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Fortepiano at the Friends of Vienna

Karen Schmid at the fortepiano.

Karen Schmid takes the Friends of Vienna back to its roots

The Friends of Vienna kick off its 35th anniversary season at 3:30pm on Sunday, October 17, at the Unity Church on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, with a program of keyboard works by Viennese composers: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. While the series has featured numerous pianists in its long history, this recital marks a first—guest artist Karen Schmid will perform the works on the fortepiano, the forerunner of the modern piano, and the kind of instrument for which they were all composed.

After nearly going out of existence, the Friends of Vienna came back to have their best recent season under the leadership of new artistic director Mary Kay Atlas. The group also faced a new hurdle, when it, along with the other 22 organizations that had been awarded grants this past February from the Arts Council in Buffalo & Erie County, learned over summer that all the money had disappeared in the scandal that enveloped that organization. The members of the Friends of Vienna and their concert patrons responded generously to its first-ever fundraising drive, ensuring both the continued life of the series, which has the lowest ticket price in the area, and is now expanded from four to six concerts this season, while continuing its outreach programs in the Buffalo public schools.

When the first fortepiano was built in Florence about 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the expressive ability of the new instrument to be played either loudly (forte) or softly (piano) was immediately recognized. The expensive instrument was taken up in aristocratic circles throughout Europe for use in intimate settings, while the harpsichord remained the preferred instrument for use with orchestra, due to its much louder sound. Improvements to the instrument after 1760, and the appearance of public concerts in cities like Vienna, London, and Paris saw the fortepiano replace the harpsichord almost completely by 1800. The modern iron-framed piano developed from the fortepiano during the first decades of the 19th century.

Karen Schmid says that she first fell in love with the fortepiano while a student at the Oberlin Conservatory. “They acquired a copy of a fortepiano, by Walter, a Viennese builder around the time of Mozart,” she says. “The piano was placed in a practice room and they let anyone have at it! I spent hours on that piano, marveling at the sound, the musical revelations it provided, and the degree of control I felt I had, owing to the substantial difference in touch. I also studied later at Cornell with Malcolm Bilson, the leading exponent of early piano in the America.”

Schmid, who teaches at Canisius College, describes herself as “a pianist whose specialty is fortepiano. I also perform on the ‘big’ piano, and teach on it primarily, although I do have one dedicated fortepiano student.”

Schmid explains that she “loves the early piano because it reveals musically what the composers’ markings mean. The instrument and the music are so intertwined, and it brings a completely new awareness of articulations, phrase marks, note length, and register balances. Playing on a fortepiano illuminates the sound world of the composers who wrote for the instrument and shows us really why they wrote the way that they did—their textures, and what their instruments were capable of playing, which was vastly different than the big pianos of today. I also love the fortepiano for its light, quick action, which requires more finger control than arm weight and strength, as in the big piano.

“What I do not like about fortepianos is their touchiness as far as tuning, action problems, and overall sturdiness,” she continues. “You are constantly fussing with them.”

Schmid knows what she’s talking about. She and her husband built her piano, a replica of a 1774 piano by Johann Andreas Stein, a builder from Augsburg. “It is a relatively early piano,” Schmid says, “but it has the range to fit all of Haydn’s and Mozart’s works, and Mozart comments on Stein favorably several times in his letters. The piano was very difficult to build: My husband and I were not professionals and there was a steep learning curve! There are 61 keys, the hammers are covered in leather and are much smaller than a big piano. There is no cast iron plate sitting across the soundboard, and there is a knee lever instead of a foot pedal.”

As to the program, Schmid says, “I am happy to play anything by Haydn, as he has so much charm oozing from every note. I am playing two sonatas written for ladies, so I’m right at home. Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor is a dramatic aria without words, while the Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 31, No. 3 has a bright, jovial mood. I feel he is tweaking our idea of time, constantly speeding up, slowing down, and also galloping around; it is the last Beethoven work playable on this instrument, which literally does not have enough notes for later works by the composer.”

Tickets are $8 general admission, $6 for students. For more information, visit

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