A Short History of the Piano
Posted on 12th August 2020 at 12:07
The first piano was made some time during the late 1600s or early 1700s by the Italian musical instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori.
These early instruments were called clavicembalo col piano e forte, which translates as harpsichord with soft and loud.
This description is how the piano got its full name; the pianoforte.
Descriptions of Cristofori’s pianos were printed in scientific journals in 1711 in Venice and later in 1725 in Germany. This led to Gottfrield Silbermann, an organ-builder and harpsichord maker, creating his own pianos. Silbermann introduced the instrument to the musician and composer Johann Sebastian Bach in 1730. One of Silbermann’s apprentices was Andreas Stein whose instruments convinced composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to move to the piano from the harpsichord. Experts believe that the pianos which survive from the 1740s were modelled on an instrument that had been imported into Germany rather than from the technical descriptions.
Another of Silbermann’s apprentices was Johannes Zumpe. Zumpe developed the square piano (which was actually rectangular) in England. Square pianos were smaller and therefore more accessible than the early grand pianos, and examples can still be seen in stately homes such as National Trust properties in the UK. One of the most prominent collections of historic keyboard instruments can be seen at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. The piano was further developed in England by John Broadwood who invented the right pedal which sustains the notes. Broadwood made pianos for both Beethoven and Chopin. John Broadwood and Sons Ltd. still make pianos today.
A Steinway square piano
During the 1700s , the English Zumpe and Broadwood pianos were popular in France, but a French harpsichord maker called Sébastien Érard began making pianos. He also pioneered further improvements to the instrument. Érard’s company later made pianos for Franz Liszt.
In 1848, Heinrich Steinweg, a German piano maker emigrated to New York to avoid war in Europe, changing his name to Henry Steinway. Steinway’s sons studied science, engineering, music and acoustics. In 1854, the Steinway piano won prizes at the Washington and New York Trade Fairs. Steinway created notes on his research and developed the piano even further. Steinway is perhaps the most famous piano maker in the world and Steinway and Sons pianos are still considered amongst the best.
The mechanism of an upright piano
The sound of a piano is made by hammers hitting strings. This is the same mechanism as a dulcimer, and can be traced back to early stringed instruments. In modern pianos bass notes have one string, middle notes have two finer strings and high notes have three even finer strings.
Once the hammer has made contact with the strings, it bounces back to allow the strings to continue vibrating. A mechanism called an ‘escapement’ stops the hammer returning to the string. In early pianos, this meant it was difficult to play a repeated note. However, Érard invented a double escapement to make repeated notes possible. The piano’s strings are stretched tight by a frame. Under the strings is a wooden soundboard to amplify the sound.
A quick tour of the Bösendorfer factory:
Famous pianists and composers for piano
The first public piano concert took place in 1768 in London, performed on a Zumpe piano. The pianist was Johann Christian Bach, the youngest son of J. S. Bach.
Mozart wrote 23 concerti for piano and orchestra during his short life. Beethoven produced five. All of these are still key works of the concerto repertoire. Like Mozart, Beethoven was a virtuosic pianist before deafness put paid to his performing career. He taught Carl Czerny, who is perhaps most famous for his piano studies, which many piano students still use today. Passing on the baton, Czerny’s most famous student was Franz Liszt, a composer who included the piano in every single one of his compositions.
Muzio Clementi is another key figure in the history of the piano, he was born in Rome, but spent much of his life in England as a pianist, teacher, composer, publisher of piano music and piano maker.
Types of piano
From the early days of the instrument, there have been different types of piano.
The two perhaps most well known pianos today are the grand piano and the upright piano.
Grand pianos have frames and strings laid horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. The grand piano comes in several sizes:
Baby grand (around 1.5 meters)
Parlour grand, or boudoir grand (1.7 to 2.2 meters)
Concert grand (between 2.2 and 3 meters)
The upright piano was invented in London in 1826 by Robert Wornum, who developed the specific action structure. Upright pianos became the more commonly owned version of the instrument as they were less expensive and took up less space. They were therefore more suitable for the home. However grand pianos remain the most popular for performances. They have better projection over the sound of an orchestra, and their shape is more conducive to recital playing and positioning on stage than an upright.
Grand vs Upright pianos: Why grand pianos are generally better:
Other variants of the piano exist. For example the player piano or piano roll was developed in 1863 by Henri Fourneaux. For a player piano to work, a pianist must first perform a piece of music on the instrument. A machine then translates this into perforations on a roll of paper. The player piano then plays the “piano roll” using pneumatic devices. Modern versions of this using MIDI and similar technologies are available today.
In the 20th and 21st Century, some composers began to call for a prepared piano. This is where a traditional piano is ‘prepared’ with objects. The objects, which include paper, metal screws and washers, are placed inside the mechanism and between the strings to change the sound. John Cage is perhaps the most famous composer for prepared piano. His goal was, “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra”.
As technology progressed, electronic and digital pianos were developed and remain popular today. These instruments have keyboards the same as a traditional piano, but the sound is made by synthesisers or digital sampling. The keys do not have the same weight and it is not possible to produce such a depth of sound and tonal variation.
The popularity of the piano
Pianos were a central part of many homes for over a hundred years. Before the development of the radio, record players, television and the internet, if you wanted to hear live music, you had to attend a public concert, pay someone else to play music, or to play it yourself. Examples of the importance of the piano, particularly as a mark of accomplishment and social status for young ladies, can be seen in Jane Austen’s writing, but people of all backgrounds and classes would enjoy social gatherings round the piano, whether for a singalong or a display of skill.
The piano proved to be particularly adaptable in the 20th Century as musical styles changed. The instrument remains at the heart of new genres such as jazz and rock and roll. Even the famous John Lewis Christmas advert focused on the instrument in 2018, telling the story of a little boy receiving the gift of a piano: That little boy was Elton John.
If you want to get started on the piano, check out our videos from MWC’s Matthew Forbes:
And how to read piano music:
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