A brief history of the piano

A brief history of the piano

The invention of the piano

The invention of the piano is attributed to the Paduan Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), employed by Ferdinando de' Medici Grand Prince of Tuscany as custodian of the musical instruments of the household.

Cristofori was an expert builder of harpsichords and other keyboard and string instruments; this knowledge of keyboard mechanisms helped him to develop the first pianos. 

It is not known exactly when Cristofori first built a piano; an inventory made by the Medici family indicates the existence of a piano in the year 1700; the three pianos built by Cristofori that still survive today date from the 1720s. Cristofori called the instrument 'un cembalo in cipresso col piano e col forte', later shortened to fortepiano and finally to pianoforte.

Cristofori's great success was determined by his innovative design of a stringed keyboard instrument, in which notes are struck  by a hammer. 

The hammer had to strike the string, but not remain in contact with it, because prolonged contact would dampen the sound, preventing the string from vibrating and producing the sound. 

After striking the string, the hammer must therefore bounce off the strings and stop without jerking in its resting position, avoiding bouncing several times and making itself ready to play again almost immediately after its key has been pressed, so that the pianist can quickly repeat the same note, should the need arise.

Cristofori's early instruments were made with thin strings and were not capable of producing the same volume as the modern piano; however, the volume produced and also the duration of the sustained sound was considerably higher than that obtainable with the clavichord, which until then was the only keyboard instrument capable of reproducing dynamic nuances responding to the pianist's touch through the speed with which he pressed the keys.  

Although the clavichord allowed expressive control of volume and sustain, it was relatively unsonorous. The two-manual harpsichord, on the other hand, produced a sufficiently loud sound when a 'coupler' joined each key to both keyboards, but offered no expressive dynamic control over individual notes. 

The piano in a sense finally offered the best of both previous instruments, combining high sound volume with a large dynamic range in response to touch.

Cristofori's new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it in 1711, including a diagram of the mechanism, which was translated into German and widely distributed. Most of the next generation of piano makers began their work by reading that article. 

The ancestor of the support pedal

One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann, better known as an organ builder. Silbermann's pianos were in fact direct copies of Cristofori's, with one important addition: Silbermann invented the forerunner of the modern sustain pedal, which simultaneously lifts all dampers off the strings. This innovation allowed the pianist to sustain the pressed notes even after leaving the keys. Thus, while holding a chord with the sustain pedal, pianists could move their hands to a different register of the keyboard to play other notes.

Silbermann showed Johann Sebastian Bach one of his first instruments in the 1730s, but Bach at the time did not like the instrument, explaining that the higher notes were too delicate to allow for a full dynamic range. Although this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the criticism was heeded, so much so that Bach later 'approved' a 1747 piano and finally also acted as a sales agent for Silbermann's pianos. 

The Viennese School and the fortepiano

Piano building flourished during the late 18th century in the Viennese school, by Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and manufacturers Nannette Streicher (daughter of  Stein) and Anton Walter. Viennese-style pianos were constructed with wooden frames, two strings per note and leather-covered hammers. The keyboards of these Viennese pianos had the opposite colouring to that of modern pianos: the keys for 'natural' notes were black and those for 'altered' notes were white. It was for such instruments that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas; these instruments are still replicated today in order to reproduce the 'authentic' sound of Mozart's music of the time. The pianos of Mozart's time emitted a sound with less intensity than modern pianos. The term fortepiano distinguishes this period instrument from piano of more recent times.

In the period from around 1790 to 1860, the piano of the Mozart era underwent enormous changes that led to the modern structure of the instrument. This revolution responded to the composers' and pianists' orientation towards a more powerful and sustained piano sound; it was made possible by the ongoing industrial revolution, which produced new resources such as high-quality harmonic wire for the strings and a more precise casting process for the production of metal frames that could withstand the tremendous tension of the strings. The tonal range of the piano was also progressively increased from the five octaves of Mozart to the seven octaves of modern pianos.

The advent of the seven octaves

Around 1777, Scotsmen John Broadwood and Robert Stodart joined the Dutch Americus  Backers to design and build a piano built into the cabinet of a harpsichord, which was the origin of the term 'grand piano'. In doing so, they quickly gained a reputation for the aesthetic splendour and powerful sound of their instruments while offering ever larger, sturdier and louder pianos. They made some pianos for Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven and were the first to build pianos with an extension of more than five octaves, specifically: five octaves and a fifth in 1790, six octaves in 1810 (Beethoven used the extra notes in his later works) and seven octaves in 1820. Viennese violin makers also followed this new trend, sacrificing some of the instrument's volume to its greater extension and expressive capacity. 

