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Madeleine Forte’s Dactyfort

Madeleine Forte Collection
Gilmore Music Library

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liszt letter cosima von bulowMillions of people took piano lessons in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the instrument’s immense popularity created many business opportunities. In addition to selling all kinds of ordinary pianos, manufacturers also invented special keyboards and practice aids with names such as “chiroplast,” “technicon,” “digitorium,” and “dactyfort.” These devices had a variety of goals. Some were designed to be conveniently portable. Others were quieter than a normal piano, or even completely silent, so the aspiring pianist could practice at any hour without annoying the neighbors. Still other devices aimed to strengthen the fingers, alter the hand position, or otherwise improve the student’s technique. The dactyfort seen here serves all three of these purposes. It’s small, it produces no sound at all, and depressing the keys requires extra effort, thus exercising the finger muscles. A rod projecting from both sides enables the user to adjust the tension of the keys. But unlike some of its rival gadgets, the dactyfort cannot be used for practicing real music; the black keys are merely painted on!

This instrument was recently acquired from the French-American pianist Madeleine Forte (along with numerous other items, including the Schoenberg playing cards also on display). A student of Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, Madeleine Forte taught for many years at Boise State University. She has released several CDs, and is the author of Olivier Messiaen: The Musical Mediator as well as the recently published Simply Madeleine: The Memoir of a Post-World War II French Pianist. She is married to Allen Forte, Battell Professor of Music Theory Emeritus in the Department of Music at Yale.