The History of the Piano The piano has seen many sights and has been a part of countless important events in the past and present, and is said to have dominated music for the past 200 years (Welton). Throughout history, inventions come along that "take art away from princes and give it the people" (Swan 41). Not unlike the printing press, the piano made what was once intangible possible: the poorest of peasants could enjoy the same music that their beloved rulers did. The piano can be played by "the rankest of amateurs, and the greatest of virtuosos" (Swan 41); so even if a person is not very intelligent, a simple tune can easily be learned.
In addition to being a key factor in almost all western music styles, the piano has had a rich and eventful history. The piano can be directly linked to two instruments of centuries past. The first is the clavichord, a box-like structure in which strings are stretched, and struck by metal blades to produce notes and pitches. The clavichord could be manipulated to produce different chords, but even at it's best, could barely be heard by anyone other than the player (Swan 42).
Intent upon creating a superior to the clavichord, musical engineers created the harpsichord. The harpsichord used a frame similar to modern grand-pianos, but utilized a wooden bar and a quill to pluck strings (the jack), which amplified the sound of a clavichord greatly. Harpsichords were more expensive clavichords and became a fad in sixteenth and seventeenth century England (Rice 185). The harpsichord was a particularly important development leading to the invention of the piano. "Its ability to project sound more loudly than its predecessors, and refinements in the action of striking the key inspired many more musicians to compose for the keyboard and thus, to perform keyboard works" (Grover 128). However, the harpsichord was limited to one, unvarying volume.
Its softness and loudness remained the same while playing. Therefore, performing artists could not achieve the degree of musical expression of most other instruments. The artistic desire for more controlled expression led directly to the invention of the piano, on which the artist could alter the loudness and tone with the force of his / her fingers (129). The first piano appeared in Italy sometime around 1693, originally named the gravicembolo col piano e forte ("the harpsichord with loud and soft"). An Italian harpsichord-maker named Bartolomeo Cristofori "replaced harpsichord's jacks with leather covered hammers, activated by a remarkable mechanical system" (Hollis 51). Where the harpsichord could only make a string produce one sound, the new piano could be played loud or soft, make dynamic accents, and could produce gradations of sounds (52).
Even though this new invention attracted little attention at the time (because of the existing popularity of the harpsichord), the piano would captivate the world in the years to come. Cristofori made only two pianos before he died in 1731, but an article was written about the new invention, and the article made it's way to Germany. There, an organ-builder named Gottfried Silbermann read the article and became fascinated with the idea of a modified harpsichord (Hollis 54). Additionally, Silbermann had recently seen a performance dedicated to Louis XIV which included a piece of music played on a huge dulcimer, which is played by striking strings with a mallet. One end of the mallet was hard, while the other was covered with soft leather.
Fascinated and inspired, Silbermann set out to create a piano of his own, using leather covered hammers (54). When Silbermann's first piano was finished in 1736, the great composer Johannes Sebastian Bach evaluated it. "Bach admired the tone, but complained that the action was heavy and the upper register weak" (Hollis 55). Though slightly discouraged, Silbermann introduced his piano to King Frederick the Great, who was thrilled with this new instrument. It has been rumored that the king acquired 15 of Silbermann's pianos, but if this is true, only three have made it into the twentieth century.
The acceptance of the piano by King Frederick began what is known as the Twilight Era, a time of transition between the rejection of the harpsichord and the acceptance of the piano (56). In the late seventeenth century, the piano had begun to shed the reputation of an improved harpsichord, and was starting to be recognized as an entirely new instrument. The piano's popularity steadily increased partially due to the standard of living at that time. Helen Rice Hollis exemplified this by writing: ... economic and social factors influenced the increased use of the piano.
Clavichords were inexpensive but their uses were limited. Harpsichords cost more than early pianos and, requiring frequent requilling, were more difficult to maintain. The material resources of the rising middle class encouraged musical amateurs and created a climate favorable to the new keyboard instrument. (57) Even Wolfgang Mozart, future virtuoso, who was a primary advocate of the harpsichord, had taken to the piano and practically discarded his old instrument.
The piano's popularity spread through Europe at a surprising rate. Piano makers experimented and made improvements on current pianos; the piano industry was becoming rival rous with everyone trying to outdo each other (57). Eventually, this competitive nature spread to England. Still using the harpsichord as the chief string instrument, England was the destination for twelve German piano-makers with a mindset similar to those of trendsetters. Johannes Zumpe, one of the twelve Germans who came to England, was a student of Gottfried Silbermann and was employed in his workshop. "Zumpe developed the first piano to mechanically resemble modern pianos" (Welton).
Zumpe created a piano that omitted the use of the mechanism that Cristofori and Silbermann had made famous, thus giving rise to a square piano that gained widespread acceptance throughout Europe (Hollis 58). The clamor initiated when: Johann Christian Bach... the youngest son of Johann Sebastian, came to prefer the piano over the harpsichord and, in 1768, gave the first ever solo piano performance in an English concert using a Zumpe square. (Hollis 58) The new mechanism created by Zumpe came to be known as (the patented) 'English Single Action.' The little square piano became so popular that pianos could be traced to the Middle East, where the legs were shortened to accommodate the player, who would sit on cushions on the floor (58). An improved version of Zumpe's piano added an escapement like Silbermann's. John Gieb created the 'English Double Action,' and pianos made with this mechanism accounted for the successful piano that is even more similar to modern pianos (59).
