Mozart Would Wince at Our Loud Pianos

Daniel Adam Maltz, master of the Viennese fortepiano



I thought I knew what Mozart’s music sounded like—until I heard how he meant it to sound.

A Sunday afternoon. Thirty or so music lovers settle into seats at the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion, amid oil paintings and carved furniture of a bygone era. Precisely the sort of house concert Mozart gave. And today’s pianist, Daniel Adam Maltz, is performing not on a big glossy piano but on the instrument Mozart wrote for: the elegant little Viennese fortepiano.

“This is very much Mozart’s piano, very much Haydn’s piano,” Maltz tells us. “This is the instrument in their mind’s ear when they composed.”

Only a handful of artisans still make Viennese fortepianos. Maltz, an American who now lives in Vienna, travels—gingerly—with his own, a fine copy of a museum piece crafted in 1792. It weighs only 200 pounds; a Steinway can weigh more than 1,000. His fingers bend and strike with barely any pressure; today’s pianos require ten times as much. His Mozart sonata is so light, it almost giggles, as though it snuck a second glass of Champagne and cannot contain its joie de vivre.

Next, Maltz plays Haydn, in love with his “smallness of gesture” and the way he clusters many disparate ideas into a single sonata. Chopin would have squeezed six or seven works from that richness, Maltz tells us. His fingers fly through the complex patterns.

He ends with the Sonata in C Major, Mozart’s most beloved. It moves from a happy-go-lucky first movement to a second colored by a sense of inevitable tragedy. An unusual mood for Mozart, whose earlier works were filled with exuberance and the show-offy brilliance of a teenage prodigy. He was thirty-two by the time he wrote this sonata. He would die three years later.

When Maltz plays, only his arms, hands, and fingers move, and they do so with an extraordinary precision and lightness. His expression remains composed, almost stoic. “I was raised in the line of pedagogy that says you don’t grimace at the instrument,” he explains dryly. His demeanor— calm, precise, orderly—echoes the Enlightenment values embedded in the music. To perform, he wears a traditional Austrian trachten jacket, its collar a neat band at the neck. The effect is disciplined and formal, softened only by his warm delight in sharing this music as it was originally played—and before it is lost to us altogether.

Around 1830, as the period of Viennese Classicism drew to a close, music began to be democratized. This would seem a good thing. But scale and greed made some unfortunate changes, at least for performances of Haydn and Mozart. The pianist was now exalted and removed, high upon a raised stage in a large concert hall. The size of the venue (and the incentive of all that ticket revenue) made it necessary to enlarge the piano. Strings thickened, hammers grew heavy, and a heavy cast-iron frame put a lot of tension on the strings, creating a loud, resonant, bright sound.

“The Viennese approach had been, ‘I don’t have to shout to express myself. Why should it be louder?’” Maltz told me before the concert. “Loudness was not the point. They valued the quality of intimacy.”

That intimacy was lost, as was the extraordinary transparency of the music. “The Viennese fortepiano is made almost entirely of wood. The hammers themselves are much smaller and more delicate—just a small wooden hammer covered with a very thin strip of leather. The strings go straight back from the performer to the end of the instrument, as though you turned a harp on its side. In modern piano, the bass strings cross over, pushing all that sound to the middle of the instrument, where it all mixes together. But on a fortepiano, it doesn’t all become heavy and muddled. If you play a chord, you hear every note.”

The clarity is like drinking from an alpine brook after slurping the muddy Mississippi.

Maltz could not have described this difference when he moved to Vienna at twenty-one. His only plan was to walk the streets that Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven walked, hear their language, and absorb all that remained of their influences. Theirs was the music that resonated with him; the period in which he felt he had something to say.

His partner encouraged him to take a course in historic instruments. This required a little persuasion; he wasn’t terribly interested in becoming a historical specialist. But he did think the background knowledge might help him play his beloved music on a modern piano.

Instead, this introduction to their original instrument “was a profound experience. All the questions I’d had about the music, all the confusion—I suddenly had context, because I was sitting in front of their tool.” What the composers intended, down to the tiniest and most puzzling technical details, became far more apparent. He could see which techniques were called for; what emotional tone was sought. And he could hear how the exquisite lightness and precision of the fortepiano changed the music.

There was no going back.

“Didn’t you worry about overspecializing?” I asked, rudely practical.

“No,” he said, “because I couldn’t not do it. I was already making the decision to specialize in the Classical era. To play the music on their instrument,” he could now see, “was the next step.”

Even in its day, the Viennese fortepiano was more responsive and capable of greater subtlety than its English and French counterparts. Compared to today’s pianos, the differences are striking. “The key dip is much shallower,” Maltz explained. “The keys are smaller and more lightweight. Playing requires much more precision, much more accuracy. You have to create and express differences of tone and sound with a smaller action and much more nuance. Also, the keys are much more responsive, so if you accidentally hit a neighboring key, it will sound. A Steinway is much more forgiving; there’s more wiggle room.

“There are specific ways to get very specific sounds out of a Viennese fortepiano,” Maltz continued, adding that they do not include the damper foot pedal used so regularly by modern pianists. “That was very much frowned upon in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. You were supposed to communicate everything with the fingers alone.”

“Is it limiting to have fewer notes on the keyboard?” I asked.

“Not for me. The composers were the ones who were limited. But they lived very happily in their keyboard world of five octaves. Beethoven was slightly different, he was stubborn, as we know, and there are times in his music when you can see him a little bit frustrated with the range, times when he would have continued going higher or lower if he could. Which is not to say he wanted something like our modern piano. He simply wanted his fortepiano to have more keys—which he eventually got, as the instrument evolved.”

Once Maltz had learned to play the fortepiano, he studied the lifeworld that shaped his favorite period. “It’s not enough to sit at an old instrument with modern ears and modern muscles. Many people can sit down and figure out how to make their fingers move. But they haven’t dug into what that instrument wants and how it was played.” He read philosophical treatises and studied iconography and cultural history, absorbing the ancient Greek ideals the Enlightenment revived; the emphasis on balance and restraint, reason and order. The composers he loved took their cue from science and philosophy, calming the frantic, bejeweled complexity of the Baroque period with pieces that were simpler, more elegant, and more emotionally direct.

Classicism “often differs wildly from modern playing,” Maltz said, especially in its use of time and its expectations for performance. “It took me about a year until I felt the last bit of modern tension fall out of my arms. But changing your whole approach to musicality? That’s the real meat of it.”

Now that I have heard the difference, I am baffled. Why do “historically informed performances” always seem to choose Bach and his harpsichord? Meanwhile, Maltz tours the world, fortepiano carefully crated, in hopes of reviving interest in an instrument that has never been equaled.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.