PIANO: HISTORY & FACTS

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1 NAME CLASS PERIOD Forerunners of the Modern Piano PIANO: HISTORY & FACTS The piano is one of the most common types of keyboard instruments. Keyboards operate by linking individual pitches to devices called keys, which allow for several pitches to sound simultaneously with the depression of multiple keys. The first known keyboard instrument, a type of pipe organ, was invented during the 3rd century in ancient Greece. Although the piano can trace its history back to this pipe organ, the piano is a member of a different sound production family as it uses the vibration of strings, not air. String instruments are called chordophones (from the Greek, meaning 'string' and 'sound'). The first chordophone keyboard instrument and direct forerunner of the piano, called the clavichord, appeared in 14th-century Europe. When a key on the clavichord is depressed, a small piece of metal strikes a string, which causes the string to vibrate. The clavichord enjoyed significant popularity throughout Europe, but had some limitations. For one thing, the volume of the instrument is very soft, making it most suitable for small, intimate performances and severely limiting its potential as an ensemble instrument. The next development of keyboard instruments was the harpsichord, invented in This was very popular during the late Renaissance era ( C.E) and throughout the Baroque era ( C.E.). 16th-century Italian clavichord The harpsichord resembled the shape and design of the modern piano, with an elongated body and more keys. Harpsichord keys pluck strings instead of striking them, making the harpsichord slightly louder than the clavichord. It was used chiefly to provide harmonic accompaniment in Baroque ensembles. However, the harpsichord was still a fairly quiet instrument and had fixed dynamics. In music, the term 'dynamics' refers to the volume of a pitch. 'Fixed dynamics' means that the amount of force used to depress a key would not change the dynamic level of the sound. Most harpsichords had two fixed settings: soft and medium soft. To change between the two, the performer switches a lever on the side of the instrument, requiring at least one hand to be momentarily engaged and unable to play. 1

2 Some enterprising keyboard makers started experimenting with existing instruments. In particular, the goal was to find a way to give the player direct and immediate control over dynamic levels. For many, the great advantage of keyboard instruments was that unlike many other instruments, they could play several pitches simultaneously. Therefore, it would be advantageous if there was a way to have some pitches sound at a louder dynamic level than others to more easily differentiate melody from harmony, as well as for expressive purposes. Evidence supports several quasi-successful attempts to create such an instrument during the late 16th through 17th centuries, but none that were satisfactory enough to be widely replicated. W. A. Mozart Clara Schumann THE PIANO The first piano was invented in Florence, Italy in 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori ( ), a craftsman who repaired harpsichords for Italy s royal court. Cristofori s invention was a simple keyboard that he called a gravecembalo col piano et forte, keyboard instrument with soft and loud, named for the strings that produced different dynamic levels upon vibrating when struck by small wooden hammers covered with deerskin. Cristofori was employed by the wealthy Medici family as chief caretaker of their musical instruments, but his true passion was building keyboard instruments that allowed for varying degrees of dynamic levels. After several prototypes, he created a satisfactory model in 1720 and the piano was born. 2

3 Mechanics of the Cristofori piano. The above image depicts the mechanism and action of Cristofori's piano. The hammer, made of paper, is engaged through depression of a key and strikes the string. In order to increase the volume, the piano's mechanism must increase the force of this action. Cristorfori used a multiple lever system to multiply the impact of the force by a factor of eight, significantly amplifying the sound while still allowing it to directly correlate to the force with which the key is depressed. Cristofori also increased the amplitude by using paired strings, so that each key has two strings tuned to the same pitch that sound simultaneously. He added a foot pedal, which, when engaged, moves all the hammers slightly to one side so that they hit only one string, decreasing the overall amplitude. This device is called the una chorda ('one string') pedal and is still a standard feature today. Because piano hammers were light, there was a tendency for them to bounce after hitting a sting, often causing the string to be struck a second time in an echo effect. Cristofori's design adds a 'check' to catch the hammer after the first strike, preventing bounce. The design also allowed for the rapid repetition of a pitch by ensuring that all parts of the mechanism reset quickly so as to be prepared for another immediate key depression. Cristofori's instrument also had damper devices. When a key is at rest, a small wooden slip sits on the string, momentarily lifting when the key is engaged to allow for free vibration. When the key is released, the damper falls back onto the string, stopping the vibration to prevent unwanted reverberation. Cristofori's design was highly complex and revolutionary. While several other keyboard makers attempted to simplify this model to minimize costs and labor, none were able to successfully do so. The action of modern pianos is a slightly more evolved version of Cristofori's original model. 3

4 Further Development: The full name of the piano is pianoforte. This name directly corresponds to the main reason for its creation: dynamic flexibility. The word forte means 'strong' or 'forceful' in Italian, while piano means 'soft.' Over time, this became shortened to 'piano,' giving us the modern name of the instrument. Although the piano wasn't popular for several decades after its invention, it quickly became the dominant keyboard instrument during the Classical Era ( C.E.). Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven began writing music specifically designed to showcase the sound and potential of the instrument, including pieces like Mozart's popular piano concertos and Beethoven's well-known piano sonatas (such as the 'Moonlight' and 'Pathetique'). By this time, another foot pedal, called the damper pedal, had become a standard addition. This device causes all the dampers to lift off the strings, allowing for sustained reverberation of sound until the pedal is released. The next major innovation in the piano's development came as a result of the Industrial Revolution. The pianoforte was significantly louder than its predecessors, but visionaries searched for an even more powerful sound. The frames that held the strings of early fortepianos were made out of wood. Strings exert a certain amount of tension on the frame, and if the force from this tension became too great, the wooden frame would collapse in on itself. To prevent this, early fortepianos used relatively thin strings that were not strung too tightly and had only about sixty individual keys. Pianos were made in different shapes and sizes around the world to accommodate different middle-class homes, often appearing square-shaped in America and curvier in Germany and Austria. With the Industrial Revolution came the birth of piano factories, which eliminated handmade pianos and adopted a more standard design for the instrument and added more keys to increase the number to 88. Many of these companies still operate today, such as Bechstein and Boston s Chickering & Sons, which was America s leading piano maker in the 1850s. Another manufacturer, Steinway & Sons, used creative techniques to prosper, such as sponsoring piano tours, building concert halls and actually creating a town for its employees, providing homes, education and religious services. Taking piano lessons was a popular past time in the late 1800s and early 20th century, especially among children. Serious students often went on to study abroad in Europe and actively participate in community recitals and church choirs. Piano prices dropped so the instrument could be afforded by nearly any family, and piano and sheet music sales prospered with traveling salesmen and the option of ordering through the mail. In the 1930s, however, the Great Depression arose, and piano sales decreased dramatically. Piano companies even began to manufacture gliders and coffins just to stay in business. In the 19th century, women were often shunned for playing the piano in public, but there were a few exceptions. Parisian Marie Moke Pleyel ( ) performed in Europe and Russia and impressed both Liszt and Chopin. And Clara Wieck Schumann, who began playing piano at the age of nine, only made an even bigger name for herself upon marrying German composer Robert Schumann, performing his works. 4

5 Despite not being allowed to publicly perform, however, women were expected to know how to play the piano at home and teach their children how to play as well. As a result, many American women made careers out of becoming piano instructors. In Germany and Australia, pianos were even built into sewing tables, allowing women to conveniently practice both womanly tasks. African Americans in the 1900s came up with their own styles of playing the piano, first ragtime and then jazz, which also induced new dances. Famous artists such as Edward Kennedy Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams emerged to shape the new music movement. Pianos were also incorporated in gospels to invoke religious feelings and inspire music participation. Player pianos, pianos that play songs on their own, only requiring an individual to pump the pedals, developed in the early 1900s, allowing families to sing along with piano tunes. Player pianos actually outsold normal pianos until the Great Depression, but as technology increased with movies and the radio, the player piano was able to keep the piano alive. Duke Ellington Scott Joplin Mary Lou Williams Piano manufacturing took over in Asia, where companies such as Yamaha in Japan became leading producers. Asian inventors prospered after World War II, when musicians turned to their electronic keyboards. Today, pianos have also gone digital, using computer software to compose and perform songs. With over 300 years of history, the piano has survived longer than most instruments that exist today. It remains to be a popular instrument, still played by musicians as just as it has for the past three centuries. 5

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