Beverly’s instrument collection includes two harpsichords, a virginal, one Mozart-era fortepiano, and three later pianos (1840, 1855, 1955).
French double manual harpsichord
Beverly’s primary concert instrument is a French double manual harpsichord made by David Dutton, after Pascal Taskin, 1769. The original (of which this is a replica) belongs to the Yale University musical instrument collection.
More information on harpsichords & Pascal Taskin:
Beverly Biggs’ fortepiano is a hand made replica of an eighteenth-century original. It is copied from an instrument made in 1784 by Andreas Stein, who lived and worked in Vienna. The replica was made by David Dutton.
This fortepiano has 61 keys, with ebony naturals and ivory sharps. The case is walnut with a beautifully paneled lid. The dampers, rather than being operated by foot pedals, are activated by a knee-lever on the underneath side of the instrument, just below the keyboard.
The instrument we know today as the piano has had a long history. The harpsichord, its predecessor and the “king” of the keyboard instruments, ruled from about 1500 to almost 1750. The action in the harpsichord is basically that of a zither (a mechanized plucking action). In the early part of the 18th century, B. Cristofori in Italy began searching for a different kind mechanism that would allow more expressive playing than the harpsichord. His early piano, called a fortepiano because it would play both loud (“forte”) and soft (“piano”), was simply a harpsichord case with a hammered–dulcimer type action in place of the plucking mechanism. It did not work very well. In fact, as late as 1747 when J.S. Bach visited his son at the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, the senior Bach had to be very discrete in his comments about Frederick’s new toy, the recently unveiled fortepiano. When asked his opinion, he thought they showed potential, but “would never replace the magnificent harpsichord.”
The piano action did offer one thing that the plucked action could not – that was the ability to vary the degree of loudness produced by the performer by increasing pressure on the keys when playing. As composers realized the possibilities that this offered, music began to be written that exploited crescendi and decrescendi within phrases, and dramatic contrasts between loud and soft passages. As a result, late harpsichords up through 1800 were sometimes fitted with all kinds of extra–musical devices, including swell pedals and very soft leather plectra to compete with the piano’s advantages. In the end, though, it all proved futile – as the mechanism of the piano was improved, and as auditoriums were built for larger and larger audiences, the piano took over completely.
The Viennese fortepiano, a direct descendant of Cristofori’s early experimental instrument, was dominant from about 1780 to 1850. Its action is very light and responsive, with very small hammers not much bigger than a man’s little fingernail directly coupled to the keys. This gives the player a great sense of control and direct linkage to the sound being produced. As more and more “power” was asked for by composers and larger halls, the Viennese action was gradually replaced with a heavier, less responsive action invented in France and/or England in the mid-nineteenth century. Although Viennese action pianos continued to be built until approximately 1915, the modern Steinway type of action and sound has become the norm for our world today.
However, the music written by the great classical masters — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and even Schumann — was never meant to be played on a “modern” action instrument. Thus in the 20th century we had not only a revival of historical harpsichord copies for the performance of music by Couperin, Bach and Handel, but also a revival of the fortepiano for its music.