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The History of the Piano

Updated on December 1, 2016
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Gravicembalo col piano e forte

The Piano, commonest of domestic musical instruments, came very late into being. It only emerged from the rudimentary forms which had persisted since antiquity at the beginning of the eighteenth century, coming to its full development a hundred and fifty to two hundred years later.

Its nature is hybrid. There are three chief ways of obtaining the vibration which causes musical sound - striking a stretched membrane, causing a column of air to vibrate in a tube, and vibrating a stretched string, as it does in the harp and the violin. A string can be made to vibrate in two chief ways, by plucking it and by drawing a resined bow across it. However, since the piano causes a hammer to strike the string, it is a string instrument, affined to the percussion instruments. The modern keyboard is no more than a beautifully contrived mechanical device for making the striking easier: it is not essential to the nature of the piano and was unknown to the ancients.

The first ancestor of the piano was the delicate little psaltery, the 'psanterin' (translated as psaltery), mentioned in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel - 'when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery and all kinds of music, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the King had set up.' The psaltery consisted of a sounding board of four unequal sides, none of them parallel, over which were stretched strings of varying lengths; these were held away from the board by bridges, as in the violin, and were plucked with the fingers or with a quill (plectrum). The plucking action makes it basically different from the piano, but its immediate offspring, the dulcimer, owes everything in construction to the psaltery; though the strings of the dulcimer are struck with little hammers, generally spoon-shaped. The psaltery persisted into the Middle Ages, developing into the beautiful harpsichord, and its name survives in various modern forms of dulcimer, such as the Asiatic santir and the Greek santouri.

The dulcimer originally came to Europe from the East, travelling along the coast of North Africa and so across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain (one is carved on the porch of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, dated 1184). Thence it travelled slowly east again, through France and Italy and the Balkans, so that by 1850 the now much modified form could be found in Turkey together with the native instrument that had come directly from Persia. It is chiefly in the Balkans that the dulcimer is common today, particularly in Hungary, where the cimbalom, as the Hungarians call it, has become a national instrument.

Making dulcimer into piano involves only the application of a keyboard, a simple evolutionary step which might well have been made before the eighteenth century. Keyboards in a rudimentary form were known on organs of the twelfth century and even earlier, and with a perfected mechanism and appearance on harpsichords and clavichords of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the beginning of the eighteenth century these two were the popular keyboard instruments, the harpsichord depending upon plucking by quills for its silvery jangle and upon the use of various stops, like the organ, for variety of tone-colour, the gentler clavichord being simultaneously struck and pressed by metal tangents from below to sketch out its sad tracery of sound. Each is exquisite, but the harpsichord cannot vary its dynamics between loud and soft and the clavichord has neither strength nor brilliance. Something that would have the qualities of both was required. A French attempt in 1410 (the dulce melos) and a Dutch invention of exactly two hundred years later proved abortive; and it was not until about 1709 that Bartolomeo Cristofori of Florence provided the first real answer.

Cristofori's piano hammer action, as described in the Giornale del Litterati d'Italia of 1711, is simple: a hinged hammer is made to strike a string by depressing a key; having done so it drops naturally back into position, and when the key is loosed a damper presses against the string to silence it. This beautifully simple mechanism was the model for all later developments. Cristofori improved his action in 1720, and he also added the device whereby the keyboard slips fractionally sideways when required, so that only two of the three strings that go to each note are struck, resulting in a quieter sound. This mechanism is still found in some modern pianos, worked by a pedal with the left foot; in the early days it was managed rather clumsily by two knobs like harpsichord stops. The instrument was given the grandiloquent name of Gravicem-balo col piano e forte - the harpsichord with soft and loud - which was eventually contracted to pianoforte; today the instrument is almost always referred to, illogically but conveniently, as the piano.

None of the early pioneers had any commercial success with their new musical inventions; and it was the famous organ-builder Gottfried Silber-mann (1683-1753) who first exploited the new piano. Yet even he met with rebuffs, notably from Bach himself, who offended the proud maker by complaining of the weakness of upper register and the heaviness of the action. Bach's knowledge of instruments was so great that we may take these criticisms as well-founded. Two years later the ruffled Silbermann came back with a new piano; this time Bach pronounced himself satisfied, but nevertheless continued loyal to the harpsichord in his compositions. His polyphonic style needed the sparkling clarity of the harpsichord, and it was the changing demands of composition that brought the piano into its own. Romanticism required an instrument that could sing broad melodies with a supporting accompaniment; as the Belgian theorist de Momigny (1762-1838) wrote of the piano, 'it has this advantage that the pressure of the finger determines the force or weakness of the sound: thus it lends itself to expression and sentiment...'

Mozart first discovered a piano that satisfied him in 1777 in the workshops of the Viennese maker Stein, and from then he never went back to the harpsichord; however, this was still a light, almost harpsichord-like instrument, known as the square piano or fortepiano. It was with Beethoven that piano technique began to stride forward, reaching a peak in Chopin, who wrote for the piano with a deep love and understanding of the sonorities of the piano, and in Liszt, who developed its technical potentialities to such a pitch that his works are still in the highest virtuoso class. Paderewski, Rubinstein, de Pach-mann, Rosenthal, Busoni, Rachmaninov - a host of leonine composer-pianists followed as the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, writing rich, rhetorical, warm-hearted music and playing their massive concertos to enthusiastic audiences all over the world, displacing in popularity the solo violinist and even the enraged primadonna.

Their instrument splendidly fulfilled a century's experiment. The leather-covered hammer of the early fortepianos had given way to a delicately balanced felt-headed mechanism; the antique knobs and knee-pedals had become foot-pedals; the iron frame had arrived from America, allowing for greater strength and tension, and an ingenious system of overstringing made for greater compactness and distributed the enormous stresses over the whole frame (a single string may have a pull of 200 lb.). Musical instruments are suggestive to the composer, but ultimately they have to adapt themselves to his thought. Whatever the future may do to the piano, it has proved itself a noble instrument to which our century and the last are immeasureably indebted.

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