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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Piano: The Pianofortes of Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731)

The Importance of the Piano
The pianoforte, more commonly called the piano, became, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a leading instrument of Western art music, for both professionals and amateurs. The modern piano is a highly versatile instrument capable of playing almost anything an orchestra can play. It can sustain pitches in a lyrical fashion, creating all musical styles and moods, with enough volume to be heard through almost any musical ensemble. Broadly defined as a stringed keyboard instrument with a hammer action (as opposed to the jack and quill action of the harpsichord) capable of gradations of soft and loud, the piano became the central instrument of music pedagogy and amateur study. By the end of the nineteenth century, no middle-class household of any stature in Europe or North America was without one. Almost every major Western composer from Mozart onward has played it, many as virtuosi, and the piano repertory—whether solo, chamber, or with orchestra—is at the heart of Western classical professional performance.

Cristofori and the First Pianofortes
The quiet nature of the piano’s birth around 1700, therefore, comes as something of a surprise. The first true piano was invented almost entirely by one man—Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) of Padua, who had been appointed in 1688 to the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici to care for its harpsichords and eventually for its entire collection of musical instruments. A 1700 inventory of Medici instruments mentions an “arpicimbalo,” i.e., an instrument resembling a harpsichord, “newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori” with hammers and dampers, two keyboards, and a range of four octaves, C–c”’. The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei, in his enthusiastic 1711 description, named Cristofori’s instrument a “gravicembalo col piano, e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte. A contemporary inscription by a Florentine court musician, Federigo Meccoli, notes that the “arpi cimbalo del piano e’ forte” was first made by Cristofori in 1700, giving us a precise birthdate for the piano.

Cristofori was an artful inventor, creating such a sophisticated action for his pianos that, at the instrument’s inception, he solved many of the technical problems that continued to puzzle other piano designers for the next seventy-five years of its evolution. His action was highly complex and thus expensive, causing many of its features to be dropped by subsequent eighteenth-century makers, and then gradually reinvented and reincorporated in later decades. Cristofori’s ingenious innovations included an “escapement” mechanism that enabled the hammer to fall away from the string instantly after striking it, so as not to dampen the string, and allowing the string to be struck harder than on a clavichord; a “check” that kept the fast-moving hammer from bouncing back to re-hit the string; a dampening mechanism on a jack to silence the string when not in use; isolating the soundboard from the tension-bearing parts of the case, so that it could vibrate more freely; and employing thicker strings at higher tensions than on a harpsichord.

Cristofori’s Surviving Pianos
Three pianos by Cristofori survive, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1720; 89.4.1219); at the Museo Strumenti Musicali in Rome (1722); and at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University (1726). The Metropolitan’s Cristofori, the oldest surviving piano, is in a plain wing-shaped case, outwardly resembling a harpsichord. It has a single keyboard and no special stops, in much the same style as Italian harpsichords of the day. (The keyboards of the two other surviving pianos by Cristofori can be shifted slightly so that only one of the two strings of each pitch will be struck, i.e., una corda, thereby quieting the entire instrument.)

The sound of the Museum’s 1720 Cristofori differs considerably from the modern grand piano. Its range is narrower—54 rather than 88 keys—and its thinner strings and harder hammers give it a timbre closer to a harpsichord than a modern Steinway. Maffei commented that, because of its somewhat muted tone, Cristofori’s piano was best suited for solos or to accompany a voice or single instrument, rather than for larger ensemble work. Indeed, a contemporary harpsichord was a louder and more brilliant instrument, but lacked the ability to respond to the strength of the player’s touch, and so could achieve no significant gradations in dynamic expression. Like the piano, the clavichord (1986.239) is also capable of detailed gradations of loud and soft controlled by the player’s touch, but this intimate stringed instrument is overall so soft that it can barely be heard a few feet away, and so is useless in ensembles or in concert.

Cristofori’s invention was initially slow to catch on in Italy, but five pianos by Cristofori or his pupil Giovanni Ferrini were purchased by Queen Maria Barbara de Braganza of Spain, patron and student of Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757). Hundreds of Scarlatti’s more than 500 single-movement keyboard sonatas may have been intended for piano, rather than harpsichord as has long been assumed. The earliest music definitely written and published specifically for the piano were twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti (Florence, 1732) by Lodovico Giustini (1685–1743), dedicated to Don Antonio of Portugal, uncle of Maria Barbara and another student of Scarlatti. The sonatas contain nuanced expressions such as più forte and più piano, fine dynamic gradations impossible to execute on a harpsichord.

Maffei’s description, which includes a diagram of Cristofori’s action, was translated into German and included in Johann Mattheson’s Critica musica of 1725, where it was probably read by Gottfried Silbermann (1683–1753), the important Saxon court organ builder. Based on Cristofori’s design, Silbermann began work on his own pianos in the 1730s. An early model was dismissed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) as possessing too heavy a touch and too weak a treble. With actual firsthand experience of one of Cristofori’s instruments and subsequent improvements, Silbermann’s pianos were more successful, leading to the purchase of several by Frederick the Great, king of Prussia (r. 1740–86). Bach later praised Silbermann’s pianos, going so far as to become a sales agent for his instruments, thereby extending the influence of Cristofori’s creation in central Europe during the years following the Paduan instrument maker’s death.