Evolution Of The Pianoforte

While the violin, on account of the simplicity of its construction, arrived early at a stage of perfection, the complicated mechanism of the pianoforte required many generations and many scores of more or less successful experiments to attain anything like a corresponding plane. Indeed, such experiments are still constantly in progress ; so that the pianoforte of the future may conceivably realize possibilities as far ahead of the present piano as that is ahead of its predecessors. The first attempts at piano manufacture, however, had little in common with our modern pianos, save the principle of the combination of the key-board with strings ; since in construction and resulting tone few points of similarity exist.

Clavier a Substitute for the Organ.—We are probably indebted to the extensive use of the organ for the earliest combinations of keys and strings. As the demand arose for a more conveniently-keyed instrument than the large church organs, for practice or private houses, small port-able organs were invented ; yet even these did not satisfy the want entirely, owing to the difficulties in their wind supply, which required an assistant as blower. Thus the organ keyboard came to be applied, as early as the 11th century, to already existing stringed instruments which were adapted to the purpose.

Two Classes.—There were two classes of these, each made on the principle of the zither: namely, by stretching strings over a flat surface or box, generally across bridges, this box serving as a resonator, to reinforce the weak tone of the strings. One such instrument, in which the strings were struck by little wooden hammers, was called the Dulzimer ; another, in which the strings were sounded by plucking with the fingers or by a quill, was called the Psaltery; and from these two were developed the earliest instruments of the piano class, called by the general name of “Claviers,” from Clavis, a key. The dulcimer type resulted in the Clavichord; the psaltery type in the Harpsichord, and, although many other names were given to varieties of these instruments, all may be placed in one of the two classes of which they are the chief representatives.

Principle of the Clavichord.—The first of the Clavichord instruments had the name of Monochord, or one-stringed instrument—a name of great antiquity, first given by the Grecian Pythagoras to an instrument of one string used by him in determining the relations of tones. Similar experiments were made in the Middle Ages, in which the various tones resulting from the vibrations of parts of a string were studied by means of movable bridges ; facility was gained by increasing the number of strings to four or five, tuned in unison. Next, keys were applied to these in place of the bridges, which keys struck the strings at various definite points by means of upright pins or tangents, as they were called, producing varying pitches, according to the length of the part of the string allowed to sound, the remaining segment being silenced by a piece of cloth Thus several tangents struck the same string at different points, producing different degrees of pitch. At first, when only the scales corresponding to the white keys were employed, four or five strings sufficed to sound the necessary tones, not over twenty-two in number. Later, however, when chromatic notes were adopted, the number of strings and keys was increased, so that, by the beginning of the 16th century, the keyboard had a range of three or four full octaves. From this time on, this instrument, now generally known as the Clavichord, won a popularity which ex-tended to the beginning of the 19th century, when the Pianoforte gradually displaced it. A familiar instrument in England and Germany, it was especially cultivated by musicians of note in the latter country, even the renowned Bach preferring it to all other forms of its class.

The Clavichord.—In shape, the Clavichord was an oblong box, the strings of brass extending lengthwise. The fact that one string served for several keys made it impossible to sound certain intervals together ; yet the device of giving a separate string to each key seems not to have come in till about the year 1725, and even then not to have been generally adopted. Without legs, the Clavichord was, – supported on a table when in use. Its tone was exceedingly weak and tremulous, audible only within the distance of a few feet; yet the fact that this tone could be given different degrees of intensity, and could be varied to some extent even while sounding, by a peculiar pressure on the keys (bebung), imbued its tone with a sympathetic quality which helps to account for the tenacity with which musicians clung to it, notwithstanding all its imperfections.

Principle of the Harpsichord.—Instruments of the Harpsichord class were especially numerous in Italy, France and England. They differed from the Clavichord chiefly in the method of setting the string in vibration. This was done by plucking the string with a quill set in a jack at the end of the key, the action so arranged that, after the key was released, the, jack fell back to its place, while a damper came against the string, preventing its further vibration. Since these strings could not be used as bridges, like the tangents of the Clavichord, it was necessary from the first that each key should have a separate string. Moreover, as these strings were thus made of varying lengths and thicknesses, the Harpsichords were more often made in a triangular shape, or one like our modern grand pianos, than in the rectangular Clavichord shape. The chief defect, and the one which makers tried in vain to remedy, lay in the fact that the plucking of the strings, while producing greater brilliancy, admitted of no variation in its degrees of loudness or softness.

Virginal and Spinet.—Several small instruments of this kind preceded its full development, differing mainly in shape and choice of materials. In England these received the name of Virginal ; in France, that of Spinet. Both of these were introduced into polite society, chiefly as small house instruments of limited compass, varied sizes, and frequently with elaborate decoration. The difference between them was principally one of shape, the Virginal taking the oblong form of the Clavichord, while the Spinet was more often triangular. They appeared both with and with-out supports ; and in some cases the strings were placed in a vertical position, as in our upright pianofortes.

The Harpsichord.—The Harpsichord proper was simply a larger form of the Spinet and Virginal, and was made in the form of the grand pianoforte. On account of its added brilliancy of tone, it was admirably adapted for use in the orchestra, in which it became the conductor’s instrument in connection with the opera. In Italy, the terms Clavicembalo and Gravicembalo were given to it, while in Germany it was called Fliigel, or wing, from its wing-shaped cover. As it became popular as a concert instrument, many inventions were added to increase the brilliancy and variety of its tone : an extra keyboard was placed above the first, as in the organ, and three or four strings were given each note, which could be used to reinforce the single-string tone, by means of the second keyboard. Moreover, various kinds of quills were invented, giving different tone qualities ; and such effects were controlled by stops or pedals. These experiments were especially numerous in the 18th century, in which the rapid growth of musical resources demanded constantly more tonal possibilities. Large manufacturers, such as the Ruckers family of Antwerp, and Tabel in England, vied with each other in producing novel devices, such as the imitation of other instruments, the tuning of an extra string for each note an octave above its normal pitch, and the addition of a keyboard connected with an organ. Attempts to produce a sustained tone resulted in the Piano-Violin, in which a revolving rosined wheel was pressed by the key against the string, to continue the tone; but all such were abandoned finally as unsuccessful.

