A History of the Piano from 1709 to 1980

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>by Piano History by David S. Grover, M.A.Cantab., F.I.M.I.T., F.R.S.A.

The idea of fitting a keyboard to an instrument with strings, which started to vibrate when struck by hammers, was conceived probably in the fourteenth and certainly in the fifteenth century. For the next two hundred and fifty years, however, the harpsichord with plucked, rather than struck, strings, held undoubted sway. The clavichord also, had its adherents and within its severe limitations was responsive to gradations of finger touch, its strings struck by miniature tangents.

In the late seventeenth century a new realisation was afoot of the possibilities contained in broad melody, in a phrase growing louder and then softer, and in accentuation. This nascent demand for greater expressive possibilities produced the climate in which the piano, once it appeared, could develop in its own good time.

Bartolommeo Cristofori, a Paduan harpsichord maker, is credited with constructing the first piano, the date usually put at between 1709 and 171 1. He called his new instrument "gravicembalo col piano e forte", or "harpsichord with soft and loud". In shape and general construction it resembled a harpsichord, but it differed in its action mechanism. Deer leather hammersstruck the strings, and a primitive escapement or "set off" was employed, enabling the hammer to escape from the string, rather than to block on it, thereby smothering the vibrations the hammer itself had originated. By the 1720's Cristofori had made some twenty "gravicembali" and had added a padded check to catch the hammer on the rebound (Fig. 1)-an attempt to prevent its bouncing to and for on and off the strings, after escapement.

Cristofori action of 1720
"Cristofori action of 1720"

In the next century the cheek was to be exploited further, as it came to be realised that the swift repetition of a note demanded by the more dazzling pianists, could be achieved if the hammer could be held at a position midway to the string, so that on repeat it did not travel the full distance from its rest position. Cristofori had spotted immediately a number of problems which were to bother makers for the next century, and it is remarkable that in his action he suggested the kernel of the ultimate solution.

Although the fingers could project Cristofori's hammers to the strings at various speeds, empowering the performer to vary the volume of adjacent notes in an expressive way-herein lay the piano's essential difference with the harpsichord-most did not grasp the potential of the infant pianoforte, and they cannot be blamed, for Cristofori's pianos sounded frail and remarkably like harpsichords.

In the 1730's a handful of harpsichord and organ builders in Saxony and Bavaria commenced constructing pianos for a few enthusiasts. Gottfried Silbermann was the best known of this group, and his attempts to interest J. S. Bach in his new instrument. is an oft-told story.

During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) activity largely ceased on the continent, and a party of makers, twelve in number and hence known as the "twelve apostles", transferred to England. One of them, Johann Zumpe, set up his own workshop and in 1766 became the first builder of pianos on this side of the Channel.

Zumpe made small square pianofortes. For many years the square (pl. 1) was the alternative to the wing-shaped instrument. In shape the square resembled the larger clavichords, and was of course oblong, not square. The principle of the action was comparable to Cristofori's, which had been refined by Silbermann. Zumpe's squares were small and even crude, but their novelty ensured that their modest tone did not detract from their growing popularity, both in fashionable homes and at concerts. London-made square pianos also found favour in Paris, and the incredibly gifted Silbnermann Erard soon ensured that the French capital was not without its own production.

John Broadwood made his first square in 1771. He enlarged Zumpe's simple design, giving the instrument greater resonance, while he and John Geib separately contributed to the elaboration of the square piano action. With these developments the square proved reasonably satisfactory, so that it was readily accepted in the first half of the nineteenth century, making its way into far more homes of modest and not so modest pretensions, than did its wing-shaped horizontal rival, first named "grand" in 1777.

Broadwood contributed much to the development of the grand. He rearranged the layout of the wooden bridges on the soundboard by introducing a separate bass bridge. Also he changed the hammer's striking ratio to one ninth of the string's speaking length, and brought in higher string tensions. The alterations to the soundboard layout enabled him to expand the compass to six octaves by adding half an octave in the treble, and in 1794 half an octave in the bass. He was first to introduce in 1783 a sustaining pedal, replacing the previous knee-lever, to hold the dampers aloft from the strings. These improvements enabled Broadwood to draw maximum tone from his instruments, which became the most sonorous anywhere at the time, giving England world leadership in quality and quantity of production.

