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The Piano : A Brief History

The acoustic piano is a central instrument in modern classical, jazz, blues and popular music. Although electronic keyboards are now popular, acoustic pianos are still widely used for composition, teaching and performance. Pianos are stringed instruments, but they produce sound as a result of striking the strings, rather than bowing or plucking. When a key is depressed, a felt-covered hammer is activated which hits the string and causes it to vibrate, so making a musical note. The damper on top of the string stops it vibrating and brings the note to an end. Upright pianos are more compact because the strings are vertical whereas in grand pianos they are horizontal, extending away from the keyboard. The soundboard, a thin piece of wood beneath the strings, amplifies the sounds so they can be heard. Opening the lid of the piano reflects the sound towards the audience.

Modern pianos had attained their present form by the end of the C19th, having evolved from earlier stringed instruments. In the earliest instruments the strings were stretched over gourds or boxes and plucked, bowed or struck to produce sounds. A family of stringed instruments with a keyboard was developed in Europe from the dulcimer in the C12th, which was a shallow box over which stretched wires were struck with hammers. The dulcimer was followed by the C14th clavichord and the C15th harpsichord.

The harpsichord projected sound more loudly than its predecessors and inspired musicians to compose and perform keyboard music. However, it could only be played at one volume, which could not be varied while playing and this limited artistic expression.

The first piano is thought to have been in existence by 1700 and the early names fortepiano and pianoforte were eventually shortened to piano. The piano combined the best features of the clavichord and harpsichord but with the further facility to play loudly or softly. Its relative expense meant that initially it was only adopted in the homes of the nobility and royalty.

The piano was first exhibited in Florence in 1709 by Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori from Padua, who was an expert harpsichord maker. The earliest surviving Cristofori piano dates from 1720 and although 300 years old is remarkably similar to the modern acoustic piano. Cristofori designed a stringed keyboard instrument in which a hammer struck the string but did not remain in contact with it and notes could be repeated rapidly. His early instruments were made with thin strings and were much quieter than the modern piano. Cristofori's pianoforte remained unknown until an Italian writer, Francesco Scipione, wrote an article describing it in 1711, which included a diagram of the mechanism. This was copied by the next generation of piano builders, including Gottfried Silbermann, who also invented the forerunner of the modern sustain pedal.

From the mid-C18th to mid-C19th the piano underwent significant changes that led to the modern instrument. In 1766 the English musician and engineer Johann Zumpe began the first large scale manufacture of lightweight pianos in England. This design was enhanced in the early 1800s by the English inventor John Broadwood, who added more octaves to cover treble and bass and improved the pedal and strings. Broadwood gained a reputation for the splendour and powerful tone of his instruments and he supplied pianos for Joseph Haydn and Ludwig von Beethoven with a range of six octaves by 1810 and seven by 1820. There is a Broadwood piano dating from 1837 at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall.

By 1820s piano innovation was centred on Paris where the Pleyel and Erard firms manufactured pianos which were used by Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt respectively.

In 1830 the first upright piano was made and this design became very popular. The mechanical action and structure of the upright piano was invented by Robert Wornum in London and these became the most popular models. They were a suitable size for private homes taking up less space than the grand piano. By 1840 grand pianos were first made in America and were popularised by the manufacturer Steinway. His innovation included placing overlapping and vertically slanted strings. There is a beautiful example of a Steinway grand piano dating from 1926 at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall.

Piano strings are made of a high carbon steel wire of uniform diameter. They must endure years of tension and hard blows. The bass strings are made of a steel core wrapped with copper wire to increase mass but retain flexibility. C19th improvements in industrial production made available high quality piano wire and also precision casting for iron frames which could withstand the tension on the strings.

In 1834 the Birmingham manufacturers Webster & Horsfal introduced a piano wire made of cast steel, which was superior to the iron wire. In 1840 an improved steel wire was created by the Viennese firm of Martin Miller which led to competition between the rival brands giving rise to the modern form of piano wire. Another important advance in piano design was a change to the way the piano is strung, called cross-stringing, which permitted a narrower piano cabinet.

Many parts of the piano are made of materials chosen for strength and longevity. These include hardwood and cast iron which are largely responsible for the great weight of the instrument. The cabinet is commonly made of maple or beech and acts as an immobile object from which the soundboard can vibrate. Hardwood cabinets are commonly made of laminated thin flexible strips of hardwood which can be bent to the desired shape after the application of glue. This bent plywood system was developed by Theodore Steinway in 1880 to reduce manufacturing time and costs. Previously the cabinet was constructed of several pieces of solid wood joined and veneered, a method which continued in Europe into the C20th.


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