Instruments | Piano | Keyboards

In 1905, and probably for several decades before that, there were more pianos in the United States than there were bathtubs. In Europe, throughout the nineteenth century, piano sales increased at a greater rate than the population.

English, French and German makers dispatched veritable armies of pianos to every corner of the Earth. It was the instrument of the age.

A Romantic Symbol

Born around 1700, in the twilight of the traditional master craftsman, the piano grew to maturity as one of the greatest commercial and technological triumphs of the Industrial Revolution. Merely as a machine, with its hundreds of factory-made parts, combining the exotic substances of ivory and ebony (the keyboard) with iron, steel and copper (the strings, and later the frame), it was an object of reverence – not least as a bountiful source of employment. As a symbol of the Romantic era, it had extraordinary potency. Simply to own one was perceived as a badge of respectability. But the piano’s ascent to the stars had been a long, slow burn.

Origins and Development

The first piano was constructed in Florence by the Italian harpsichord-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731). From the grandiloquent title he gave it – gravicembalo col piano e forte (‘large harpsichord with soft and loud’), it seems clear that he regarded it not so much as a new instrument as the modification of an old one. Needless to say, the cumbersome name evaporated, replaced first by ‘fortepiano’, then by its transposition ‘pianoforte’, and finally, in the twentieth century, by the simpler and less pompous ‘piano’. Cristofori’s title was inept, since harpsichords already had the capacity to play both ‘soft and loud’ – albeit only in stark juxtaposition. What made his instrument unique was a mechanism by which the volume could be made to increase or decrease by finger pressure alone.

The two domestic keyboard instruments that had ruled the roost from the height of the Renaissance to the end of the Baroque (around 1450 to 1750), were beset by increasingly frustrating limitations. The clavichord, with its touch-sensitive keyboard, was capable of extraordinary nuance and tonal variety, but its sound was too small to project across a large room, let alone a concert hall. Even at the apex of its development, it remained essentially a player’s instrument. The harpsichord had the requisite power but entirely lacked the clavichord’s expressive, almost vocal suppleness of line. What was needed, in a world where public music-making was steadily advancing, was an instrument combining the virtues of both with none of their drawbacks. Cristofori’s piano may have been only a start, but its principles remained the basis for all such developments over the next 100 years.

In Italy, strange to say – the cradle of the instrumental concerto and opera – Cristofori’s invention aroused a brief flurry of interest and was then pretty much forgotten. In Germany, by contrast, the piano was an idea whose time had come.



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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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