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The Evolution of the piano

If anyone is asked to randomly think of an instrument, chances are that it will be a
piano. Of all the musical instruments we have at our disposal in our world today, the
piano is by far one of the most ubiquitous. It can be found in every church, it still
miraculously materializes in concerts today and is a parents number one choice for a
beginning instrument for their child. What has led to the success of a piano? Why is it
important to classical music and why is it still an integral part of our music today? The
piano is indeed an enduring instrument that has gone through eleven main stages of
development to make it the success it is today. In exchange for the pleasure it brings to
our ears and hearts, history does indeed treat the piano well.
The first ancestor of the piano originated in Iran shortly after the birth of Christ and
was dubbed the Dulcimer. Little is known of the dulcimer from before the mid-15th
century. It is often said to have been of Persian origin, but H.G. Farmer (Grove5) adduced
considerable negative evidence, pointing out that not one of the great Arabic and Persian
treatises on music contains the slightest reference to the dulcimer and concluding that it
seems to have found its way to Iranian ears during the 17th century, perhaps through
Turkish influence (Grove Music 5). The Dulcimer illustrates the basic principles of the
piano, hammers striking multiple strings tuned over a flat soundboard. Instead of
mechanical hammers, dulcimer players used two light sticks ending with broader blades.
(Grove Music 5). The Dulcimer never became a widely played instrument mainly
because of its crude construction. Despite this it traveled far and wide and even found
itself in the court of Louis XIV.

Following the Dulcimer was an instrument known as the Clavichord. First built
around 1400, the clavichord was most popular three centuries later in the music of Bach.
When a key is pressed, a vertical brass strip (tangent) is lifted toward a pair of strings.
The clavichord has a quiet tone, but the way its built allows for some control of
dynamics and even vibrato (Grove Music 08294.1). The clavichord is not easy to play
well, the chief difficulty being to control the tendency in instruments of traditional design
for the tangent to bounce off the strings at first contact, particularly in the treble. To
produce clean notes, the player has to acquire an especially firm touch, a matter of
training which was well understood in the 18th century and was thought beneficial when
playing other keyboard instruments. Clavichords have been designed during the early
revival which is easier to play, but always at the sacrifice of dynamic range, pitch
stability or both.(Grove Music 08294.1) Even though he didnt live in the period in
which the Clavichord was invented and developed Brauchli, Bernard (May 5, 1944- ) has
added to the fame and reknown of the Clavichord. After piano studies in Lausanne and
Vienna , he became increasingly attracted to the clavichord and its repertory. He made his
European dbut at Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1972 and his American dbut at Marlboro
College, Vermont, in 1973. He studied musicology at the New England Conservatory and
began research in early Iberian clavichord music with Macario Santiago Kastner in
Lisbon in 1977. He regularly tours Europe and North America, performing and recording
a wide repertory of Renaissance and Baroque clavichord music, with an emphasis on
Iberian composers (Grove Music 43646.1) His contributions to the instrument includes
beginning the International Clavichord Congress that meets biennially in Magnano, Italy,

and publications, the most important among them being The Clavichord (Cambridge,
1998), which includes articles on the clavichord, its history and iconography.
The virginal was the next step in evolution. The typical virginal is a small harpsichord
with keys at right angles to a single set of strings. When a key is pressed, a vertical
rod (jack) holding a leather or quill plectrum rises and plucks the string, producing
a louder tone than the clavichord but without its dynamic variety (Grove Music
43136.2). The derivation of the term virginal remains in dispute, the association
with the Latin virga (rod) being unproved and that with Elizabeth I (the virgin
queen) being without foundation. The term probably derives in some way,
however, from the instruments association with female performers Marcuse
suggested that this results from a confusion between timbrel (a frame drum played
by women since biblical times) and the cymbel in such terms as cembalo,
clavicymbel etc. or from its tone, which some theorists likened to a young girls
voice (vox virginalis). The term pair of virginals, to be found in early literature
derived from organ terminology, denotes a single instrument.( Grove Music
43136.2). The virginal was not a very famous instrument but was known to be
played by Heywood, John. He was English writer, musician and composer.
According to Anthony Wood, he spent some time at Broadgate Hall, Oxford, and
later knew Thomas More. He is first mentioned in the court records of Michaelmas
1519. Heywood is best known as a playwright. The texts of three of his plays call
for a little music, but neither titles nor words to the songs are included in the
printed play texts ( Grove Music 12979.6).

As the form of the instrument improved the Spinet appeared. Though originating in
Italy, the spinet was perfected by English builders in the late seventeen century,
about the time of composer Henry Purcell. The jack mechanism plucks the strings
just as in the virginal, but the wing shape permits longer strings, increasing the
volume and expanding the range to as much as five octaves. Its inventor was
Giovanni Spinetti. More affordable than a harpsichord (in the 1770s Ferdinand
Weber of Dublin charged about 2236 for a harpsichord, 11 for a spinet), the
spinet is essentially a domestic instrument, which cannot be said to have a
repertory of its own distinct from that of the harpsichord. However, much of the
music printed in such collections as Musicks Handmaid (1663, 1689), The
Harpsichord Miscellany (2 vols., c1763) and The Harpsichord Master (16971734)
was doubtless intended for use by the amateur performer who had no larger
instrument at his disposal.( Grove Music09514.2 ).
One of the most famous precursors of the piano was the Harpsichord. Pictured as early
as the fifteenth century, the harpsichord form (where the keys are in line with
strings) reached its peak in the period of Bach and Handel. In this shape, the pattern
for the modern grand, the strings are longer, and the instrument sounds louder than
the clavichord.( Grove Music). The Harpsichord marked a road mile in the
development of instruments leading up to the piano.
The earliest surviving harpsichords, dated 151516 and 1521 appear originally to
have had only one 8' register, but as early as 1530 payment was made to William
Lewes from the Privy Purse for ii payre of Virginalles in one coffer with iiii

