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The history of the piano keyboard

 

In 1709 Bartolomeo Cristofori, curator of spinets and harpsichords for the Florentine prince Ferdinand de Medici, perfected a harpsichord capable of playing with dynamics. His cembalo con piano e forte could produce soft or loud tones because it worked by hitting strings instead of plucking them. This first version of the piano was nevertheless referred to as a harpsichord for the next twenty years, making it difficult to know if the great composers of the age such as Scarlatti or Vivaldi knew of its existence. The word pianoforte, shortened later to piano, appeared only in 1732.

Bach, visiting Dresden in 1736, tried a pianoforte constructed by the organ maker Gottfried Silbermann from Cristofori's designs. Legend has it that Bach didn't think much of the sound or mechanism of these new instruments. Silbermann is said to have destroyed them with an axe.

For the time being, few people apart from piano makers knew about the new instrument. It wasn't until May 7, 1747, that it caught the attention of composers. On this occasion, Bach was visiting Frederick the Great of Prussia at his court in Potsdam. The composer paid homage to the instrument by improvising an impressive three-part fugue on a theme suggested by the king. Frederick may have been a despot, but he was a man of the Enlightenment -- a patron of literature and art who attracted the greatest thinkers and artists of the time to the palace of Sans Souci. From this moment on, composers across the whole of Europe began to take an interest in the instrument.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a rapid development. A number of instrument makers began manufacturing the pianoforte and working toward a more imposing sound. English pianos had a heavier mechanism, which increased the volume. Austrian pianos, with a lighter mechanism, had a softer timbre. It was on this generation of pianos, produced by Zumpe, Tschudi, Broadwood, Stein, and Streicher, that the first pianist performed in public.

An enthusiastic reception
When Bach died on July 28, 1750, no musician had yet been called a "pianist." However, two of his sons, Carl Phillipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, began promoting the new instrument. C.P.E. Bach moved in intellectual circles and took an interest in musical expression that ''touched the heart and affected the emotions.'' In 1762 he wrote the first piano composition worthy of the name, proving that the pianoforte was just as good as the clavichord. His charismatic brother Johann Christian saw the new instrument as a means of performing more brilliantly. He promoted the pianoforte in the salons of Europe and, more importantly, he opened a new era in the history of the instrument by offering the first public concert in London in 1768, in the company of Carl Friedrich Abel Bach. He used a square piano, probably the one purchased a month earlier from Zumpe. This was the beginning of the piano concert, a musical tradition that was enthusiasticallly received and spread quickly to other European capitals.

The early pianists rarely performed on large stages, and grand piano recitals were nonexistent. Contem-porary instruments -- especially Viennese pianos - were not very loud and could not be heard in large halls. Such halls, in any case, were traditionally reserved for opera or symphonic works. Sometimes a pianist would perform his compositions between the movements of a symphony to add some variety to the program. Only the concerto would guarantee the presence of a piano on stage and allow the composer performer to display his skill. Johann Christian wrote 35 such creations, conducting the last ones from the keyboard, as did Mozart.

Piano interpretation developed in salons rather than concert halls. Composer-pianists worked on the sonata, a form suited to solo instruments with its fast-slow-fast sections. Unlike the harpsichordist, the pianist brought to the sonata the dynamics of the piano and the greater scope offered by higher and lower registers. In addition, the performer could use the foot or knee pedal for greater resonance, and after 1784 the una corda pedal made it possible to play very softly.

Haydn and Mozart took quickly to the instrument. Muzio Clementi, composer performer and piano maker, began making instruments in England and was among the first to write a treatise on learning pianoforte technique.

With the arrival of the pianofortes in the time of Zumpe and Stein, the term legato caught the imagination of composers. It seemed to set the instrument apart from predecessors such as the harpsichord, suggesting precision, elegance, and naturalness -- all of which exemplified the age's ideal of good taste.

Inventions and improvements
Progress in the construction of the instrument both allowed and inspired more sophisticated composition and also more refined and subtle playing technique. Dynamics grew richer (Schubert used ppp and fff in 1826 in the first movement of his Sonata D 894). Such extreme dynamics were the result of strings stretched diagonally in the sound box, which Loud did in 1802. In 1815 Broadwood invented the metal frame. In 1822 Erard introduced the double hopper and thicker strings. In 1826 Pape substituted felt for leather on the hammers and in 1842 he increased the range of the keyboard to eight octaves (compared with six and a half on the Streicher piano that belonged to Beethoven). In 1843 Bord reinforced strings with a metal bar thus increasing their resistance to the hammer blows.

These inventions rendered the mechanics of the piano more balanced and responsive, in turn improving the touch of the keyboard. The double hopper was a particularly fine innovation, permitting the rapid repetition of notes and better control of dynamics. Without it, Moritz Moszkowski would never have written La Jongleuse, the battle horse of virtuosos who juggle with chromaticisms like so many plates at the end of a stick.

Finally, with the appearance of the first Steinway concert grand in 1859, the basic features of the piano as we know it were established.

