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Timeline: The History of the Piano

U.S. Public Domain
An etching of Franz Schubert playing a Viennese pianoforte for his friends during a "schubertiade". This early model of the instrument was a favorite of Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms.

The modern piano is a masterpiece of acoustic design and engineering; 88 keys with the ability to play all of the notes a musician could possibly reach simultaneously, and a sound that can fill a concert hall by itself. Inside, the metal frame is holding 18 tons of tension as the strings are struck over and over again by large hammers. Each key triggers a complex mechanism allowing the performer to easily control the volume of the note simply by touch. We see and hear the piano so often that we’ve forgotten just how unique an instrument this keyboard has become.

Before the piano, the most prevalent keyboard instruments were clavichords and harpsichords. Clavichords were versatile but very quiet, much too quiet to be played in an ensemble. The harpsichord was much louder, and a favorite during the Baroque, but it had its own limitations. The nature of its design meant that it had only one dynamic, all of the notes would sound at the same volume regardless of the performers touch.

In 1698, the keeper of instruments at the Medici court in Florence, Bartholomeo Christofori, began work on a new instrument that he called a “harpsichord with loud and soft” or “piano e forte”. You would think the ability to create dynamics on such an instrument would be instantly popular, but the piano didn’t take off during Christofori’s lifetime. In the 1730’s German manufacturers began to improve on the original design.  J.S. Bach was even brought in as a consultant by one developer and eventually gave his endorsement of the “hammer harpsichord”.

During the next century, the piano evolved in Germany, England and France, as each manufacturer tried their own take on the mechanics. However, it was the Viennese version that became the favored model of composers such as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. The Romantics were constantly pushing the instrument’s range and volume. Beethoven demanded so much from the piano that he would snap strings, splinter hammers and even damage the frame itself. These musical demands made manufacturers invent new steel and iron framing with larger strings and heavier hammers. The next generation of composers (Chopin, Liszt and Brahms) helped to cement the piano as the default keyboard instrument.

Credit US-PD
This is the earliest example of a French grand piano constructed in 1781.

Our modern piano is the result of a long period of experimentation, evolution and innovation. So the next time you hear a child play “Chopsticks” or perform a duet of “Heart and Soul”, remember all of the sweat, work and time that made such an instrument possible.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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