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Pianoforte

Grand Piano Referring to the harpsichord in 1713, Francois Couperin wrote, “…it is impossible to swell out or diminish the volume of its sound…”

This inability of the harpsichord to allow the light and shade of expressive performance was already being addressed in Florence by Bartolemeo Cristofori (1655-1731).

Within the first decade of the eighteenth century, Cristofori had already produced an instrument that facilitated contrast between soft and loud. This instrument he named gravicembalo col piano e forte or harpsichord with soft and loud: thus was born the pianoforte. Cristofori Piano

It was the ingenious and innovative mechanism of Cristofori’s invention that enabled degrees of expressive performance unobtainable with the harpsichord.

His mechanism contained three important elements:

  • Ability to project the hammers at the strings in a touch-responsive manner.
  • Allow, by means of an escapement, the hammers to fall away from the strings whilst the keys remained depressed.
  • Upon the release of the keys, activate dampers that terminated the vibration of the strings.

The consequence of such innovation was immense! From now on, performers had immediate and precise control over not only the volume but also the duration of a sounding note; with key depressed, the string would continue to resonate; with key released, the string vibration was instantly stopped.

Cristofori’s invention was to liberate keyboard players. Expression was at their fingertips!

Having acknowledged Cristofori as the inventor of the pianoforte, the contributions made by other skilled craftsmen deserve mention.

Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) constructed the first German pianoforte. Criticism of his early work by J.S. Bach resulted in him producing later pianofortes upon which Bach was happy to perform.

An apprentice of Silbermann, Johannes Zumpe, moved to England where he became responsible for the creation of the square piano. It was one of Zumpe’s square pianos upon which J.C. Bach performed during his time in England.

In Vienna during the 1770s, Andreas Stein improved the mechanism and his escapement gained popularity throughout Europe as the “Viennese Action.” Such was Stein’s contribution to the art of piano making that Mozart, after a visit to Stein’s workshop, wrote to his father enthusing about the effect of Stein’s escapement on the quality of performance.

John Broadwood (1732- 1812) married into the family of a Swiss harpsichord maker based in London. He became a partner with his father-in-law, Burkhardt Shudi, and then succeeded him whereupon the firm adopted the name of Broadwood. It was Broadwood who was accredited with the introduction of the sustaining pedal and, in1794, he was the first to build a piano with a compass of six octaves. (The two remaining Cristofori pianos have a compass of four and four and a half octaves.) Piano Action Instruments made by Broadwood were exported to the United States and Beethoven was in possession of one of his instruments.

Sebastian Erard (1752-1831) invented a double escapement that allowed for the quick and easy repetition of notes thus adding further scope for virtuoso performance. Erard’s principle involved the interruption of the downward drop of the hammers after striking the keys thus shortening the distance of the “throw” of the hammer.

The first pianoforte to be built in America was the work of J.Behrent of Philadelphia in 1775.

John Hawkins, also of Philadelphia, was the first to use an iron frame and was to the fore in the development of the upright piano in 1800.

Even though the introduction of an iron frame enabled strings to be mounted under higher tensions than those in the original wooden framed instruments, the stresses involved were still enormous.To accommodate such forces the idea of overstringing in the pianoforte emerged round about 1835. (Earlier clavichord makers had attempted this idea.) By setting the strings diagonally above and below each other, the forces were more evenly and efficiently distributed.

By the time of the formation of the Bechstein Company in Berlin (1853) and the Steinway Company in New York (1856) the pianoforte had achieved the attributes that it maintains to this day.

Not only were technological advances made in the construction of the pianoforte but also changes in its dimensions, shape and appearance emerged.

The early pianofortes were similar in appearance to the harpsichord so they also bore a resemblance to the modern grand piano.

Square Piano

By about 1760, the “Square Piano” had been constructed. The square piano was, in fact, more of a rectangular box and greatly resembled the virginals. The keyboard was situated along one of the longer sides and the strings were strung at right angles to the keys or, in other words, parallel to the keyboard.

This design produced a more compact machine than the harpsichord-shaped versions and as a consequence they achieved great popularity as instruments for domestic use since they could be accommodated within properties of modest dimensions.

Upright Piano The “Upright Piano” (sometimes known in a smaller form as the Cottage Piano) was developed in the early nineteenth century.

Gravity did not enable a natural return of the hammers to their place of rest as in the horizontally strung instruments. Vertically strung upright pianos required the assistance of springs to return hammers to their original positions and it was John Hawkins of Philadelphia who first managed to satisfy the mechanical demands of the upright.

Being even more ergonomically efficient than the square piano, the upright grew in popularity as the instrument for domestic use. By the mid-nineteenth century the upright had banished the square piano to obscurity.

The grand piano of today appears to be the ultimate in design. It has changed very little over the last century and a half from the elegant harpsichord shape that inspired its appearance. It remains the yardstick against which standards of tone, construction and appearance are measured but the humbler upright no longer enjoys the popularity it once did due to the prohibitive nature of cost.

