History of the Piano

This History of the Piano is neither short nor long. If you’re curious about who invented the piano, take a coffee break and enjoy the reading!

The piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence, Italy. When he built his first piano is not entirely clear, but Franceso Mannucci wrote in his diary that Cristofori was working on an “arcicembal che fa il piano e il forte” (“harpsichord that plays both softly and loudly”) as early as 1698. All of his surviving instruments date from the 1720s. Cristofori built only about 20 pianofortes before he died at age 75 in 1731, roughly 21 years after he invented the first pianoforte.

The piano was founded on earlier technological innovations. In particular, it benefited from centuries of work on the harpsichord, which had shown the most effective ways to construct the case, the soundboard, the bridge, and the keyboard. Cristofori was himself a harpsichord maker and well acquainted with this body of knowledge.

Cristofori’s great success was to solve, without any prior example, the fundamental mechanical problem of piano design: the hammers must strike the string but not continue to touch it once they have struck (which would damp the sound). Moreover, the hammers must return to their rest position without bouncing violently, and it must be possible to repeat a note rapidly. Cristofori’s piano action served as a model for the many different approaches to piano actions that were to follow.

Cristofori’s early instruments were made with thin clavichord strings and were much quieter than the modern piano. However, they could produce a wider range of dynamics than the clavichord, and the sound sustained longer.

Cristofori’s new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer, Scipione Maffei, wrote an enthusiastic article about it, complete with diagrams of the mechanism. This article was widely distributed, and most of the next generation of piano builders started their work as a result of reading it.

One of these builders was Gottfried Silbermann, better known as an organ builder. Silbermann’s pianos were virtually direct copies of Cristofori’s, but with an important exception: Silbermann invented the forerunner of the modern damper pedal, which permits the dampers to be lifted from all the strings at once. In Cristofori’s pianos, this was done not by depressing a pedal, but by pulling on an organ-style draw-stop. Virtually all subsequent pianos incorporated some version of Silbermann’s idea.

Silbermann showed Bach one of his early instruments in the 1730s. Bach did not like it at that time, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. Though this earned him some animosity from Silbermann, the latter did apparently heed the criticism. Bach did approve of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and apparently even served as an agent to help sell Silbermann’s pianos.

Piano-making flourished during the late 18th century in the work of the Viennese school, which including Johann Andreas Stein (who worked in Augsburg, Germany) and the Viennese makers Nannette Stein (daughter of Johann Andreas) and Anton Walter. The Viennese-style pianos were built with wooden frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers. It was for such instruments that Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas, and replicas of them are built today for use in authentic-instrument performance. The piano of Mozart’s day had a softer, clearer tone than today’s pianos, with less sustaining power. The word “tinkling” is unfair when applied to the lovely sound of these instruments, but it does perhaps suffice to convey roughly how they differ in tone from modern pianos.

The term fortepiano is often used to distinguish the 18th-century style of instrument from later pianos.

In the lengthy period lasting from about 1790 to 1890, the Mozart-era piano underwent tremendous changes which ultimately led to the modern form of the instrument. This evolution was in response to a consistent preference by composers and pianists for a more powerful, sustained piano sound. It was also a response to the ongoing Industrial Revolution, which made available technological resources like high-quality steel for strings and precision casting for the production of iron frames.

Over time, piano playing became a more strenuous and muscle-taxing activity, as the force needed to depress the keys, as well as the length of key travel, was increased. The tonal range of the piano was also increased, from the five octaves of Mozart’s day to the 7 1/3 (or even more) octaves found on modern pianos.

In the first part of this era, technological progress owed much to the English firm of Broadwood, which already had a strong reputation for the splendor and powerful tone of its harpsichords. Over time, the Broadwood instruments grew progressively larger, louder, and more robustly constructed. The Broadwood firm, which sent pianos to both Haydn and Beethoven, was the first to build pianos with range of more than five octaves: five octaves and a fifth during the 1790s, six by 1810 (in time for Beethoven to use the extra notes in his later works), and seven by 1820. The Viennese makers followed these trends. The two schools, however, used different piano actions: the Broadwood one more robust, the Viennese more sensitive.

