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Nov 20, 2021 05:00 PM - 06:50 PM(America/Chicago)
20211120T1700 20211120T1850 America/Chicago Beethoven’s French Piano: A Tale of Ambition and Frustration

In October 1803, a new piano came into Beethoven's life: an Erard Frères piano en forme de clavecin or "harpsichord-shaped piano." The composer was "so enchanted with it," one visitor reported, "that he regards all the pianos made [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 Viennese piano Beethoven knew. 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 "utterly useless."

The film follows a team of craftsmen and researchers as they build a replica of Beethoven's Erard-restored in its original state. Their collaborative project seeks to understand the instrument's affordances and entanglements as a foreign piece of technology (Hodder 2012). Like Beethoven, a pianist-researcher approaches the instrument from their embodied knowledge of Viennese pianism and technology. Above all, this involves mastering the French technique of son continu and exploring the sonic effects of the instrument's four pedals. Providing the parameters for these experiments are Beethoven's Piano Sonatas Op. 53 ("Waldstein") and Op. 57 ("Appassionata"). While the former represents novelty and ambition, the latter's protracted genesis (it took Beethoven three years to finish the sonata) is linked with the pi ...

AMS 2021 ams@amsmusicology.org

In October 1803, a new piano came into Beethoven's life: an Erard Frères piano en forme de clavecin or "harpsichord-shaped piano." The composer was "so enchanted with it," one visitor reported, "that he regards all the pianos made [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 Viennese piano Beethoven knew. 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 "utterly useless."


The film follows a team of craftsmen and researchers as they build a replica of Beethoven's Erard-restored in its original state. Their collaborative project seeks to understand the instrument's affordances and entanglements as a foreign piece of technology (Hodder 2012). Like Beethoven, a pianist-researcher approaches the instrument from their embodied knowledge of Viennese pianism and technology. Above all, this involves mastering the French technique of son continu and exploring the sonic effects of the instrument's four pedals. Providing the parameters for these experiments are Beethoven's Piano Sonatas Op. 53 ("Waldstein") and Op. 57 ("Appassionata"). While the former represents novelty and ambition, the latter's protracted genesis (it took Beethoven three years to finish the sonata) is linked with the piano's changing identity as a de-scribed (Akrich 1997) and "viennicized" object. Meanwhile, musical scores by Beethoven's erstwhile rival Daniel Steibelt and Paris Conservatoire professor Louis Adam (to whom Beethoven was indebted "because of the Paris piano") represent examples of French techno-pianistic fluency.


This documentary (2020) features a piano maker, an organologist, a musicologist, a historian, a restorer-curator, and a pianist-researcher. Highlights include a "meeting" of the finished replica with the original piano, filmed in Linz, Austria. In English, Dutch, French, and German, with English subtitles. Length of session: introduction by applicant (also the pianist-researcher in the film) (10'), screening/projection (80'), and Q&A (20'), for a total of 110 minutes.

Orpheus Institute (Ghent, Belgium)
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