The History Of The Piano
The history of the piano traces back more than 3 centuries, and chronicles how the piano, most popular instrument in existence, continues to be the premiere instrument as we enter its fourth century. It is the most complex mechanical device in any home and is capable of fulfilling the player’s every musical wish. With each development since its invention, the piano has increasingly been able to provide infinite nuance of expression, volume and duration of tone. A complex wooden machine with myriad felt coverings and metal springs is coupled with a structure that sustains an average of 20 tons of string tension.
Where did it begin?
The history of the piano goes back three full centuries when an Italian harpsichord builder named Bartolomeo Cristofori produced a breakthrough technological advance – a new mechanism for the harpsichord which gave it the ability to be played with dynamic variations. He called this touch-sensitive invention “gravicembalo col piano e forte,” or “harpsichord with soft and loud.” But for centuries before Bartolomeo Cristofori came along, there were two keyboards widely in use during a parallel era that began in the 1400s. These were the clavichord and the harpsichord. Each had its own strengths, which made it popular for specific venues and music styles, and it was these which eventually led to the piano.
Pianos Through The Ages
Clavichords are constructed with bichord strings that are struck by tangents – usually brass – stuck into the end of each key. As a key is depressed, the tangent strikes the strings and remains in contact with them, acting as a fret. At the same time, the tangent sets the string in motion at its correct speaking length. Uniquely, a rapid varying of pressure on the key causes a vibrato effect. Dynamic expression is also possible on the clavichord, but the range is limited to the mezzo-piano level. Still, clavichords were extremely popular in domestic use and remained so for 300-400 years. The harpsichord, which dates to 1505, was popular during the same period and had its own followers. Harpsichord strings are plucked by a quill or plectrum. A jack rises as the key is played, carrying the quill toward the string. A felt damper rises off the string, allowing the string to vibrate freely when it is plucked. Volume could be altered mechanically by adjusting the length of the plectrum and its flexibility, either individually on each jack or by re-positioning the complete register (or one row), moving the jack slide laterally. Yet the harpsichord could be played at a higher volume than the clavichord, which made it especially popular in churches, where it could be played along with the organ and still be heard. A third instrument was also a forerunner to the piano, yet had no keyboard – that is the dulcimer. The dulcimer is a stringed instrument, struck with small padded hammers held in the player’s hands. In 1690, a prolific German dulcimer player and showman named Pantaleon Hebenstreit designed a special dulcimer for himself. His dulcimer was four times the normal size – nine feet long, with an extra soundboard. He made hammers for striking the strings which had two sides with different covering materials – one side for soft and one for loud. This “Pantaleon” (so dubbed by Louis XIV) was a great success for Hebenstreit, but required his unique skills to play. It did not develop commercially, yet provided an important link to the invention of the piano.
The time was right for the next step – a keyboard that could satisfy composers, who were clamoring for an instrument with a broad dynamic range. The answer came from Bartolomeo Cristofori. He was a harpsichord maker and keeper of musical instruments at the Medici court. In approximately the year 1700, he produced his great invention, the “gravicembalo col piano e forte.” Though evidence points to earlier attempts, Cristofori’s was the first successful keyboard instrument which used hammers to hit the strings. With a 1700 inventory listing Cristofori’s invention found among his employer’s belongings, the 1700 date is known to be close to the date of this invention and it may have come about in 1698-99. There are three surviving Cristofori pianos: a 1720 which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a 1722 from the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome (which was on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s 2000 “Piano 300” showcase exhibit of the history of the piano,) and a 1726 Cristofori which is in Leipzig, Germany. For his new instrument’s hammers, Cristofori used a small roll of parchment with a pad of leather glued on top, fitted into a wood molding. He also added something called the “escapement.” This design allowed the hammer to be thrown freely at the string in the last part of its travel, then escape rather than stay against the string. This allowed the string to vibrate freely. Another innovation was a separate rail for mounting the hammers.
Years passed before Cristofori’s invention was made public. In 1709, an Italian journalist named Scipione Maffei visited Cristofori, publishing drawings of the new design two years later. Instrument builder Gottlieb Silbermann saw the drawings and built his own version of Cristofori’s design. J.S. Bach eventually appraised Silbermann’s work, critiqued it, and caused Silbermann to make improvements, which Bach endorsed in the 1740s. Political unrest and economic problems throughout Europe in the 1750s and 60s limited further development there, and many of the builders left for England, where keyboard instrument building took off. A separate and distinct English style of action evolved, arriving ca. 1766. By the 1780s, there were two schools of piano making: the Viennese and the English. Maffei’s article had by then been translated into several languages and large numbers of builders began to experiment with Cristofori’s action. The Viennese instruments are lighter, with lighter weighted and simpler mechanisms. Composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were enchanted by the Viennese “harpsichord with soft and loud,” finding it increasingly responsive to the player’s wishes compared to the precision required to play traditional harpsichords. In 1777, Mozart wrote to his father praising Johann Andreas Stein’s instruments. Stein is given credit for perfecting the Viennese action, ca. 1780-90. This style of action was made until 1905. The English school added heft to the sound through various methods. Iron bars were added to the wooden framework, so that strings could be made heavier. But the action designs, while satisfying the need for greater volume, limited repetition.
