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Perspectives Music

Inventing the Piano

How Cristofori’s invention gave a new voice to the harpsichord

Sep 7, 2022

Listen to the conversation, or read the full transcript below.

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18th-century piano with a bright yellow ovular spotlight shape behind the figure in the background

Grand Piano

Bartolomeo Cristofori, 1720

Cristofori’s “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud) is the first of its kind to use a hammer mechanism to strike the instrument's strings, rather than using a quill mechanism to pluck the strings as with a harpsichord. As such, this is the oldest piano in the world. Cristofori invented this instrument in order to be able to play more expressively than was previously achievable with the harpsichord.

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Anthony Roth Costanzo: I’m Anthony Roth Costanzo and I’m an opera singer, countertenor, and I’m also a producer.

Jayson Kerr Dobney: And I’m Jayson Kerr Dobney and I’m the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge of the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum.

[Piano plays]

Dobney: One of the great treasures of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is this piano built in 1720 in Florence by a man named Bartolemeo Cristofori, who was the inventor of what we now know of as the piano. And this very special piece at The Met is the earliest surviving piano from his workshop. The piano was really, sort of, his way of improving the harpsichord. He was trying to get a harpsichord that could play more expressively. A harpsichord uses little quills to pluck the strings, which makes a beautifully sort of harp or guitar-type sound.

[Harpsichord plays]

But you can’t really play with your finger touch alone an expressive line, you can’t make a phrase in the way that a singer can do that with their voice, or like a violinist can do that with their bow. Of course, in Italy in 1720, the violin was popular—I mean, the great Antonio Stradivarius was building instruments at that time—and opera was all the rage. And so Cristofori really wanted a keyboard that could play with the violins and with the singers. He created these hammers that struck the strings, or hit the strings like a percussion instrument, if you will, which gives it a whole different timbre. Which is why piano is a different instrument from the harpsichord.

[Piano plays]

One of the interesting things about it, though, is his instrument didn’t really take off, really during his lifetime. And there are only a few examples that survive of his work in part because of this.

But some of the first people to adopt the piano: the famous keyboardist and composer Dominico Scarlatti, and then one of the most famous opera singers of the day, a man named Farinelli.

Costanzo: You know, Farinelli was the subject of a lot of investigation when I was in college, because I wanted to understand the, sort of, greatest star of opera. And also, he’s an emblem of the castrati and they’re such a fascinating moment in history, also a kind of gruesome moment. And I would also say that they are the reason opera exists today. When opera was first created in 1599 it was part of the courts of the nobility. And it wasn’t until thirty or so years later that it moves into public theaters in Venice. And when it makes that transfer, the singers who have appeared along with the creation of opera are these castrated men. And the reason they appear is because women are forbidden to sing in church and most public music and most music-making before opera is taking place in church.

The idea is that they would be castrated before puberty, and therefore they would have hormonal shifts that kept the vocal cords like those of a boy, so they could get higher. And then the boy was sent to one of four conservatoires in Italy where from twelve years old he studied everything from counterpoint, to ornamentation, to style. And so not only did you have a physically engineered singer, you also had one who was better prepared and more well-educated than many other singers. And so this meant that if a composer like Handel writes an aria for a singer, a can go in and add all kinds of colors and ornamentation, akin to what Cristofori was trying to accomplish with the piano, that would color their expression in more varied ways.

And so in Venice, where the first public opera theaters appear, the castrati are there and they make the whole art form catch fire. And for the next hundred years or more, they are the biggest stars, the highest paid singers, the people that the composers write a lot of roles for—from Monteverdi but then onward to Vivaldi and Scarlatti and Handel, and later Gluck, and even Mozart—are writing for these castrated men.

What we see now is countertenors who have this same range as the castrato without the physical alteration part, singing in a developed falsetto. And that’s basically what I sing in.

[Audio clip of Anthony singing]

Dobney: Can you make a guess as to why Farinelli might have been attracted to an instrument like the Cristofori? Is there something about its timbre? Is it just its expressiveness?

Costanzo: One thing which strikes me as so important about the Cristofori and that was an innovation, is that as much as the castrati were prized for their fortes and their loud sounds and their trumpet-like projection, they were prized for the incredible pianissimo, the really soft, soft moments that drew the audience in, that brought a hush over the theater, and that made everyone feel like their heartbeats were synchronized. And that kind of suspension is almost impossible when a harpsichord twangs in the middle of it and kind of interrupts it. Now, I could be wrong but I think it was dubbed the piano because piano means soft and there was an ability for the instrument to get as luscious and soft as a string instrument, or a group of string instruments could.

[Piano plays]

And the range of dynamics became therefore less mechanical and more human. And with that came a sensibility that I think Farinelli would have really prized.

It allowed for a kind of versatility, I imagine, that made the art form speak in different ways. And that’s something I’m also really interested in.

Dobney: I want to jump in just to say, you’re right, the pianoforte, the name comes from Cristofori. He wanted a harpsichord that could play piano e forte: soft and loud. 

What was very special about the Cristofori was that you could literally change the volume by your finger stroke, so that you could mimic a singer that gets louder as they go up the scale or a repeated note could be soft or loud in the way that the violin can, on a single bow, be louder or softer. So, all of a sudden, literally at your fingertips, you had this expression that you never had as a keyboardist before. But it also is such a powerful thing because nothing that came later would have been possible without this. You wouldn’t have had Mozart piano concertos. You wouldn’t have had Scott Joplin rags, you wouldn’t have had you know Thelonious Monk without the Cristofori invention. And I think that’s sort of where it becomes like a world-changing invention and object.

I like to say that our collection is unique at The Met because it’s art that makes art. So, yes, we celebrate Cristofori as this innovative figure in music history who creates something new, who has this idea, who has the ability to make that idea happen. But then it’s not complete as a work until you get the Scarlatti or the Farinelli or the Costanzo who is going to make it come to life through their own artistry.

Costanzo: My whole life and career is really founded on Baroque music. And so, to imagine the greatest Baroque castrato, Farinelli, interacting with this particular sound, it gives me a whole new grasp on what this repertoire is, what it felt like. And it’s so thrilling to me to have that perspective.

But I also like to think about why someone like Farinelli became such a galactic star. Well, there’s something about that voice, a male singing in a non-male sounding register that is really alluring. It has an otherworldliness, but it also has a great vulnerability. And that vulnerability comes from a sense of singing on the edge of possibility, really. Singing at the extreme of the human body. And singing in a way that is both created by nature and altered by man.

I would even argue that the pop stars of today are in some way derived from this world of the castrati, whether they know it or not. This idea that Prince could sing the song Kiss, and you watch videos of this and you see people faint, literally faint, from the high singing. And that phenomenon is the same thing that was happening in the time of the castrati.

Dobney: So were castrati playing the female roles? Were they playing male roles? Were they playing both? How did that work?

Costanzo: Much like in Shakespeare, castrati were playing both men and women. But there was a great virility, a great power in the high voice. And that’s why when a role like Julius Caesar comes up in an opera that’s being written in the Baroque era, it’s not written for a bass. Nowadays, in our still quite binary view of gender, we might say, ‘okay, this is a powerful guy and he’s got a low voice.’ But rather, the high voice had power. It wasn’t considered effeminizing in any way, even though I don’t ascribe to this idea that feminine is in some way inherently less powerful, obviously. But gender was much more fluid and much more open.

Going forward for a long time, as composers wrote for countertenors, the roles that we had were always otherworldly, you know, Oberon the King of the Fairies, or the spirit, or the pure child, or something like that, the angel, very specific sounds. Now, in a world where gender is again becoming more fluid, I wonder whether, first of all, we might ever hear a countertenor play a father or, in a more straightforward way, the central love interest. Do we have to hear pitch and gender as aligned?

[Audio clip of Anthony singing]


About the contributors

Curator Jayson Kerr Dobney wearing a suit with a pink tie

Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge, Department of Musical Instruments

Black-and-white photo of Anthony Roth Costanzo with his head held high, smiling, with his eyes closed

Countertenor Opera Singer


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