Allegro Piano Pages

A "Clever Bundle of Inventions"

Keith T. Comparetto,
Piano Tuner-Technician

    We see them in homes, restaurants, stores, concert halls and stages, and a myriad of places too numerous and diverse to mention. The repertoire of music written for it far surpasses that of any other instrument, and is far larger than any virtuoso could ever even have time to sample, let alone master. The modern piano is still at the center of nearly every form of modern musical expression despite the sensations of the electronic age that have tried to take its place. It has even been a regular inhabitant and performer at the White House, in the form of spectacular and often ornate "presidential pianos." The instrument is so common, in fact, that most people, even most "piano fans," never stop to consider what a marvellous creation the piano really is.

    "Whoever invented this thing must really have been a genius," the piano teacher or technician often hears. Yet like many other "inventions" around us, the ingenuity of the piano cannot be credited to just one genius.  It has, in fact, been referred to as "a very clever bundle of inventions."


    The piano is, all at once, (1) a keyboard instrument (activating the sound-producing mechanism by means of depressing a movable key); (2) a stringed instrument (producing its sound by means of a vibrating string), and (3)  a percussion instrument (producing sound by means of a striking action, as opposed to plucking, bowing, or blowing air).  Examples of all three of these instruments existed in some form even in ancient times.  The monochord (below left) is an example of a very basic stringed instrument, and the hammer dulcimer (below right) is an ancient stringed instrument which activated the strings by striking them with mallets, thus using a percussive action.


     During the European Renaissance, beginning around the 1500's, the piano began a period of rapid development.  The clavichord (below left) was an instrument (usually box-shaped) with keys, strings, and a soundboard, and produced its sound by means of a brass pin (called a tangent or clavicle), on each key, hitting the string. Volume could be varied by the intensity of the blow given to the key. Yet its mechanics were so primitive, and its sound so soft, that the clavichord was avoided by most serious musicians. 
     The virginal (below center) and harpsichord (below right), both produced their sound by plucking the string rather than striking it.  Most virginal, however, were rather small and rectangular (unlike the one pictured here), and thus had the same sound limitations of the clavichord.  Thus, they were usually confined to the home where they were the keyboard instrument most used by young women -- thus, the name virginal.



     The Harpsichord
was the instrument of J.S. Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers.  (1600's and 1700's). It consisted of a keyboard; a set of strings stretched across a board that amplified their sound (thus the term "soundboard"); and, for each string, a tiny "quill" which plucked the string as the key was depressed. But while the sound of this instrument was quite beautiful, the harpsichord lacked one major thing: volume control . No matter how hard one hit the key, the volume and quality of sound, generally speaking, were the same.  But the greatest harpsichords, which contained multiple sets of strings which could be turned on or off (an entire "choir" of strings at a time) by shifting a lever, were at least able to produce enough volume for concert purposes, but what was lacking was the ability to control volume one key at a time.   (The above photo at right  pictures the "Flemish single" Harpsichord containing two sets of jacks and strings, an 8' and a 4' "choir." built from a kit by Zuckermann Harpsichords.)

     The harpsichord was wing-shaped and thus, in that regard, the forerunner of the modern grand piano.  But what was to be the great benefit of the piano over these earlier instruments was the musician's ability to control the volume.  It was the percussive action, and not plucking, that was to allow this feature.  It was first presented, in the early 1700's, as an instrment that could play "piano e forte" -- "soft and loud" -- the name which survives to this day in the name piano.

The Cristofori Piano:
     The earliest "piano" is generally agreed to be the one produced by an Italian named Cristofori in 1711.  It's action was quite primitive by modern standards, and provided no "escapement mechanism" to get the hammer away from the string after being struck, but he added this feature in his improved instrument of 1720. 


     The great composers of the late baroque and classical eras wrote beautiful music for an instrument that was still, in many respects, still primitive when compared to modern standards.  The pianos of J.S. Bach (below left), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (below center) and Ludwig van Beethoven (below right) would not satisfy any great pianist of our day, for various reasons. The modern fascination for playing earlier music on "period instruments" certainly has historical interest, but we think those composers would have discarded their period instruments in a moment for the chance to play on a modern concert piano.




     The modern piano evolved as the result of a long series of improvements. Jonas Chickering, for example, was granted the first patent in 1837 for his metal frame, the strength of which allowed for much heavier strings, which in turn gave the instrument a "larger" tone.  The first plates (as in illustration to left) were  a rather primitive arrangement of metal bars attached to each other; Later plates, like the modern Steinway plate in the illustration to the right (courtesty Steinway & Sons), were forged marvels of modern  design and engineering. straight_ braces.jpg

     In 1855, the Steinway company, in 1855, found a way to make the piano smaller without sacrificing sound ("more bang for the buck," if you will) by crossing the bass strings over top of the treble strings (this was called the overstrung scale and is shown below:

Modern grand partially strung, shown before the installation of the the bass strings.
A similar modern grand piano with the bass strings installed over the treble strings.

Throughout the 19th century, continual improvements were made in the design and manufacture of piano actions (the moving parts of the piano), hammers, strings, frames, and soundboards, resulting in the emergence of the "modern" piano by around 1900. By this time, the instrument had reached such a degree of perfection that no major change has occurred since.



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