Invention of the Piano Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Bartolomeo Cristofori created the first pianoforte, a keyboard instrument capable of varying note volume and intensity. His invention eventually inspired contemporary instrument makers to adapt and improve his fundamental design, which became the basis for modern pianos. As the instruments became more common, composers began to write music specifically for the piano.

Summary of Event

Prior to Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention of the piano, musicians played such predecessors as harpsichords, clavichords, virginals, and spinets. Many musicians considered those instruments unsatisfactory, and they sought keyboard instruments Keyboard instruments capable of producing stronger and more versatile sounds. During the seventeenth century, instrument makers had improved the technical design of woodwind, brass, and stringed instruments to enhance their capabilities. Thus, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, musicians playing most instruments could produce the sounds and emotional tones they desired, sounds that were compatible with the most popular and valued contemporary musical styles. The keyboard instruments seemed crude and outdated in comparison, and keyboard musicians demanded that artisans make similar improvements to their instruments so that they could play more expressively. [kw]Invention of the Piano (c. 1709) [kw]Piano, Invention of the (c. 1709) Pianos [g]Italy;c. 1709: Invention of the Piano[0260] [c]Music;c. 1709: Invention of the Piano[0260] [c]Inventions;c. 1709: Invention of the Piano[0260] [c]Science and technology;c. 1709: Invention of the Piano[0260] Cristofori, Bartolomeo Medici, Ferdinando de’ Medici, Cosimo III de’ Maffei, Francesco Scipione Hebenstreit, Pantaleon Giustini, Lodovico Silbermann, Gottfried

Aware of keyboard instruments’ limitations, the mechanically gifted Cristofori contemplated how to achieve richer and more varied sounds. He initially worked as an artisan in his native Padua, where he made harpsichords and spinets, becoming well known in central Italy for his craftsmanship. By 1688, Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, an art patron who enjoyed playing harpsichords, urged Cristofori to move to Florence and create and tune instruments, particularly harpsichords, for the Medici court. The previous court harpsichord maker had died, and de’ Medici needed a skilled craftsman to attend to his instruments at his summer home in Pratolino in addition to the Florence court.

The musical resources of Florence enhanced Cristofori’s ingenuity. He examined designs in the Medici instrument museum and heard musical performers at court and in the city. Cristofori concentrated on incorporating hammers in keyboard instruments to manipulate strings and create desired volume variations. Cristofori had access to various craftsmen and apprentices working at the court, learned about mechanisms in a variety of objects such as clocks, and evaluated available materials. He might have heard Pantaleon Hebenstreit play his stringed instrument, the pantaleon, which resembled a dulcimer and used hand-operated hammers to vibrate its strings. In the 1690’s, Hebenstreit enjoyed public and royal acclaim throughout Europe, performing in courts and major cities, including Florence. Cristofori probably was aware of enthusiasm for the pantaleon, which inspired many musicians and artisans with ideas regarding the improvement of keyboards.

Wealthy Florentines and members of the artistic community encouraged Cristofori, who was particularly intrigued by timbre and volume and by the ability of hammers to influence those musical characteristics. He adjusted harpsichord design, seeking ways to allow performers to vary volume, which harpsichords could not do. He considered the aspects of clavichords, mainly hammer construction, that made them expressive, despite producing soft sounds that were often difficult to hear. An inventory of the Medici court’s instruments dated 1700 includes a piece called an arpi cimbalo del piano e forte, Arpicimbalo (keyboard instrument) the construction of which court musical director Federigo Meccoli credited to Cristofori. A contemporary description noted that the arpi cimbalo del piano e forte resembled a harpsichord but manipulated its strings with wood hammers instead of quills. It also incorporated dampers and two keyboards and produced both soft (piano) and loud (forte) notes based on players’ finger pressure on the keys.

By 1709, Cristofori introduced the instrument Music;piano known as a gravicembalo col piano e forte. Gravicembalo (keyboard instrument) He utilized his harpsichord construction experience to create a case shaped like a harpsichord with a similar keyboard and equipment. Cristofori chose larger strings and strung them more tautly than those in a harpsichord. His hammers hit with more force than those in clavichords. Cristofori’s early pianofortes, Pianofortes as contemporaries referred to them, incorporated approximately fifty-four keys on a single keyboard. Because it had one keyboard rather than two, the gravicembalo is a better candidate for the title of “first piano” than is the arpi cimbalo.

Cristofori created a unique action device for his keyboards. Piano keys, serving as levers, activated wooden hammers placed beneath strings. Each key moved a specific hammer that struck a single string or a pair of strings, according to shift controls the player operated, to produce a desired note. The shift mechanism moved the hammer slightly, causing it to hit only one string in order to produce a softer note or to hit two identically tuned strings to produce a louder and fuller note. Cristofori’s main concern was ensuring that hammers resumed the ready position immediately after striking their strings, enabling musicians to play the same note several times in rapid succession if they desired. Escapements ensured that hammers rebounded from vibrating strings to avoid interference. Checks stopped hammers from bouncing. Dampers restricted string movement.

