“Music is enough for a lifetime but a lifetime is not enough for music.”
Today, in many homes, one will find the piano residing in the living room or other location. Whether the instrument is played by a family member or just an elegant piece of furniture the piano is important to many. Have you ever wondered how the piano came to be? Obviously it just didn’t appear in its present state of construction one day in the past. It, like almost everything, has an origin and a history of its ancestor’s evolution to its present day form.
How does it work? The piano, a stringed-percussion instrument, produces sound by hammers striking metal strings that are stretched across a soundboard when the black and while keys on the keyboard are depressed. The piano was originally known as the ‘Pianoforte’ that literally means “soft-loud.”
Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori (1655-1731) is credited with the development of the modern piano we know today, in 1709. He was a harpsichord maker from Florence Italy. The early piano was first produced because an instrument was desired that had a better dynamic range (degree of loudness) than the harpsichord. The new hammer action could produce gradations of loudness that was lacking in the harpsichord. Finally performers were able to have a better mechanism to provide musical expression and varying degrees of dynamics, contrast and nuance.
Around 1720 the original piano action was improved upon and went virtually untouched for the better part of a century. Even with modern improvements during the last 300 years the modern version is very similar to Cristofori’s piano of the 18th century.
“From 1790 to the mid-1800’s, piano technology and sound greatly improved due to the inventions of the industrial revolution,” wrote Mary Bellis in The History of the Piano. “Tonal range increased from five octaves to seven and more.”
The modern piano is so versatile it is used as a solo instrument, an ensemble instrument an accompanying instrument for vocalists and other instrumentalist in both classical and other genres. It is currently manufactured in upright and grand piano formats.
To establish a link to the piano’s present-day construction, appearance and function one must go back several hundred years to the late medieval through the renaissance, baroque and classical eras. Many string and keyboard progenitors preceded the piano; prominent among these are the clavichord and harpsichord that led to the invention and construction of the pianoforte.
The clavichord can be defined as a stringed keyboard instrument housed in a rectangular case. In order to produce a tone, the strings are “struck” by a mental wedge called a tangent. The name “clavichord” comes from the Latin word clavis meaning key and chorde which means string. The Harvard Dictionary of Music states the clavichord produces a very soft sound and at first hearing is often thought as disappointing. Variations in the force with which the keys are struck produce changes in loudness although not to a great extent. The instrument is limited in the range of its sound therefore it is a very sutbtle sounding instrument best heard in small intimate settings as opposed to a large concert hall or outdoors.
One of J.S. Bach’s sons, Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach, was an important composer of the most idiomatic music for the clavichord. Today there are numerous clavichord societies around the world keeping the instrument and its music alive.
A rudimentary definition of a harpsichord is: a keyboard instrument similar to the piano. The strings are ‘plucked’ by a quill rather than struck by a hammer like the piano. “The harpsichord is descended from an instrument called the Psaltery; a hand-held stringed instrument played with a plectrum: a piece of quill, ivory or metal used to pluck the strings,” explained Cynthia Reeser in The History of the Harpsichord. “In the late 14th century a keyboard was added; this development soon led to the harpsichord in the early 15th century.”
Some of the early instruments, especially those made by the Italian makers, circa 1521, were somewhat small and lightly constructed. It is reported that they have a characteristically pungent, immediate, almost at times percussive tone. The Flemish style instrument from the early 17th century was more solidly constructed than their Italian cousins. Two sets of strings and two manuals (keyboards) were common and they had a fuller sound.
In general, harpsichords were used for both solo work and as an accompanying instrument in chamber groups as well as larger ensembles. It was much in favor in the Baroque period as a ‘continuo’ or bass part in numerous compositions. In the late 18th century the harpsichord was gradually displaced by the piano.
So the piano, the instrument in many of our homes, has a long and storied history. It just didn’t happen – it came about through many prototypes and the genius of talented instrument makers of the past, for whom we are so grateful.
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