Though Germany and England received most of the glory for pianos of the eighteenth century, piano makers in France contributed to improved modifications of English and German versions. A piano maker named Sebastian Erard (and his brother) took elements of the English Grand Action (by Gieb) and the Viennese (by Silbermann) and "put them all together with one glorified gesture" (Welton). The result of Erard's new piano was that as long as the key is held down, the hammer remains close to the string rather than return to it's original position" (Hollis 62). The advantage of this is that if a key is struck repeatedly, the hammer doesn't have to travel as far as it would with an unmodified piano. Therefore, "repeated notes can be struck with greater speed and ease, and dynamic shadings can be more easily controlled" (62). Performers found this advantageous because they could now express their music more creatively and beautifully, thus creating a new love for music.
In the nineteenth century, piano-makers were struggling to meet the growing demand for pianos. This demand was partially caused by musicians like Frederic Chopin. Chopin's expressive style, which was "distinguished by extraordinary delicacy and subtlety of nuance" (Hollis 62). Chopin used French pianos because of their ability to prolong and converge notes, which drove Chopin to create more and more beautiful music to please himself and his audiences. Chopin became one of the most famous pianists / composers of his time.
His concerts were all sold out, and the people loved him. There were, however, other greatly loved concert pianists in Chopin's time. Franz Liszt was a crowd-pleasing artist who single-handedly positively affected the status of a performing pianist, and drove piano-makers to make higher quality pianos. Liszt was a romantic; he lived for music and it showed through his performances. Liszt would literally pound his pianos and it was frequent that a tuning would have to be done mid-concert. Oscar Bie best describes Lizst's concerts like this: Using the full weight of his shoulders, arms and wrists he made the instrument speak with power, drama, and even violence that had never been done before...
Pianos suffered at his hands and it was not at all unusual for one or two strings to break and for the piano to require retuning in the midst of one of his concerts... a spare piano stood ready on the stage, and reports of his concerts suggest that the audience felt cheated if a piano survived intact. (63) Lizst's works were all passionate and beautiful, and since his passion was sometimes violent, pianos needed to be built stronger and more durable to sustain the blows dealt by passionate players. Piano-makers had to keep up with the changing times, and with Beethoven contributing to the piano's hype, change was eminent (Bie 126). Ludwig van Beethoven was the king of pianists in his time. Beethoven wanted the piano to sound like a whole orchestra instead of just one instrument.
Beethoven was accustomed to standard five-octave pianos, but in 1818, he received a six-octave grand piano from the Broadwood Piano Company (Bie 139). Excited with this new style and extra octave, Beethoven wrote his last three sonatas for the six-octave. Beethoven, however, was deaf by 1818, loved his Broadwood because he could more feel the music than hear it. Since Beethoven favored Broadwood, so did the rest of the musical community.
The Broadwood Grand continued to be a very popular model through the 1850's (140). By 1853, the United States had become part of the piano scene, producing pianos such as the upright and the Checkering, but perhaps the most important piano-makers in America in the nineteenth century are Steinway and Sons. As German natives, these men came to America to flee the German government, and found their calling in the piano-making business (Welton). Using the same frames as older pianos, the Steinways' piano models remained in style for a time, but the showstopper came out in 1855, when the Steinways introduced their own homemade iron frame.
This frame was "that of the grand piano, which became the primary concert piano in America by 1900" (Grover 98). In the early 1900 s, pianos began to be "the primary vocal accompanying instrument" (Barrie 3). With the Big Band Era and the Swing Era between the 1920 s and 1940 s, the piano continued to be a major part of all music. The mellow sounds of 1950 s love songs gave listeners soothing chords, while 50's rock and roll produced amazing sounds and playful piano pieces (5). As disco began to sweep over America, musical engineers created new electrical instruments, including pianos. These new pianos could be programmed to play not only as a piano, but also as a flute, a clarinet, an organ, or even a dog.
An added bonus of the new digital piano was that no tuning would ever be needed (5-6). From the 1960 s to present day, the digital piano has been a vital part of almost all musical recording studios (Barrie 7). Being easily transported and virtually perfectly pitched, digital pianos are the preference of recording artists (7). This transformation exemplifies the piano's evolution, in relationship to human music growth and change.
Concert pianists, however, use only true grand pianos, perhaps to preserve the tradition set by early Europeans (8-9). Worldwide, the piano has lived a full and momentous life. Since the Steinway's success, pianos have been used for recreation, employment, entertainment, and education. Though the piano has had many different faces, the general intent of all players was (and is) to bring joy to someone's day. The piano is not only a musical instrument, but an instrument of internal harmony. From it's origination as a little tiny clavichord, to the unblemished beautiful grand pianos of today, the piano has and always will be one of the centerpieces of all kinds of music.
Bibliography Bie, Oscar. A History of the Pianoforte and Pianoforte Players. trans. by E. E.
Kellett and E. W. Naylor. NewYork: Da Capo, 1966.
Grover, David S. THE PIANO- It's story from Zither to Grand. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978. Heaton, Barrie. "A History of the Piano from 1706 to 1990" web (26 Oct.
1996) Hollis, Helen Rice. The Piano-A Pictorial Account of It's Ancestry and Development. New York: Hippocrene, 1975. Swan, Annalen.
Enlightenment's Gift to the Age of Romance-How the Piano Came to Be. in The Lives of the PIANO. ed. James R. Gaines. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
Welton, Naomi. Personal Interview. 24 November 1998. the citing's NOT entirely accurate! ! !.