Development of the Modern Piano

Development of the Modern Piano

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As a concert instrument and the primary musical instrument in private homes, the piano enjoys a long and colorful history as an important source of inspiration and pleasure for both professional and amateur musicians and it is arguably the most popular musical instrument in the world.

Its history is in itself the history of culture. The two oldest, still preserved, pianofortes were made by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). The case of one, dated 1720, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The other, dated 1726, is in a museum in Leipzig, Germany.

The development of the pianoforte to its present form has been decisively related to the development of the hammer mechanism. In 1709, Cristofori achieved the invention of the hammer mechanism, a combination of the beater strike of the dulcimer with the keyboard touch. The new action made it possible for the instrument to play both soft and loud, hence the name pianoforte, and was crucial for the future development of the piano’s expressive capacity. While continual improvements in its action paved the way for the advance of the pianoforte, a half century passed before it was able to overcome the initial objections of decisive figures such as Johann Sebastian Bach, and prevail over the harpsichord and clavichord.

The piano owes its emancipation to Gottfried Silbermann, a superlative craftsman and genius in both the building of organs and piano-making. By 1730, Silbermann had made two pianofortes, and by the end of the decade had produced instruments regarded as completely successful and supported by the leading musicians and theorists of the day, even to the point that Silbermann was for many years regarded as the inventor of the piano! His instruments finally met with the approval of Bach who tested the Silbermann pianoforte at the Potsdam court of Frederick the Great at the wish of the Monarch in 1747. While composers at the beginning of the 18th century concentrated on the harpsichord and clavichord, it was the Bach sons, Philipp, Emanuel, and Christian, as well as Mozart and Clementi, who learned to exploit and appreciate the advantages of the piano, and contributed to its successful introduction around the world.

The pianoforte has undergone numerous improvements in its details up to the present day. At the beginning, the piano-makers constructed their piano actions “works” themselves. It is estimated that there were about 400 piano factories with more than 8,000 employees in Germany in 1894, quite apart from the many master piano-makers who constructed their instruments with the help of only a few journeymen and apprentices. In Berlin alone, there were more than 200 independent piano-makers at the end of the l9th century.
The London World Exhibition of 1851 provided a wide-ranging survey of the achievements of the piano-makers in the first half of the 19th century and of the emergent piano industry. The leading companies exhibited their products which according to the conditions laid down by the exhibition management had to be the outcome of new technical discoveries. The piano was first popularized in the U.S.A. The industrial revolution had facilitated the production of pianos in large numbers. A successful campaign was held in the twenties and thirties of the 19th century, aiming at the introduction of music lessons in America’s state schools. The piano found its way into the homes of the up-and-coming bourgeoisie and was no longer the domain of the aristocracy.

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