The double escapement

By 1820, the centre of piano evolution had moved to Paris, where the Pleyel firm was producing pianos, the same pianos that were later used by Frédéric Chopin, just as the Érard firm was producing those that were later used by Franz Liszt. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement which, thanks to a repeat lever (called a balancier), allowed a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet completely returned to its rest position. This greatly facilitated the rapid reproduction of repeated notes, and this new capacity of the instrument was immediately exploited by Liszt. The double escapement action thus gradually became a standard in grand pianos, where it is still used today. Other improvements to the mechanism included the use of solid felt covers instead of layers of leather or cotton. Felt, which Jean-Henri Pape was the first to use in pianos from 1826, was a more robust material that allowed for wider dynamic ranges as the weight of the hammers and the tension of the strings increased. The modern sostenuto pedal, which allowed a wider range of effects, was invented in 1844 by Jean-Louis Boisselot and was copied by Steinway in 1874. 

The cast-iron harp and the harmonic wire

An innovation that contributed to the powerful sound of the modern piano was the use of a massive and strong cast-iron frame. Also called a 'platter', the frame sits atop the soundboard and acts as the main bulwark against the force exerted by string tension, which in a modern grand piano can exceed 20 tonnes. The one-piece cast-iron frame was patented in 1825 in Boston by Alpheus Babcock. Babcock later worked for Chickering & Mackaysa company that patented the first solid metal frame for grand pianos in 1843. Composite forged metal frames were preferred by many European manufacturers until the American system was fully adopted in the early 20th century. The greater structural integrity of the metal frame allowed the use of thicker, tighter and more numerous strings. In 1834, the company Webster & Horsfal of Birmingham launched a form of harmonic wire made of cast steel; it was so superior to iron wire that the English company obtained a de facto monopoly for the manufacture of strings. But an even better steel wire was soon created in 1840 by the Viennese firm of Martin Miller; a period of innovation and intense competition ensued, with rival brands of piano wire being tested against each other.  the other in international competitions, eventually leading to the modern form of the harmonic string.

The capo and the crossed strings

Several important advances included changes to the way the piano was strung. The use of a 'chorus' of three strings, instead of two for all but the lowest, single-stringed notes, enhanced the richness and complexity of the treble. The use of a Capo d'Astro bar (or capo) instead of staples in the higher treble allowed the hammers to strike the strings in their optimal position, greatly increasing the power of sound in that area. The implementation of the cross-stringing system (over-stringing or cross-stringing), in which the strings are positioned in two separate planes, each with its own bridge, allowed for a longer length of the bass strings and optimised the transition from the unrolled treble strings to the iron- or copper-wound bass strings. Over-stringing was invented by Pape during the 1820s and first patented for use in grand pianos in the United States by Henry Steinway Junior in 1859.

Some piano manufacturers added variations to improve the sound of each note, such as Pascal Taskin (1788), Collard & Collard (1821) and Julius Blüthne, who developed the Aliquot stringing in 1893.

These systems were used to strengthen the sound of the highest register of piano notes, which until then had been considered too weak. Each utilised more distinctly ringing, undamped vibrations of sympathetically vibrating strings to add to the sound, with the exception of the Blüthner Aliquot strings, which uses an additional fourth string in the two upper treble sections. Anxious to copy these effects, Theodore Steinway invented duplex scaling to increase vibration for sympathy.

The square piano

Some of the earliest pianos had shapes and  designs that are no longer in use; the so-called square piano (which was not really square, but rectangular) was stretched crosswise at an extremely acute angle above the hammers, with the keyboard arranged along the long side. This design is attributed to Christian Ernst Friderici (a pupil of Gottfried Silbermann in Germany) and Johannes Zumpe (in England) and was improved by changes first introduced by Guillaume-Lebrecht Petzold in France and Alpheus Babcock in the United States. Square pianos were built in large numbers between 1840 in Europe and 1890 in the United States and constituted the most macroscopic change in piano style: the iron-framed squares with overstrung strings produced by Steinway & Sons were twice as bulky as the wood-framed instruments of a century earlier. Their overwhelming popularity was due to their relatively inexpensive construction and price, although their sound and performance were limited by narrow soundboards, basic mechanics and string spacing that made it difficult to align the hammers correctly.

