Grand piano keyboard.
Piano ranges differ according to the maker and instrument type. Grand pianos typically have a larger tessitura than an upright piano. However, the exact pitch range is dependent on the manufacturer though it will be close to the range shown here.
In 1905, and probably for several decades before that, there were more pianos in the United States than there were bathtubs. In Europe, throughout the nineteenth century, piano sales increased at a greater rate than the population. English, French and German makers dispatched veritable armies of pianos to every corner of the Earth. It was the instrument of the age.
A romantic symbol
Born around 1700, in the twilight of the traditional master craftsman, the piano grew to maturity as one of the greatest commercial and technological triumphs of the Industrial Revolution. Merely as a machine, with its hundreds of factory-made parts, combining the exotic substances of ivory and ebony (the keyboard) with iron, steel and copper (the strings, and later the frame), it was an object of reverence – not least as a bountiful source of employment. As a symbol of the Romantic era, it had extraordinary potency. Simply to own one was perceived as a badge of respectability. But the piano's ascent to the stars had been a long, slow burn.
Origins and development
The first piano was constructed in Florence by the Italian harpsichord-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). From the grandiloquent title he gave it – gravicembalo col piano e forte ('large harpsichord with soft and loud'), it seems clear that he regarded it not so much as a new instrument as the modification of an old one. Needless to say, the cumbersome name evaporated, replaced first by 'fortepiano', then by its transposition 'pianoforte', and finally, in the twentieth century, by the simpler and less pompous 'piano'. Cristifori's title was not apt, since harpsichords already had the capacity to play both 'soft and loud' – albeit only in stark juxtaposition. What made his instrument unique was a mechanism by which the volume could be made to increase or decrease by finger pressure alone.
The two domestic keyboard instruments that had ruled the roost from the height of the Renaissance to the end of the Baroque (around 1450 to 1750), were beset by increasingly frustrating limitations. The clavichord, with its touch-sensitive keyboard, was capable of extraordinary nuance and tonal variety, but its sound was too small to project across a large room, let alone a concert hall. Even at the apex of its development it remained essentially a player's instrument. The harpsichord had the requisite power but entirely lacked the clavichord's expressive, almost vocal suppleness of line. What was needed, in a world where public music-making was steadily advancing, was an instrument combining the virtues of both with none of their drawbacks. Cristofori's piano may have been only a start, but its principles remained the basis for all such developments over the next 100 years.
In Italy, strange to say – the cradle of the instrumental concerto and opera – Cristofori's invention aroused a brief flurry of interest and was then pretty much forgotten. In Germany, by contrast, the piano was an idea whose time had come.
Necessity breeds invention
Throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Germany had been experiencing a rise in 'feeling' that led straight to the Romantic movement, as exemplified in literature by Goethe and Schiller. What had begun as a religious movement known as Pietism, dedicated to the humanizing of worship, had developed into a generalized worship of 'sensibility'. Unsurprisingly, the small-toned, touch-sensitive clavichord was much cultivated by the Pietists.
As the eighteenth century wore on, however, the thrill of solitude increasingly gave way to the thrill of exhibitionism. Emotion was celebrated above logic, song above form, humanity above doctrine. What was needed to voice the warm humanity of this strongly family-based society was an instrument combining the melodic subtlety of the clavichord with the power and grandeur of the biggest harpsichord.
Any instrument that is restricted to a very narrow dynamic range, like the clavichord, or confined to a set number of inflexible dynamic levels, like the harpsichord, is correspondingly limited in the range of emotions it can embrace. The piano is capable of any number of contrasts in between. The stage was thus set for a spectacular and prolonged instrumental success.
In 1730, Gottfried Silbermann, already renowned for his clavichords and organs made the first German piano. He is often credited (along with a number of others of various countries) with inventing what was surely the piano's most unique feature – the sustain pedal (often misnamed the 'loud' pedal), which raises all the dampers of the instrument en masse, freeing all the strings to vibrate simultaneously, regardless of what keys are depressed. Thus the right hand can execute an arpeggio from the lowest part of the keyboard to the highest with every note continuing to sound. The device pays dividends even with the striking of a solitary key. The sounding of a single note – for example C – in the bass, can trigger the sympathetic vibrations of every other C on the piano, greatly increasing the depth and richness of the tone by virtue of what might be described as a synchronized multiple echo. Until the late-eighteenth century, the mechanism was operated not by a pedal but by a knee-lever.
Next to this, from the 1720s onwards, was the so-called 'soft' or una corda pedal, which derives its Italian name from the days when the piano had two rather than the modern three strings per note. Depressing the pedal with the left foot shifts the entire keyboard, action and hammers to the right, so that the hammers strike one less string than usual – in the case of the fortepiano (hence una corda, literally 'one string') – or two on the fully fledged grand. Just as the sustain pedal is not primarily a 'loud' pedal, so the una corda is not primarily 'soft', but an agent of subtle tone-coloring.
