Cristofori’s Dream

Musical instruments have been around for thousands of years, and it is not easy to pinpoint the person who first created the earlier versions. Over the centuries, many respected musicians became makers of instruments, including Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655-1731), who lived in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries. Whilst making violins and other stringed instruments was a valued career, Cristofori dreamt of inventing something new: a piano.

Other than the information on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s birth certificate that states he was born on 4th May 1655 in Padua, which was then part of the Republic of Venice, his early life remains a mystery. One story suggests Cristofori served as an apprentice to Nicola Amati (1596-1684), a stringed-instrument maker from Cremona, but census records do not correspond. In 1680, the census recorded that a thirteen-year-old with the name Christofaro Bartolomei lived with Amati, but by this time, the future piano maker had celebrated his 25th birthday.

The first record of Cristofori as an adult is dated 1688 when Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713) recruited the 33-year-old. The purpose of this recruitment is unknown, but it coincided with the death of the prince’s musical technician. Ferdinando owned plenty of instruments and was a lover and patron of music.

Some historians question why Ferdinando, who lived in Venice where many musical technicians lived, sought out Cristofori who lived outside of the city. Perhaps Cristofori had already started inventing instruments, which would explain why Ferdinando offered him time and money to pursue his interests as part of the bargain. As well as having a fondness for music, Ferdinando expressed a fascination with machinery and owned over forty mechanical clocks.

In an interview with the Italian writer Francesco Scipione Maffei (1675-1755), Cristofori admitted he had not wanted to work for the prince, but on hearing this, Ferdinando responded “that he would make me want to.” Cristofori reluctantly agreed to a salary of 12 scudi per month (€288) and moved into a house in Venice that also came with the position.

Cristofori’s job involved transporting and refurbishing the prince’s instruments. Although this was well within Cristofori’s abilities, he found it challenging to work with the other hundred artisans employed by the prince. Cristofori either worked in or near the Galleria dei Lavori of the Uffizi, revealing during his interview with Maffei: “It was hard for me to have to go into the big room with all that noise.” Eventually, Ferdinando gave Cristofori a private workshop.

Although Cristofori takes credit for the invention of the piano, keyboard instruments were already in existence. The harpsichord, for instance, was invented during the middle ages and a smaller version, known as a spinet, was developed before Cristofori was born. Yet, Cristofori was determined to improve upon these early instruments.

Not long after starting his employment, Cristofori invented a new instrument for Prince Ferdinando. Known as a spinettone (“big spinet”), it was longer than a spinet but thinner than a harpsichord, yet its mechanisms made it different from either instrument.

Spinets and harpsichords are designated as eight-foot pitch (8′) instruments, meaning they played at a standard, ordinary pitch. Cristofori’s spinettone contained 8′ strings, but he also included 4′ strings, which allowed the musician to play one octave above the standard. Attached to an internal mechanism the keyboard could be slid back and forth by the player to switch between the two octaves.

The unique design attested to the ingenuity of its inventor; not only was it unlike anything produced before, but it also required careful thought and precision. Cristofori likely engineered the spinettone to complement his patron’s love of opera. Prince Ferdinando often played the harpsichord with the orchestra at the Medici villa at Pratolino, but due to the instrument’s size, the orchestra pit was very cramped. The spinettone was physically compact, making it the perfect size for playing with the orchestra. Its range of notes also complemented the other instruments.

Another invention by Cristofori, which may predate the spinettone, was the oval spinet, based on the keyboard and string arrangements of a virginal. A virginal is a smaller, usually rectangular, version of a harpsichord with a richer, flute-like tone. Cristofori altered the string lengths to make them stronger and designed an oval body to make the instrument more compact.

Some historians believe the oval spinet was Cristofori’s first attempt at making a keyboard instrument suitable for use within an orchestra, but its lack of range made it impractical. Nonetheless, it was considered a luxury instrument that only the wealthy could afford. Musical instrument scholar Stewart Pollens (b.1949) describes the oval spinet as “a tour de force of mechanical design, fully the product of Cristofori’s inventive character,” yet, it never caught on during Cristofori’s lifetime. Only two of Cristofori’s original oval spinets remain, but there are several by later manufacturers.

An inventory of the prince’s possessions, taken in 1700, lists the oval spinet and spinettone. Also documented are two harpsichords made by Cristofori, one made from ebony; and a clavicytherium. The latter was a form of upright harpsichord designed in the 15th century purposely to save floor space. Less prevalent than the traditional harpsichord, the clavicytherium was harder to play and had “a fairly heavy touch and unresponsive action” (Ripin, 1989). Unlike the harpsichord, which relied on gravity to move the jack or plectrum, the clavicytherium needed a spring to assist the movement.

An ‘Arpicembalo’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…” The inventory contains a paragraph about an instrument invented by Cristofori called an Arpicembalo. Meaning “harp-harpsichord”, this was the name of Cristofori’s first piano, which eventually became known as pianoforte, meaning soft and loud.

The Arpicembalo remained publicly unknown until Scipione Maffei mentioned the instrument in an article in 1711. By this time, Cristofori had built two more pianos. Unlike harpsichords, whose strings are plucked by a plectrum, Cristofori devised a mechanism using hammers. It was not as simple as replacing the plectrums with hammers, but they also needed to return to their positions after striking the string, allowing it to vibrate. The hammers also let the player rapidly repeat the same note if desired. The strength in which the player pressed the key determined the volume of the sound.

