This blog began with the history of the piano and its evolution. I have taken it from the very beginning, discussing the beginning of the string instruments and how they all evolved and contributed to the evolution of keyboard instruments. I have referred to the main keyboard instruments that existed, and how they evolved to the piano. I have not discussed the modern use of those instruments and how they developed after the 18th century. The aim was to discuss how the piano came to be and how it evolved to our modern piano.
The instruments that I have referred to so far are:
- Hammered dulcimer (santoor)
- Pipe organ
- Portative organ (organetto)
- Positive organ
- Clavichord (fretted, unfretted, pedal)
- Harpsichord (pedal harpsichord)
- Oval spinet
- Virginal (Muselar, spinett, ottavino, double virginal)
All of those instruments contributed to the creation and evolution of the modern piano. One particular instrument though is considered to be the ancestor of the piano; the dulce melos (doucemelle), a keyed dulcimer, that looked like a clavichord. The strings of the instrument were struck, not plucked, by hammers on keys.
If the instrument existed, none have survived. The only iconographic evidence that exists is by Henri Arnaut de Zwolle from his manuscripts from 1440. He described three dulce melos; the first a normal dulcimer plucked by the fingers or struck by wooden sticks. The second and third instruments were played by keyboard. The second dulce melos had parallel bridges and the third oblique bridges. The instrument had about 3 octaves and twenty pairs of strings with tonal bridges under each group forming an octave. It is possible that Arnaut had only suggested the instrument and that it never existed.
The inventor of the piano was Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori (1655-1731) of Padua. In the previous post, I have mentioned that in the late 17th century he created the oval spinet and the spinettone for Prince Ferdinando of the Medici family of Florence. Cristofori was appointed in 1688 to the Florentine court to look after the Medici musical instrument collection.
The inventory of musical instruments of de Medici in 1700, (Inventario di diverse sorte d’instrumenti musicali in proprio del Serenissimo Sig. Principe Ferdinando di Toscana) mentions a new instrument by Cristofori, the Arpicembalo. The inventory describes the instrument as “a large keyboard instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch….”.
The journalist Scipione Maffei, in 1711 published anonymously an article where he named the instrument gravicembalo col piano e forte;
Nuova invenzione d’un gravicembalo col piano e forte; aggiunte alcune considerazioni sopra gli strumenti musicali.
The instrument was probably invented around 1698-1699. Nonetheless, a precise date is given in an inscription in Gioseffo Zarlino’s Le Istitutioni harmoniche by a Florentine court musician, Federico Meccoli. He writes “these are the ways in which it is possible to play the Arpicimbalo del piano e forte, invented by Master Bartolomeo Christofani of Padua in the year 1700”;
Questi sono gl’andamenti che si possono adattare in su l’Apri Cimbalo del piano e forte. inventato da M.ro Bartolomeo Christofani Padovano. l’Anno 1700.
Cristofori attempted to combine the advantages of the clavichord and the harpsichord into one new instrument. The clavichord could be used expressively by controlling loudness and timbre, however because of its size it was not loud enough thus it was used as a home instrument. The harpsichord was mostly a concert solo instrument, yet it lacked the expressivity of the harpsichord. Cristofori’s instrument sounded like a harpsichord but instead of plucking the strings they were struck by hammers. Basically the hammer replaced the clavichords’ tangent and was rebounded from the string, instead of touching the string all the time while it was sounding.
Cristofori invented an action with an escapement mechanism. When the key was pressed, the hammer struck the string and instantly returned back to its position, letting the string to vibrate until the key was released, which then activated a dampening mechanism on a jack to mute the string (adapted from the harpsichord). The hammer was held back by an action called back check, until the player released the key, in order to avoid the hammer from hitting back the string. Cristofori’s action was very light that gave the capability for repetition.
He had also invented the una corda mechanism, which it was the first stop to modify the sound. In the modern piano, the una corda or the ‘soft pedal’ is operated by the left pedal. On Cristofori’s pianoforte though, it was operated by a hand knob located on the side of the keyboard. When it was activated, the entire action shifted to the right, so the hammers would only strike one string (una corda) instead of the two strings that Cristofori’s pianos had.
Cristofori did not live to see music written for his instrument. The first music published for his pianoforte was the twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti by Lodovico Giustini (1685–1743) in 1732. The sonatas contained dynamic expressions such as più piano and più forte that was impossible to execute on a harpsichord.
Only three of Cristofori’s pianos have survived:
- 1720 piano, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
- 1722 piano, includes an una corda stop at the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome.
- 1726 piano, includes an una corda stop at the Musikinstrumenten Museum at Karl Marx University in Leipzig, Germany.
When Cristofori’s drawings and descriptions were published by Maffei in 1711, instrument makers began to recreated Cristofori’s instrument. In 1716, Jean Marius submitted four models of hammer harpsichord (clavecins à maillets), an action for an upright instrument and a down-striking action (wooden hammers attached vertically at the end of the key levers) to the French Royal Academy of Science. In 1725 Maffei’s article was translated to German by Johann Ulrich König who called Cristofori’s instrument a harpsichord of new invention, with soft and loud.
Gottfried Silbermann (1683–1753), a German instrument maker, used Cristofori’s designs and created his own instrument. He copied Cristofori’s actions, yet he failed to copy correctly the back check. Additionally, he invented his own device, the modern damper pedal. The damper action was, like Cristofori’s una corda, controlled by a hand stop on the side of the keyboard. When activated the dampers were lifted away from the strings, permitting them to vibrate. This device though, unlike the modern pedal that is used expressively, it produced a different tonal colour. The device could also be divided, allowing the dampers of the bass and treble sections to be lifted separately.
