The Modern Piano

Continuing from my previous post, The Pianoforte until the end of the 18th century, the piano continued evolving.

Southwell upright piano 1798

 

I have previously discussed the attempts of creating upright keyboards such as the clavicytherium and the pyramid piano. In 1798, William Southwell experimented with the square piano in order to create an upright square. Similar to the pyramid piano, was the upright grand. The style of an upright grand incorporating a bookcase was firstly made by William Stodart c.1795. The instrument was used domestically as a piano and as a furniture. This piano was a transition from the horizontal grand piano to his cabinet piano. 

In 1800, the soundboard was dropped to the floor by John Isaac Hawkins (1772–1855) in Philadelphia. He called his instrument the portable grand piano. The idea was for the piano to be easily moved by handles on each side. The particular instrument was the first attempt of creating an upright piano, with perpendicular strings and an iron frame. It was the first time that the soundboard was dropped to the floor. The piano has double strings, a moderator and a swell, which opens shutters in the case below the keyboard.

At the same time with Hawkins, the Viennese instrument maker Matthias Müller had also created an upright piano, the vis-à-vis Ditanaklasis. Müller’s instrument had two keyboards for two players. The keyboard with black naturals and white sharps is at 4 foot pitch and the other keyboard with white naturals and black sharps is at 8 foot pitch. In 1803 he built a ditanaklasis with one keyboard. The strings of the instrument were struck in the middle of the string, which produced a sound similar to a basset horn.

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In 1807 the Cabinet piano was introduced by William Southwell, and was built through 1840s. Southwell’s aim was to prevent the pianoforte of being frequently out of tune. They were tall  reaching a height of seventy-two inches. The strings of the instrument were placed vertical and the hammers were near the top of the instrument and plucked the strings from the front. There was also a sticker action; stickers extended upwards from the key and controlled by hammers.

Around 1815, Robert Wornum (1780–1852) invented the cottage piano, a short instrument with vertical stringing. In 1826, he added a pizzicato pedal between the two usual pedals. He had also introduced the tape-check action; a check worked against the hammer butt and raised the damper wire.

Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) with Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) imitated the tape-action of Wornum in France. They called their piano a pianino. Pleyel adapted the tape-check action and continued manufacturing pianino’s throughout the 19th century. The action was also modified in Germany and eventually became the action used in the modern upright piano. 

Sébastien Érard (1752-1831) in 1821 patented the double escapement action; which is what is used in the modern grand piano. His action allowed notes to be repeated faster and easier than the single actions that had already existed. In comparison with Cristofori’s single escapement, where the hammer struck the string and fell back even if the key was still depressed. Without the escapement the hammer would be held against the string. With Érard’s double escapement, the jack resets beneath the hammer whilst the key is partially released, allowing the note to be repeated quickly without the hammer returning to its original position.

Something that I found interesting whilst researching Ignaz Moscheles, in his diaries (from Recent Music and Musicians) in June 1, 1825 he wrote:

“Pierre Erard showed and explained to me on a dumb keyboard his uncle Sebastian’s now completed invention, for which the firm has just taken out a patent. I saw the earliest experiment of this invention in Paris. It consists in the key, when only sunk halfway, again rising and repeating the note. I was the first to play upon one of the newly completed instruments, and found it of priceless value for the repetition of notes. In the matter of fullness and softness of tone, there is something yet to be desired, and had a long conversation on the subject with Erard”

In 1830-1831 it he commented that the touch was “vastly improved”. Regarding the tone of the piano, Moscheles’ wife Charlotte Moscheles wrote: 

Moscheles himself, was greatly favored by the improvements made in Erard’s pianos; their organ-like tone and full resonant sounds gave Moscheles such pleasure that no doubt he had every incentive to bring into relief these great excellences, and display them in his adagios. “A very violoncello”, he used to say, praising the tone, which he could prolong without using the pedals; to the excessive use of these he had a rooted aversion. “A good player” he used to say, must only rarely use the assistance of either pedal, otherwise he misuses it”. 

Video: Erard 1850

In 1825 the first square piano with an iron frame was created by Alpheus Babcock (1785-1842).

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Felt hammers pleyel 1844
Felt hammers. Pleyel, 1844.

Jean-Henri Pape in 1826 had introduced the felt hammers (until then leather hammers were used). Felt hammers are still used today.

