History of the pianoby Stéphane Villemin
/ March 1, 2000
In 1709 Bartolomeo Cristofori, curator of spinets and harpsichords for the
Florentine prince Ferdinand de Medici, perfected a harpsichord capable of
playing with dynamics. His cembalo con piano e forte could produce soft or loud
tones because it worked by hitting strings instead of plucking them. This first
version of the piano was nevertheless referred to as a harpsichord for the next
twenty years, making it difficult to know if the great composers of the age such
as Scarlatti or Vivaldi knew of its existence. The word pianoforte, shortened
later to piano, appeared only in 1732.
Bach, visiting Dresden in 1736, tried a pianoforte constructed by the organ
maker Gottfried Silbermann from Cristofori's designs. Legend has it that Bach
didn't think much of the sound or mechanism of these new instruments. Silbermann
is said to have destroyed them with an axe.
For the time being, few people apart from piano makers knew about the new
instrument. It wasn't until May 7, 1747, that it caught the attention of
composers. On this occasion, Bach was visiting Frederick the Great of Prussia at
his court in Potsdam. The composer paid homage to the instrument by improvising
an impressive three-part fugue on a theme suggested by the king. Frederick may
have been a despot, but he was a man of the Enlightenment -- a patron of
literature and art who attracted the greatest thinkers and artists of the time
to the palace of Sans Souci. From this moment on, composers across the whole of
Europe began to take an interest in the instrument.
The second half of the eighteenth century saw a rapid development. A number of
instrument makers began manufacturing the pianoforte and working toward a more
imposing sound. English pianos had a heavier mechanism, which increased the
volume. Austrian pianos, with a lighter mechanism, had a softer timbre. It was
on this generation of pianos, produced by Zumpe, Tschudi, Broadwood, Stein, and
Streicher, that the first pianist performed in public.
An enthusiastic reception
When Bach died on July 28, 1750, no musician had yet been called a
"pianist." However, two of his sons, Carl Phillipp Emanuel and Johann
Christian, began promoting the new instrument. C.P.E. Bach moved in intellectual
circles and took an interest in musical expression that ''touched the heart and
affected the emotions.'' In 1762 he wrote the first piano composition worthy of
the name, proving that the pianoforte was just as good as the clavichord. His
charismatic brother Johann Christian saw the new instrument as a means of
performing more brilliantly. He promoted the pianoforte in the salons of Europe
and, more importantly, he opened a new era in the history of the instrument by
offering the first public concert in London in 1768, in the company of Carl
Friedrich Abel Bach. He used a square piano, probably the one purchased a month
earlier from Zumpe. This was the beginning of the piano concert, a musical
tradition that was enthusiasticallly received and spread quickly to other
The early pianists rarely performed on large stages, and grand piano recitals
were nonexistent. Contem-porary instruments -- especially Viennese pianos - were
not very loud and could not be heard in large halls. Such halls, in any case,
were traditionally reserved for opera or symphonic works. Sometimes a pianist
would perform his compositions between the movements of a symphony to add some
variety to the program. Only the concerto would guarantee the presence of a
piano on stage and allow the composer performer to display his skill. Johann
Christian wrote 35 such creations, conducting the last ones from the keyboard,
as did Mozart.
Piano interpretation developed in salons rather than concert halls.
Composer-pianists worked on the sonata, a form suited to solo instruments with
its fast-slow-fast sections. Unlike the harpsichordist, the pianist brought to
the sonata the dynamics of the piano and the greater scope offered by higher and
lower registers. In addition, the performer could use the foot or knee pedal for
greater resonance, and after 1784 the una corda pedal made it possible to play
Haydn and Mozart took quickly to the instrument. Muzio Clementi, composer
performer and piano maker, began making instruments in England and was among the
first to write a treatise on learning pianoforte technique.
With the arrival of the pianofortes in the time of Zumpe and Stein, the term
legato caught the imagination of composers. It seemed to set the instrument
apart from predecessors such as the harpsichord, suggesting precision, elegance,
and naturalness -- all of which exemplified the age's ideal of good taste.
Inventions and improvements
Progress in the construction of the instrument both allowed and inspired
more sophisticated composition and also more refined and subtle playing
technique. Dynamics grew richer (Schubert used ppp and fff in 1826 in the first
movement of his Sonata D 894). Such extreme dynamics were the result of strings
stretched diagonally in the sound box, which Loud did in 1802. In 1815 Broadwood
invented the metal frame. In 1822 Erard introduced the double hopper and thicker
strings. In 1826 Pape substituted felt for leather on the hammers and in 1842 he
increased the range of the keyboard to eight octaves (compared with six and a
half on the Streicher piano that belonged to Beethoven). In 1843 Bord reinforced
strings with a metal bar thus increasing their resistance to the hammer blows.
These inventions rendered the mechanics of the piano more balanced and
responsive, in turn improving the touch of the keyboard. The double hopper was a
particularly fine innovation, permitting the rapid repetition of notes and
better control of dynamics. Without it, Moritz Moszkowski would never have
written La Jongleuse, the battle horse of virtuosos who juggle with
chromaticisms like so many plates at the end of a stick.
Finally, with the appearance of the first Steinway concert grand in 1859, the
basic features of the piano as we know it were established.
Translation: Tom Levitt and Jane Brierley