By the 1820s, the center of innovation had shifted to the Érard firm of Paris, which built pianos used by Chopin and Liszt. In 1821, Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement action, which permitted a note to be repeated even if the key had not yet risen to its maximum vertical position, a great benefit for rapid playing. As revised by Henri Herz about 1840, the double escapement action ultimately became the standard action for grand pianos, used by all manufacturers.

Some other important technical innovations of this era include the following:

  • use of three strings rather than two for all but the lower notes
  • the iron frame. The iron frame, also called the “plate”, sits atop the soundboard, and serves as the primary bulwark against the force of string tension. The iron frame was the ultimate solution to the problem of structural integrity as the strings were gradually made thicker, tenser, and more numerous (in a modern grand the total string tension can approach 20 tons). The iron frame was invented in 1825 in Boston by Alpheus Babcock, culminating an earlier trend to use ever more iron parts to reinforce the piano. The first iron frame in grand pianos (1840) was the work of the Chickering firm, at which Babcock was employed.
  • felt hammers. The harder, tauter steel strings required a softer hammer type to maintain good tone quality. Hammers covered with compressed felt were introduced by the Parisian maker Jean-Henri Pape in 1826, and are now universally used.
  • the sostenuto pedal (see below), invented in 1844 by Jean Louis Boisselot and improved by the Steinway firm in 1874.
  • the overstrung scale, also called “cross-stringing”. This is a special arrangement of strings within the case: the strings are placed in a vertically overlapping slanted arrangement, with two bridges on the soundboard instead of just one. The purpose of the overstrung scale was to permit longer strings to fit within the case of the piano. Overstringing was invented by Jean-Henri Pape during the 1820s, and first applied to the grand by Henry Steinway Jr. in 1859.
  • duplex scaling, invented by Theodore Steinway in 1872, permits the parts of the string near its ends, which otherwise would be damped with cloth, to vibrate freely, thus increasing resonance and adding to the richness of the sound. Aliquot stringing, which serves a similar purpose in Blüthner pianos, was invented by Julius Blüthner in 1873.

The modern concert grand achieved essentially its present form around the beginning of the 20th century, and progress since then has been only incremental.

Duplex scaling: Treble strings of a 
182 cm. grand piano. From lower left to upper right: dampers, main sounding length of strings, treble bridge, 
duplex string length, duplex bridge (long bar perpendicular to strings), hitchpins.

Some early pianos had shapes and designs that are no longer in use. The once-popular square piano had the strings and frame on a horizontal plane, but running across the length of the keyboard rather than away from it. It was similar to the upright piano in its mechanism. Square pianos were produced through the early 20th century; the tone they produced is widely considered to be inferior. Most had a wood frame, though later designs incorporated increasing amounts of iron. The giraffe piano, by contrast, was mechanically like a grand piano, but the strings ran vertically up from the keyboard rather than horizontally away from it, making it a very tall instrument. These were uncommon.

Piano history and musical performance

The huge changes in the evolution of the piano have somewhat vexing consequences for musical performance. The problem is that much of the most widely admired music for piano—for example, that of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was composed for a type of instrument that is rather different from the modern instruments on which this music is normally performed today (for example, tuning for A was set to 422 Hz). Even the music of the early Romantics, such as Chopin and Schumann, was written for pianos substantially different from ours.

One view that is sometimes taken is that these composers were dissatisfied with their pianos, and in fact were writing visionary “music of the future” with a more robust sound in mind. This view is perhaps more plausible in the case of Beethoven, who composed at the beginning of the era of piano growth, than it is in the case of Haydn or Mozart.

Others have noted that the music itself often seems to require the resources of the early piano. For example, Beethoven sometimes wrote long passages in which he directs the player to keep the damper pedal down throughout (a famous example occurs in the last movement of the “Waldstein” sonata, Op. 53). These come out rather blurred on a modern piano if played as written but work well on (restored or replicated) pianos of Beethoven’s day. Similarly, the classical composers sometimes would write passages in which a lower violin line accompanies a higher piano line in parallel; this was a reasonable thing to do at a time when piano tone was more penetrating than violin tone; today it is the reverse.

Current performance practice is a mix. A few pianists simply ignore the problem; others modify their playing style to help compensate for the difference in instruments, for example by using less pedal. Finally, participants in the authentic performance movement have constructed new copies of the old instruments and used them in performance; this has provided important new insights and interpretations of the music.

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