Behold: The piano. The instrument has become a world favorite. Many many young musicians start with it. Composers use it when they compose, and it has become a favorite when accompanying vocals, both choral and otherwise. It is an incredible piece of machinery, but where did it come from, and how has it evolved?

Back in the day (by which I mean the lat 1600s), two of the most commonly used keyboard instruments were the harpsichord and the clavichord. Although the clavichord allowed control over the volume and sustain, it was too quiet for large performances. The harpsichord on the other hand was loud enough to perform with, but lacked the control over the expressive elements the clavichord had. A intermediary needed to be found.

A fortepiano built around 1775

So, around the year 1700, a Italian instrument maker named Bartolomeo Christofori decided to try something new. He used principles from instruments like the harpsichord, the clavichord, and the hammered dulcimer and created what he called the gravicembalo col pian e forte (Italian for “harpsichord with soft and loud) or simply the fortepiano.

The sound and construction of the original fortepiano was very different from modern pianos. Overall it was much lighter in weight then the modern instrument. The hammers had a much lighter touch, resulting in an overall more delicate sound. The timbre of the original was very different as well, with the bass having more of a buzz, and the treble having what has been described as a tinkling sort of sound. The original fortepiano had a much smaller range then the modern piano, only spanning about four octaves. The sustain was not nearly as long as modern pianos, and there was no damper pedal.

The original fortepiano was unveiled in 1709, but remained relatively unknown until a Italian writer named Francesco Scipione wrote an enthusiastic article about it. He included a diagram of the mechanism and many soon to be piano makers got their start following his diagram. One of these, a German organ builder named Gottfried Silbermann, introduced the idea of the damper pedal, which allowed the performed to keep a note ringing even after he had released a key. This proved revolutionary for the fortepiano and, around 1760 12 German masters moved to London and established the English school that, under John Broadwood and others, turned to the fortepiano into a heavier and stronger build, more resembling the modern ones.

And then, around 1790, the piano started to undergo some serious changes. Composers where getting a hold of it, but wanted an instrument that was louder and had more sustain, as well as a bigger range. By 1790, the first pianos with a 5 octave ranges, manufatcured by the Broadwood firm, begain to appear. By 1810 there was 6 octaves. And by 1820, the piano had a full 7 octaves of range. In 1777, the had also managed to put a piano in the body of a harpsichord, which was the organ of the modern grand piano.

Perhaps one of the biggest innovations occurred in 1821 at the hand of a french instrument maker named Sébastien Érard. The invention, called double escapement action, allowed the player to play a note twice without having to allow the key to raise completely. This allowed notes to be played much quicker.

Already this much has happened and we haven’t even got through the first half of the 19th century. Come take a look at part 2 to learn more about the history of this marvelous instrument.

Categories: Instruments