Let’s take a look at the history of the piano.
When talking about piano history, mention must be made of the early instruments that paved its way.
The first historical mention of instruments is in Genesis 4:21. The King James Version reads as follows: “And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ”. The first instrument in history to have a keyboard was the Hydraulis, the precursor of the modern organ. It was built in Greece about 220 B.C. By the Second Century A.D. the organ was commonly used at important festivities in Greece and the Roman Empire.
The earliest keyboards were played with the hands, wrists, fists, knees, or feet. Up to the 13th Century the scales were diatonic (as in GABCDEF) rather than the twelve tone chromatic scale we use today.
The piano is founded on earlier technological innovations. The 14th and 15th Centuries saw the development of different kinds of keyboard stringed instruments. Some came with hammers, including the chekker, dulce melos, and clavichord. Some were plucked instruments, including the virginal, spinet and harpsichord.
In this discussion of the history of the piano, let’s now talk about its inventor. Who invented the piano?The modern piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua. He was an expert harpsichord maker, employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, as the Keeper of the Instruments. The first piano he built was about the year 1700 or 1698. Historians are not in total agreement as to the exact date. The keyboard looked different to today’s piano keyboard layout; the natural keys were black while the accidentals were white. It was Sebastian LeBlanc who suggested that the black and white keys be switched. The three Cristofori pianos that survive today date from the 1720s.
History of the piano – the harpsichord and clavichord
At the time of Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention of the piano, the most popular keyboard instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. Both of these instruments looked like the piano that exists today. The major difference between them and a modern day piano is the way their sound was produced. In a clavichord the strings are struck by tangents, while in a harpsichord they are plucked by quills.
A major drawback of the harpsichord was the fact that the dynamics (loudness or softness) of each note couldn’t be controlled. This meant that composers couldn’t evoke emotion in their music as needed. The clavichord aimed to improve on this shortcoming. While it still plucked at strings, it allowed the strings to continue vibrating as long as the key was depressed. As a result players had more control over the volume of their instrument. The technically more advanced clavichord became very popular but it still had its weaknesses. Although it allowed artists to be more expressive, the tone of the harpsichord was too delicate. It was not suited for large hall performances and would often be drowned by other instruments.
The piano was likely formed as an attempt to combine the loudness of the harpsichord with the control of the clavichord.
Cristofori was able to solve the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammer must strike the key but not remain in contact with it. That was the problem with the clavichord: the tangent remained in contact with the clavichord string, thus dampening the sound. Additionally, it was imperative that the hammer return to its rest position without bouncing violently, and that the instrument allow one to repeat a note rapidly. Thanks to the work of Cristofori, this was now possible. Many different approaches to piano actions followed, all modeled after Cristofori’s piano action. Although Cristofori’s early instruments came with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano, they were significantly louder and had more sustaining power than the clavichord.
Bartolomeo Cristofori and Harpsichord
Cristofori’s new instrument was known as the pianoforte because it allowed players to produce notes at different dynamic levels by controlling the inertia with which the hammers hit the strings. The original Italian name for the instrument is clavicembalo (or gravicembalo) col piano e forte (literally harpsichord capable of playing at the normal level, and more strongly).
Many years after the first version of the piano was created it was still called a harpsichord. This has made it difficult to know this specific aspect of the history of the piano, whether the great composers of the age such as Scarlatti or Vivaldi knew of its existence. The word pianoforte, shortened later to piano, appeared only in 1732.
Video – Brief History of the Piano
Cristofori’s piano was largely unknown until 1711 when an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei wrote about it. His article was a very enthusiastic one and included a diagram of the mechanism. Subsequently, many piano builders started their work because of what they read in that article. One example was Gottfried Silbermann, better known as an organ builder. He built pianos that were direct copies of Cristofori’s except for one important addition; he invented the forerunner of the damper pedal we use today. It lifts all dampers from the strings at once.
When speaking about the history of the piano, mention must be made of Johann Sebastian Bach. When Silbermann first showed Bach one of his early instruments in 1736, he did not like it. According to legend, Bach did not think much of its sound. He was said to have destroyed it with an axe. Bach later saw a new instrument in 1747 and approved it. At the time, he was visiting Frederick the Great of Prussia at his court in Potsdam. He improvised an impressive three-part figure on a theme suggested by the king. The instrument caught the attention of composers across Europe. Its fame extended to the British colonies in America. Having a piano in the home became the height of fashion for high-ranking nobles in these colonies.
The history of the piano – the second half/late eighteenth century
The second half of the eighteenth century was characterized by rapid development of the piano. The instrument was made by a number of manufacturers with a focus on coming up with a more powerful, sustained sound. There were English pianos with a heavier mechanism and louder volume while Austrian pianos had a lighter mechanism and softer timbre. The first pianists began to perform in public on this new generation of pianos produced by Broadwood, Stein, Streicher, Zumpe and Tschudi.
During the late 18th century, piano-making flourished in the Viennese school which included the likes of Johann Andreas Stein and the Viennese makers Nannette Streicher and Anton Walter. Viennese-style pianos featured wood frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers. Some of these pianos came with black natural keys and white accidental keys, the opposite of modern day pianos and keyboards. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas for such instruments. The pianos of the Mozart era had a softer more ethereal tone than today’s pianos or English pianos, and had less sustaining power.
Piano History – Part Two
Go here to continue reading about the history of the piano.
