In Bach's day, the early 1700s, music for keyboards was mostly music for organ or harpsichord. Organs were in churches and organ music was mostly religious in nature. Non-religious music for keyboards was generally written for the harpsichord family of instruments. A typical harpsichord has a plectrum: striking the keys doesn't hammer the strings but plucks them. Many harpsichords have two keyboards, a loud one and a soft one, and a switch that slaves one to the other, producing a third level of volume.
The fortepiano, which came into wide use in Mozart's time, the late 1700s, was a technological breakthrough, allowing the performer to adjust the volume of every note because each key triggered a hammer strike of the strings, variable according to the performer's taste and ability. Forte is the Italian word for loud and piano is the Italian word for soft.
The fortepiano was replaced by the pianoforte, the modern piano, only a generation later in Beethoven's time, the early 1800s. The pianoforte was similar to the pianoforte but could achieve much more variety of sound. Among other things, it could be played louder - a lot louder.
In recent years there has been something of a revival of Haydn and Mozart pieces played on the old fortepiano for which they wrote the pieces - the action is a little faster on those instruments and sometimes the pieces sound really good like this. But for the most part, pianists prefer to play most solo piano music on the biggest, baddest, most sonorous pianofortes they can find.
The growth of the symphony orchestra in the late 1800s, followed by the use of big orchestras for movie soundtracks and recordings in the 20th century, led to a focus on composers' biggest works, sometimes at the expense of their chamber music including music for solo piano, which previously had been an important representation of composers' music in household parlors. Composers like Liszt and Chopin, who were gifted pianists themselves, were heard more often in the old days, a bit less so now, because Chopin wrote almost entirely for solo piano, while Liszt, who wrote many large orchestral works, simply isn't as acclaimed for those as for his piano compositions.
Beethoven never had that problem. The towering symphonist was also a prolific and unique composer for piano, an instrument on which he, too, was an excellent performer. Symphony patrons and recording enthusiasts can get happily blasted by one of the nine symphonies or the great concert overtures, but Beethoven wrote dozens of sensational piano sonatas. Even people who don't think they know classical music would recognize the middle movement of the "Pathetique" or the opening movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata, and what an experience awaits them when they hear the beginning of the "Waldstein" Sonata or the fugal finales of any of several other great pieces.
I thought it would be fun to choose several examples of Beethoven's best solo piano stuff, and place it next to great piano music by others. This week on my public radio show, the "Pathetique" and "Moonlight" Sonata hit tunes will come on either side of "Starlight Nights" from "The Seasons" by Tchaikovsky, and a Beethoven movement (Sonata No. 30, first movement) that sounds a bit like Chopin will be followed by two versions of Chopin's astonishing Nocturne No. 8.
The show will also feature piano pieces by Mozart, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, Francis Poulenc and Thelonious Monk.
Howard's Day Off airs live 5am-7am HST (10am-noon EST and 7am-9am PST) on KHPR Honolulu, KKUA Wailuku, Maui, and KANO Hilo, Hawaii, and streams live on http://www.hawaiipublicradio.org. Max Cacas of Washington, D.C., founded the Howard's Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook.