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The History and Development of the Modern Piano

Translated from the original German text

The piano is the most popular musical instrument in the world. As a concert instrument and the primary musical instrument in private homes, the piano enjoys a long and colorful history as an important source of inspiration and pleasure for both professional and amateur musicians. Its history is in itself the history of culture. The two oldest, still preserved, pianofortes were made by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). The case of one, dated 1720, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The other, dated 1726, is in a museum in Leipzig, Germany.

Importance of the Piano Action

The development of the pianoforte to its present form has been decisively related to the development of the hammer mechanism. In 1709, Cristofori achieved the invention of the hammer mechanism, a combination of the beater strike of the dulcimer with the keyboard touch. The new action made it possible for the instrument to play both soft and loud, hence the name pianoforte, and was crucial for the future development of the piano's expressive capacity. While continual improvements in its action paved the way for the advance of the pianoforte, a half century passed before it was able to overcome the initial objections of decisive figures such as Johann Sebastian Bach, and prevail over the harpsichord and clavichord.

The piano owes its emancipation to Gottfried Silbermann, a superlative craftsman and genius in both the building of organs and piano-making. By 1730, Silbermann had made two pianofortes, and by the end of the decade had produced instruments regarded as completely successful and supported by the leading musicians and theorists of the day, even to the point that Silbermann was for many years regarded as the inventor of the piano! His instruments finally met with the approval of Bach who tested the Silbermann pianoforte at the Potsdam court of Frederick the Great at the wish of the Monarch in 1747. Thus composers at the beginning of the 18th century concentrated above all on the harpsichord and clavichord, it was the Bach sons Philipp Emanuel and Christian; as well as Mozart and Clementi who learned to exploit and appreciate the advantages of the piano, contributed to its successful introduction around the world.

Piano History Continued   Next


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