Tuesday, June 24, 2014

History of the Keyboard: The Pianoforte

The last few weeks we have been discussing the development of the keyboard instrument in honor of the World Piano Competition that is occurring this week at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. For more information on this competition, check out  their website.

After looking at several historical versions of the keyboard, this week we are closer to what you may be familiar with today: the pianoforte. Invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1700, the pianoforte is like the clavichord in that it is a ‘struck’ instrument rather than a ‘plucked’ instrument. Unlike the clavichord, however, the pianoforte can sustain notes. When a key is pressed, hammers strike and drop away allowing a string to reverberate as long as the key is held. The pianoforte is also able to produce rapidly repeated notes. Another new and important feature the pianoforte brought to performance was the ability to change dynamic level and show expression through touch.

The pianoforte was slow to gain popularity at first and clavichords and harpsichords were actually still played and manufactured until the early 19th century! Around 1760, however, this newer keyboard began to grow in acceptance. You may be wondering why I am referring to this instrument as the ‘pianoforte.’ The early piano was given this name to differentiate itself from the newer version developed a century later. This early version of the piano is smaller in size and softer in sound than modern day instruments. Here is a picture:

Courtesy of wikimedia.org 

You may have heard of two types of the early piano: the square and the grand. The square (pictured above) was built in the shape of the clavichord and meant for domestic use while the grand was shaped more like a harpsichord and, due to its high price, typically only seen in public performance arenas or in aristocratic homes.

During the Industrial Revolution, piano manufacturing drastically increased. Beforehand, about 20 pianos were made each year. By 1800, John Broadwood & Sons of London produced about 400 a year and by 1850 they did 2000 per year. Production was now less expensive because of the large quantity built so middle class families often times purchased square pianos for the home. At this point, we also see new developments to the instrument including the damper pedal which allows tones to continue after the release of the key. These new instruments also had greater volume contrasts, greater ability for legato playing, extended range, and quicker repetition of notes. This led to more virtuosic playing that we see in late 19th century with performers such as Franz Liszt.

Join me next time as we look at a few musical examples from the pianoforte and the more modern piano.

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