The Piano in History:
“A Clever Bundle of Inventions”
We see them in homes, restaurants, stores, concert halls and stages, and a myriad of places too numerous and diverse to mention. The repertoire of music written for it far surpasses that of any other instrument, and is far larger than any virtuoso could ever even have time to sample, let alone master. The modern piano is still at the center of nearly every form of modern musical expression despite the sensations of the electronic age that have tried to take its place.
It has even been a regular inhabitant and performer at the White House, in the form of spectacular and often ornate “presidential pianos.” The instrument is so common, in fact, that most people, even most “piano fans,” never stop to consider what a marvellous creation the piano really is.
“Whoever invented this thing must really have been a genius,” the piano teacher or technician often hears. Yet like many other “inventions” around us, the ingenuity of the piano cannot be credited to just one genius. It has, in fact, been referred to as “a very clever bundle of inventions.
Ancient Forerunners of the Piano
The piano is, all at once, (1) a keyboard instrument (activating the sound-producing mechanism by means of depressing a movable key); (2) a stringed instrument (producing its sound by means of a vibrating string), and (3) a percussion instrument (producing sound by means of a striking action, as opposed to plucking, bowing, or blowing air).
Examples of all three of these instruments existed in some form even in ancient times. The monochord, used by Pythagoras in the sixth century BC, was a very basic stringed instrument. The hammer dulcimer, in which the strings were activated by striking them with mallets (thus using a percussive action), also existed in ancient times.
During the European Renaissance, beginning around the 1500’s, instruments that were to become the piano began a period of rapid development.
The clavichord (see illustration) was an instrument (usually box-shaped) with keys, strings, and a soundboard, and produced its sound by means of a brass pin (called a tangent or clavicle), on each key, hitting the string. Volume could be varied by the intensity of the blow given to the key. Yet its mechanics were so primitive, and its sound so soft, that the clavichord was avoided by most serious musicians.
The virginal and harpsichord , both produced their sound by plucking the string rather than striking it. Most virginal, however, were rather small and rectangular (unlike the one pictured here), and thus had the same sound limitations of the clavichord. Thus, they were usually confined to the home where they were the keyboard instrument most used by young women — thus, the name “virginal.”
The Baroque Period
The harpsichord was the instrument of J.S. Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers. (1600’s and 1700’s). It consisted of a keyboard; a set of strings stretched across a board that amplified their sound (thus the term “soundboard”); and, for each string, a tiny “quill” which plucked the string as the key was depressed. But while the sound of this instrument was quite beautiful, the harpsichord lacked one major thing: volume control . No matter how hard one hit the key, the volume and quality of sound, generally speaking, were the same. But the greatest harpsichords, which contained multiple sets of strings which could be turned on or off (an entire “choir” of strings at a time) by shifting a lever, were at least able to produce enough volume for concert purposes, but what was lacking was the ability to control volume one key at a time. (photo pictures the “Flemish single” harpsichord containing two sets of jacks and strings, an 8′ and a 4′ “choir.” built from a kit by Zuckermann Harpsichords.)
The harpsichord was a wing-shaped keyboard instrument, and in that regard, the forerunner of the modern grand piano, but it had major deficiencies, one of the greatest being the musician’s limited ability to control the volume. It was the percussive action, and not plucking, that was to allow this feature. It was first presented, in the early 1700’s, as a keyboard instrment that could play piano e forte — “soft and loud” — the name which survives to this day in the name piano.
The earliest “piano” is generally agreed to be the one produced by an Italian named Cristofori in 1711. Its action was quite primitive by modern standards, and provided no “escapement mechanism” to get the hammer away from the string after being struck, but he added this feature in his improved instrument of 1720.
The great composers of the late baroque, classical and even early romantic eras wrote beautiful music for an instrument that was, in many respects, still primitive when compared to modern standards. The pianos of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven would not satisfy any great pianist of our day, for various reasons.
The modern fascination for playing earlier music on “period instruments” certainly has historical interest, but it’s very likely that those composers would have discarded their period instruments in a moment for the chance to play on a modern concert piano.
The Modern Piano
The modern piano evolved as the result of a long series of improvements. Jonas Chickering, for example, was granted the first patent in 1837 for his metal frame, the strength of which allowed for much heavier strings, which in turn gave the instrument a “larger” tone.
The first piano plate was a rather primitive arrangement of metal bars attached to each other. Later plates, like the modern Steinway plate (courtesty Steinway & Sons), were forged marvels of modern design and engineering.
In 1855, the Steinway company, devised a way to make the piano smaller without sacrificing sound by crossing the bass strings over top of the treble strings (this was called the overstrung scale and is seen in the two photos below:
Throughout the 19th century, continual improvements were made in the design and manufacture of piano actions (the moving parts of the piano), hammers, strings, frames, and soundboards, resulting in the emergence of the “modern” piano by around 1900. By this time, the instrument had reached such a degree of perfection that few changes of great significance have occurred since.