It is difficult to determine what type of strings Cristofori used in his first pianos since they have been lost or destroyed. Over time, the strings in his later pianos have all been replaced due to breakages, wear and tear. Complaints about the Arpicembalo stated it was too “soft” and “dull” in comparison to the much louder harpsichords, suggesting Cristofori used thin strings. On the other hand, it was louder than a clavichord, which until that time had been the only keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance concerning the force in which the keys depressed.

Maffei’s article about Cristofori’s Arpicembalo was translated into German in 1725 by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König. As a result, many instrument makers began to replicate Cristofori’s design. Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) went one step further, adding a damper-lifting mechanism, which allowed the strings to vibrate freely. This device, the forerunner of the sustain pedal, helped the player to produce a greater variety of tones.

Although instrument makers were quick to take on the new keyboard instrument, composers and musicians were harder to convince. In the early 1730s, Silberman introduced the Arpicembalo to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was less than impressed with the weak tones, which he claimed prevented the instrument from a full dynamic range. Unhappy at receiving criticism, Silberman made adjustments to the mechanisms until they met Bach’s approval in 1747. Advertising it as an “Instrument: piano et forte”, Bach acted as Silberman’s agent, encouraging musicians to adopt the fortepiano. These early instruments are so named to differentiate them from the modern pianoforte developed at the end of the 18th century.

Despite inventing a new instrument, Cristofori’s fame never spread much further than the Medici court. Prince Ferdinando passed away in 1713 at the age of 50, possibly from syphilis, leaving Cristofori without a patron. Fortunately, the prince’s father Cosimo III (1642-1723) appointed Cristofori the custodian of his son’s collection of instruments, thus allowing Cristofori to remain at court. The inventor continued to build pianos until his death on 27th January 1731, aged 75.

Only three pianos or Arpicembalos built by Cristofori exist today, although damages and refurbishments have altered them over time. A Latin inscription proves the authenticity of the instruments. “Bartholomaevs de Christophoris Patavinus Inventor Faciebat Florentiae” is followed by the date in Roman numerals, which translates as “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made this in Florence in [date].” 

The oldest of the three instruments was made in 1720 and currently lives in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The cypress and boxwood piano spans three octaves with strings in length from 4.75 inches to 74.25 inches. A new soundboard added in 1938 inadvertently altered the sound of the notes. Denzil Wraight (b.1951), a professional researcher of Italian keyboard instruments, laments that “its original condition … has been irretrievably lost.” Mary Elizabeth Adams (1842-1918), an American curator of musical instruments, donated the piano to the museum.

Although unplayable due to damage caused by worms, the 1722 instrument is the best preserved of the three pianos. The piano, which belongs to the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, has a range of four octaves and may have once belonged to the Venetian composer Alessandro Ignazio Marcello (1673-1747). The museum claims Cristofori aimed to “give an instrument the speech of the heart, now with the delicate touch of an angel, now with violent eruptions of passions.”

The third piano was built in 1726 and is in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University. The instrument is currently not playable, but old recordings exist, which give a general sense of how the notes once sounded. The use of cypress for the soundboard produced a warmer, softer sound than modern pianos.

The piano became more prevalent in the late 18th century after piano-making flourished in Vienna. Although piano-makers based their instruments on Cristofori’s designs, they made a few changes, including the colour of the keyboard: black for natural keys and white for the accidentals. Future piano-makers reverted to the original colours. The earliest surviving version of this type of piano, a fortepiano, was built in France by Louis Bas of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in 1781.

The modern piano began to evolve between 1790 and 1860, the “Mozart-era”. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was one of the first composers to write sonatas and concertos specifically for the instrument. Although he died in 1791, his work lived on, inspiring hundreds of other composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49). 

Beethoven and his tutor Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) were among the first to own a pianoforte or grand piano. Broadwood and Sons, founded by the Scottish manufacturer John Broadwood (1732-1812), constructed these pianos, which were louder, more substantial and ranged over five octaves. They quickly gained a reputation for their instruments and added a sixth octave to the keyboard in 1810. A seventh octave had been added by 1820, and other piano manufacturers began to follow suit. 

London-born Robert Wornum (1780-1852), built the first upright piano in 1811, but his design did not catch on. Modern upright pianos developed from those made by Pleyel et Cie (Pleyel and Company), founded by the composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), in 1815. By 1834, Pleyel was producing 1000 pianos a year and was the preferred manufacturer of French composers such as Chopin, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

Piano-makers continued to improve the instrument throughout the 19th century. Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) added felt to the keys and hammers to improve the sound quality. Jean-Baptiste-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) designed a sostenuto pedal, which sustained only those notes held down when the pedal is depressed, meaning the following notes would not be affected. Not all piano manufacturers adopted this pedal, but the American company Steinway & Sons made it a key feature of their instruments. Steinway pianos tend to have three pedals, the other two being the sustain pedal, which sustains all the notes, and the soft pedal, which produces a duller sound.

Today, there are several types of pianos as a result of the various improvements made over the last two centuries. The grand piano is the closest in appearance to Cristofori’s design in which the strings horizontally extend away from the keyboard. Yet, within this category, there are three types of piano: baby grand, parlour grand and concert grand, each getting progressively bigger.

There are also categories of upright pianos. Console pianos are the shortest, whereas a studio piano is usually between 107 and 114 cm. Although these are both upright pianos, the term usually describes those that are taller than studio versions. Upright pianos tend to be cheaper than grand pianos, and their sound quality is not quite so impressive. It is unusual to see an upright piano in a concert hall, but they are commonplace in churches, schools and homes.