stoppes. This description has been variously interpreted, but what is unquestionable
is the transfer from the organ to stringed keyboard instruments of the term stop,
with its implication that registration was already, at least in England, a normal
component of the technique of the harpsichord. A high-pitched instrument made in
1537 by Hans Mller of Leipzig had two sets of strings and three registers, one of
them a lute stop. Claviorgans were made in most of the harpsichord-manufacturing
countries from the 16th century to the 18th, and would have presented still more
registrational possibilities. The harpsichord portion of a one-manual claviorgan
made in England in 1579 (by Theeus) appears to have had the earliest example of
the disposition 8', 8', 4'. Since it also appears to have been fitted with the means of
selecting or combining the registers, the player would have had seven harpsichord
colours at his disposal, plus whatever possibilities the pipework added.(Grove
During the time of the Harpsichord the musician that helped in its development was Bach
himself. He wrote music for the harpsichord and later helped in the construction of
the lute-harpsichord.
About 1709, Bartolommeo Cristofori built several instruments in the harpsichord
shape but with hammer mechanisms surprisingly like the modern piano action.
Because players could control soft and loud (piano-forte), which was impossible on
plucked keyboard instruments, Cristofori named his new instrument "pianoforte".
Cristofori was able to get around the problem caused by a hammer hitting the
strings of an instrument in order to make a note. the more likely the hammer is

to jam against the strings or bounce back and forth between the strings and
whatever device impelled it upwards when the key was struck; hence when the
distance of free flight is made small to permit control of loudness, the hammer is
likely to jam or bounce and damp out the tone. Cristofori solved this problem with
a mechanism that enabled the hammer to be brought quite close to the string but
caused it to fall quite far away from it even if the key was still held down. Devices
of this kind are called escapements and they lie at the heart of all advanced piano
actions. In addition, Cristofori provided a lever system that caused the hammers to
move at a high speed, and a check (or back check) which would catch the
hammer after it fell so as to eliminate all chance of its bouncing back up to restrike
the strings. A well known artist of the pianoforte was Wilhelm Cramer. Of all
Cramers works, the one that has had the greatest enduring value is his celebrated
set of 84 studies for the piano, published in two sets of 42 each in 1804 and 1810
as Studio per il pianoforte. This collection has long been considered a cornerstone
of pianistic technique and is the only work of Cramers that is generally known
today. Clementi claimed for himself the idea of such a comprehensive technical
volume, accusing Cramer of having stolen the idea and title for the Studio.(Grove
During the eighteenth century, piano builders gradually extended the keyboard. Two
important new developments were the escapement action for faster repetition of
notes (about 1770 by Stein in Augsburg), and the damper and soft pedals (1783 by
Broadwood in London). Special pedals were often added to produce exotic effects.
(Grove Music) After this during the nineteenth century, the piano continued to

become more powerful and responsive. The outstanding improvements were the
double-repetition action of Sebastien Erard (Paris, 1821) which allowed very rapid
repetition; and the full cast-iron frame of Alphaeus Babcock (Boston 1825), the
basis for todays extended keyboard.(Grove Music ) This led to the piano of the
Romantic era. The dawn of Romanticism in the 1830s brought with it the
specialization that produced a breed of pianists who were to dominate the salons
and concert halls of Europe for the next couple decades. Artists like Chopin and
Schumann emerged, and had their achievements more clearly bounded by the
capabilities and limitations of the piano. Strangely enough the single most
important development in the sound of the Romantic piano was doubtless the new
emphasis on the sustaining (or damper) pedal. Although Czerny claimed that
Beethoven made frequent use of the pedals, much more frequent than is indicated
in his works, the sustaining pedal was almost universally regarded, up to the first
quarter of the 19th century, as a special effect.(Grove Music)
The grand piano of today incorporates the best qualities of early keyboard
instruments. Cross stringing a way to achieve greater richness of tone by passing
more strings over the center of the soundboard was invented by Alphaeus Babcock
in 1830, but was not used in the grand piano until the second half of the ninteenth
century. The sostenuto, or middle, pedal was introduced in the late ninteenth
century, permitting greater musical coloring.(). The development of piano playing
in the 20th century received its major impetus from Claude Debussy, who took up
where Chopin had left off five decades earlier. Unlike most 19th-century piano
composers, Debussy was no virtuoso (few accounts of his playing, and only a

fragmentary recording accompanying Mary Garden in a scene from Pellas,

survive), but he was on intimate terms with the instrument to which he returned
again and again. His piano music is an eclectic blend of Couperin and Chopin (the
keyboard composers he admired most) combined with daring new harmonies and
textures. The Suite pour le piano (1901) proved a landmark in 20th-century
pianism, skilfully blending three centuries of keyboard tradition. It should be noted
that Debussy achieved his finely graded pedal effects (never specified but always
an integral part of the texture) without the benefit of the middle sostenuto pedal
found on most modern concert instruments. The capstone to Debussys piano
writing is the set of twelve Etudes (1915), fittingly dedicated to Chopin.(Grove
The development of the piano has been filled with many separate paths that all
converge on one point, the modern piano of today. Its flexibility, ease of play and
beautiful range has made the piano the popular instrument it is today. The piano is a
crucial instrument in Western classical music, jazz, film, television, and most other
complex western musical genres and will continue to be so indefinitely.

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NewYork. 18 Dec. 2007.
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