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The fortepiano

Last Thursday, on Conversations with Richard Fidler, I was introduced to the ‘fortepiano.’ The comments of Richard’s guest, Geoffrey Lancaster, about this unusual instrument intrigued me.

I also acknowledge I am entirely out of my depth here.

I apologize in advance to those many people with more musical knowledge than I!

The fortepiano existed from around 1700 up to the early 19th century, and has recently enjoyed a revival. It’s the piano that Mozart et al. wrote for. (A fortepiano was brought out to Australia with the First Fleet.)

The sound it produces is different to the sound of a modern piano. I am told that it can be characterized this way: the fortepiano is earthy, whereas the piano is elegant.

When I listened to sound of the fortepiano, I found it jarring, then intriguing.

Geoffrey Lancaster commented, ‘When we listen to the great masters, played on the fortepiano, our appreciation of them is turned on its head.’

Thus, when a piece of music is performed on the instrument that the composer wrote for, it is quite unlike the experience of listening to it performed on a modern instrument. Further, that difference in sound changes our perception and judgement of it.

This insight is what grabbed my attention. It suggests that it’s nigh on impossible to gain access to the original experience of the music of the masters.

This may be one example of a much larger truth – it is just hard to access the past.

If so, this counters a critical assumption made by many, ‘We know what happened back then.’

Or, to put this in a more nuanced way - we may know some of the facts of the past but not the quality of experience attending those facts.

I wonder, ‘How might this apply to our appreciation of Jesus?’

Many assume that it is possible to know with some certainty what life was like in 1st century Palestine, that we can get close to the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.

I, personally, have gained much from the scholarship that has emerged from this claim. At the same time, I am wary of putting all my eggs in that basket.

I have a particular way of making sense of Jesus. Some would call it a paradigm. It has emerged over years of ministry, of reading, and of grappling with the reality of being human, both in the church and in the broader community.

For want of a better description, I would call my paradigm ‘spiritual and liberationist.’ I play the music of Jesus on this instrument.

However, while I value it, it doesn’t necessarily allow me to grasp the full range of ‘the original experience of the music’ of Jesus.

Aspects of Jesus don’t fit my paradigm. There’s always something unspoken, niggling, and discomforting.

The best way I know of dealing with this is first to recognize it, and secondly allow that discomfort some space in mind and heart, i.e., don’t explain it away.

It’s unsettling; and it engenders humility, more opportunity to receive and partake of the rich play of grace.

I’m on the lookout for a ‘metaphorical fortepiano’ to help me appreciate better the music of Jesus.