II. Early History

Beginnings in the Courtly Circles(1700-1760)

The piano was invented in Florence around 1709 by an Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori served as instrument maker to the crown prince Ferdinando Maria de’ Medeci of the grand Duchy of Tuscany. He named his invention, “Arpicembalo… di nouva invention, che fa’ il piano,e il forte” (a harpsichord, of new invention, that plays soft and loud). It would be more than a century later for the name of the instrument to come to be simply called as the piano. This stringed keyboard instrument was not simply a modified harpsichord but “an instrument which through an ingenious escapement mechanism gave to the fingers the power of varying the loudness by means of touch alone.”

The piano as produced by Cristofori was already highly developed and its essential principles remained the basis for all subsequent developments during the next hundred years.

By Scipione Maffei’s account( a writer who had written and published an article on the Cristofori piano in 1711), Cristofori’s invention provided the need for a keyboard instrument that can take full part in the great stylistic revolution of music at that time – the Baroque style. The piano, because it has hammers that can strike its strings as forcefully or gently as the player strikes the keys so that each note or chord can be a little or a lot softer or louder than the one before, was much better suited for the pervasive changes in volume between musical phrases that the baroque style demanded, than the traditional harpsichord. Moreover, the piano also has another advantage over the harpsichord for the purpose of sustaining a note: the piano string, glanced against by a rounded and relatively soft-surfaced hammer does not ping sharply and does not decay abruptly, so that a single held note can give an impression of being “sung.” The responsiveness of the hammer to the keys allowed players on the piano to control, by means of varying their force of strokes to the keys “not only the volume, but also the diminution and variety of sound, as if on a cello,” according to Maffie.

Cristofori made pianos not only for the Medici court. The piano has found royal patronage in countries outside Italy as well such as the likes of Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome and King João V of Portugal. Cristofori developed and promoted the piano mostly by himself. He worked on the project for than three decades, producing one model after another.

After Cristofori’s death, Gootfried Silbermann, a renowned clavichord and organ-builder, pioneered the piano making in Germany in 1730. Silbermann, after getting acquainted with the German translation of Maffie’s article on Cristofori piano which appeared in Johann Matheson’s Critica Musica, proceeded to copy the instrument written in it. Silbermann’s instruments were just like Cristofori’s, having the form of a wing-shaped grand and having the same mechanism thus sharing their quiet sound and other limitations. King Frederick the Great of Prussia owned several Silbermann pianos in his court.

Until the latter half of the 18th century, the piano was mostly found within a tiny circle of royal and aristocratic patrons and the keyboard builders, players, singers and composers connected to their courts. It served as a solo instrument or as accompaniment to singers or instrumentalists in performances given in the intimate setting of the court.

It was in courtly circles that the piano attracted the attention of the greatest keyboard composers of the era – Dominico Scarlatti, Lodovico Giustini, and most notably Johann Sebastian Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.

B. The Piano Goes Public (1760-1780)

It was during the final third of the 18th century that the piano found its way to the public and became a popular instrument. The London piano industry was started in this period by German immigrants like Johannes Zumpe, a pupil of Silbermann’s. Whereas the pianos were a great luxury and built exclusively for the royalty before, Zumpe made and marketed a cheaper version of pianos that the middle classes could afford. Zumpe developed the square piano (literally, rectangular), smaller instrument with smaller mechanism than the grand piano of Cristofori and Silbermann and other earliest builders. Such was his success that he came to be acknowledged as ‘the father of commercial piano.’

It was during this time that the piano begun to be heard in public concerts in Vienna, London and Paris. The publication of piano music also began at this time in these cities. It was Johann Christian Bach’s concert using Zumpe’s square, considered as the piano’s solo debut in London on June 2, 1978, that afforded the piano its first great rise to become a spectacular success.

By the mid-1780s such was the growth in piano’s popularity that it has rendered the harpsichord obsolete before the end of the 18th century. Notwithstanding the piano’s popularity at this time, the instrument has its limitations still. Well into the 18th century, the piano was closer in sound and construction to the harpsichord than to the instrument we know today.