The history of the West’s relationship with music is a fascinating story and one that continues to be added to. The French horn, the double bass, the accordion, the saxophone and the guitar are all thought to have been invented in Europe. The same can be said for that most dramatic and diverse of instruments — the piano.
Invented by Cristofori Bartolomeo during the early years of the 18th century, the piano or ‘pianoforte’ as it was then known, has become one of the most essential, most enduring instruments of modern times. There’d be no Coldplay without Bartolomeo. No Bruno Mars either, but let’s not blame him — he couldn't have known. So, where did it come from and why was it invented in the first place?
Just how did the pianoforte grow to become as iconic as it is now?
The answer lies with the self proclaimed "Orpheus of Princes" Prince Ferdinand de Medici of Florence. Medici is thought to have hired Bartolomeo specifically for the purposes of designing a new instrument, say the experts at Palazzo Medici Riccardi — modern day Florence’s most important administrative building. The prince was a gifted musician and it is thought that he wanted to take on Italy’s harpsichord manufacturers, who had been trying in vain to create an instrument with similar capabilities but a better dynamic response. Though it is widely believed that Medici did indeed hire Bartolomeo as an inventor, nobody can know for sure, as no concrete evidence exists to prove it.
According to the experts at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the first unambiguous reference to the piano comes in 1700. Bartolomeo acknowledges its presence in one of Medici’s inventories, calling it a "new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress." Bartolomeo’s invention would go largely unnoticed until Scipione Maffei, an Italian writer, wrote a glowing piece about it in 1711. This piece ran alongside a detailed diagram of the pianoforte’s mechanisms — a diagram that's widely believed to have been the starting point for Italy’s second generation of piano builders.
Organ builder Gottfried Silbermann copied Bartolomeo’s invention, but added one important modification — the damper pedal. This lifts all of the dampers from all of the strings at the same time. He showed his creation to Johann Sebastian Bach who, rather interestingly, turned his nose up at it, claiming that the higher notes were too soft to allow for a full dynamic range. He changed his mind after seeing an improved model in 1747, says the Bach School in Bethlehem.
Piano making flourished throughout the second half of the 18th century, but it wasn't until about 1790 that pianos began to take on a modern form. The Industrial Revolution allowed for the invention of high quality strings, precision casting and iron frames. Over time, the piano’s range also changed — increasing from a mere five octaves to the 7 or more found on modern instruments.
In 1867, the first prototype of a truly modern piano was exhibited in Paris by the manufacturer Steinway & Sons. By 1900, this prototype had become the industry’s main model and almost all piano makers adhered to it. Pianos soon began to be mass produced and started to appear in dance halls and public houses throughout Europe.
The modern life of the piano had begun in earnest.
It's difficult to imagine a world without the piano. While it might play second fiddle to the guitar these days, it is still a very popular and very common instrument. A huge percentage of modern day compositions — be they Coldplay or John Williams, still feature the piano and it continues to be the bane of middle class children everywhere. The modern piano is grand, luxurious and utterly incomparable. Where would we be without it?
Author Bio: Kevin Maddox has been teaching classical piano for 14 years. For high quality instruments, she recommends Manns Music – the oldest music shop in Britain.