A further aspect must not be overlooked. Heavier strings had to be set in motion, and this necessitated changes to the action. Together with two assistants Broadwood modified Cristofori's action by introducing a screw to regulate the escapement (Fig. 2) and by omitting the intermediate lever (Fig. 1) , so that the jack acted directly against the hammer butt. This enabled the hammer to be driven against the string more forcefully. But its corollary was that a heavier, deeper touch was required, making rapid passages difficult to play. These became the characteristics of the "English action", as it came to be called, and of the full-toned English pianos (pi. 2) pioneered by Broadwood.

English action by Broadwood 1795
"English action by Broadwood 1795"

The English and Viennese schools established two traditions, which dominated pianomaking into the early nineteenth century. The southern German fortepianos were lighter in build than the English, and sported a bright sparkling tone, more suitable for rapid passage work than the more stolid English pianos. J.A. Stein, working in Augsburg, developed an action known as the "German" and later "Viennese" action (Fig. 3), to match these characteristics. It differed radically from the Cristofori Silbermann-Broadwood evolution. In contrast the hammer pointed back towards the front of the key, and was mounted on the key itself rather than to a detached rail, so that the hammer rose with the back of the key. A shallower, lighter, more nimble touch resulted.

Viennese action by Stine 1786
"Viennese action by Stine 1786"

Mozart was soon composing for this relatively light piano. By the century's end the piano had replaced the plectra instruments in the public's affections. The development of factory manufacturing, as distinct from workshop production, had reduced prices; ownership of a pianoforte soon became a desirable symbol of respectability.

Beethoven's partiality for his full-toned Broadwood is well-known. Yet his forceful pounding and demanding emotional range found contemporary pianos lacking. At the same time, the composers of the new etudes were relying increasingly on brilliancy of technique for effects which pianos of the day were as yet unable to produce reliably. These influences acted as a spur to the makers. It became imperative to produce a richer more voluminous tone, combined with a more responsive, reliable action, offering the swift repetition now required by the pianists. These demands were again to alter the piano out of all recognition. the efforts of many combining to result in another great leap forward.

Mention has already been made of heavier strings strung at higher tensions. At each stage in the piano's evolution, when enlargement of its tone was required, there recurs to originate that larger tone heavier stringing made possible by developments in wire tempering. But the repetitive increase in string tensions was fraught with consequences for the rest of the instrument, as virtually every other feature (soundboard, braced back, hammers, etc.) required to be made more substantial to withstand the additional stresses against the stability of the structure. Earlier not much thought needed to be devoted to the equilibrium of forces, ensuring that none pulled with more devastating effect than another, as harpsichords and early pianos were strung at tensions trifling compared with the present-day stress on an iron frame of up to twenty tons.

There was a further basic problem with the horizontal instrument which, as heavier Hammers hit thicker strings, increased the demands placed on structural stability. the soundboard does not extend to the tuning plank, but stops some 10cms (4 inch) short of it, creating a gap (Fig. 3) through which the hammer must pass on its upward journey to the string, which it then pushes in an upward direction away from the corpus of the grand, imperilling the string's fixing at either end of its speaking length. By contrast on the vertical upright, the hammer inflects the string towards the bridge and iron frame. This dilemma faced by the horizontal piano produced numerous early nineteenth century experiments with downward-striking hammers. The difficulty was that gravity opposed, rather than assisted the hammer's rebound from the string. Such ideas led to a cul de sac.

The developments which won the day were not part of a modern ten year plan, but in retrospect appear to have sported a kind of cohesive logic. A prime necessity was to make the supporting back strong enough to carry the ever-increasing strains placed on it-otherwise it would either buckle, the instrument literally folding up, or else with movement however minute, the string tensions would change and the instrument go out of tune. Pitch was rising at this time, and together with the extending compass (seven octaves first appeared in the 1820's), placed still further demands on the structure. So also did the heavy copper windings around the bass strings, and the growth of trichord stringing (three strings in place of two per note, in the middle and upper registers), both ploys to produce bigger tone.