A SHORT HISTORY OF KEYBOARDS AND KEYS which were invented a long time before the Piano

The German word "Klavier," which can refer to any keyboard instrument, possibly derives from the Greek word "celava" which means club (because most of the early organ keys were hit not played); but it is more likely that it came from the Latin word "clavis," meaning key, as this is where the English word key derived from. On early organs, the keys were marked with the pitch. These were translated into letters which were called "clavis."

The Roman water organ had a row of little levers. Evidence for this can be found on mosaics and carvings dating from before the collapse of Imperial Rome. During the tenth century there was an organ at Winchester Cathedral with 40 stops and two manuals, probably consisting of lever type keys, all naturals with no accidentals, taking, it is said, three men to play it. The organ was the first instrument with a keyboard, and the weight of its keys, like that of many other instruments, varied. So much so, that it took the strength of a man's fist to push down one of the crude levers, which to us would hardly be recognisable as a key. It was not unknown for players to be called "organ beaters." Organ players began complaining of uneven touch on the organs. A contract between an organ builder and Rouen Cathedral in 1382 refers to the repair of the keyboard with the purpose of making it more uniform and lighter in touch. However, parts of an organ dated 226 AD and found near Budapest had keys no heavier than those of a modern piano. Throughout the ages, touch has been one of the gripes of the performer. Even the great Silberman, who trained most of the great piano makers of the 1700s, was criticised by J. S. Bach, who said that Silberman pianos were too hard to play. This was around 1733.

The first sharp to be added to the keyboard was probably the F sharp, according to academic research. A painting by Van Eyck suggests that the fashion around 1430 was for narrower keys than in earlier years, with the use of sharps confirmed. Since around 1450 the keyboard has remained virtually the same except for minor variations in the width of the keys and the coverings of the short and long keys respectively as white and black or black and white.

By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, keyboards consisted of what we would call the naturals, or white note keys, with the church modes as the basis for the musical system. The interval of an augmented fourth, between the notes we would call F and B, was considered discordant, so the B was often lowered, bringing in an extra note, B flat, shorter and narrower, between the A and the B. After the B flat probably came the E flat, then C sharp and finally G sharp. They would have been tuned more or less as pure thirds to the natural keys, that is, the B flat as a true third below D, F sharp as a true third above the D etc. But today's arrangement of naturals and sharps or flats was depicted in a painting as long ago as 1361. Almost 300 years later, in 1619, Praetorius wrote that there were still to be seen a few keyboards with one short key, the B flat. Attempts were being made to play on two keyboards with one hand at the same time by 1555 or soon after.

Until the beginning of the 19th century the naturals were slightly shorter from their fronts to the sharps (this is more to do with playing technique than design) and often the naturals were darker in colour and the sharps lighter. The custom of having the naturals a darker colour was said to have originated in France to show off the player's hands to better advantage. A piano made by Zumpe in 1766 had the black notes divided into two sections controlling different strings, to allow for the tuning of sharps as sharps and flats as flats. Each octave could be divided into thirty-nine steps. The practical difficulties of playing such a thing ensured that it did not catch on.

It seems that around 1700 ivory was used for key covering at times. Many and varied materials have been used for this purpose, including bone, mother-of-pearl, porcelain, tortoise-shell, silver, boxwood, cedar, ebony, pear and other rare and polished woods. At times the fronts of the naturals were beautifully carved. In 1816 a set of new replacement keys for a Broadwood grand would have cost £3 s0 d0, and for a square £2 s15 d0.

The English and Viennese actions arrived on the scene around 1772 and the fronts of the Viennese keys were more often ivory, like those on a modern piano. Silberman's keys used very thick ivory, 2.5 mm. French and English keyboards had moulded, inverted step-like keys which used decorative box woods and sometimes the fronts were carved as well. Sometime in the 1830s they changed to the key front shape we know to day.

Clagget in 1788 patented the idea of putting glass on keys and later the French were using porcelain. This was all an attempt to get the customer to buy the cheap end of the piano lines.

In 1862 Cellulose was first made artificially from gun-cotton by A.Parkes, of Birmingham UK. Called "Parkesine", it could simulate ivory. In 1869 John & Isaiah Hyatt (1837 - 1920), of New York, produced Celluloid from camphor and pyroxlin (cellulose nitrate), and in 1870 Hyatt was granted a patent in the USA. Cellulose has been used for the key coverings on the cheaper pianos since then. From about 1959, the most common covering for both white and black keys has been acrylic plastic.

In 1963 Pratt, Read & Co. introduced a moulded plastic shell wrapped around the wooden core of the keys so that no wood was exposed. At present there is an embargo on the use of ivory for key coverings.

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE PIANO

In 1709 Bartolomeo Cristofori, curator of spinets and harpsichords for the Florentine prince Ferdinand de Medici, perfected a harpsichord capable of playing with dynamics. His cembalo con piano e forte could produce soft or loud tones because it worked by hitting strings instead of plucking them. This first version of the piano was nevertheless referred to as a harpsichord for the next twenty years, making it difficult to know if the great composers of the age such as Scarlatti or Vivaldi knew of its existence. The word pianoforte, shortened later to piano, appeared only in 1732.

