The piano is really a very young instrument. The piano we know today was only invented about 150 years ago. Other keyboard instruments were played before the piano, mostly as supports for solo instruments (e.g. clarinet, violin) and choirs. The piano gradually evolved as composers envisioned and sought to stretch the capacity of the contemporary keyboard instrument. The earlier instruments included the clavichord, harpsichord and dulcimer. These instruments did not have strong sounds and could not play long notes or different volumes – like the modern piano can. The piano was invented because musicians had a dream for an instrument with more potential.
An Italian, Bartolomeo Cristofori, is credited for building the first ‘piano’ – built around 1700. The earlier instruments used quills to pluck strings when keys were pressed. Cristofori invented a system whereby the strings were struck by small hammers. This meant that different volumes could be produced if the keys were hit slower or faster. As part of the mechanics, he created an action that allowed the hammers to bounce smoothly away from the strings so the sound could continue and notes cold be repeated. Cristofori called his invention gravicembalo col piano e forte (the harpsichord with soft and loud). Modern piano actions continue to be built on variations of this design.
In the early 1700s, Siblermann invented a form of the damper pedal, adding this to Cristofori’s design. The damper is a felt pad that rests against the string, stopping vibration and ending sound, when a key is released. The damper pedal (the right pedal on the piano) lifts all the dampers away from the strings at once so that notes continue to sound after the key is released. It also allows related strings to vibrate in sympathy with the struck strings. After Cristofori and Silbermann’s inventions, the piano showed promise and was clearly headed towards the form of the future piano. Yet, the sounds were still weak and the range of notes was small (in the late 1700s, the piano had 5 octaves, by 1810 there were 6 and then in 1820 there were 7).
During the late 1700s, much work was done to improve the sound of the piano. Viennese instrument makers added two strings for each note, making the sound stronger. Two frames were used to support the force of the extra strings. The hammers were covered with leather, so the sound was soft and clear. This is the instrument for which Mozart wrote.
In the early 1800s, the piano began developing very quickly. This was the time of the early Romantic composers, including Chopin, Brahms, Schubert and Liszt. The instrument was changed so the new compositions could be played. As new and better instruments were built, the composers became more adventurous, which led to the need to further increase the potential of the instrument. At this time, the piano had smaller keys and very light action. It was easier to reach greater intervals and to play at greater speeds.
The modern piano, with its power of sound and sustain effect, developed for concert performance as the piano became a solo instrument. The changes were possible because of new technologies available during the Industrial Revolution. The iron frame (invented by Boston and Babcock, 1826) allowed for thicker, tighter strings – a greater volume range – and 3 strings on higher notes. The leather hammers were also replaced with felt (Henri Pape, 1826), producing more tonal variations.
The square piano was the instrument of the early 1800s. From this developed the tall, upright cabinet (invented by Southwell, 1806) and later the shorter cottage pianino (Wornum, 1810). The modern grand piano was recognisable by the 1890s. Steinway was a leader in this area, producing pianos for the concert stage. In 1836, Henri Forneaux created player pianos that used a scroll and did not require a pianist, enabling everyone to enjoy music – the version of family entertainment of the times.
The modern piano is still evolving. Very recognisable is the new form, the digital piano, which was developed in the 1980s. However, the acoustic piano is also changing as new synthetic materials are created. Lighter, faster actions are the focus of the present. As the technologies change, so too do the capabilities of the instrument and the content of works by composers who take advantage of what the piano and the performer can then achieve.