The effectiveness of the wooden braces, although they had grown in size and become over cumbersome, was in doubt. Iron, the embodiment of the Industrial Revolution, was the material for the future. Broadwoods again showed the way in the initial stages. By 1821 their grands sported three to five metal strengthening bars parallel with the strings. In the same year Herve, an employee at Broadwoods, fitted to a square piano a metal hitch pin table forming an attachment for the bottom ends of the strings and supporting the metal bars. Soon Broadwood took the next step by introducing solid metal bars united in one piece with a fixed metal hitch pin table. The logical development was to unite all these separate metal pieces into a single solid casting. This was first achieved by Babcock, an American maker, who in 1825 cast a complete frame for a square piano. Over the ensuing decades many experiments followed, and the tonal effects of iron were hotly debated. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century the cast iron frame won acceptance.

The string tension, however, now supported at one end, at the other tended to pull the tuning pins down. The ultimate solution was not the solid metal tuning plank, subject of much experimentation, but was to extend the iron frame over the wooden tuning plank.

There remained the question of bearing at this top end of the string. It needed either to form, or to be behind, the termination of the speaking length, and by bearing to couple the string effectively to the main corpus. In 1808 Stbastien Erard invented the agraffe, a brass stud with a hole for each unison wire to pass through, and which effectively prevented the hammers forcing the strings away from the bridge. The pressure bar is the equivalent on most uprights.

Parallel with these developments, the soundboard was thickened to yield a richer tone and to help it withstand the downward pressure (today of c.50okg=0.5 ton) exerted on it by heavier stringing.

The earliest coverings on the hammer heads had been no larger than small peas. They produced a light tinny tone, hardly matched to the more mellow powerful round tone now sought. Furthermore as leather hammers hardened with age, tone became dry and pinched. Gradually the hammer coverings became larger, and in England cloth was tried as an outer layer over the leather. The softer more durable material to win the day was felt, introduced by Henry Pape, a Parisian maker, in 1826. (During this period the French industry was at its most inventive, and was setting the pace). The value of his invention was quickly recognised and taken up elsewhere, its extra weight imparting greater energy, its choice of material producing tone more akin to that desired.

The hammers, however, were still projected to the strings by a "Viennese" or "English" action. The nimbleness of the former needed to be united with the firmness of the latter, and reliable rapid repetition added. Swift repetition was difficult as the key had to revert virtually to its highest position before again descending. It was Sabastien Erard who produced the solution in his Repetition Actions of 1808 and 1821 (Fig. 4).

Erards double escapement action of 1821"Erards double escapement action of 1821"

Retaining the layout of the English action, he added springs and levers, or double escapement, inducing the hammer to rebound to a point closer to the strings, remaining there until the finger either released the key completely or drove the hammer against the string a second time. Speed of repetition was improved as for a repeat blow the hammer moved only half the initial distance, and the key did not need to rise as far before again descending. The formidable array of levers and springs proved too complicated, but with later modifications, most significantly simplifications by Herz, a Parisian composer-pianist-pianomaker, it had by 1860 been taken up in one form or another by most makers, and remains the basis of the grand action to the present day (Fig. 5).

These developments produced not only the stronger tone required, but also a rounder tone, so that the piano was reasonably ready for the romantics, although not in control of all situations. The hardest hitters, among whom Liszt was most notorious, still broke strings and hammer shanks, and often a couple of spare pianos were secreted away in the ante-room for emergencies.

In the middle decades of the century American makers made their contribution. In the 1840's Chickering produced the earliest one-piece cast iron frame for a grand, although it was his rivals, the Steinways in New York, who took the last major steps in the development of the grand. Overstringing (Fig. 6a) was the ultimate solution for the layout of the strings. Initially they all had been parallel (Fig. 6b). Then in an endeavour to make the bass strings longer without a corresponding lengthening of the upright instrument's case, the strings, bass, tenor and to a lesser degree treble, were arranged obliquely (Fig. 6c), almost fan-like across the instrument. The final answer was overstringing, tenor and treble strings running approximately parallel to the instrument's outer case, but with bass strings crossing over them, running from the front left to rear right of a grand.

Pape introduced the idea for an upright in 1828, but it was the Steinways who made it an undisputed success, applying it to the grand frame in 1859. Then in the 1870's Theodore Steinway increased the string tension to its present figure of about 20,O00kg (c.20 tons). Strings were again dealt harder blows by heavier hammers. Then the double escapement action was further modified, to make the touch weight acceptable. The grand offered abundant tonal volume combined with incredible sensibility.