Less common are the specialised pianos developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. These include the toy piano for children, the player piano, which plays itself by reading perforated rolls of paper, and the pedal piano, which resembles an organ. With technological advances, the electric piano arrived in the 1920s, which used metal strings, although it did not sound much like an acoustic piano. The electronic piano of the 1970s was better suited to replicate the timbre of an upright piano and became popular with jazz musicians.

Digital pianos, which appeared on the scene in the 1980s, do not use strings or hammers. Instead, they are fitted with pre-recorded sounds and never need to be tuned. More recent versions have weighted keys and pedals to make them both feel and sound like an acoustic piano. In the 21st century, hybrid versions, which contain both acoustic and digital aspects, have appeared on the market.

It is doubtful Cristofori foresaw the potential of his Arpicembalo, yet it has become the great-great-grandfather of the most versatile instrument in the world. The pianoforte was an essential instrument in the classical era of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, as well as the romantic era of Chopin and Debussy. It was a favourite instrument of ragtime composers, which was succeeded by jazz, blues, honky-tonk, folk and rock. 

Unlike orchestral instruments, the piano is polyphonic, meaning it can play more than one melody at the same time. As a result, it is the preferred instrument of composers, even if the final piece of music is for several musicians. The composer can, for example, play melodies and bass lines on the piano to ensure they complement each other.

After Cristofori died, his reputation went into decline; for some time, Gottfried Silbermann was believed to be the inventor of the piano. Careful studies of Cristofori’s instruments in the 20th century proved they predated Silbermann’s pianos. Since then, the credit for inventing the piano is solely with Cristofori, about whom the early-instrument scholar Grant O’Brien has written: “The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period … I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius [sic].” (Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a maker of string instruments.)

Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco is arguably the inventor of the best musical instrument ever made. It is only right we remember his name and celebrate his achievements. To quote Grant O’Brien again, “We must treat Cristofori’s instruments with the same respect and admiration that we would treat an instrument by Stradivarius. [sic]”

Beethoven at 250

On 17th December 2020, it will be 250 years since the famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised as a baby in the Catholic Parish of St. Remigius. In those days, it was custom to baptise babies within 24 hours of birth, so let us celebrate the 250th birthday of the composer and reflect upon the genius of his work, which has survived and remains popular in the 21st century.

Beethoven, named after his grandfather, Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-73), a professional singer and music director, was destined to become a musician. His father, Johann (1740-92) was also a singer and musician who performed in the chapel of the Archbishop of Cologne. His mother, Maria Magdalena Keverich (1746-87) was the daughter of the head chef at the court of the Elector of Trier.

Born on 17th December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, Beethoven was the second of seven children of which only three survived infancy. His younger brother Kaspar (1774-1815) experimented with musical composition but never became famous. Beethoven’s youngest brother, Nikolaus Johann (1776-1848), took a different career path and opened a pharmacy in Linz, Austria.

Beethoven’s father taught the boys to play the piano, and possibly the violin, from the age of five. As he got older, Beethoven received lessons from local musicians on various instruments: organ, piano, violin and viola. Although Beethoven showed considerable musical talents, his tutoring sessions were long and hard, and his teachers strict, often reducing the young boy to tears. Tuition took place at any time of day and night and, on occasion, Ludwig was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night for an impromptu piano lesson.

It was not only the tutors that were harsh on Beethoven. His ambitious father was aware of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) and his sister Nannerl (1751-1829), who were impressing the population of Salzburg, Austria, with their musical talent and youth. When Beethoven made his first public performance at the age of seven, his father claimed he was only six to make his son appear to be as talented as the Mozarts.

At the beginning of the 1780s, Beethoven began studying with the German opera composer and conductor, Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-98). Principally teaching him to play the piano, Neefe was Beethoven’s most influential tutor during his youth. Beethoven became Neefe’s assistant as an unpaid organist in 1782 but two years later had risen to a paid position at the court chapel.

As well as piano technique, Neefe taught Beethoven about composition. At the age of 11 and 12, Beethoven composed his first keyboard works. The three piano sonatas are known as the Kurfürstensonaten (Elector Sonatas), dedicated to Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels (1708-84), the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and the Bishop of Münster. For such a young composer, Beethoven’s compositions were remarkably mature and gave an early glimpse of his Classical piano talent.

Beethoven … a boy of 11 years and most promising talent. He plays the piano very skilfully and with power, reads at sight very well … the chief piece he plays is Das wohltemperierte Klavier of Sebastian Bach, which Herr Neefe puts into his hands …

Magazin der Musik (1783)

The success of these sonatas gained Beethoven financial support from several people, but between 1785-90 Beethoven disappeared from the limelight. As far as historians are aware, Beethoven did not produce any compositions during this time, most likely as a result of ongoing problems within his family. Beethoven’s mother passed away in 1787 just after he had returned from Vienna where he had heard Mozart play. Being the eldest surviving child, a lot of the family responsibility fell to seventeen-year-old Beethoven.

Complicating things further, Beethoven’s father lost his job due to alcoholism. Although Johann van Beethoven was offered a pension, the money was ordered by the court to be paid directly to Ludwig so that he could look after his younger brothers. This money was not enough to keep the family afloat, so Beethoven had to earn a salary. He achieved this by taking on pupils and playing the viola in the court orchestra. The orchestra played music by several composers, including Mozart, which must have felt like an insult to Beethoven who was brought up to consider Mozart his rival.

