Have you ever wondered where our pianos of today originated from?
The modern piano may be a more recent story from the 1700s, but there were other predecessors of the keyboard from as early as thousands of years ago.
The Hammered Dulcimer
Originating from the psaltery, this ancient instrument was used mainly during the Middle Ages, making use of mallets that hit strings of different length to produce different pitches. Dulcimers are still around today, called different names by different cultures.
The early organ is believed to date from the time of Ctesibius of Alexandria (285-222 BCE), inventor of the water organ. Organs were in use across the ancient Greek and Roman eras, especially during races and games. The instrument then spread to the Byzantine Empire, where it was used in secular and imperial court music, and was then brought to Western Europe where it became a prominent part of Catholic church music. The organ was incorporated into numerous classical composers’ works, and is still in use today in both religious settings and orchestral pieces.
Invented in the 14th century, the clavichord was mostly used as a practice instrument or as a composition aid, since it was generally soft in volume and would be drowned by other instruments if played in an orchestra. The clavichord produced its sound from striking brass or iron strings with tangents, small metal blades. The vibrations from the strings would then be transmitted through the bridge to the soundboard. It was also possible to produce a vibrato on the clavichord. Overall, the clavichord allowed the performer some control over the dynamics (loudness or softness) of their notes, allowing them to add emotion to the music, compared to the harpsichord which did not allow the musician to vary their dynamics at all.
The harpsichord started to be used in the 17th century. While the strings of the clavichord were struck with tangents, the strings of the harpsichord were plucked by quills. The harpsichord was around in use concurrently with the clavichord, but because the harpsichord was much louder, it was mostly used for performances. However, one drawback of the harpsichord was that the musician could not vary the dynamics of the notes, making it more difficult to evoke emotions in their playing. The notes of the harpsichord also could not be sustained for very long, which resulted in Baroque composers typically adding trills to notes that were intended to be held for a number of beats.
Some people attempted to solve these shortcomings by creating harpsichords with mechanisms to pluck more or fewer strings, allowing the musician to terrace their notes and make certain chords appear louder by playing more notes at once. Some harpsichords even came with multiple keyboards (or “manuals”). The musician would change keyboards as they played to achieve different dynamics and sound effects.
Despite these innovations, it was impossible to create a crescendo or diminuendo – a gradual increase or decrease in note volume – with a harpsichord. As such, there was a need for an instrument that had both the loudness of a harpsichord and the dynamics of a clavichord.
The fortepiano was thus invented around the start of the 18th century by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker in Florence, Italy. The first fortepiano was essentially a harpsichord, just with leather-covered hammers hitting the strings instead of having quills pluck them. It was named “Gravicembalo Col Piano e Forte”, which literally translates to “harpsichord capable of playing at the normal level, and more strongly”.
The instrument was also termed the fortepiano, since both loud (forte in Italian) and soft (piano in Italian) dynamics could be played on it. Its natural keys were black while the accidental keys were white.
In creating the fortepiano, Cristofori decided that the hammer had to strike the strings of the instrument – but not remain in contact with it, which was the flaw of the clavichord. Since the tangents remained in contact with the strings after every note was played, the strings were not allowed to resonate and the overall sound was dampened, making the instrument sound soft. It was also important for the hammer to return to its rest position without bouncing violently, as well as allowing the musician to play the same note repeatedly in quick succession.
Although the fortepiano solved most of the problems with harpsichords and clavichords, it was still not very popular in Cristofori’s lifetime. It was not until 1711 when Scipione Maffei, an Italian writer, wrote a very enthusiastic article about the fortepiano, including a diagram of how it worked. Other keyboard makers started to work on Cristofori’s version of the fortepiano, including Gottfried Silbermann, who added to the fortepiano an early version of the damper pedal we have today, which lifts all dampers from the strings at the same time.
When Silbermann showed his instrument to Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer did not like the new instrument’s sound very much, still preferring his harpsichord, clavichord and organ. In fact, Bach was said to have destroyed that fortepiano with an axe.
In 1747, Bach saw another instrument and approved of it. He played a three-part improvisation on a theme for Frederick the Great of Prussia. This instrument caught the attention of other composers across Europe, and even spread to the British colonies in America. Having such an instrument in one’s home became a status symbol for high-ranking families.
Today, there are three Cristofori pianos that are still around, all dating from the 1720s. These early precursors to the piano have thin strings and are much quieter than our modern pianos, but they were considerably louder and had more sustaining power than the clavichord.
Over the second half of the 18th century, the fortepiano was rapidly developed upon, with manufacturers focusing on creating a more powerful and sustained sound. Different manufacturers created pianos with different characteristics. For instance, English pianos tended to have a heavier mechanism and a louder volume while Austrian pianos had a lighter mechanism and a softer timbre. As such, the type of piano used in performances could change the overall feel of a piece.
The late 18th century saw some Viennese piano makers creating wood frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers for their pianos. Some of these pianos still had black natural keys and white accidental keys like the harpsichord and fortepiano. It is said that Sebastian LeBlanc suggested that the black and white keys be switched, like how they are now in modern pianos.
As the piano continued to develop and grow in popularity, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote most of his keyboard compositions for this instrument. Then the Romantic era began, when composers favored the piano over other instruments because of its expressive quality. One well-known Romantic piano composer was Franz Liszt, who wrote many piano compositions and performed expressive pieces in front of large audiences.
In the end, it was the Americans who made the piano available to middle-class families, thanks to assembly line techniques and standardized parts that made pianos much cheaper to manufacture. The instrument became a part of almost every household by the 19th century, and it became popular especially among women – any woman who could play the piano would be regarded as a refined woman.
With the rise of the 20th century, people began to experiment with this readily available instrument, creating musical genres such as ragtime and jazz, the foundation of popular music that would be created some decades later.