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The History Of The Piano Essay, Research Paper
The History of the Piano
The piano has seen many sights and has been a part of countless
important events in the past and present, and is said to have
dominated music for the past 200 years (Welton). Throughout
history, inventions come along that “take art away from princes
and give it the people” (Swan 41). Not unlike the printing
press, the piano made what was once intangible possible: the
poorest of peasants could enjoy the same music that their beloved
rulers did. The piano can be played by “the rankest of amateurs,
and the greatest of virtuosos” (Swan 41); so even if a person is
not very intelligent, a simple tune can easily be learned. In
addition to being a key factor in almost all western music
styles, the piano has had a rich and eventful history.
The piano can be directly linked to two instruments of
centuries past. The first is the clavichord, a box-like
structure in which strings are stretched, and struck by metal
blades to produce notes and pitches. The clavichord could be
manipulated to produce different chords, but even at it’s best,
could barely be heard by anyone other than the player (Swan 42).
Intent upon creating a superior to the clavichord, musical
engineers created the harpsichord. The harpsichord used a frame
similar to modern grand-pianos, but utilized a wooden bar and a
quill to pluck strings (the jack), which amplified the sound of a
clavichord greatly. Harpsichords were more expensive
clavichords and became a fad in sixteenth and seventeenth century
England (Rice 185).
The harpsichord was a particularly important development
leading to the invention of the piano. “Its ability to project
sound more loudly than its predecessors, and refinements in the
action of striking the keys inspired many more musicians to
compose for the keyboard and thus, to perform keyboard works”
(Grover 128). However, the harpsichord was limited to one,
unvarying volume. Its softness and loudness remained the same
while playing. Therefore, performing artists could not achieve
the degree of musical expression of most other instruments. The
artistic desire for more controlled expression led directly to
the invention of the piano, on which the artist could alter the
loudness and tone with the force of his/her fingers (129).
The first piano appeared in Italy sometime around 1693,
originally named the gravicembolo col piano e forte (“the
harpsichord with loud and soft”). An Italian harpsichord-maker
named Bartolomeo Cristofori “replaced harpsichord’s jacks with
leather covered hammers, activated by a remarkable mechanical
system” (Hollis 51). Where the harpsichord could only make a
string produce one sound, the new piano could be played loud or
soft, make dynamic accents, and could produce gradations of
sounds (52). Even though this new invention attracted little
attention at the time (because of the existing popularity of the
harpsichord), the piano would captivate the world in the years to
Cristofori made only two pianos before he died in 1731, but
an article was written about the new invention, and the article
made it’s way to Germany. There, an organ-builder named
Gottfried Silbermann read the article and became fascinated with
the idea of a modified harpsichord (Hollis 54). Additionally,
Silbermann had recently seen a performance dedicated to Louis XIV
which included a piece of music played on a huge dulcimer, which
is played by striking strings with a mallet. One end of the
mallet was hard, while the other was covered with soft leather.
Fascinated and inspired, Silbermann set out to create a piano of
his own, using leather covered hammers (54).
When Silbermann’s first piano was finished in 1736, the
great composer Johannes Sebastian Bach evaluated it. “Bach
admired the tone, but complained that the action was heavy and
the upper register weak” (Hollis 55). Though slightly
discouraged, Silbermann introduced his piano to King Frederick
the Great, who was thrilled with this new instrument. It has
been rumored that the king acquired 15 of Silbermann’s pianos,
but if this is true, only three have made it into the twentieth
century. The acceptance of the piano by King Frederick began what
is known as the Twilight Era, a time of transition between the
rejection of the harpsichord and the acceptance of the piano
In the late seventeenth century, the piano had begun to shed
the reputation of an improved harpsichord, and was starting to be
recognized as an entirely new instrument. The piano’s popularity
steadily increased partially due to the standard of living at
that time. Helen Rice Hollis exemplified this by writing:
…economic and social factors influenced the increased
use of the piano. Clavichords were inexpensive but their
uses were limited. Harpsichords cost more than early pianos
and, requiring frequent requilling, were more difficult to
maintain. The material resources of the rising middle class
encouraged musical amateurs and created a climate favorable
to the new keyboard instrument.(57)
Even Wolfgang Mozart, future virtuoso, who was a primary advocate
of the harpsichord, had taken to the piano and practically
discarded his old instrument. The piano’s popularity spread
through Europe at a surprising rate. Piano makers experimented
and made improvements on current pianos; the piano industry was
becoming rivalrous with everyone trying to outdo each other (57).
Eventually, this competitive nature spread to England.
Still using the harpsichord as the chief string instrument,
England was the destination for twelve German piano-makers with a
mindset similar to those of trendsetters. Johannes Zumpe, one of
the twelve Germans who came to England, was a student of
Gottfried Silbermann and was employed in his workshop. “Zumpe
developed the first piano to mechanically resemble modern pianos”
(Welton). Zumpe created a piano that omitted the use of the
mechanism that Cristofori and Silbermann had made famous, thus
giving rise to a square piano that gained widespread acceptance
throughout Europe (Hollis 58). The clamor initiated when:
Johann Christian Bach…the youngest son of Johann
Sebastian, came to prefer the piano over the harpsichord
and, in 1768, gave the first ever solo piano performance
in an English concert using a Zumpe square. (Hollis 58)
The new mechanism created by Zumpe came to be known as (the
patented) ‘English Single Action.’ The little square piano
became so popular that pianos could be traced to the Middle East,
where the legs were shortened to accommodate the player, who
would sit on cushions on the floor (58). An improved version of
Zumpe’s piano added an escapement like Silbermann’s. John Gieb
created the ‘English Double Action,’ and pianos made with this
mechanism accounted for the successful piano that is even more
similar to modern pianos (59).