For several decades, from the late 1700s to early 1800s, instrument builders in both schools continued to improve the mechanics and the structures of their products. Yet no single innovation had the kind of impact of Cristofori’s invention, until a Parisian named Sebastian Erard invented the “double escapement” or repetition mechanism. This revolutionary idea, patented in 1821, made it possible for a hammer to hit the string again before the key was returned to its original position, making rapid repetition possible. With the romantic movement in composition, composers such as Franz Liszt increasingly wished for more power and expressiveness from the piano. Enlarging venues and concert halls brought about larger, and therefore louder, orchestras. Instrument builders throughout the 1700s and early 1800s continued Cristofori’s quest for structural answers to the problem of producing more volume. Strings became heavier, adding tension to the frame. Iron bars were added to the wooden timbers of the cases, the whole structure becoming stronger and heavier.
The Iron Age
In 1825, a quantum change occurred – an early American piano maker named Alpheus Babcock was granted a patent for his invention of a full cast iron plate for a square piano, thus removing string tension from the wooden case. Jonas Chickering, who had opened his piano company in Boston in 1823, further developed Babcock’s work with a full iron frame for the grand piano. Another short-lived piano company was probably the first in America — Appleton, Hayt & Babcock.
From then on, innovations came fast and furious. Mechanized piano building was under way in England and America. Sizes and shapes over the previous century had ranged from small, light, rectangular boxes to wing-shaped, square, trapezoidal and upright. Evolution of improvements eventually led clearly to the grand pianos we know today with their 88 keys. They encompassed the best in structural integrity and strength, producing the full, rich sound we now enjoy. Upright pianos were developed with similar strength characteristics in response to demand for quality pianos that could be placed in the average home.
In 1859, Steinway & Sons produced the first overstrung grand piano, and by around 1870 the piano was very close to that which we know today. By 1885, the instrument composers and musicians had been waiting for had arrived, and the piano has not changed significantly in design since that year. Mechanization and marketing took hold of the piano-making world late in the 1800s, and the piano became a household object. Sales rose from just a few thousand in 1850 to 365,000 in 1909. The middle class had arrived. The piano itself was in a refined form and factories flourished.
The Golden Age
Generally speaking, historians and technicians refer to the time between post WWI and the Great Depression as the “Golden Age” of piano building, because by and large, many people had come to the conclusion that the design and general conception of the instrument was ‘complete’, and that there was very little room for further improvements. After all, it had been nearly 50 years since Steinway’s flurry of patents starting in the mid to late 1800’s. In addition, the popularity of pianos had reached a point where large, industrialized factories were producing thousands of pianos at very high levels of consistency, and American household affluence had been hyper inflated by the surge in the capital markets of the 1920’s. All of these factors combined to produce the very finest and most consistent pianos the world had ever seen. The Great Depression was a major shock to the piano industry, and survival, not innovation, became the name of the game. A further laggard on the industry would be World War II, which saw most piano factories, both in Germany and the United States, converted to producing war-time supplies, parts, and weaponry. The world would never again see the quantity of performance, artisan-level pianos being produced as was during the Golden Age, and as a result some rebuilders and piano dealers take particular care to find and restore these instruments.
The Modern Age
After WWII, economic forces continued to dictate the progression of the piano, both in terms of design, and cost. As the ‘suburb’ was born, so was the need for small, low-cost instruments which could be added to the average American home. The focus became lower-cost, hobby-level instruments, and producers such as Baldwin, Mason & Risch, Chickering, Aeolean, Heintzman, and many others rushed to produce lighter and smaller pianos, at relatively low cost. Similar to the auto industry, it was also at this time that higher-quality, inexpensive imports from Asia began to shape the market, and drive up quality expectations at lower price points. Brands like Kawai and Yamaha came to dominate the market, as mainstream North American producers were simply unable to compete with the enviable combination of quality and cost, leaving the US and Canada with an ever-decreasing number of domestic brands. Fundamentally though, pianos were still using the same designs as the 1800’s, continuing the stagnation of innovation of nearly 100 years.
The advent of computer design and CNC machinery, as introduced to the piano business, ushered in a whole new era of refinement – some say a renaissance – in design. Whereas a certain degree of trial and error, along with human intuition and senses, were chiefly responsible for the fine tuning of the piano’s design in the late 1800’s, there was now no longer a need to experiment in such a way when working with accuracies approaching .001 of an inch. Slowly but surely, many of the most well-known manufacturers began to re-analyze their designs using acoustic modelling, laser measure, and high-speed camera, and a new breed of instrument was born. For Kawai, it was the ‘Shigeru Kawai’. For Yamaha, it was the ‘S’ series. For Schimmel, the ‘Conzert’ series. For Mason & Hamlin, a complete re-design. This also created an opportunity for low volume luxury producers to create completely new scale designs, rims, bridges, and still offer an extremely high level of consistency, such as Ravenscroft, Borgato, or Stuart & Sons. The industry now has become highly consolidated because of its shrinking size, yet highly specialized due to the ability of niche producers to survive on a handful of sales with little or no work force.
The biggest force reshaping the status quo these days is, without a doubt, China. Not since the USA in the early 20th century has one country’s economic path had such a profound influence over the direction of the piano industry. China now produces and buys more pianos, and supplies more piano parts, than all other countries COMBINED, and it is now nearly impossible to purchase a low, middle, or even upper-mid range instrument that does not in some way utilize Chinese manufacturing efficiencies. With very few exceptions, the entire piano industry is now highly integrated with the Chinese economic machine, and in many ways, some of our most venerable brands owe their continued existence to ‘hybrid’ arrangements between existing Western factories, design, and parts, and Chinese assembly.