The upright grand piano 

The upright grand piano, with vertical strings, was made in the same way as the horizontal grand piano, with the soundboard and bridges above the keys and the tuning keys below them; they were therefore very tall and given evocative names such as Giraffe Piano or Pyramid Piano and were often decorated to match the name; they were built in the 19th century. The tiny upright spinet was produced from the mid-1930s until recently. The low position of the hammers required the use of a 'drop action' to preserve a reasonable keyboard height. 

The modern piano

Modern upright and grand pianos attained their current forms by the end of the 19th century; improvements in production processes were subsequently made and many details of the instrument continue to evolve.

Some acoustic pianos from the 2010s onwards are equipped with MIDI interfaces and a digital sound module.

Evolving styles

Many classical music composers, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, composed for the fortepiano, an instrument quite different from the modern piano. Composers of the Romantic movement, such as Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Clara and Robert Schumann, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, and Johannes Brahms, also wrote for pianos quite different from modern pianos. Contemporary musicians must therefore adapt their interpretation of historical compositions from 1600 to 1800 according to the differences in sound quality and performance technique.

Starting with Beethoven, the fortepiano evolved into an instrument more similar to the modern piano of the 2000s, which was widely used in the late 19th century. It had a wider octave range than the previous fortepiano instrument, adding about 30 more keys to the instrument, which extended the  deep bass range and treble range. The popular production of upright pianos made them more accessible to a larger number of middle-class people. They appeared in music halls and pubs during the 19th century, providing entertainment with a piano soloist or in combination with a small dance band. Just as harpsichordists had accompanied singers or dancers performing on stage or playing for balls, pianists took over this role in the late 1700s and the following centuries.

During the 19th century, American musicians who played for working-class audiences in small pubs and bars, particularly African-American composers, developed new musical genres based on the modern piano. Ragtime music, popularised by composers such as Scott Joplin, reached a wider audience in 1900; the popularity of ragtime music was quickly replaced by jazz 'pianism'. New techniques and rhythms were invented for the piano, including the so-called 'ostinato' for boogie-woogie and the Voicing by Shearing. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue broke new musical ground by combining American jazz piano with symphonic sounds. The Comping, a technique for accompanying singers and other jazz soloists on the piano, was exemplified by Duke Ellington's technique. Honky-tonk music, characterised by another style of piano rhythm, borrowed from the blues and the ancestor of rock'n'roll, became popular during the same era. Bebop techniques originated from jazz, with important composer-pianists such as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. In the late 20th century, Bill Evans composed pieces that combined classical techniques with his jazz experimentation. In the 1970s, Herbie Hancock was one of the first jazz composer-pianists to find popularity with new urban music techniques, such as jazz-funk, jazz-rock and other 'fusion' genres (fusion of genres and musical currents in a new hybrid style).

Pianos have also been used prominently in rock and roll and rock music by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Elton John, Ben Folds, Billy Joel, Nicky Hopkins and Tori Amos, to name but a few. Modernist musical styles have also stimulated the work of composers writing for the modern grand piano, including John Cage and Philip Glass.

The mechanical action structure of the upright piano was invented in London, England, in 1826 by Robert Wornum, and upright models became the most popular and widespread model for domestic use. 

Role of the piano

The piano was the centrepiece of social life in the 19th century upper middle-class home.

It is an important instrument in the context of western classical music, jazz, blues, rock, folk music and many other western music genres. Pianos are used in solo or melodic roles or as accompaniment instruments. In addition, pianos can be played solo, in a duo with a singer or another instrument, in small groups (bands and chamber music ensembles) and large ensembles (big band or orchestra). 

A large number of composers and songwriters are skilled pianists because the piano keyboard offers an effective means to experiment with complex melodic and harmonic chord interactions and to perform several independent melodic lines to be played simultaneously. Pianos are used by composers making soundtracks for films and television, as the wide range allows composers to rehearse melodies and bass lines, even if the music will later be orchestrated for other instrumental ensembles.

Conductors of orchestral ensembles and choirs often learn to play the piano, as it is an excellent tool to support learning new pieces and songs to conduct during performance. Many conductors also have piano training that allows them to play a condensation of the parts of the orchestral pieces they are to conduct (often using a 'piano reduction'), so that they can work out the interpretative criteria before passing them on to the orchestra.

The piano is an essential instrument in music education. Most music classrooms and many rehearsal rooms have a resident piano. Pianos are used as a teaching aid for music theory and music history and for music education classes, so even 'non-piano' music teachers often have a piano in their office.

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