In 1828, he also had introduced the console piano in Paris, a low upright piano. It was the first instrument to be built with over-stringing, with the bass strings passing over the treble strings.  Video: Pape Console piano 1844

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In 1830, Babcock also patented cross-stringing/overstrung pianos which eventually replaced straight strung pianos. The aim was for strings to cross over one another vertically in order to allow longer strings to fit into smaller frames, by using two bridges instead of one.

In 1843, Jonas Chickering (1798-1853) improved Babcock’s iron frame and arranged one for the first time in a grand piano. Later in the century, the iron frame was altered and improved in order to hold more resistance in grand pianos by Steinway & Sons. From 1853 they have also started using the cross-crossing method in their square pianos which was later applied to their grand pianos. Eventually other builders started applying these methods.

The following year, in 1844, Jean-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) invented the sostenuto pedal (firstly called sustaining tones). The pedal sustains only the notes that are pressed when the pedal is also pressed. The sostenuto pedal keeps the dampers raised only of the specific keys, whereas the sustain pedal (damper pedal that already existed) raises all the dampers.

Steinway 1874

In 1874 the sostenuto pedal was copied by Steinway. His first design was for the square piano, however he later applied it to his upright and grand pianos.

Video: illustration of Sostenuto and Sustain pedals

Additionally, in 1872 Steinway invented the duplex scaling  which is still used in some grand pianos. Duplex scaling enhances the tone by permitting the part of the string at the end (which is damped and does not vibrate) to vibrate.

During the era, the piano range had increased from the five octaves that Mozart’s piano had. Broadwood firm was the first to build pianos from 1790 having more than 5 octaves and eventually reaching 7 octaves by 1820. Eventually the piano range reached 88 keys with 52 white and 32 black.

Regarding the pedals of the piano, as already discussed they firstly appeared as hand stops, and then as knee levers. A precise date to the transition of pedals is not specified since the transition was not adopted by all the makers at the same time. In England pedals were found earlier. In the previous post I mentioned Americus Backers bi-chord pianoforte of 1772, the earliest English piano surviving with 2 pedals (una corda, sustaining). Later, trichord pianos included a device at the right side of the keyboard which controlled the change from three chords to one or two chords in order to permit una corda. The device was used until 1830. After that the una corda pedal was impossible.

Around 1806 Broawood pianos came with three pedals, an una corda and two for sustaining (the damper rail was divided in the middle C). Because it was impossible for una corda and both sustaining pedals to be used simultaneously the sustaining pedals were replaced by a split pedal which divided in half and performed the same function. Around 1820 the harmonic swell pedal was used by Clementi.  The pedal enhanced the tone by affecting the vibration of the strings.

Graf 1817 6 pedals
Conrad Graf, c.1817. 6 pedal

In France, c.1796, Érard imitated the use of the pedal from the English pianos. Nonetheless none of his grand pianos of the period survived. Viennese pianos started having 4 to 5 pedals after 1805. Concrad Grad (1782-1851) used 5 pedals until 1820 (una corda, bassoon, two degrees of moderator and sustaining). From then and until 1835, he used an una corda, bassoon, moderator and sustaining. A few years later, the bassoon pedal was replaced with a second moderator and in 1839 the piano pedals were reduced to three (una corda, moderator, sustaining). Two of Graf’s pianos had 6 pedals, including the Turkish music pedal. On the other hand, Streicher firm (successor of Stein) had five pedals until 1818 (the fifth pedal was a Turkish music pedal). Afterwards he used 4 pedals (una corda, bassoon, moderator, sustaining) and from 1840 only two pedals.

Summary of the pedals thus far:

  • Bassoon: a strip of parchment comes into contact with the strings to give a buzzing sound (usually part of the Turkish music pedal)
  • Harmonic swell: enhancing the tone by affecting the vibration of the strings.
  • Lute: it was Wornum’s pizzicato pedal. A strip of felt placed in contact with the strings to produce a more lute sound
  • Moderator: applies strips of leather/cloth between the hammers and the strings for a more muted sound (the modern practice pedal)
  • Turkish music: it is like the bassoon pedal however it also includes a drumstick (hitting the piano’s soundboard), a triangle (single bell or 3 separate bells), cymbals (2-3 strips of brass knocked against the bass strings) Video: Piano with Turkish pedal
  • Soft (buff): moves the action closer to the strings, so the hitting distance is less and the sound is quieter
  • Sustaining: raises the dampers on the strings to allow them to vibrate freely when the keys are not depressed, thus sustaining the sound
  • Sostenuto: sustaining only the notes that are pressed when the pedal is also pressed.
  • Una cordashifts the keyboard to the side in order to struck only one string

The Modern Piano

The modern piano exists in two form: the grand piano and the upright piano.