Who Invented The Piano and Why… and Where?
Are you learning to play the piano? Click here for my number one recommendation for learning how to play.
Return from History of the Piano (Piano History) to home page.
The Importance of the Piano
The pianoforte, more commonly called the piano, became, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a leading instrument of Western art music, for both professionals and amateurs. The modern piano is a highly versatile instrument capable of playing almost anything an orchestra can play. It can sustain pitches in a lyrical fashion, creating all musical styles and moods, with enough volume to be heard through almost any musical ensemble. Broadly defined as a stringed keyboard instrument with a hammer action (as opposed to the jack and quill action of the harpsichord) capable of gradations of soft and loud, the piano became the central instrument of music pedagogy and amateur study. By the end of the nineteenth century, no middle-class household of any stature in Europe or North America was without one. Almost every major Western composer from Mozart onward has played it, many as virtuosi, and the piano repertory—whether solo, chamber, or with orchestra—is at the heart of Western classical professional performance.
Cristofori and the First Pianofortes
The quiet nature of the piano’s birth around 1700, therefore, comes as something of a surprise. The first true piano was invented almost entirely by one man—Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, who had been appointed in 1688 to the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici to care for its harpsichords and eventually for its entire collection of musical instruments. A 1700 inventory of Medici instruments mentions an “arpicimbalo,” i.e., an instrument resembling a harpsichord, “newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori” with hammers and dampers, two keyboards, and a range of four octaves, C–c”’. The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei, in his enthusiastic 1711 description, named Cristofori’s instrument a “gravicembalo col piano, e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte. A contemporary inscription by a Florentine court musician, Federigo Meccoli, notes that the “arpi cimbalo del piano e’ forte” was first made by Cristofori in 1700, giving us a precise birthdate for the piano.
Cristofori was an artful inventor, creating such a sophisticated action for his pianos that, at the instrument’s inception, he solved many of the technical problems that continued to puzzle other piano designers for the next seventy-five years of its evolution. His action was highly complex and thus expensive, causing many of its features to be dropped by subsequent eighteenth-century makers, and then gradually reinvented and reincorporated in later decades. Cristofori’s ingenious innovations included an “escapement” mechanism that enabled the hammer to fall away from the string instantly after striking it, so as not to dampen the string, and allowing the string to be struck harder than on a clavichord; a “check” that kept the fast-moving hammer from bouncing back to re-hit the string; a dampening mechanism on a jack to silence the string when not in use; isolating the soundboard from the tension-bearing parts of the case, so that it could vibrate more freely; and employing thicker strings at higher tensions than on a harpsichord.
Cristofori’s Surviving Pianos
Three pianos by Cristofori survive, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1720; 89.4.1219); at the Museo Strumenti Musicali in Rome (1722); and at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University (1726). The Metropolitan’s Cristofori, the oldest surviving piano, is in a plain wing-shaped case, outwardly resembling a harpsichord. It has a single keyboard and no special stops, in much the same style as Italian harpsichords of the day. (The keyboards of the two other surviving pianos by Cristofori can be shifted slightly so that only one of the two strings of each pitch will be struck, i.e., una corda, thereby quieting the entire instrument.)
The sound of the Museum’s 1720 Cristofori differs considerably from the modern grand piano. Its range is narrower—54 rather than 88 keys—and its thinner strings and harder hammers give it a timbre closer to a harpsichord than a modern Steinway. Maffei commented that, because of its somewhat muted tone, Cristofori’s piano was best suited for solos or to accompany a voice or single instrument, rather than for larger ensemble work. Indeed, a contemporary harpsichord was a louder and more brilliant instrument, but lacked the ability to respond to the strength of the player’s touch, and so could achieve no significant gradations in dynamic expression. Like the piano, the clavichord (1986.239) is also capable of detailed gradations of loud and soft controlled by the player’s touch, but this intimate stringed instrument is overall so soft that it can barely be heard a few feet away, and so is useless in ensembles or in concert.
Cristofori’s invention was initially slow to catch on in Italy, but five pianos by Cristofori or his pupil Giovanni Ferrini were purchased by Queen Maria Barbara de Braganza of Spain, patron and student of Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757). Hundreds of Scarlatti’s more than 500 single-movement keyboard sonatas may have been intended for piano, rather than harpsichord as has long been assumed. The earliest music definitely written and published specifically for the piano were twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti (Florence, 1732) by Lodovico Giustini (1685–1743), dedicated to Don Antonio of Portugal, uncle of Maria Barbara and another student of Scarlatti. The sonatas contain nuanced expressions such as più forte and più piano, fine dynamic gradations impossible to execute on a harpsichord.
Maffei’s description, which includes a diagram of Cristofori’s action, was translated into German and included in Johann Mattheson’s Critica musica of 1725, where it was probably read by Gottfried Silbermann (1683–1753), the important Saxon court organ builder. Based on Cristofori’s design, Silbermann began work on his own pianos in the 1730s. An early model was dismissed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) as possessing too heavy a touch and too weak a treble. With actual firsthand experience of one of Cristofori’s instruments and subsequent improvements, Silbermann’s pianos were more successful, leading to the purchase of several by Frederick the Great, king of Prussia (r. 1740–86). Bach later praised Silbermann’s pianos, going so far as to become a sales agent for his instruments, thereby extending the influence of Cristofori’s creation in central Europe during the years following the Paduan instrument maker’s death.