Making up for lost time, Beethoven composed several works between 1790 and 1792. Although not published at the time, they show his progression from his first works ten years before. Neefe encouraged Beethoven to take on commissions and introduced him to Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer, who briefly stayed in Bonn for Christmas in 1790. Beethoven much admired the older composer and Haydn was also impressed with Beethoven’s talents. When Haydn returned to Bonn in 1792, Beethoven was earning money by playing the viola in the court orchestra. Haydn, on the other hand, wished to tutor Beethoven personally and invited him to Vienna. One of Beethoven’s financial supporters, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein (1762-1823) encouraged the proposal, stating: “You are going to Vienna in fulfilment of your long-frustrated wishes … With the help of assiduous labour you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”

Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and devoted himself to study and performance under Haydn’s guidance. He also received tuition from the Austrian violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) and learnt about composition from the classical composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825).

Using his connection with Haydn to his advantage, Beethoven developed a reputation as a performer and gained the financial support of several Viennese noblemen, including Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz (1772-1816). By 1793, Vienna knew Beethoven as a piano virtuoso, but he was also an up-and-coming composer.

Beethoven’s first public performance in Vienna took place during March 1795, in which he performed a piano concerto he had written. Dedicating it to one of his patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky (1761-1814), Beethoven formerly published the music as a set of trios for piano, violin and cello under the name Opus 1. The profits for this publication was enough to cover Beethoven’s living expenses for a year.

Over the next couple of years, Beethoven published and wrote many concertos and sonatas. By 1799, 28-year-old Beethoven published his thirteenth musical work (Op. 13). Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, or Sonata Pathétique as it is more commonly known, is one of Beethoven’s most celebrated works, “surpass[ing] any of his previous compositions, in strength of character, depth of emotion, level of originality, and ingenuity of motivic and tonal manipulation.” (Barry Cooper, Beethoven, 2008)

By 1800, Beethoven was the most talented young composer after Haydn and Mozart. The same year, he published his first symphony, which he dedicated to his patron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). The premiere took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna alongside performances of works by Haydn and Mozart. The premiere was hailed “the most interesting concert in a long time” by the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (General music newspaper). The next year, Beethoven premiered his first ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at the same location.

Following these successes, Beethoven published his second symphony in 1803. The first performance of Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36) took place at the Theater an der Wien in a concert that also featured Beethoven’s third piano concerto (Op. 37) and his only oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op.85). The latter, which Beethoven claimed to have written in only two weeks, portrayed the emotional torment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion. Six years later, the oratorio premiered in the United States where it became Beethoven’s first success in America. 

As well as composing, Beethoven worked as a teacher. Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) and Carl Czerny (1791-1857) are among the more successful of Beethoven’s pupils, but he taught a wide range of students over time, including women. In 1799, Beethoven became the piano tutor of the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Josephine (1779-1821), although nothing ever came of the relationship. Nonetheless, letters survive that indicate there may have been a secret romance.

Other letters, however, indicate Beethoven had feelings for another of his students, Countess Julie Guicciardi (1784-1856). Considering himself to be in a lower social class, Beethoven never pursued a relationship, but in 1802 he dedicated his Sonata Op. 27 No. 2 to Julie. After his death, this sonata became better known by the name Moonlight Sonata.

In the early 1800s, Beethoven began to experience hearing loss. At first, he attributed this to a fit he suffered in 1798, after which he struggled with severe tinnitus. From descriptions in letters to his friends and brothers, Beethoven likely had osteosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the inner ear) and a degenerative auditory nerve.

Beethoven moved to Heiligenstadt on the outskirts of Vienna to come to terms with his diagnosis. Surviving letters suggest Beethoven had mixed feelings about his condition. Mostly, he seemed upbeat, but one letter suggests he once considered suicide. Although Beethoven never became entirely deaf, it became increasingly difficult to play at concerts. As a result, he began to withdraw socially.

Nonetheless, Beethoven did not let his condition prevent him from composing. In a letter to a friend, he stated he would “seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not crush me completely.” Beethoven made no secret of his hearing loss, and he could still hear music and voices until around 1812.

Most likely because of his diagnosis, Beethoven’s music style dramatically changed. On his return to Vienna, he told his pupils, “I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new way.” This attitude resulted in his Third Symphony in E flat Op. 55, or the Eroica, in 1804. Beethoven initially wrote the symphony with Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) in mind because he admired the ideal of the heroic revolutionary leader. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven became disillusioned with the man and renamed the symphony from Intitolata Bonaparte (Titled Bonaparte) to Sinfonia Eroica – composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo (Heroic Symphony – Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Critics noticed the change in Beethoven’s style. They commented on the dramatic nature of the music, particularly his best-known Symphony No.5 in C Major (Op. 67), which the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) claimed “sets in motion terror, fear, horror, pain, and awakens the infinite yearning that is the essence of romanticism.”

Up until Beethoven began to experience hearing loss, his income came from composing, teaching and performing. As the latter area became more difficult, Beethoven relied heavily on the publications of his music. Some of Beethoven’s patrons offered him yearly stipends in addition to commissions, and he took on his most prestigious pupil, Archduke Rudolf of Austria (1788-1831), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II (1747-92). The Archduke and Beethoven soon became firm friends, and Beethoven dedicated a number of his works to Rudolf, including the Archduke Piano Trio (Op. 97).

In 1807, Beethoven’s work began to be published in England, giving him a larger following. Although he was becoming a popular name across the continent, it was not enough to keep him financially stable. Beethoven had suffered financially. He had fallen out of favour at the Theater an der Wien due to new management. Also, the French occupation of Vienna between 1803 and 1806 hindered his compositions.

