Mozart on the piano

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The March 1937 issue of Musical opinion featured a letter to the editor, under the heading ‘Old keyboard music’, from a Major Benton Fletcher, evidently an early but somewhat misguided exponent of ‘authenticity’ in Early Music. Taking issue with an item on Mozart that had appeared under the name of ‘La main gauche’ in the January issue, he complains that LMG:
'observes that ‘Mozart was born to suffer more than any other composer of genius’. He then proceeds to add to the sufferings of his admirers by mentioning the ‘Piano’ Sonatas composed in 1774. It does Mozart a great injustice to affirm that these exquisite works were composed for the then primitive pianoforte. The interpretation of his charming Sonatas cannot be achieved on such instruments: only upon the harpsichord with two keyboards, lute, harp and octave stops can we arrive at Mozart’s intentions. It is the ignorance of this fact which prompts this letter of protest.'

Brian, as LMG, responded as follows. In general, posterity has supported him, in that though performances on the fortepiano are comparatively common, harpsichords have definitely not caught on in Mozart!

Had Major Benton Fletcher read the notes by La main gauche in the issue of August 1936, he would have read an extract from a letter sent by Mozart to his father, in which he wrote "I must now tell you about Stein’s pianos. Before seeing these, Späth’s pianos were my favourites; but I must own that I give preference to those of Stein, for they damp much better than those in Ratisbon. If I strike hard, whether I let my fingers rest on the notes or lift them, the tone dies away at the same time it is heard. Strike the keys as I choose, the tone is always remains even, never either jarring or failing to sound. His instruments have a feature of their own: they are supplied with a peculiar escapement. Not one in a hundred makers attend to this; but without it, it is impossible that a piano should not buzz or jar."

This letter, written from Augsburg, is dated October 17th, 1777. Mozart was twenty-one. There is no mention here of the harpsichord, but he does say that Späth’s pianos were formerly his favourites. I hope I shall not live to hear Mozart’s sonatas and concertos played on the harpsichord.

La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1937, p. 526