Though Germany and England received most of the glory for
pianos of the eighteenth century, piano makers in France
contributed to improved modifications of English and German
versions. A piano maker named Sebastian Erard (and his brother)
took elements of the English Grand Action (by Gieb) and the
Viennese (by Silbermann) and “put them all together with one
glorified gesture” (Welton). The result of Erard’s new piano was
that as long as the key is held down, the hammer remains close to
the string rather than return to it’s original position” (Hollis
62). The advantage of this is that if a key is struck
repeatedly, the hammer doesn’t have to travel as far as it would
with an unmodified piano. Therefore, “repeated notes can be
struck with greater speed and ease, and dynamic shadings can be
more easily controlled” (62). Performers found this advantageous
because they could now express their music more creatively and
beautifully, thus creating a new love for music.
In the nineteenth century, piano-makers were struggling to
meet the growing demand for pianos. This demand was partially
caused by musicians like Frederic Chopin. Chopin’s expressive
style, which was “distinguished by extraordinary delicacy and
subtlety of nuance” (Hollis 62). Chopin used French pianos
because of their ability to prolong and converge notes, which
drove Chopin to create more and more beautiful music to please
himself and his audiences. Chopin became one of the most famous
pianists/composers of his time. His concerts were all sold out,
and the people loved him. There were, however, other greatly
loved concert pianists in Chopin’s time.
Franz Liszt was a crowd-pleasing artist who single-handedly
positively affected the status of a performing pianist, and drove
piano-makers to make higher quality pianos. Liszt was a
romantic; he lived for music and it showed through his
performances. Liszt would literally pound his pianos and it was
frequent that a tuning would have to be done mid-concert. Oscar
Bie best describes Lizst’s concerts like this:
Using the full weight of his shoulders, arms and wrists he
made the instrument speak with power, drama, and even
violence that had never been done before… Pianos
suffered at his hands and it was not at all unusual for
one or two strings to break and for the piano to require
retuning in the midst of one of his concerts… a spare
piano stood ready on the stage, and reports of his
concerts suggest that the audience felt cheated if a piano
survived intact. (63)
Lizst’s works were all passionate and beautiful, and since his
passion was sometimes violent, pianos needed to be built stronger
and more durable to sustain the blows dealt by passionate
players. Piano-makers had to keep up with the changing times,
and with Beethoven contributing to the piano’s hype, change was
eminent (Bie 126).
Ludwig van Beethoven was the king of pianists in his time.
Beethoven wanted the piano to sound like a whole orchestra
instead of just one instrument. Beethoven was accustomed to
standard five-octave pianos, but in 1818, he received a
six-octave grand piano from the Broadwood Piano Company (Bie
139). Excited with this new style and extra octave, Beethoven
wrote his last three sonatas for the six-octave. Beethoven,
however, was deaf by 1818, loved his Broadwood because he could
more feel the music than hear it. Since Beethoven favored
Broadwood, so did the rest of the musical community. The
Broadwood Grand continued to be a very popular model through the
By 1853, the United States had become part of the piano
scene, producing pianos such as the upright and the Chickering,
but perhaps the most important piano-makers in America in the
nineteenth century are Steinway and Sons. As German natives,
these men came to America to flee the German government, and
found their calling in the piano-making business (Welton). Using
the same frames as older pianos, the Steinways’ piano models
remained in style for a time, but the showstopper came out in
1855, when the Steinways introduced their own homemade iron
frame. This frame was “that of the grand piano, which became the
primary concert piano in America by 1900” (Grover 98).
In the early 1900s, pianos began to be “the primary vocal
accompanying instrument” (Barrie 3). With the Big Band Era and
the Swing Era between the 1920s and 1940s, the piano continued to
be a major part of all music. The mellow sounds of 1950s love
songs gave listeners soothing chords, while 50’s rock and roll
produced amazing sounds and playful piano pieces (5). As disco
began to sweep over America, musical engineers created new
electrical instruments, including pianos. These new pianos could
be programmed to play not only as a piano, but also as a flute, a
clarinet, an organ, or even a dog. An added bonus of the new
digital piano was that no tuning would ever be needed (5-6).
From the 1960s to present day, the digital piano has been a
vital part of almost all musical recording studios (Barrie 7).
Being easily transported and virtually perfectly pitched, digital
pianos are the preference of recording artists (7). This
transformation exemplifies the piano’s evolution, in relationship
to human music growth and change. Concert pianists, however, use
only true grand pianos, perhaps to preserve the tradition set by
early Europeans (8-9).
Worldwide, the piano has lived a full and momentous life.
Since the Steinway’s success, pianos have been used for
recreation, employment, entertainment, and education. Though the
piano has had many different faces, the general intent of all
players was (and is) to bring joy to someone’s day. The piano is
not only a musical instrument, but an instrument of internal
harmony. From it’s origination as a little tiny clavichord, to
the unblemished beautiful grand pianos of today, the piano has
and always will be one of the centerpieces of all kinds of music.
Bie, Oscar. A History of the Pianoforte and Pianoforte Players. trans. by E. E. Kellett
and E. W. Naylor. NewYork: Da Capo, 1966.
Grover, David S. THE PIANO– It’s story from Zither to Grand. New York: Charles
Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
Heaton, Barrie. “A History of the Piano from 1706 to1990”
http://www.uk-piano.org/history/history_1.html (26 Oct. 1996)
Hollis, Helen Rice. The Piano–A Pictoral Account of It’s Ancestry and
Development. New York: Hippocrene, 1975.
Swan, Annalyn. Enlightenment’s Gift to the Age of Romance–How the Piano
Came to Be. in The Lives of the PIANO. ed. James R. Gaines. New
York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.
Welton, Naomi. Personal Interview. 24 November 1998.
***the citings NOT entirely accurate!!!
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