Even in Germany, more than half a century passed between the piano's invention and its first public airing (in Vienna, in 1763), and even then it seems to have made little impression. Not until 1768, in Dublin, was it publicly unveiled as a solo instrument. A fortnight later, on June 2, it made its solo debut in England, played by Johann Christian Bach (1735-82). Now, at last, time, place, and circumstance combined to welcome it. In a very short time, the piano took its place as the most fashionable instrument in town.
Living and working in London at that time was Johannes Zumpe, a former apprentice to Silbermann in Germany. The rapidly evolving keyboard market in London was dominated at that time by the firms of Shudi, Broadwood, and Kirkman, whose instruments, in the venerable tradition of the continental craftsman, were made exclusively for the moneyed aristocracy, and were priced accordingly. Zumpe was the first to recognize the potential custom of the rising middle classes and set out to make and market pianos at a price they could afford. To that end, he simplified Cristofori's action, which had remained essentially unaltered through five decades, and adopted a modest rectangular form of the clavichord. His success was almost instantaneous and he rapidly entered the history books as the father of the commercial piano.
Johann Andreas Stein
In Germany, Johann Andreas Stein (1728-92), an accomplished and sensitive musician, produced more than 700 pianos, which were widely copied and thus became the foundation of the Viennese tradition of piano-building. The most far-reaching of his many contributions was the invention of the 'hopper action', or 'escapement', whereby the hammer is enabled to fall away from the string while the activating key is still depressed.
Stein's enthusiastic endorsement by Mozart in 1777 set the seal on the perennially fruitful association of piano builders with the leading composers of the day. In old age, his business was mainly carried on by his daughter Nanette (herself a brilliant pianist, according to the normally unsparing Mozart, and a close friend of Beethoven). in 1794, the business was augmented by her marriage to Johann Andreas Streicher, one of the linchpins of the Austrian piano tradition.
At the end of the eighteenth century, three basic designs were in common use: that of the 'grand', which retained the essential, wing-shaped structure of the harpsichord, the upright; and the so-called 'square'. whose rectangular, box-like form grew out of the fad for reconstructed clavichords. Indeed in form and general construction they were little different from their predecessors, apart from the metal strings, a considerably strengthened frame (necessitated by the resulting increase in tension), and of course the hammer action.
The average concert grand today measures 2.74 meters (9 feet) in length, weighs in at around 635 kilogram (1,400 pounds), and has more than 7,000 moving parts. Its minimum of 234 strings are of steel, with three strings per key, except the bottom two octaves, the hammers are covered with densely compressed felt, and the overall string tension is well over 20 metric tons.
There is a significant difference between the pianos of the 1700s and the concert grands of today. Well into the eighteenth century, they were closer in sound and construction to the harpsichord than the instrument of our time. The strings were fewer and thinner, the frame was of wood and the hammers, covered in leather, were both lighter and harder. For many decades, the piano was less brilliant and less powerful in sound than the biggest harpsichords of the time.
The first known square piano was built in Germany in 1742, almost 20 years before Zumpe produced the first English model. Later, Zumpe was overtaken by John Broadwood, whose first original square pianos date from 1780, and whose clients included some on the greatest musicians of the day – Beethoven foremost among them. In 1775, Johan Behrend had exhibited his square piano in Philadelphia, and within a year of that, Sebastien Erard in Paris produced the first French model.
Even at this time, though, the instrument left a great deal to be desired: its tone, in particular, was weak, and was hardly to be compared with that of the grand. In the early 1780's however, John Broadwood hit on the idea of moving the wrest plank – that part of a keyboard instrument into which the tuning pins are driven – from the right-hand side (its traditional siting in the clavichord) to the back of the case. The improvement in tone and volume exceeded his hopes and transformed the construction of square pianos. Within a short time it was universally adopted, and with it the European contribution to the instrument's evolution came unexpectedly to a halt. Thereafter, all significant improvements came from America, where the square piano enjoyed a unique popularity for the best part of a century. By 1890, however, its sun had set.
The radical relocation of the strings, hammers, and soundboard to make the upright piano involved considerable technical challenges. Even today, the best upright seldom equals the quality, versatility, and resonance of a good grand, but its staying power is a matter of record.
The idea of the upright was hardly new. As early as 1480, the harpsichord had been up-ended, with its action suitably adapted, and was given the grandiloquent name of 'Clavicytherium'. In 1795, William Stodart of London applied the same idea to the grand piano, and three years later William Southwell of Dublin tried the same thing with a square piano. In each of these cases, however, the instrument rested on a stand. Not until 1800 did it occur to anyone to let the instrument rest upon the floor, and then it occurred to two men simultaneously, on opposite sides of the Atlantic: Matthias Muller in Vienna and Isaac Haekins in Philadelphia.
