The Development of Piano

The Harpsichord had sparkling clarity but it lacked expressive power. Keyboard manufacturers had pathed a way to make the instrument more capable of greater nuances. In 1709, Bartolomeo Cristofori, the Florentine instrument maker, began to manufacture realised the pianoforte – a harpsichord with hammers. The Italian gave his instrument the shape of large harpsichord called it gravicembalo col piano (harp with a soft and loud). This begun the era of the piano.

Cristofori brought a new invention and transformation in keyboard instruments. In a harpsichord, the jack under pressure from the key, attacks the string with the tips of its plectrum, this produces a metallic sound, which is extinguished by the damper to the jack. For the piano Cristofori substituted a little hammer for the jack and added more strings to reinforce the sound.

Gottfried Silbermann (1683 – 1753), of Germany, man admirer and follower of Cristofori in Germany and pupil of Silbermann, also named Johanne Zumpe of England, preserved the Cristofori’s escapement invention. In 1716, Jean Marius, a Frenchman, designed a harpsichord with hammers. This new harpsichord with hammers came to the attention of J S Bach. Aided by Bach’s advice, Silbermann built the first pianoforte with striking action that became known as ‘English’ action.

It took some twenty years of gestation period before any consistent piano literature emerged. But in 1770, Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832), published the first piano sonata.

Clementi, a composer and a virtuoso keyboard performer, founded a piano factory in London. Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) composed for the early piano.  Mozart permanently performed on the piano made in Vienna by the German Johann Stein in 1777, an apprentice of Silbermann.

Piano manufacturers in England and Germany produced similar but different models. French harpsichord builders refused to build the new instrument and as a result only a few pianos were built prior to 1770.  Finally, Clementi and Mozart both travelled and concertized the pianoforte making this new instrument popular.

The House of Erard (1752 – 1831) first built the piano in 1777 by Sébastian Erard (1752 – 1831). Erard and his brother Jean-Baptiste established a factory that became the first famous piano house. Erard built the first Parisian piano equipped with foot pedals. This rivaled a German music publisher, Ignaz Pleyel (1757 – 1831) efforts in 1809.

Henry Steinway, a German, became one of the greatest piano builders in United States. This piano manufacturer seriously challenged the European instruments. Mozart provided his advice to Johann Andreas Stein, (1728 – 1792) an outstanding German maker of keyboard insruments, a central figure in the history of the piano, primarily responsible for the design of the so-called Viennese pianoforte. Stein’s daughter, Nanette received Beethoven’s counsel when she inherited the business.

In 1821, Pierre Erard received a patent for the double escapement mechanism. Sébastian who was Erard’s uncle and also the founder of the Erard perfected this mechanism. This mechanism produced quicker and subtle key repetition which helped enable the virtuosity of agile performers such as Sigmund Thalberg and Franz Liszt. Douze Étude (Twelve Transcedental Études, 1838) was composed by Liszt.

Initially the double escapement mechanism only applied to concert grand pianos, this invention was finally applied to upright piano in 1842.

Between 1830 – 1850, piano manufacturers mass produced two basic models: upright and grand. In Germany, the Blüthner and Bechstein were fine pianos. In France, Pleyel and Erard  held high prestige, while in Austria, the Bösendorfer piano was renowned for its lyrical tone quality and hence was suited to the music of Beethoven and the other romantic composers. Across the Atlantic in the United States, Steinway and Baldwin pianos were and still are highly regarded manufacturers.

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