In 1808, a benefit concert was held for Beethoven to boost his funds. Although it was under rehearsed and inferior to Beethoven’s previous concerts, it introduced some of Beethoven’s new compositions. As well as a performance of his Symphony No.5, the concert premiered Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” (Op. 68) and the Choral Fantasy “Fantasia” (Op. 80).

The Napoleonic wars limited the number of commissions Beethoven received, but they began to pick up again in 1809 beginning with the incidental music for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) play Egmont. Pleased with the result, Beethoven set three of Goethe’s poems to music.

Beethoven fell ill in 1811, suffering headaches and high fevers. Nevertheless, he continued to compose music but moved to the spa town of Teplitz (now in the Czech Republic) on the advice of his doctor. While there, Beethoven had the opportunity to meet Goethe, who wrote  “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but surely does not make it any more enjoyable … by his attitude.” Whether Beethoven’s illness or deafness affected his personality is unknown, but Goethe certainly found him despicable. Likewise, Beethoven disliked Goethe’s personality but, putting their differences aside, composed the music for Goethe’s Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op.112).

There is an air of mystery surrounding Beethoven’s personal life, which is heightened by an unsent letter he wrote while staying in Teplitz. Addressed to “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved), the letter is scrawled over ten pages and expresses his passionate love for the unknown addressee. Not discovered until after his death, most historians believe the intended recipient was Beethoven’s former pupil Josephine Brunsvik, however, there are many other candidates.

The letter suggests the feelings were mutual, and the debate continues as to the identity of the lady. Beethoven had sent love letters to Josephine in the past, particularly after she became a widow in 1804. She soon married again, but the relationship was strained and worsened over time. Suspicions that she had an affair with Beethoven were raised after the birth of her daughter Minona in 1813 who was born nine months after Josephine had separated from her husband.

Other suggestions for the intended recipient of the letter include former pupil Julie Guicciardi and Josephine’s sister, Therese Brunsvik (1775-1861). Several musicians and singers that worked with Beethoven are also up for debate, for example, Therese Malfatti (1792-1851), an Austrian singer for whom he may have written the piano bagatelle Für Elise – the manuscript was found with her belongings after death.

Beethoven’s love life continues to be a mystery, but no love letters or hints of a relationship seem to occur after 1812. Around this time, Beethoven struggled with his mental and emotional health. His compositions were less frequent, and his physical appearance suffered. Some suggest his failings in love triggered this period, but he was also dealing with a few family issues. His brother Johann was in a relationship with a disreputable woman, which Beethoven tried unsuccessfully to end.

In 1815, his other brother Kaspar passed away from tuberculosis. Both Kaspar’s wife Johanna (1786-1869) and Beethoven became the joint guardians of Kaspar’s son Karl (1806-56), which sparked several legal proceedings. Beethoven wished to place Karl in a private school and, although he eventually won sole custody of his nephew, the legal struggles continued until 1820.

Due to the ongoing problems with his nephew Karl, Beethoven’s output was minimal. He also suffered healthwise with what he called “inflammatory fever”. Between 1815 and 1819, Beethoven’s only works of note were his Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106) and a musical composition set to poems by Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858).

Evidence suggests Beethoven began working on his ninth symphony in 1818, which coincides with an improvement in health. Unfortunately, his hearing was rapidly deteriorating, making it difficult for him to interact with other people. Several notebooks survive that reveal Beethoven conversed with people through writing rather than speaking. Entire conversations about music, business and personal matters were written out by the participants.

Beethoven rallied in 1819 and was invited by Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) to write a piano variation of his waltz. Other composers invited to do the same included Franz Schubert (1791-1828) and the 8-year-old Franz Liszt (1811-86). The idea was to produce one variation, but Beethoven was determined to outdo the others and composed 20 versions by mid-1819. In total, Beethoven composed 33 variations, known collectively as the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli (Op. 120) or the Diabelli Variations.

As well as the variations, Beethoven was motivated by the promotion of Archduke Rudolf to Cardinal-Archbishop, which he wished to honour with a mass. The result was the Missa solemnis in D major (Op. 123), performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1824. Later that year another performance took place in Vienna along with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Op. 125).

Symphony No. 9 in D Major is a choral symphony that continues to be one of the most performed symphonies in the world. The final (4th) movement was based on Friedrich Schiller’s (1759-1805) poem Ode to Joy and lasts about 24 minutes. The premiere was a great success and was conducted by Beethoven even though by that time he could not hear the music.

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.

Joseph Böhm (1795-1876), violinist

Another conductor stood by with a baton to conduct the orchestra and choir properly. As a result, when the music finished, Beethoven was a few bars behind and continued to conduct. The contralto Caroline Unger (1803-77) approached Beethoven and turned him around to face the applauding audience. Although Beethoven could not hear the applause, he could see the standing ovation and the raised hats throughout the audience.

Meanwhile, Beethoven’s health continued to deteriorate, adding rheumatism and jaundice to his list of ailments. Despite this, he continued to compose and publish music. He also reconciled with his brother Johann who became a frequent visitor.