From the 1770s, the majority of pianos were designed for and sold to the amateur market, in which the square and the upright remained the dominant models. Grands have always been costly and inimical to small rooms. Their evolution has been guided not by the requirements of the domestic pianist, but by the demands of the great virtuosos and the music they played. From the Renaissance to the first half of the 19th century, the great virtuosos were almost always important composers – think only of Bach, Handel, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), Mozart, Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Beethoven, Johann Hummel (1778-1837), Chopin, and Liszt. Of the great composer-pianists before 1850, only Mozart, Hummel, and Chopin were content to work with what they had. Beethoven and Liszt, above all, regularly wrote and played beyond what the available instruments could accommodate – and caused serious injury to many pianos in the process.
If Hummel and his teacher Clementi may be said to have represented the transition between the Classical and Romantic styles, their younger pupils and colleagues – most notably Liszt, Carl Czerny (1791-1857), Frederic Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), Sigismund Thalberg (1812-71), and Henri Herz (1803-88) – allied themselves firmly with the latter. They were by no means the first composer-pianists to write immensely difficult works for the instrument, but in the emphasis they placed on bravura, on technical innovation, and virtuoso display, they were very much sons of their age.
For various reasons – among them the pervasive influence of the 'demon fiddler' Nicolò Paganin (1782-1840) and the growing interest in orchestral and operatic music – the piano music of the nineteenth century is full of figures with repeated notes in imitation of the violin tremolando. And here pianists and composers were at least one step ahead of the manufacturers. In order to fulfill the requirements both of the new virtuoso style and the amateur craze for transcriptions and arrangements, an action was needed where the note could sound at two different levels of the key – that is to say, where the key itself needn't rise to its full height in order to re-strike.
In 1821, Sébastien Erard in Paris achieved the breakthrough – an action combining a powerful stroke with a light flexible touch, enabling the player to re-strike any note with a rapidity beyond the capacity of the 'hopper action' devised by Stein. It was an epoch-making invention and forms the basis of virtually all 'double escapement' actions to this day. It might also be said to have provided the model on which the whole of modern piano technique was built.
Final stages of evolution
Less subtle but perhaps more urgent was the need to build pianos to withstand the increasing force brought to bear on them by performers and composers alike. Despite a widespread belief that the introduction of iron into the piano would impair the quality of tone, it was clear by the second decade of the nineteenth century that some form of metal frame was needed to withstand the stress. Well before the complete iron frame became established, however, many manufacturers experimented with various sizes, shapes, and constitutions of metallic braces, either solid bars or various lengths and diameters of tubing.
Among the first pioneers of the fully integrated iron frame were Karl Röllig, who was experimenting with the idea as early as 1795 and Isaac Hawkins in Philadelphia who patented a metal frame in 1800. But it was Alpheus Babcock who made history with his patenting in 1825 of the first full, single-cast metal frame. All subsequent developments of the cast-iron frame derived from this device. In the story of its journey to perfection, a special place must be accorded to Jonas Chickering of Boston, whose single-cast grand-piano frame of 1843 represents a significant landmark in the piano's evolution.
The last step in the evolution of the piano was the introduction of cross-stringing – the arrangement of the higher strings in the form of a fan, spreading over the largest part of the soundboard, and with the bass strings crossing them at a higher level. Cross-stringing was invented by Babcock around 1830, but was not generally adopted until 1855, when Steinway & Sons of New York gave it its definitive form. Since then there have been numerous, relatively minor innovations that make the sound between an 1855 Steinway and a 1955 model significantly different, mainly in the area of power, but apart from the invention in 1862 of the so-called sostenuto pedal – which sustains the sound only of those notes held down at the time of depression – the piano was now fully fledged.
No survey of this instrument would be complete, however, without recognizing that the piano, like the harpsichord, clavichord, and virginal before it, has always lived a double life – as a musical instrument on the one hand, and as an item of furniture on the other. Among the displays at London's Great Exhibition of 1851 was William Jenkin's 'Expanding and Collapsing piano for Gentlemen's Yachts, the saloons of steam ships, ladies' cabins etc., only just over 13 inches from front to back when collapsed.' At around the same time, Broadwood offered the potential buyer a stress-inducing choice of styles, including 'Sheraton, Jacobean, Tudor, Gothic Louis XIII, XIV, XV, and XVI, Flemish Renaissance, Elizabethan cinquecento, Queen Anne, Empire, and Moorish'.
The ingenious Henri Pape of Paris could provide instruments of almost any size and shape. Round, oval, hexagonal, pyramidal, concealed within a table or a writing desk, or brazenly displayed as a trendy conversation piece. Most spectacular of all, however, was a Victorian aberration patented by a Mr Milward. To paraphrase the inventor's own description,'the piano is supported by a frame which rests upon a hollow base, containing a couch, which is mounted upon rollers and can be drawn out in front of the piano'. Also discreetly contained are 'a closet, designed to contain the bedclothes, a bureau with drawers, and a second closet containing a wash-basin, jug, towels, and other articles of toilet'. Another part of the invention consists of a music stool 'so arranged that it contains a work-box, a looking-glass, a writing-desk or table, and a small set of drawers.'