Invention of the Pianoforte.—To this exceptional activity in keyed instruments, and the final failure to produce a singing tone capable of variation in the Harpsichord, we owe the invention of the Pianoforte. In 1711, Bartolomeo Cristofori, a noted harpsichord maker of Tuscany, exhibited several “forte-pianos” in which the action was so constructed that the keys, when depressed, threw little leather-headed hammers, affixed to a bar above them, against the strings, thus making it possible to modulate the strength of tone by the degree of force with which the keys were struck. When the key was released, a damper came against the string from beneath, stopping further vibration.

Early Makers.—Although this invention did not at first attract widespread attention, it undoubtedly formed the basis of the others which quickly followed it, and really asserted the principle afterwards adopted for the piano action. In 1716, Marius, a French manufacturer, submitted four models for piano actions, which, however, were never developed. Also, Schroeter, a German, constructed two models of piano actions, in 1717, in one of which the hammers struck on top of the strings; but neither of these was put to practical use. Finally, Gottfried Silbermann, of Saxony, distinguished as an organ and harpsichord maker, made two pianofortes, the action of which was evidently based on that of Cristofori, and which he exhibited to J. S. Bach. While praising them in many respects, Bach criticised them as too weak in the tipper notes, and too hard to play. Silbermann was exceedingly painstaking as a work-man, having the reputation of breaking to pieces with an axe even a finished product which showed any imperfection. He therefore set to work to remedy these defects, and, in 1737, produced several pianofortes which won Bach’s unqualified approval.

Superiority of the Piano.—The Pianoforte was now placed upon a firm basis ; and although many years elapsed be-fore its resources were developed sufficiently to cause its universal adoption by musicians, the final victory over its predecessors was complete. And this victory was natural, since the Pianoforte was found capable of combining the best qualities of the Clavichord and the Harpsichord, with the addition of a tone capacity infinitely superior to either.

Improvements.—The story of succeeding piano manufacture and the manifold inventions and improvements relative to it is one of infinite details. Among these we notice that while Silbermann pianos were in “grand” form, Frederici of Gera (died 1779) constructed them in oblong or “square” shape; that the pianos of Spaeth (died 1796) and of J. Andreas Stein (died 1792), whose pianos were adopted for use by Mozart, showed considerable advancement. The Stein family became allied with Andreas Streicher, an inventive genius, and founded a manufactory in Vienna which has maintained a high standard to the present time. The action invented by them, known as the Viennese action, differs from that of Cristofori in having the hammers annexed to the keys themselves, instead of on a bar above them ; thus giving a light touch and tone. In England, the principle of the Cristofori action was developed by the renowned house of Broadwood, their action becoming known as the English action; while in France, Sebastian Erhard, or Erard, a Strasburg inventor, founded the Erard action, which has a double hammer movement, allowing the hammers to fall either entirely, or only partially into place after the key is struck, at the will of the performer. The “cottage” action, introduced by William Southwell, about 1800, was the beginning of the “upright” form, which has now entirely superseded that of the square piano. Thus, by continued experiments, the piano has gained in compass, brilliancy, sustaining power and strength of construction, to meet the constantly-increasing demands placed upon it, until the modern piano seems to possess unlimited resources, and until the unending supply of instruments of all grades from hundreds of factories is sufficient to place one of these “household orchestras” within the reach of rich and poor alike.

Equal Temperament.—An early difficulty in the case of keyed instruments was the matter of tuning, caused by the fact that it was found scientifically impossible to tune all the intervals of the scale at the same time to the true pitch ; that is, the pitch demanded by the natural overtones of the fundamental note of the scale. At the outset, for instance, it was found that if the fifths were tuned true, the octaves would be a trifle sharp; and, conversely, if the octaves were true, the fifths would be a trifle flat. In the case of stringed instruments, where the tone was made by the per-former, it could be so modified as not to conflict seriously; but with keyed instruments this was impossible. Thus, many systems of tuning or “temperaments” were tried, such as having two keys for two notes nearly in unison, like F-sharp and’ G-flat, most of these resulting in the possibility of playing in a few nearly related keys, to the exclusion of the others. Finally, through the influence of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and the Frenchman Rameau (1683-1764), the simple expedient was definitely adopted of tuning the octaves true, and dividing each octave into twelve equal parts, thus uniting such notes as F-sharp and G-flat in one tone slightly out of tune with either, but not enough seriously to offend the ear. This, called “equal temperament,” was a great gain to music, since it not only removed a radical defect in keyed instruments, but also opened the door to that free interchange of keys which has done so much toward enriching the coloring and scope of succeeding compositions.


Grove. —Dictionary of Music and Musicians, articles on the Clavichord, Virginal, Spinet, Harpsichord, Pianoforte.

Naumann.—History of Music, Vol. I.

Weitzmann.—History of the Pianoforte.

Brinsmead.—History of the Pianoforte.

Rimbault.—The Pianoforte : Its Origin, Progress and Construction.

Spillane.—History of the American Pianoforte: