The Piano Is A Keyboard Instrument
The piano is a keyboard instrument that developed from the harpsichord, a common continuo instrument in the Baroque Period (1600-1750). When the strings of a harpsichord vibrated, they produced a fairly harsh tone, and the main limitation of this particular instrument was that it was only capable of playing at one dynamic: the volume of the instrument would always be the same, no matter how hard or soft the keys were played. Because of this, performers could not convey musical expression to a degree that we can today with modern pianos, as dynamics bring the music to life, and give it its character, whether that be mellow, playful, surprising, or dramatic.
In 1709 Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori became the first person to construct ‘the next-generation keyboard instrument’, and was named ‘fortepiano’ (due to its ability of being able to sound loud and soft depending on the amount of force applied on the keys), and the name was later shortened to the ‘piano’. Gottfried Silbermann, an organ builder, also began to build pianos, and his instruments were almost identical to Cristofori’s original design, yet they included one important addition: the sustain pedal. This was rarely used in the classical period, though it became essential when playing romantic music, which contained longer flowing melodies and large jumps around the keyboard.
Johann Sebastian Bach was shown one of Silbermann’s pianos in the 1730s, though he believed the higher notes were too soft to allow a full dynamic range. However, Bach approved of a later instrument he saw in 1747, and even worked as an agent in selling Silbermann’s pianos, emphasising the instrument’s capability of being able to play loud and soft.
Piano-making continued to flourish throughout the remainder of the 18th Century. Viennese-style pianos had wooden frames, two strings per note, and leather-covered hammers. Many of these instruments had the opposite colouring of today’s pianos: the natural keys were black, and the accidental keys were white. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed all of his sonatas and concertos on these particular instruments. Replicas of these pianos are still built today for a more historically informed performance. The piano in Mozart’s day traditionally had a softer and more ethereal tune than pianos in the romantic period to present day, and also had less sustaining power.
After Mozart’s death, the piano underwent major changes, eventually having all of the characteristics that modern day pianos have. Composers and pianists demanded a more powerful and sustained piano sound. This was made possible due to the Industrial Revolution, which allowed for high-quality piano wire for the strings, and precision casting for the production of large iron frames that could withstand the tension of the strings. During this period, the range of the piano grew from five octaves to the seven octaves we see on modern day pianos.
The ‘grand’ piano originated in around 1777, and was constructed by John Broadwood, Robert Stodart, and Americus Backers. These men were the first to design a piano in the harpsichord case. These types of piano were notorious for their richer and more powerful tone, and were used by Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven.
By 1820, piano innovation had moved to Paris in France, where the Pleyel firm manufactured pianos used by Frédéric Chopin and the Érard firm constructed those used by Franz Liszt. A notable improvement in these pianos was that the mechanism included the use of firm felt hammer coverings instead of layered leather or cotton. Felt was discovered to be a more consistent material, and allowed for wider dynamic ranges as hammer weights and string tension increased. The sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal on modern day pianos) was invented in 1844 by Jean-Louis Boisselot to allow for certain notes to be sustained whilst other notes could be played detached.
The first upright piano was invented in 1826 by Robert Wornum, and to this day, they are the most popular model of the instrument. They took up much less space compared to a grand piano, so were much more ideal for use in private homes for domestic music-making and practice.