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Busoni: Size Matters
Which is the central note on a piano or a keyboard? Is it the commonly-quoted middle C? Or is it one of the black keys on the piano? Or perhaps there can never be a central key anyway if the keys can be equally divided into two groups?
The answer pretty much depends on what keyboard or piano you are talking about.
Electronic keyboards come in different sizes. Beginner ones come with a four-octave range, which are sufficient, but most will come with sixty-one keys to cover a range of five octaves. A sixty-one note keyboard may seem small in comparison to a piano, most of which have a standardised set of eighty-eight keys, so it may come as a surprise to know that the earliest pianos invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori only had 47 keys. That's right, the range of the earliest piano was smaller than today's keyboard. Miniscule!
The biggest piano in the world has 108 keys. It was made by Stuart & Sons of Australia, who also made the 97- and 102-note versions, and has a range of nine octaves. The trend towards larger pianos was started by Ferruccio Busoni, a Romantic pianist who was so predisposed to the music of Bach that he transcribed many of the composer's organ works for piano. Because some of the organ sonorities could not be recreated on the 88-key pianos, Busoni requested piano manufacturers to expand the range of the piano by adding more keys. But the keys on pianos with extended range work more than just by being depressed with the hands. The strings themselves vibrate "in sympathy" with the other strings, so that a more overall rounded sound - like a halo - is produced even when they are not played.
This phenomenon of sympathetic resonance works because strings respond to external vibrations with which they have a harmonic likeness. If you mount a tuning fork on a box, then strike another and place it near it, the former can be heard vibrating when the latter is muted. If you step on the sustaining pedal on the piano and then play a note (or many) on another instrument, you can similarly hear some strings on the piano vibrating. A commonly-done trick is to place a snare drum away in the opposite corner of the room from a piano. You can actually get the snare drum to rattle without touching it by playing certain notes on the piano!
Those were the kind of sonorities that Busoni was aiming to recreate on the piano from the organ music of Bach. His transcriptions of Bach's works often bore the name Bach-Busoni on the published manuscript, to indicate that while the original had been written by Bach, the piano versions had been rearranged by Busoni. The transcriptions were so popular that his wife was once mistakenly introduced as Mrs Bach-Busoni!
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