Happily (or not, depending on one’s viewpoint) advances in the manufacture of electronic pianos still make access to keyboard performance a possibility for many people.

The structure of the modern pianoforte consists of six main parts:

Case, Frame, Strings, Soundboard, Action and Pedals.

Case: One could say that the case is merely the outward shell protecting the important inner parts but, even though that is what it actually is, a thing of such beauty, invested with generations of skill and craftsmanship, deserves to be recognised for what it is; a work of art.

The precise dimensions, the selection of construction materials and the skills of the maker not only satisfy the eyes of the beholder but also contribute towards the musical qualities inherent within the instrument.

Piano Frame

Frame: The frame is usually made of iron because it is the metal that contracts least upon cooling after casting. Minimal contraction is of paramount importance because of the precision required in accurate sound production.

The strings are secured at one end in the string plate and, at the other end, tuning pins, around which the strings are wound, are set into the wrest plank.

It is these tuning pins that are adjusted by piano tuners to secure the necessary tension for the required pitch.

Strings: The pitch of a vibrating string depends upon its length, thickness, tension and material of construction.

Were the length of a string the only variable influencing the pitch of a string then, in order to accommodate the lower notes, pianofortes would be excessively long. However, by combining length with those other variables, thickness, tension and material used, the modern piano is efficiently contained within its current dimensions. (A grand piano is 2.69 metres)

The material used for the strings is steel with the lower strings overwound with copper wire to increase thickness. High tension stringing is possible because overstringing distributes the forces evenly throughout the frame.

Nowadays there is one string for the lower notes and courses of two and three strings strung in unison for the middle and higher notes respectively. Contrast this arrangement with Cristofori’s first pianos that had two strings for each note.

Soundboard: The soundboard is constructed of fine-grained wood and is situated beneath the strings or, in the case of an upright piano, behind the strings. Its purpose is to resonate in sympathy with the vibrations of the strings thus influencing the tone produced.

As in the violin, the strings are in contact with the sounding board by means of a bridging system.

The soundboard in an upright piano often has its properties diminished since it is frequently situated against a wall whereas the soundboard of the horizontal grand has the added advantage of being parallel to the concert platform, which in turn compliments the acoustics of the performing space.

Piano action

Action: The action includes all the mechanical parts involved in the projection of the hammers at the strings.

Early hammers had leather to provide the string-striking material but nowadays the striking agent is wool felt because, such is the tension of the strings, a less gentle material would produce a harsh sound.

Ivory or plastic is used in the manufacture of the white keys and ebony or plastic in the manufacture of the black.

Such is the complexity of keyboard mechanisms that specialists within a discrete branch of the production process manufacture them.

Today’s grand piano is an instrument with a usual complement of eighty-eight keys and a compass of seven and a quarter octaves. (Compare this to the compass of four/four and half octaves in Cristofori’s original pianos.)

Piano Pedals

Pedals: Most pianos have two pedals.

The right pedal is the Sustaining Pedal. This pedal eliminates the result of releasing a key; i.e. it prevents damping and allows strings to continue resonating. The sustaining pedal frees all strings from damping thus allowing, not only the nominated strings to resonate, but also the dormant strings to resonate in sympathy.

The sustaining pedal is sometimes erroneously called the loud pedal.

The left pedal is, however, the Soft Pedal. The effect of activating this pedal is to create a softer tone by one of two methods. (There was a third method involving felt or cloth dampers dropping between the hammers and the strings but it is no longer commonly in use.)

The first method is applicable to the grand piano: application of the soft pedal shifts all the hammers sideways thus influencing the number of strings being actively engaged in sound production.

The second method shifted the hammers closer to the strings thus shortening their “throw” and, as a consequence, their reduced potency resulted in a softer sound. This was the method used in upright pianos.

Occasionally pianos have a third pedal. This is the Sostenato pedal. It has a more discriminatory function than the sustained pedal inasmuch as it sustains only those notes activated during pedal use. All other notes remain damped and are incapable of resonating in sympathy.

Despite the rapid advances made in the mechanical efficiency of the pianoforte the time taken for it to replace the harpsichord was approximately the hundred years between 1700 and 1800. During that time they coexisted.

That century encompassed the life-enhancing output of composers such as J.S. Bach and Handel yet neither of them composed music for the pianoforte even though, in the case of Bach, he was known to have performed upon one.

It was the likes of C.P.E. Bach, Haydn and Mozart who wrote for, first, harpsichord and then “harpsichord or pianoforte” and, even as late as 1802, Beethoven still instructed that his “Moonlight” Sonata be played by either harpsichord or pianoforte.

By the time of Lizst and Chopin there was no doubt that the pianoforte had arrived as an instrument capable of standing alone; worthy of the largest and most varied repertoire of any instrument.


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