The BBC recently ran an excellent series about eighteenth century British music. Exploring the rise of opera, the popularity of Handel and the growth of music halls and concertos, “Rule Britannia: Music, Mischief and Morals in the Eighteenth Century” tells the story of the composers and musicians that laid the foundation for the music performed and enjoyed today.
It’s a fascinating program of the sort that the BBC does so well, filled with strange costumes, reconstructions and commissioned performances of period pieces rarely heard and beautifully performed.
The period covered in the program wasn’t just a particularly vibrant one for British music, a time when Handel and others were composing a national soundtrack for the new United Kingdom and when the young Mozart was touring with his father and winning crowds amazed at his keyboard antics. It was also a time when music itself was changing.
The instrument on which Handel composed and at which Mozart would play, his little fingers hidden under a handkerchief so that he couldn’t see the keys, was a harpsichord. During the period covered in the program, that instrument began to be replaced by a new invention, one that allowed the player to vary the level of pressure that he or she applied to the keys and produce sounds that ranged from soft to strong.
The new pianoforte changed everything
In one scene, presenter Suzy Klein plays a short tune on one of the first pianos ever made. It’s a beautiful instrument, upright, small, with short keys… and it sounds terrible. She turns to the camera and points out that although pianos later developed into the instrument we know and love today, early models were poorly made, allowed for little variation and often didn’t work. In the piece she had performed, the instrument had failed to play at least half the notes she had pressed.
It’s a scene that makes the owner of any keyboard instrument wince.
Pianos Are Demanding
We’ve all had the feeling of pressing a key and not hearing a sound other than the bottom of the key itself hitting the wood. It happens on old pianos, the kind that have been left to sit in the corner of a living room uncared for and un-played in decades. It’s the saddest sound in the world.
Pianos are fairly high maintenance. They’re not as expensive to run as a car and while they can also make a lot of noise, children make more but they do need looking after. They have to be tuned and they have to be cleaned. Occasionally, if the wood is old and pretty but scratched, you might even want to bring in a French polisher to bring back its youthful looks. (For an instrument that’s always on display, that refresh can make a huge difference.)
But the effort is worth it. There’s nothing worse than a piano that doesn’t work or a key that plays out of tune. If the Georgians put so much effort into building the foundations of today’s music, the least we can do is take care of it.