Mis à jour : 26 nov. 2018
At the beginning, piano origins were the same as that of the guitar or other string instruments: the musical bow. During Antiquity, this one evolved towards several forms of instruments including the Sitar (also called Psaltery) and the Lyre. During the XIth century, the Psaltery gave birth to the Tympanon, a trapezoid struck string Sitar, which was played with 2 hammers.
The idea of keyboard:
Around the IXth century, to obtain a continuous sound a bowed string instrument called the Organistrum was invented. It required 2 players: one turning a crank and the other using pull-tabs to change the strings pitch (as it was the case for playing Organ until the XIIIth century). Those pull-tabs may be the keyboard predecessor.
In its turn, the Organistrum gave birth to the Hurdy-gurdy. This instrument is based on the same principles but only requires one musician: while the right hand is turning a cramp, the left presses on keyboard keys to change pitches. Concerning the Organ, the idea of one or several keyboards became widespread from the XIIIth century. That’s how, at the end of the XVIIth century, main keyboard instruments were Organ, Harpsichord and Virginal, meaning that the technique of damper had already been invented.
The idea of struck strings again:
However, as the Harpsichord is a pluck strings instrument, it is not able to play volume variations at all and its keyboard can’t provide a dynamic touch. That’s why the instrument maker Pantaléon Hebenstreit (1668-1750) took up the idea of struck strings and the Tympanon.
Moreover, at the end of medieval times (during the XVth century), appeared a small 4 octaves keyboard called Clavichord. Its strings were struck by a metal piece. Since it didn’t have much volume, it was only a training instrument. However it was possible to play small amplitudes volume variations with the Clavichord.
The idea of volume variations:
Around the same period, the Harpsichord and Clavichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (?-1731), who worked for the Medicis family at the Court of Florence, was developing a new technique to struck strings on a keyboard instrument. Since it was able to play volume nuances, this one was called Piano-forte. First prototypes of Piano-forte may date from 1698.
From this moment, many technical questions were raised like: How to make the hammer bouncing off the string just once each time a key is pressed? How to rapidly bring back the hammer to its original position so as to play fast repeated notes? How to keep the dampers up so as to let the strings vibrate? B. Cristofori found an answer to the first question with the escapement system, although it caused mechanical instability problems until the end of the XVIIIth century. With the sustain pedal, he also found a solution for playing large range chords or intervals.
In spite of all these innovations, the Piano-forte almost remains unknown until 1750.
Was it just a lucky break?
In 1709, after having met B. Cristofori, Scipione Maffei (1675-1755), who was an art critic and one of A. Vivaldi librettist, published the Piano-forte fabrication plan in his review Giornale dei letterati d'Italia.
Later in Germany, Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753), who belonged to an Organ maker family, red this article and began to produce Piano-forte around 1726 (although S. Maffei plans didn’t include innovations later than 1709). Around 1730, he showed his instrument to the famous J.S. Bach who remained skeptical about it. But in 1747, J.S. Bach was invited by Frédéric the IInd to play the Musical offering on a new model from G. Silbermann. This time, the composer was seduced by the instrument. That’s how, around 1780, nuances and dynamics indications gradually appeared on keyboard scores.
The Vienna and London school of Piano-forte makers:
G. Silbermann taught many Piano-forte makers: Johann Andreas Stein (1728-1792, whose Pianos were played by W.A. Mozart), Americus Bakers (who improved the escapement system), Johannes Zumpe, Andreas Streicher (who married A. Stein daughter)… Many of them went to London (Zumpe, Bakers…), that’s how plans from J. Zumpe were used by John Broadwood (1762-1812), who invented the double sound board. He also adopted a scientific approach and worked with mechanical and acoustic engineers.
Concerning the Vienna school, Ignaz Bösendorfer (1794-1759) must be mentioned. Indeed, Franz Listz played on those pianos. Today, Bösendorfer is one of the few brands of Piano which can be compared to the quality of a Steinway or Yamaha. Piano players such as Alfred Brendel, Arthur Rubinstein, Chick Corea and others used to play on it.
In Germany, the Bechstein brand of piano, which has been founded in 1853, is also valued by piano players.
As regards French Piano makers, Sébastien Erard also went to London during the years 1790 to escape from the Revolution. In France, there also was a great collaboration between Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831) and Frédéric Chopin.
Final form of the Piano:
Around 1850, the famous Theodor Steinway created the metallic frame, a new crossed way of fixing strings (treble strings being behind bass strings) and the use of felt material for hammers. It is estimated that the Piano took its final form around 1890, with its 88 (or even more) keys and so on…
Several great piano players: Martha Argerich (1941-?), Grigory Sokolov (1950-?), Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991), Alexandre Tharaud (1968-?), Glenn Gould (1932-1982)… Elian Elias, Michel Camilo…