Bach, visiting Dresden in 1736, tried a pianoforte constructed by the organ maker Gottfried Silbermann from Cristofori's designs. Legend has it that Bach didn't think much of the sound or mechanism of these new instruments. Silbermann is said to have destroyed them with an axe.

For the time being, few people apart from piano makers knew about the new instrument. It wasn't until May 7, 1747, that it caught the attention of composers. On this occasion, Bach was visiting Frederick the Great of Prussia at his court in Potsdam. The composer paid homage to the instrument by improvising an impressive three-part fugue on a theme suggested by the king. Frederick may have been a despot, but he was a man of the Enlightenment -- a patron of literature and art who attracted the greatest thinkers and artists of the time to the palace of Sans Souci. From this moment on, composers across the whole of Europe began to take an interest in the instrument.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a rapid development. A number of instrument makers began manufacturing the pianoforte and working toward a more imposing sound. English pianos had a heavier mechanism, which increased the volume. Austrian pianos, with a lighter mechanism, had a softer timbre. It was on this generation of pianos, produced by Zumpe, Tschudi, Broadwood, Stein, and Streicher, that the first pianist performed in public.

An enthusiastic reception
When Bach died on July 28, 1750, no musician had yet been called a "pianist." However, two of his sons, Carl Phillipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, began promoting the new instrument. C.P.E. Bach moved in intellectual circles and took an interest in musical expression that ''touched the heart and affected the emotions.'' In 1762 he wrote the first piano composition worthy of the name, proving that the pianoforte was just as good as the clavichord. His charismatic brother Johann Christian saw the new instrument as a means of performing more brilliantly. He promoted the pianoforte in the salons of Europe and, more importantly, he opened a new era in the history of the instrument by offering the first public concert in London in 1768, in the company of Carl Friedrich Abel Bach. He used a square piano, probably the one purchased a month earlier from Zumpe. This was the beginning of the piano concert, a musical tradition that was enthusiasticallly received and spread quickly to other European capitals.

The early pianists rarely performed on large stages, and grand piano recitals were nonexistent. Contem-porary instruments -- especially Viennese pianos - were not very loud and could not be heard in large halls. Such halls, in any case, were traditionally reserved for opera or symphonic works. Sometimes a pianist would perform his compositions between the movements of a symphony to add some variety to the program. Only the concerto would guarantee the presence of a piano on stage and allow the composer performer to display his skill. Johann Christian wrote 35 such creations, conducting the last ones from the keyboard, as did Mozart.

Piano interpretation developed in salons rather than concert halls. Composer-pianists worked on the sonata, a form suited to solo instruments with its fast-slow-fast sections. Unlike the harpsichordist, the pianist brought to the sonata the dynamics of the piano and the greater scope offered by higher and lower registers. In addition, the performer could use the foot or knee pedal for greater resonance, and after 1784 the una corda pedal made it possible to play very softly.

Haydn and Mozart took quickly to the instrument. Muzio Clementi, composer performer and piano maker, began making instruments in England and was among the first to write a treatise on learning pianoforte technique.

With the arrival of the pianofortes in the time of Zumpe and Stein, the term legato caught the imagination of composers. It seemed to set the instrument apart from predecessors such as the harpsichord, suggesting precision, elegance, and naturalness -- all of which exemplified the age's ideal of good taste.

Inventions and improvements
Progress in the construction of the instrument both allowed and inspired more sophisticated composition and also more refined and subtle playing technique. Dynamics grew richer (Schubert used ppp and fff in 1826 in the first movement of his Sonata D 894). Such extreme dynamics were the result of strings stretched diagonally in the sound box, which Loud did in 1802. In 1815 Broadwood invented the metal frame. In 1822 Erard introduced the double hopper and thicker strings. In 1826 Pape substituted felt for leather on the hammers and in 1842 he increased the range of the keyboard to eight octaves (compared with six and a half on the Streicher piano that belonged to Beethoven). In 1843 Bord reinforced strings with a metal bar thus increasing their resistance to the hammer blows.

These inventions rendered the mechanics of the piano more balanced and responsive, in turn improving the touch of the keyboard. The double hopper was a particularly fine innovation, permitting the rapid repetition of notes and better control of dynamics. Without it, Moritz Moszkowski would never have written La Jongleuse, the battle horse of virtuosos who juggle with chromaticisms like so many plates at the end of a stick.

Finally, with the appearance of the first Steinway concert grand in 1859, the basic features of the piano as we know it were established.

These interesting facts appear on the ukpianos.co.uk website and I have edited them into this file for your perusal

 

Piano lessons for beginners Banbury,Brackley,Bicester

© John Hancock 2002 - 2016
Piano Lessons in Banbury, Brackley and Bicester