Who Invented the Piano?

For some time now, I’m house hunting. I noticed that houses for rich people often have a piano in them. Maybe it’s a regional thing, but it led me to think about:

Who Created the Piano?

Originally, we didn’t talk about “piano,” but about the pianoforte, because it’s an Italian invention—the name being itself derived from clavicembalo col piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and loud). The piano evolved from previous instruments such as the clavichord, harpsichord, and dulcimer. Based on its predecessor, it was determined that the piano can be classified as a string instrument but also as a percussion instrument because of the hammer that strikes those strings.

In Italy, around the year 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori was a harpsichord maker from the city of Padua who was employed by Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany. It was Cristofori’s work to take care of the instruments of the court—apparently, the Prince loved music and was a talented harpsichordist.

Grand piano, Italian (Florence), made by Bartolomeo Cristofori (MET, 89.4.1219a–c)

First, Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a triple-manual harpsichord. But for him, the one major flaw of the harpsichord is that it does not allow for nuanced playing. When the harpsichordist strikes a key on his instrument, the string is plucked by a small tongue called a “salterello.” The sound is the same whether the harpsichordist strikes harder or softer. In 1709, the Italian maker developed a new way to hit the strings. This led to the invention of a keyboard instrument that would hammer the strings instead of plucking them.

It was not perfect at first. The frames, made of wood as for the harpsichord, could not withstand the tension of the strings which gives modern pianos their power. After the Prince’s death (1713), Bartolomeo Cristofori stayed in Florence and, in 1716, was appointed curator of the collection of instruments assembled by Ferdinand—84 instruments, seven were harpsichords or spinet instruments made by Cristofori himself. He continued to work on his pianoforte but didn’t find great success with it in Italy during his lifetime.

The German Evolution

One Italian was enthusiastic about Bartolomeo Cristofori’s invention. Francesco Scipione was a Venetian writer and art critic who, in 1711, praised the pianoforte in one of his articles and even included a diagram of the new mechanism. This article traveled to Germany in 1725 where it was translated by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König. That’s how Gottfried Silbermann, a known organ builder with a notable personal—and divisive—style, learned about it.

Silbermann reproduced Cristofori’s instrument but used his own expertise to perfect it—especially the casing, the diameters of the strings, and the design of the keyboard. Cristofori died in 1731 and, one year late, Silbermann built a piano in 1732. Following critics coming from composer Johann Sebastian Bach, Silbermann made some improvements. In 1747, Bach performed in front of Frederick the Great on the piano that Silbermann dedicated to the king—the king bought a lot of them.

One of Silbermann’s most notorious improvements on the piano was the damper pedal. Its goal was to keep the dampers lifted so that, even when a player releases a note, the string carries on vibrating and the sound lasts for longer.

Later, Gottfried Silbermann taught his craft to his nephew and pupil Johann Andreas Silbermann who himself became the teacher of Johann Andreas Stein. A lot of other pupils help popularized the piano, especially after some of them migrated to England at the time of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763).

For a long time, Silbermann was known as the inventor of the piano. The quality of his work made him famous and it was only with nineteenth-century scholarship that this honor was restored to Cristofori.

If you want to read about another musical instrument, I also wrote about the creation of the violin. You may also be interested in the invention of the Radio and the history of the first rap song.

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