The hammers moved more swiftly than fingers could directly manipulate strings. Pianoforte performances required tactile skills. Players could play multiple notes simultaneously, using all ten fingers. Because of Cristofori’s action, pianists could alter volume levels produced during performances by changing the pressure their fingers placed on piano keys to affect the amount of force with which hammers hit strings. In contrast, hammerless harpsichord volume remained constant. Cristofori’s action thus provided keyboard musicians with a new dimension of performance, dynamics, through which to express their interpretations of music and develop their own styles.

In 1711, author Francesco Scipione Maffei, who traveled from Rome to meet Cristofori, penned an article about Cristofori’s piano for the Giornale dei letterati d’Italia (journal of Italian letters), which also printed an image of Cristofori’s pianoforte action. Maffei wrote that Cristofori had built a total of three pianofortes by 1711, selling two to Florentine musicians and the other to Roman cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. Cristofori had finished a fourth piano when de’ Medici died two years later. Cristofori’s design spread after Maffei’s publication reached central Europe, especially the German states, where it was translated and published in Johann Mattheson’s Critica musica Critica musica (Mattheson) in 1725, influencing instrument makers who later gained access to pianofortes exported from Italy.

After de’ Medici died, his father, Cosimo III de’ Medici, named Cristofori keeper of that court’s instruments. Cristofori pursued pianoforte design enhancements, wrapping wooden hammers with leather to change the instrument’s sound, speeding mechanical processes, and improving escapement and check functions. Cristofori crafted his final pianoforte in 1726. His apprentice, Giovanni Ferrini, also made pianofortes. Spanish Queen Maria Barbara de Braganza bought five pianofortes and studied with Domenico Scarlatti, who may have composed pianoforte music. By 1732, Florentine composer Lodovico Giustini created the first music known to have been composed for pianos, twelve sonatas entitled Sonate da cimbalo di piano, e forte, ditto volgarmente di martelletti Sonate da cimbalo di piano, e forte . . . (Giustini) (sonatas for the harpsichord of soft and loud, vulgarly known as the harpsichord of hammer blows). These sonatas included elaborate passages musicians could not play on harpsichords.

Significance

Instrument makers appropriated the unique pianoforte action technology Cristofori created to build most pianos produced in the second half of the eighteenth century. Cristofori’s pianoforte impacted nineteenth century music and instrument manufacturing more than it immediately influenced eighteenth century musicians, however. Some eighteenth century musicians preferred the harpsichord over the piano, because the former was both louder and simpler to play. At the time, many people considered Cristofori’s pianoforte action too intricate and costly for them to invest in pianofortes.

Maffei’s article expanded knowledge of Cristorfori’s pianoforte and was the primary reason most eighteenth century musicians knew about his innovation. Basic information about Cristofori’s invention spread throughout Western Europe and Great Britain. By the 1730’s, some German instrument makers, particularly Gottfried Silbermann, who built organs for the Saxon court, incorporated aspects of Cristofori’s action design in their instruments and even improved upon it. For example, although composer Johann Sebastian Bach disliked Cristofori’s pianoforte, he approved and sold Silbermann’s adapted design. By 1800, more composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn, accepted the piano and wrote music specifically for that instrument. Cristofori’s action became a fundamental component of all pianos.

As a middle class emerged in Europe, members of the new class bought pianos for their homes. Amateurs played for fun and self-expression. Pianos became a standard instrument for music students and fundamental to most Western musical composition and theory. Surviving Cristofori pianofortes are displayed at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (1720), Rome’s Museo Strumenti Musicali (1722), and Leipzig University’s Musikinstrumenten-Museum (1726).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clinkscale, Martha Novak. Makers of the Piano, 1700-1820. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Provides information about Cristofori and detailed descriptions of the three surviving Cristofori pianos and an action, noting the history of ownership of each instrument, as well as each one’s unique technological features.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crombie, David. Piano: Evolution, Design, and Performance. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995. Includes color photographs of three Cristofori pianos and his action, showing how it worked. Illustrations of contemporary keyboard instruments, information about musicians and instrument makers, and chronologies supplement the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Good, Edwin M. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand. 2d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. Comprehensive examination of the technical aspects of Cristofori’s piano action and the methods other instrument makers used to develop keyboard instruments before and after Cristofori’s innovation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parakilas, James, ed. Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Anthology includes an essay discussing interactions between Cristofori and Maffei and eighteenth century marketing efforts to publicize the pianoforte.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollens, Stewart. The Early Pianoforte. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An outstanding history that includes extensive biographical information about Cristofori and how he invented the piano, discussing his musical patrons and peers. Appendices reproduce Maffei’s Cristofori interview notes and his pianoforte article translated into several languages.

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