The strings and frame of the grand piano are horizontal, with the strings extending away from the keyboard.  It comes in different size such as as the concert grand which is approximately 3 m., the grand about 1.8 and the smaller the baby grand. The difference is that the longer the piano, the longer the strings used therefore the louder the instrument sounds.

Upright pianos have a vertical frame and strings, with the stringing extending in both directions and the hammers moving horizontally. There are some upright pianos with a tall frame and longer strings. These pianos are called upright grand pianos. Pianos between 107 to 114cm are called studio pianos. And pianos with shorter hammers and a little bit shorter than the studio piano are called console pianos. 

The pedals used in the modern piano are the soft pedal/una corda, sostenuto and the sustain (mostly referred to as ‘the pedal’). There are pianos with the middle pedal (sostenuto) missing. Most upright pianos have three pedals, and instead of the sostenuto pedal, which is mostly found on expensive upright pianos, have the practice pedal. Additionally, the soft pedal on the upright piano is not a truly una corda pedal since it does not shift the action like in the grand piano (the entire keyboard moved to the right in order for the hammers to hit 2 or 3 strings). Thus the left pedal of the upright piano is mostly a half-blow pedal, it moves the hammers closer to the strings in order to reduce the volume of the sound.

The modern piano has 88 keys. The bass strings have only one string, the tenor has two and the treble strings have three unison strings. Therefore, the piano can have up to 236 strings and supports a pressure of 36000 pounds. The strings are made of high-tensile steel wire.

The action of the grand piano is an improved action of Erard’s double escapement and as already discussed some grand pianos have duplex scaling. Whereas the action of the upright is based on Wornum’s tape-check action. The main difference of the two pianos is that because the parts of the upright piano move horizontally, the key must be allowed to come all the way back before it is played again. In the grand piano, a key is repeated after it has only returned to about 1/3 of  its way. Therefore, a grand piano offers more control as well as faster repetition in very rapid passages. What is more, modern upright pianos are overstrung and underdamped (the dampers are situated under the hammers). Straight-strung over-damped pianos are older pianos. The grand pianos are also mostly overstrung.   Video: Grand piano action  Video: Upright Piano action

Bösendorfer’s Imperial 290 Grand Piano has 8 full octaves, 97 keys instead of 88. The extra keys are found in the bass and coloured in black.

Video: Imperial 290 Bösendorfer

Stuart & Sons has also created a piano with 97 keys, and they have also created a piano with a longer range with 102 keys. Stuart & Sons not only have expanded the key range, but they have also added a fourth pedal, the dulce pedal. The fourth pedal acts like a second soft pedal and reduces the intensity of the hammer strike.

Feurich has also added a fourth pedal, the Pédale Harmonique which gives an expressive sound. When the pedal is fully pressed, the notes are not dampened and when it is half pressed, the dampers are raised from all the strings until a note is played, which then causes the damper to fall down in order to mute the note. The other strings left to vibrate sympathetically producing e reverberation. Video: Feurich Pedal Harmonique

Fazioli piano F308 has a fourth pedal which reduces the volume without modifying the timbre. Video: Fazioli F308

Grotrian Steinweg created a double piano the GROTRIAN Duo which allows two pianists to play on one piano. The two pianos are connected by a bridge, thus they sound like one instrument instead of two. The instrument can be separated in order to be played individually. Video: Grotrian Duo

Grotrian Steinweg.jpg

Nowadays, there are many makers and each brand has something different to offer. From upright pianos that offer the tonal quality of a baby grand piano, to pianos with 4 pedals and 102 keys, to crystal pianos, to galaxy pianos and to pianos with different decorations. The most known brands are Bösendorfer, C.Bechstein, Blüthner, Fazioli, Heintzman & Co., Mason and Hamlin, Petrof, Schimmel, Shigeru Kawai, Steinway & Sons (which includes Boston and Essex pianos), Yamaha Corporation and many more!

 

 

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