Beethoven continued to receive commissions despite his failing health, including a series of string quartets for Prince Nikolai Galitzin (1794-1866). Beethoven’s favourite was his fourteenth and final string quartet of the series (Op. 131), about which the composers Schubert and Robert Schumann (1810-56) enthused. Schumann said String Quartet No. 14 had a “grandeur … which no words can express,” while Schubert exclaimed, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Despite being successful in the music world, Beethoven continued to struggle with his family relations. His nephew Karl attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Fortunately, he survived and was sent with his uncle to the Austrian village Gneixendorf to recuperate. Whilst there, Beethoven wrote his final major work String Quartet No. 16 in F major (Op. 135), which he dedicated to his patron Johann Wolfmayer.

On his return journey from Gneixendorf in December 1826, Beethoven was taken ill. Doctors noted Beethoven had signs of jaundice, breathing difficulties and severe fluid retention in his limbs. News of his condition spread quickly; he received a large number of visitors, including previous pupils and other composers. Those who could not attend his bedside, for instance, the London Philharmonic Society, sent gifts of money and wine.

On 26th March 1827, Beethoven passed away at the age of 56, leaving his nephew Karl as his sole heir. Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868), an Austrian composer and friend of Beethoven who was present at his death, reported there was a clap of thunder at 5 pm and “Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched … not another breath, not a heartbeat more.” Many people visited Beethoven on his death-bed to pay their respects. An autopsy revealed severe liver damage, likely due to heavy alcohol consumption.

Beethoven’s funeral took place in Vienna on 29th March 1827 and was attended by over 10,000, thus proving how successful he was in life. Franz Schubert was among the torchbearers and, after a requiem mass at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Church of the Holy Trinity), they buried Beethoven in the Währing cemetery. His body has since been reinterred in the Vienna Central Cemetery adjacent to Schubert’s grave.

Ludwig van Beethoven continues to rank among the most played classical composers and is one of the most admired musicians in the history of Western music. During his 45 year career, Beethoven wrote over 772 works, including nine symphonies, nine concertos, 16 string quartets, 32 sonatas, and one opera: Fidelio. He lived his life believing “music is a higher revelation than philosophy” and “music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman”. For Beethoven, music was life; he will live on through his compositions forever more.

Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est. (Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over.)

Beethoven on his deathbed

Hitting the Right Note

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Situated in North-West London, the Royal Academy of Music, founded in 1822, is the oldest music school in the United Kingdom. With the aim to promote knowledge, taste, skill and new music to whoever wished to pursue it, Lord Burghersh, 11th Earl of Westmorland (1784-1859), a composer, organised the establishment with the help of the harpist Nicolas Bochsa (1789-1856). Situated in Tenterden Street, Mayfair, the new academy was open to both boys and girls aged between 10 and 15 years who boarded at the school during term time. With William Crotch (1775-1847) as the first Principal, pupils were expected to focus on their music studies from 7am until 9pm.

Today, the Royal Academy of Music can be found in Marylebone Road, City of Westminster where it relocated in 1911. Right next door, a smaller building contains the Academy’s museum, with permanent and temporary galleries and exhibitions that explore unique instruments and the history of one of the leading UK conservatoires.

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Although known as the Royal Academy of Music, for the first eight years of its existence, the institution had not officially been recognised by the royal family. In 1830, just days before his death, King George IV (1762-1830) signed the Academy’s Royal Charter, and his successor, William IV (1765-1837) continued to support the school by establishing four King’s Scholarships.

The opportunities and cosmopolitan ethos of the Royal Academy attracted a growing number of students, including, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), who later became the school’s Principal, and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. To this day, famous names are emerging from the Academy and past students include the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle (b.1955), Sir Elton John (b.1947) and Annie Lennox (b.1954).

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Franz List playing at the RA by Oswald Barrett

During the latter half of the 19th-century, the Royal Academy of Music began to struggle as rival institutions began to crop up in London: the Guildhall School (1880) and Royal College of Music (1882). Despite suffering a chronic financial crisis, Principal Bennett, whose conducting baton can be viewed in the museum, helped to turn the situation around. This was helped further by a visit from the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-86) who received Honorary Membership of the Academy shortly before his death.

Due to the centenary of the emancipation of women in 2018, the Academy’s museum focused on the lives of female students, professors and musicians connected with the school in a temporary exhibition Hitting the Right Note: Amazing Women at the Royal Academy of Music, which ended on 18th April 2019. Although this exhibition concentrated more on the physical way these women have been portrayed, it contained an eye-opening history of the Academy from the point of view of women.

Music has always been enjoyed by both men and women alike, however, from ancient times to the 15th century, musicians tended to be slaves, servants or prostitutes, forced to entertain the rich in order to make a living. As a result of this, during the 17th and 18th centuries, respectable women would never be seen performing outside the home. Women were even banned from playing the organ in churches or singing with the choir. It was not until the 19th century that it was no longer deemed immoral for a woman to perform on stage. The number of female opera stars increased rapidly, eventually ousting male castrati.

Yet, when it came to playing instruments, women were expected to only play the piano in the privacy of their own homes. After the industrial revolution, however, the production of pianos increased meaning that “ordinary” working class people could also learn to play. Middle-class ladies, not wanting to be seen playing something “common”, began taking up other instruments instead, particularly the violin.

The Royal Academy of Music was slightly ahead of its time, admitting an equal amount of male and female students from the get-go. It was not until the 1870s, however, that the Academy began training older, professional musicians. The Academy was also the first establishment to admit women on orchestral instruments, beginning with Julia de Notte and Adria Moore on violins in 1872.

Earlier in 1844, the Royal Academy of Music had welcomed Kate Loder (1825-1904) as their first female professor of harmony. Born with perfect pitch, Kate won the King’s Scholarship at the age of 13 and had the opportunity in her final year at the Academy to play G Minor Concerto to its composer, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47).

