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The history of piano: a three century old instrument

By Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Music > Piano > Discover the History of a Prestigious Music Instrument: The Piano

The piano has an important place in the greater history of music. It hasn’t always been called a piano, and has not always been available to everyone either. The piano crossed the years and centuries. It evolved and adapted to its time.

It enabled the revealing of artists, musicians of legend. Men who have marked the history of music, and history itself.

It is very interesting to discover and analyze the great history of the piano, an instrument that came rather late in time. When the piano was not yet a piano.

The birth and expansion of the piano

To go back to its earliest days, one must go back to the eighteenth century. With a name that will change the course of history: Bartolomeo CRISTOFORI. This Florentine invented the first keyboard instrument: the CLAVICORDE, or “gravecembalo col piano e forte” in Italian.

We are still quite far from the piano as we know it today, but the idea of ​​pressing keys that operate hammers typing on strings to produce sound is already present. Cristofori made twenty copies of this string instrument in his life. The idea was then taken up and improved by a German: Silbermann. He improves the plans of the keyboard and the process of hammer strikes.

A new family of instruments is born. And in the family, if we ask the grandfather, we will call the Piano-forte.

The piano forte, or Calvicorde, was created in the 18th century in Italy Bartolomeo Cristofori was the inventor of the piano forte.

The piano-Forte, the oldest ancestor of the modern piano

With the research on the sound and the mechanism of Silbermann, a new type of keyboard was born in the late 1770s: the piano forte. He’s also the one who invented the precursor to the modern damper pedal, which lifts the dampers from all the strings at once.

Aesthetically and for the sound, the piano forte has undergone the most improvements. The period corresponding to this chain of improvement goes from the death of Mozart (1791) to the death of Schubert (1828). Musically, we are going through the classical era.

The piano forte and the harpsichord must not be confused. The harpsichord is not considered an ancestor of the piano for two reasons. It was created after the piano, and doesn’t hold the same technical characteristics as the piano. For example, the sound of the harpsichord is not due to a hammer strike. Besides, the harpsichord did not have the same success as the piano. History proves it.

The instrument will undergo many improvements, to allow the pianists of the time to enjoy a sound much more powerful than at the origin and greater expressive capacities.

And thanks to the Industrial Revolution, progress was superior to the expectations of the virtuosos of the time:

  • Work on the accuracy of the sound
  • Improved keyboard touch with more flexible keys
  • Production of high quality steel strings, more resistant and more accurate.
  • Improved machining precision on the production of new cast iron frames.

The multiplication of piano companies

The second half of the 19th century and the industrial boom made it possible for new companies, new brands, new factories to emerge and contribute to the improvement of the piano, which was still known as the piano forte.

The leading and innovative country during this time is Germany. The Blüthner brand (born in 1853) has succeeded in developing both the technical and aesthetic aspects of its pianos by making them robust and powerful.

But it also develops the commercial aspect, by seeking in clients not only the best pianists, but also people aiming to learn the piano, or who wanted to build a prestigious image of themselves.

Blüthner will therefore patent 4 improvements to its models and diversify its offer. So that in 1915, the standard piano is 2m15 long, weighs 300 kg, and covers 5 octaves. The other piano brands, initially late on these changes, will then have to follow in their steps.

Hammers have evolved since their first invention Hammers were the main elements to take advantage of technological advances.

The piano virtuosos as brand images

As in any sector, and as in any period, a brand must be accompanied by a muse. A muse who sells the product as unique among all.

For the piano, the companies did not deviate from the rule. They went to seek the image of the best pianists to persuade the masses that their products were better than those of the competition.

Thus Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, to name but a few (among the best pianists) lent their name to the great European piano manufacturers. Firms that are multiplying during the second half of the nineteenth century, up to more than 20 in 1885. It was at this time that the modern piano was actually born.

The main piano-making firms at the end of the 19th century were:

  • Blüthner
  • Broadwood
  • Pleyel
  • Erard
  • Stein

At the time, these firms shared 70% of the world’s piano production.

Pianos of all shapes, sound and technical characteristics… And pianos that could be found among middle-class people of the time (especially those enriched by the industrial revolution, who wanted to learn the piano) and the bourgeoisie who used pianos as well, for the sound only, for the beauty of the “furniture” that the instrument represents.

