoire. These recorded performances invite listeners into a revolutionary world of pianistic sonority and effect, in which feet on pedals matter as much as fingers on the keyboard—a space where Beethoven, if only for a while, managed to create a French version of himself.

Beethoven And His French Piano Front

CD package (2 CDs and booklet)

Beethoven and His French Piano

The package includes two CDs, a 136-page booklet that includes an extensive essay by the artist and an interview with the piano maker, and a password that allows online streaming of additional audio and video offerings. It is available for sale here.

Lecture-documentary

Beethoven’s French Piano: A Tale of Ambition and Frustration

In August 1803, Beethoven ordered a piano in the shape of a harpsichord from Erard Frères in Paris. How did this French instrument affect him as a pianist-composer? And why, within the first year of his new ownership, did he have it altered so drastically? A new replica of Beethoven’s piano suggests concrete answers. Interwoven through this lecture-demonstration by Tom Beghin are interviews with piano maker Chris Maene, organologist Robert Adelson, musicologist Jeanne Roudet, historian Jacques-Olivier Boudon, and restorer-curator Stephan Gschwendtner.

90 minutes, in English, Dutch, French, and German, with English subtitles.

(The password can be found in the CD-booklet.)

Bonus Video

The Lure of "una corda"

Cut from the lecture-documentary, this segment addresses the first notated use of una corda by Beethoven in the slow movement of his Concerto Op. 58, and connects an assumed fascination with his Erard piano’s una corda spring to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

(The password can be found in the CD-booklet.)

Performance Video

Beethoven’s Sonata in C Major, Op. 53 (1803–4): A “Director’s Cut”

Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata Op. 53 is considered a pinnacle of Viennese classicism. Yet it owed so much to his new French piano. Originally, Beethoven envisioned his Grande sonate to have four movements instead of the three (or two) that were eventually published. This performance reconstructs Op. 53’s long version (its director’s cut, so to speak), while bringing Beethoven’s French experiments to the fore.

 43 minutes

(The password can be found in the CD-booklet.)

Bonus Sound

Published version of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata Op. 53 (Vienna: Bureau des arts et d’industrie, announced May 15, 1805)

When Beethoven prepared for publication what was to be his “Waldstein” Sonata Op. 53, he changed his mind on a number of things:

  • He removed the original Andante and replaced it with an Introduzione: Adagio molto. (The original slow movement was published separately as a single Andante in F Major, WoO 57.)
  • Possibly confirming an earlier decision, he did not include a minuet or scherzo. (This C-major piece would be published posthumously as Bagatelle WoO 56.)
  • He removed the second repeat in the first movement—a last-minute decision, pencil-marked in the manuscript.

The CD features a reconstituted long version of Op. 53, which may here be compared with its substantially shorter, familiar version.

Upcoming

A book, with the title Beethoven’s French Piano: A Tale of Ambition and Frustration, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

Keyboard Perspectives vol. 13 (Yearbook of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies) will be devoted to the subject of pianism in Paris around the time of Beethoven’s Erard. It will include the following essays:

Tilman Skowroneck—“Er geht dann nach Paris”: Beethoven’s French Ambitions

Erin Helyard—Clementi: The Father (Also) of French Pianism

Tom Beghin and Michael Pecak—An Institution with Ambition

Tom Beghin—Louis Adam: An Exemplary Teacher

Michael Pecak—Frédéric Kalkbrenner: An Exemplary Pupil

Jeanne Roudet—Louis Adam and his Méthode de piano (1804/5)

Luca Montebugnoli—On the Art of Accompanying the Score

Charles Shrader—Daniel Steibelt: Entrepreneur or Charlatan

Robin Blanton—Erard Pianos in Women’s Salons

Hester Bell Jordan—Mlles Erard and Female Entrepreneurship

Frédéric de La Grandville—The State of Piano Instruction at the Paris Conservatoire Around 1810: An Inspector’s Report

Eleanor Smith—Three book reviews