At the age of 18, Kate became the first female professor at the Academy as well as the youngest female elected to the Philharmonic Society a year later. Unfortunately, her marriage to Henry Thompson (1820-1904) in 1851, put an end to her teaching career.

The exhibition included a number of women who had strong connections with the Royal Academy of Music. Two of these women have been honoured with busts, including one made by the American- British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959). These were Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965) and Dame Moura Lympany (1916-2005).

Myra Hess enrolled at the Academy as a piano student when she was only 12 years old. By 17, she had given her public debut and become one of the most famous pianists in Britain. Her fame today, however, stems from her wartime contributions. During the Second World War, Hess proposed that live music should be performed in the empty National Gallery, whose treasures had been removed in order to avoid damage during the Blitz. Five days a week, classical lunchtime concerts were performed, providing music and food for the people of London. In total, 1698 concerts were performed, 146 of which Hess participated in herself.

Dame Moura Lympany, on the other hand, studied at the Academy much later than Hess. With a full scholarship, Lympany was a student from 1929 until 1934 after which she became a notable concert pianist. She was the first person to make a complete recording of the Rachmaninov Preludes and, in 1940, she gave the British premiere of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto in D Flat.

Like Myra Hess, some of the other women who studied at the Academy had musical roles during the Second World War. Elizabeth Poston (1905-87) was one of the performers in the National Gallery concerts, however, her war legacy goes much further than that. In 1940, Poston joined the BBC Music Department and within three years had been promoted to European Music Supervisor. Part of her role involved sending coded musical messages to the Polish resistance on the continent. This code system was known as Jodaform, which had been devised by Czesław Halski, who became a student at the academy after the war. Well-known Polish tunes and folksongs were given different meanings and it was Poston’s job to play the correct piece of music to signify whether there was to be an air-drop in Poland or any other form of activity.

The exhibition displayed items belonging to a handful of the women who had passed through the Royal Academy of Music. On loan were Janet Craxton’s (1929-81) oboe reeds, many of which she collected from famous oboists. Craxton was an oboist herself, in fact, one of the leading players of her day. She was the only daughter of Harold Craxton OBE (1885-1971) who was a pianist and professor at the academy.

Also on loan were a snare drum, drum sticks and practice pad belonging to Dame Evelyn Glennie (b.1965), the virtuoso Scottish percussionist who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12, yet has taught herself to “hear” using other parts of her body. The snare drum was the first instrument Glennie owned. She has since gone on to amass one of the largest percussion collections in the world.

Hitting the Right Note mentioned many firsts for the Royal Academy of Music beginning with the first female violin students (1872) right up until the first female timpani student (1954) and saxophone student (1980). Surprisingly, the more major firsts have occurred more recently and go to show how difficult it has been for professional female musicians. A breakthrough transpired in the mid-20th century when Florence Hooton (1912-88) became the first cellist to play on national television. Yet there were still many milestones for female musicians to reach.

In 1984, Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949) became the first woman in history to conduct a complete concert at the BBC Proms. Born in Cuba, Martinez studied in New Orleans until she earned a scholarship to study piano and composition at the Academy. Her secret dream was to conduct, however, women were rarely given the opportunity. Nonetheless, her determination saw her achieve her goal.

The violinist Clio Gould (b.1968) reached another milestone for women when she became the first woman to lead a symphony orchestra in London. Shockingly, this feat did not occur until 2002 when she played with the Royal Philharmonic. Gould has since performed with a number of other orchestras but specialises in contemporary solo repertoire. She is currently a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum has two floors devoted to the history of string instruments and the piano. The Academy owns some 250 string instruments of which only a handful are on display to the public. Amongst the collection is a Renaissance lute, a Parisian five-course guitar, and a British-made piccolo violin. With instruments from various eras and countries, the String Gallery helps visitors to understand the development and styles of music over time.

One of the first instruments visitors see on entering the String Gallery is Kai-Thomas Roth’s three-stringed double bass which he made using maple wood in 2006. Despite being a fairly new instrument, it is based on the baroque three-stringed bass, which itself was based on a double-bass produced by Domenico Montagnana (1687-1750) in 1747. Montagnana was working in Venice at the same time as the violin virtuoso and composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), therefore, it is likely Vivaldi or members of his orchestra had instruments made by him.

Intriguingly titled an English guitar, the convex lute-like instrument with six pairs of strings belongs to the cittern family, a Rennaisance term for wire-strung instruments plucked by a plectrum. This is one of the surviving pieces from John Preston’s (active 1724-98) workshop and was produced around the time that guitars were becoming popular. Interestingly, this style of guitar was most popular with females who considered it to be elegant and easy to play.

One of the most beautiful instruments in the Strings Gallery is the 19th-century lacquered green Irish harp. Decorated with shamrocks and a gilded winged female bust representing the figure of Hibernia, this harp was made by John Egan, an Irish “Maker by Special Appointment to His Most Gracious Majesty George IV”. Tuned in E-flat major, this harp is extremely rare, being one of only two known surviving harps in the style.

“Violins are the lively, forward, importunate wits, that distinguish themselves by flourishes of imagination, sharpness of repartee, glances of satire and bear away the upper part in every consort.”
– Richard Steele, The Tatler, 1710

The String Gallery could not be complete without the instruments that make up the majority of professional orchestras: violins. These, of course, are not just any string instrument, they have been made by some of the most famous violin makers to have existed. Nicolò Amati (1596-1684) and his pupil Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) created some of the most wanted stringed instruments, which are now part of grand collections, for instance, this one, rather than being played.

