The History of the Piano

November 17, 2012 at 7:46 am

The clavichord

The Clavichord: 1400’s – 1500’s

Chronologically the oldest clavichord was often known as either monocordium or monacordo, the earliest use of the term ‘clavichord’ dates from 1404. Clavichords may be “fretted” (each string-pair being struck in succession by differently-placed   tangents), or ‘unfretted’ (in which each string pair gives only one note). Players on unfretted clavichords were able to accommodate pieces in distant tonalities. Fretted instruments were more limiting. The player can produce a vibrato by varying the pressure of his finger on the key as he holds it down. This was one of the factors contributing to the significant role which the clavichord played in home music making over a period of several centuries. The oldest surviving clavichord, built by Domenico da Pesaro, is from the year 1543.

The harpsichord

The Harpsichord:   1500’s – 1600’s

At the time the clavichord was being used the harpsichord, spinet, and virginal were also being used. In the more advanced designs the makers attempt to offset this disadvantage by adding such things as an extra manual (keyboard), extra sets of strings, lute, harp and buff stops and 16, 4 and 2 octave couplers. In appearance the harpsichord foreshadows the wing-shaped, wooden-framed grand pianos of the late 18th century. Depressing the key releases a cloth damper from the string, raises the jack and forces the plectrum past the string, plucking it. A release mechanism lets the jack return to the rest. The sound lasts while the key is depressed, but decays quickly. In the hands of a good player, sophisticated legato (joined) andstaccato (detached) articulation are possible. In the more advanced designs the makers attempt to offset this disadvantage by adding such things as an extra manual (keyboard), extra sets of strings, lute, harp and buff stops and 16, 4 and 2 octave couplers.

The Spinet

The Spinet:   1500’s – 1600’s

The spinet was another form of early domestic harpsichord, replacing the virginal. The spinet differs from the harpsichord not only in size, but also in that its keyboard is located on the long side of the instrument, like the clavichord, the spinet once enjoyed a great popularity as a home musical instrument.  German spinets of the 16th-century tended to be rectangular in design. Early 17th-century Italian ones were five or six-sided.

The Virginal

The Virginal:    1400s – 1600s

In a treatise of about 1460 the virginal is identified as “having the [rectangle, box-like] shape of a clavichord and [traverse] metal strings making the sound of a [small] harpsichord”.
The instrument was intended originally to be either placed on a table or held in the lap.

Cristofori Pianoforte

Pianos or Piano Fortes:   1700s to today

The first known grand pianoforte with a hammer action dates back to about the year 1709. Bartom(m)eo Cristofori (1655-1731), Italian musical instrument maker and curator of the collection of Prince Ferdinand dei Medici in Florence, had been experimenting with his invention since about 1690.

Cristofori built about twenty instruments of this type. Referring to its most outstanding characteristics its capability of producing any desired fine degree of dynamic modulation, he dubbed his invention the gravicembalo col piano e forte [“(hammer) harpsichord with soft and loud”] the source of the later term “pianoforte “still in customary use during the nineteenth century but today usually further shortened to “piano.” In Italy itself, Cristofori’s new instrument never caught on. In later years, Cristofori himself finally gave up in designation and went back to building normal harpsichords. Jean Marius’ clavecin à maillets (“hammer harpsichord”), his first instrument built in Paris in 1716, and Christopher Gottlieb Schröter’s hammer-action model, developed in Dresden in 1717, possibly inspired by the pantaleon, both suffered similar fates.



German built grand piano

German Piano Builders
The world’s first successful pianoforte manufacturer in Germany was the renowned harpsichord and organ builder Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg (1683-1753). In possession of detailed information concerning the Cristofori hammer action, he continued experimenting systematically’ with the design, improved on it and spent the rest of his life building a whole series of pianofortes and grand pianofortes which caused a sensation everywhere and laid the foundation for future developments. His work was to prove an inspiration to European piano builders for generations to come, down to the present day.

Erard piano - French piano builder

French Piano Builders
In France we find a similar decisive role being played by the Alsatian musical-instrument maker Sebastian Erhard. Upon emigrating from Strasbourg to Paris in 1768, he Gallicized his name to Sébastian Érard. Among the other nineteenth-century manufacturers of grand pianofortes worthy of mention were Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) and his son Camille, also in Paris. Because of their “singing” tone, their instruments found a wide distribution and were especially preferred by Frédéric Chopin. Today the original companies of Érard and Pleyel no longer exist. From 1970 through 1993, Schimmel produced the instruments bearing these brand names.

Square Piano

Square Pianos
An already sophisticated ‘square’ piano by Johann Socher, in Sonthofen, Germany in 1742, is the earliest surviving example of the type.
From 1742 on, Johann Socher in Sonthofen, Germany was manufacturing square pianos with a hammer action, and particularly by the renowned piano builder Christian Ernst Friederici (1709-1780) in Gera, who made instruments for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Leopold Mozart. 
The production of square pianos continued into the latter half of the nineteenth century, among the more important manufacturers being Steinway & Sons in New York and Helmholz in Hanover.



An early upright piano

Upright Pianos
From 1800 on, influenced by the upright grand models, we find an early form of our modern upright piano gaining an ever wider distribution. Among the first attempts along this line were the cottage pianos of Robert Wornum, the cabinet pianos of John Broadwood and the portable grand pianoforte of John Isaac Hawkins in Philadelphia, as well as the upright pianos of Matthias Müller in Vienna and Érard and Pleyel in Paris and the console pianos of Jean-Henri Pape in Paris, creative manufacturers to whom the piano industry is deeply indebted for their important contributions toward the development of the upright piano as we know it today.

Seiler - Modern Day Upright

Modern-Day Grands and Uprights
The middle of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the end of the square pianos and the upright grands. In both Europe and America we find these two instrument types gradually’ declining, although square pianos continued to be produced in America until about 1880.