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Fortepiano: A baroque treasure

The fortepiano’s crisp sound is brought back to life, delighting an Ottawa audience.


Imagine unwrapping a dusty blue rug only to discover a period instrument – and a rare one at that. This is the Cinderella story of an 18th-century fortepiano brought to Ottawa, probably in the early 1900s. After languishing for a quarter of a century in a storage room at Carleton University, it was restored and finally played in all its glory one fine morning in July.

Since its invention around 1700, the fortepiano has undergone much tinkering – developing the damper pedal, changing the striking action, refining the piano wire. By now of course, we’re so accustomed to the modern piano’s tone that to our ears, original baroque music played on an antique instrument may actually seem off. Even Bach didn’t find the fortepiano’s sound too pleasing, although his sons caught on well enough. And in spite of Beethoven’s frustrations with it, he still managed to write the Moonlight Sonata, among other pieces, for the instrument.

Made in Broad Street, London, by German immigrant Frederick Beck in 1777, Carleton’s fortepiano owns up to little other history. No one even seems to know how Ottawa harpsichordist Frances Duncan Barwick came by the keyboard. In 1985, though, she donated the instrument – one of a handful of Becks still surviving – to Carleton. Sadly, its soundboard had become cracked in three places, with strings either broken or simply loose, and its legs all wobbly.

Carleton music student Andrew Burn started restoration efforts in the spring of 2010, suggesting a benefit concert to raise the $11,000 needed for refurbishment. Carleton music professors Alexis Luko and James Wright worked with him to bring the instrument back to life. After months of fundraising by donors and further concerts, restorer John Hall then rebuilt the instrument.

Finally, a delighted Ottawa audience heard Frédéric Lacroix play the keyboard in a concert presented by the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival this summer. Dr. Wright describes the sound as “a blend of the piano and harpsichord – crisp and articulate with the dynamics of loud and soft.”

Estimated value of the antique? No one’s yet hazarding a guess. However, one German make built two years earlier than our Beck is said to be worth in the range of $50,000. A humidified box to protect Carleton’s fortepiano has now been built by Mr. Hall – and the blue rug’s been trashed.

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