Around 1703-1704 Silbermann, on behalf of Pantaleon Hebenstreit (1668-1750), created an extended hammered dulcimer. The king of France Louis XIV, in 1705, called the instrument Pantaleon in his honour. It seems by 1727 Silbermann, had added to those large cimbaloms, removable keyboards to make the playing easier. Basically the Pantalon (Hämmerwercke/Hämmerpantalone) was a large dulcimer and had about 200 strings, double or triple. The instrument did not have dampers leaving the strings to vibrate freely. Video: Silbermann Piano
In 1739, a new design appeared, the tangent action by Christoph Gottlieb Schröter (1699-1782). The tangent action originates from the clavichord’s action. Both tangents are activated by the player pushing the keys for the tangent to be lifted up and hit the string. Although in the clavichord the tangent stays in contact with the string while the note is still sounding, in the tangent piano the tangent is rebounded, like in the pianoforte’s escapement. The tangent action also has dampers on the jacks to mute the string when the key is depressed, and like its contemporary instruments it may have stops such as an una corda and Silbermann’s damper stop. The sound of the instrument is a combination of a clavichord and a harpsichord and it was used throughout the 18th century.
In 1739, Domenico del Mela of Gagliano had created the Vertical upright pianoforte in Italy. Like the clavicytherium, the instrument was a pianoforte, with the soundboard going above the keyboard. In 1745, Christian Ernst Friederici created the Pyramid piano (Pyramidenflügel) in Germany, also an upright piano with the soundboard above the keyboard. The shape of the instrument was like a pyramid , with the strings running diagonally upwards. Friederici basically copied the design of his contemporary grand piano into a vertical form. It was a simple version of Cristofori’s 1720 piano, however it lacked the feature of repetition. The instrument had doors at the front that would open exposing the strings. By 1840 both upright and pyramid pianos stopped being produced.
Johannes Zumpe (1726-1790) was the lead maker of the English square piano (Tafelklavier) from 1766 to c.1790 (whether he was actually the first creator of a square piano is unknown). The square piano was a small rectangular piano with a range of about 5 octaves. At the beginning it sounded like a harpsichord. Eventually its sound became more ‘pianistic’.
The action of the square piano is called the English single. It was a very single action, without an escapement, with a leather rod under the hammer which bounced into contact with the string. From 1768 onwards Zumpe’s square pianos had three hand-operated stops in the compartment at the left of the keyboard. One was to lift the treble dampers, the second for the bass dampers and the third pressed a buff leather against the strings. When used with the other stops it produced a gut-strung harp tone. Because the single action was limited in the obtainment of dynamics, the double action was invented by John Geib in 1786. His action featured an intermediate lever which increased the speed of the hammer, as well as an escapement so the hammer would fall away from the string whilst the key was pressed. By the mids of the 19th century square pianos exceeded 6 octaves. Video: Square Piano 1789 by Johannes Bätz.
Johann Andreas Silbermann (1712-1783), Gottfried Silbermann’s older brother, was the author of the old German action the Prellmechanik, around 1769, which later became the Viennese action. The Prellmechanik also derived from the clavichord, however instead of having a tangent, there was a moving hammer bound with the key lever. When the key was pressed the key lever lifted up while the hammer’s tail was blocked, flipping the hammerhead (which pointed towards the keyboard) to hit the string.
Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792), c.1781 improved it and simplified Cristofori’s action (adding a back check) into the Prellmechanik with escapement, the hammer could escape after the note was played leaving the strings to vibrate, permitting a louder sound and a quicker response. Stein instead of using pedals or hand-stops, included a knee-operated lever in replacement of Silbermann’s damper stop.
The oldest surviving grand pianoforte with pedals is a pianoforte made in 1772 by Americus Backers, and was owned by the first Duke of Wellington. Backers is therefore considered to be the first one to have used pedals instead of hand stops and knee levers. The particular piano is also regarded as the first English grand piano. The piano has an una corda and damper lift which are activated by pedals. Both pedals are incorporated to the instruments front legs. When the left pedal, una corda, is activated, the whole keyboard slides to the right, causing the hammers to strike only one string, when the right pedal is activated, a mechanism lifts all the dampers away from the strings. Video: Americus Backers 1772 piano
After Backers invention, Adam Beyer incorporated, from 1775, a damper pedal in his square pianos as well as a nag’s head swell pedal in 1777, like the one used in the harpsichord from 1754. The pedal caused the right side of the lid to open.
From 1783, Broadwood started using the una corda and the sustaining pedal. In France, Érard was the first to add several pedals to his pianos. The piano shown is from 1793 and it has a buff (harp), a moderator (celeste), a sustain for the bass notes, a sustain for the treble notes and a swell.
The Austrian pianos replaced the hand stops with knee levers in the 18th century, until the knee levers were replaced by pedals in the early 19th century. Anton Walter (1752-1826), the most popular instrument maker of Viennese pianos, altered Stein’s model and contributed further to the sound of the instrument. For instance, Mozart’s piano (c.1782) included three hand stops and two knee levers that worked as the two damper stops. (the specific instrument was refurbished and modified internally for Constanze, Mozart’s widow, c.1808, so whether that was the original mechanism its debatable).
The piano had a long development. Many instrument makers experimented with different actions and mechanisms for the piano. It is impossible though to refer to all of them, thus I have briefly discussed the instruments that had a dominant role in the history. During the 18th century the Viennese pianos were better in articulation, fast scales and passage work whereas as the French and English piano were more expressive instruments.
Coming next: The modern piano ♪ ♫