Find out where you can learn to play the piano

The modern piano shows up!

With the progress in science, the advancement of industry and manufacturing techniques, the pianos changed, evolved, to become what we know of them today.

It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the piano succeeded in combining power, beauty, and perfect sound. Piano practice becomes more popular, with the conquest of new regions, new countries.

Just before the early 1900s, Henri Pape gave the sound of the piano a new dimension. He replaced the leather covers of the hammers. These blows which make sound with sheep’s wool felt. This enhancement allows for a finer harmonization of the instrument’s timbre with the strike.

In Germany the use of steel spun with diamond from 1902 renders a mineral side to the sound. Even today, firms such as Röslau, Bechstein, Vogel or Rose are constantly improving their use.

And it is also at this period that the piano invades the world.

Do you know who the best pianists in the world are?

The piano is exported to America and Asia

The US: the new piano factory giant

The piano landed in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the creation of the two firms, Steinway and Grodrian. It is these two companies who lead the way in the country.

The practice of the piano is still at its beginnings, and is reserved for English emigrants, who have a culture of piano more developed than the premises of the new world.

Nevertheless, and as in all fields, the United States will quickly become the world leaders. As they still are today, with more than 200 manufacturers, and more than 870 patents filed a hundred years ago, and instruments in piano stores across the world.

THe Steinway & sons pianos have a great reputation and legitimacy The American Steinway pianos represent excellence.

Asia and Japan make their way with Yamaha

Japan made its way relatively late. The national leader of the musical instrument, Yamaha, was only created in 1887 and began making pianos in 1900. It is the Meiji family that installs the Yamaha brand at the top of the piano technicians, with the very famous Disklavier.

Their research of excellence in acoustics makes the Yamaha instruments the crème de la crème at the musical level, even today. Although the Young Chang pianos have been starting to make their place in the piano market.

A know-how that has been exported to neighboring countries like South Korea and China, that stay in the background.

Can you play these ten most difficult pieces written for the piano?

And now?

Today in 2017, the piano industry is flourishing. As in its beginnings, it went through the twentieth century by adapting to new technologies. So today we can find all types of pianos. The right pianos have become widespread, electronic pianos have become true wonders of sound and perfectly supplement the heavy and cumbersome upright pianos.

Concerning piano practice too, everything has changed. Until the end of the 1950s, this instrument was reserved to the elites. People likely to have room at home, and time to learn. The “commoners” did not have access to the piano. The price, the time, the place… Everything was missing. Today, the middle classes have access to the practice of the instrument, but can also call on teachers to take piano lessons.

And as in the early days of its existence, the piano sticks to the image of its virtuoso musicians and composers. These virtuosos who are the image, the representatives of this noble instrument.

An instrument found in movies, in television contests, piano tutorials on Youtube, concert halls from a century ago, among others.

This shows that for 300 years the piano has come a long way. A long and rich road.

The geniuses of the piano continue to interpret difficult pieces on the piano.

The history of the piano is rich and today we can distinguish 5 types of grand piano. To choose your piano, you must be careful to determine its level and the expectations that one carries for its next piano. Chose your brand, wether you want to go straight for a Steinway piano, a Yamaha piano, a Baldwin piano, a Mahogany, etc, or for more standard and less official piano makers.

If you’re going for a classic piano, you also need to chose the material : pianos are usually made of 85 % of wood. Different types of wood are used in pianos, each chosen for its distinct properties. For example, sugar pine is chosen for soundboard ribs because of its strength and flexibility. Yellow birch is used in keybed caps and legs because of its hardness and shape retention. One piano may contain several types of wood.

Make your choice carefully according to your budget and space, if you can afford a upright piano, a baby grand piano, or even go for the grand piano. If you want to buy a new piano in a piano store maybe wait for sales, or else try to find some good deals online for restored pianos. If you aren’t sure of yourself, ask advice from a professional piano teacher, and maybe go for a piano rental. Do know that piano moving is particular and requires a specific license – in the case of an upright piano or a grand piano. As for all musical instrument it is the result of craftsmanship, however pianos require special care : piano restoration, tuning, moving, etc are often call for professionals.

Discover now all there is to know about the piano!

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