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:
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