Notes on the History of the Piano

By: Elizabeth Miller


Musical instruments with keyboards have been evolving since 220 B.C. when a Greek engineer named Ctebius created the "Hydraulis" to demonstrate, of all things, the principle of hydraulics.

The Hydraulis led to the organ and a technical evolution of that instrument that has spanned centuries.

Meanwhile came more instruments based on the concept of multiple strings, hammers and keyboards. First was the dulcimer, a multi-stringed instrument played with hand-held hammers. It has been claimed that the dulcimer was invented in the 9th Century A.D. by Persian Abu Nasre Farabi, who called it a Santur. The dulcimer has even been called "the first piano," but wait. The invention of the piano is most widely credited to the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in the early 1700s.

By then, several more stringed keyboard instruments including the clavichord and harpsichord had come into play. The harpsichord couldn't control the sound volume and the clavichord couldn't produce the tone needed by the artist to perform in large halls. Cristofori had the solution.

Cristofori replaced the string-plucking mechanism with leather padded hammers. Now he had a keyboard instrument that played "piano" (meaning "soft"), and "forte" (meaning "loud"). This first piano was called "pianoforte."

While Johann Sebastian Bach and others failed to embrace the pianoforte, Lodovico Biustini published "Sonate da Cimbalo di Piano e Forte," the first work specifically for piano, in 1732. Yet nearly half a century passed before the next composer was to write specifically for the piano. It was Muzio Clementi, whose "3 Sonatas, Opus 2" in 1770 triggered the emergence of the new playing techniques and styles of expression needed to master the piano.

The piano's pivotal turning point arrived in the late 1770s when Johann Christian Bach redesigned it and more composers came forward with more music for the piano. Soon there were solo piano performances to packed concert halls in Europe and from there, the piano found its way to Great Britain and America.

Here the piano evolved from a fashionable status symbol in the mansions of the rare few to the mass assembly lines of Jonas Chickering and Heinrich Steinweg. Thanks to their industry, the public came to regard the piano as a necessary part of every American household in the late 1800s. Knowing how to play it was considered the best way to win admiration, love and respect, especially if you were a woman.

By now the piano had been through all manner of transformation: square, vertical upright, grand and variations of same, with all the accompanying technical changes. Piano design and manufacturing thrived in Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain and America. But at the turn of the century, just when the piano had achieved prominence as the primary source of home entertainment, oops, here came the movies and the phonograph. Not to mention the player piano, which "automated" what many piano owners couldn't do. Then the gramophone and the radio took over where the player piano left off.

Renewed public interest didn't hit until the 1930s when piano makers introduced the miniature upright. From there the piano has reached unprecedented standards of quality through significant technical and cosmetic change brought on by new materials, processes, techniques and innovative genius. Today this amazing 5,000-piece invention is not the household staple that it used to be, but it remains a solid investment and the treasure of those who find fulfillment in the piano as a means of creative expression.

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Copyright MBPCO 2006 and beyond. Elizabeth Miller is a professional freelance copywriter and a general partner in Miller Bridges Partners. For more information about pianos click here

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