The Nicolo Amati violin of 1662 is a well-preserved example of his largest and most favoured instrument. Known as the “Grand Amati”, this violin demonstrates Amati’s greatest achievement. With exemplary purfling (ornamental border), broad black strips of ebony have been inlaid around the edge of the instrument to reinforce the delicate curves of the outline. There are still traces of honey-brown varnish on parts of the maple wood body.

The 1709 ‘Viotti ex-Bruce‘ violin by Antonio Stradivari is one of the best-preserved examples of his workmanship to have survived. It was produced during his “golden period” when Stradivari was at the height of his powers. The dramatically figured maple wood was covered with a deep red varnish, the majority of which remains on the body due to preservation. The violin has been named after Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) who once played for Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93). Viotti was a fan of Stradivari’s instruments, however, his collection had to be sold to settle his exorbitant debts. The last owners were the Bruce family, hence Viotti ex-Bruce, before it was acquired by HM Government.

Also on display is another of Stradivari’s instruments, the “Archinto” viola of 1696. During his long and productive career, Stradivari did not produce a large number of violas and, today, only ten survive. The slender corners and purfling evidence the influence Amati had on his pupil, however, there are some elements that are unique to the maker. Stradivari fashioned his violas with cello-like peg boxes and is varnished in such a way that the instrument appears to change colour when viewed from different directions.

“A man of brains is like a virtuoso who can give a concert all by himself. Or he is like a piano which is in itself a small orchestra.”
– Schopenhauer, Maxims, 1851

The Piano Gallery shows the evolution of keyboard instruments from the early 17th century until the early 20th century. The gallery contains several instruments from the piano, harpsichord and virginal families that are kept in playing condition, however, visitors are not permitted to touch the keys. Gallery assistants, however, are more than happy to give a demonstration of the different sounds and explain how the instruments changed over the years.

Unlike the piano, which is believed to have been first created by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in the early 18th century, whose complex mechanism involves hammers, which strike the strings to provide dynamic notes, virginals and harpsichords create sound by plucking strings with a plectrum. A couple of models demonstrate these differences.

Typically, the instrument visitors are drawn to first is the “Model A” Grand Piano produced by Steinway and Sons. Made in 1920, the Steinway is almost 100 years old, yet it is still regarded as a “modern” piano. Steinway has become synonymous with pianos of this calibre and is usually the most sought-after in the world. The company was established in New York in the 1850s by German immigrant Henry E. Steinway (1797-1871). Along with his sons, Theodore (1825-89) and William (1835-96), Steinway’s unique pianos were produced from one piece of wood, which supposedly enhances the sound of the notes. Also, Steinway ensured that little energy is lost through the vibration of the strings, therefore maximising the generation of the sound.

If approaching the instruments in chronological order, the first is a polygonal virginal or spinetta made in Italy some time between 1600 and 1650. A virginal is a type of small harpsichord and is the earliest string keyboard instrument to survive. They are dated back as far as the 16th century, evidenced by their presence in paintings from that time. Virginals were built without stands, implying they could be moved from place to place for performances.

Although the newest instrument in the room, Arnold Dolmetsch’s (1858-1940) clavichord is a copy of a much older instrument from the 17th or 18th century. Dolmetsch built copies of almost every kind of instrument from the 15th century onwards, which has helped musicians and historians to understand those that are now lost. Whereas a harpsichord uses a bird’s quill to pluck the strings, a clavichord produces sound by striking the brass or iron strings with a metal blade known as a tangent. The vibrations caused by this produce the sounds, however, they are not very loud. It is thought clavichords were primarily used for practice rather than performance.

“The harpsichord has its own peculiar qualities … precision, clearness, brilliance; and compass.”
Francois Couperin, The Art of Playing the Harpsichord, 1716

Virginals and clavichords were more suitable for domestic settings, as were most harpsichords. A fine example is a harpsichord produced by Jacob Kirkman (1710-92) in 1764, which would have been familiar to the likes of Handel (1685-1759). Although a harpsichord may have a pure brilliance of sound, the dynamics are less modifiable in comparison to a piano and, therefore, not so good for public performances.

The Gallery has a number of grand pianos that progress through the years, revealing how the design and mechanisms were gradually improved. As the pianos became more modern, pianists were able to mesmerise their audiences with their playing, just as Franz Liszt did during his visit to the Royal Academy of Music.

Music was no longer limited to royal courts, churches and domestic settings, instead, people could listen – for a fee – in concert and recital halls. Pianos became physically large to emphasise their importance within orchestras and solo performances. Whilst older pianos were produced almost entirely from wood, piano makers began to use metal tubes or bars to increase the potential sound of the strings.

For some visitors, the temptation to try these instruments for themselves may be great, so they are relieved to know that they can play a particular, upright piano in the String Gallery. There are also a couple of ukeleles for the curious to try.

The Royal Academy of Music Museum is the ideal place to visit for anyone with an interest in music. Not only is it fascinating to look at all the precious instruments, but the history of the Academy is also worthwhile reading about. Throughout the year, the museum holds various exhibitions, however, they are all free to enter. Whilst there, why not check out the music shop at the front of the building, which contains a huge number of sheet music amongst other things.

Many of the collections displayed are Designated and the Museum itself is Accredited, chartermarks of quality awarded and administered by Arts Council England (ACE). The Museum opened in 2001, supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.