Back in Europe by the middle of the century the square piano was nearing obsolescence, and it was the vertical upright which put paid to it. The earliest upright dates to the 1730's, and resembled a horizontal wing-shaped instrument turned up on end, the strings running upwards in front of the player with the space between floor and keyboard wasted, since the strings stopped at the keyboard, as on the grand. The action, which now had to set in motion a vertical, rather than a horizontal string, was based on Cristofori's work.

Little earnest thought was directed towards the vertical piano until the end of the eighteenth century, when appreciation grew of its space-saving potential in the cramped dwellings of the expanding towns. This stimulus produced numerous experiments. In 1798 for example, Southwell, working in London, placed a square vertically on a stand. More fruitful was Stodart's "Upright Grand", a grand stood on end, fitted with cupboard doors and bookshelves, and enjoying some vogue until the 1820's.

But in 1800, two men unknown to each other, Hawkins in Philadelphia and Mtiller in Vienna, both omitted the stand and stood the piano on the floor, so that height was reduced, as the strings now utilised the space below the keyboard. Muller's "Ditanaklassis" was only 1.84m (6 feet) high, yet seemed low! A tape was employed to help bring the hammers back from the string, for gravity was no help to the vertical action. It was still easier to make a success of the taller piano. In 1807 the "cabinet piano" appeared, a type to remain popular for some years, its front panels often covered in silk.

Attempts at a small upright continued. Robert Wornum in London was to the fore (pl. 3). His work culminated in his "cottage piano" of 1828, although it was not his lowest instrument. The overhead check was replaced by one mounted on the lever (Fig. 7), while his 1842 patentt added the tape, making his tape-check action substantially the one now used universally in uprights.

In the 1830's and 1840's complete cast iron frames were tried, and the upright did not escape the general strengthening process undergone by the grand. By the middle of the century it was apparent that the intermediate height upright (pl. 4) had attained a dominant popularity, which it retained into the present century. The piano was already established as the principal source of home entertainment and as a prime accomplishment for respectable young ladies.

After the 1867 Paris Exposition it was clear that European makers would have to copy the principles contained in the American grands exhibited. This time it was those German producers who rose to the challenge, who entered their golden age. In common with the American and English industries, German output of pianos expanded enormously during the last third of the century and the newly-united nation built up a thriving export business in pianos good and not so good. The piano's heyday lasted until 1914.

Technical innovation has been less intense during the last century, as grand and upright broadly were mature instruments by 1870. The half century following saw a number of changes, largely cosmetic, to the grand casework. The century's turn witnessed a number of superb "one-off" art case designs. Soon square legs replaced round, and on uprights sconces, today of some value, with their candies were on the way out.

At the turn of the century new threats to the piano's predominance were appearing, as the movies and phonograph appeared. Too many owners could not play their pianos, so it was to be expected that man's ingenuity would arrange for them to be played automatically. The player piano (pl. 5) craze, which reached its peak in the 1920's, was an attempt to provide variety, but once it became customary for a machine to provide entertainment, the piano was vulnerable to these fresh rivals. Then came gramophone and radio, which rapidly killed the pianola (in the public's mind, the Pianola became synonymous with player pianos, much as Hoover is with vacuum cleaners), and put an end to the piano's ubiquity, for social patterns too were changing, and the depression years took their toll.

Pianomakers responded to these pressures by in the 1930's introducing the miniature upright, under 0.92m (3 feet) high. These miniatures rapidly caught on and created a new vogue for the piano. As, however, the space available was severely restricted, compromises were inevitable. The soundboard was small and bass string lengths were short, so tone was poor. Overstringing, which by no means was found on all uprights and only became universal after 1945, helped, although if bass strings are made too thick, when length is not available to give the required mass, impure stolid tone results. Resort was often had to an under keyboard action, part of which was placed below the level of the keys, introducing an additional rod and making the action difficult to regulate. For a time baby grands enjoyed marked popularity. Again the string lengths were inevitably too short to yield even the tone of a good upright. Many uprights were made vaguely to resemble grands in the appearance of their fall and music desk.

A further development in the inter-war years affected the layout of the dampers. In the underdamper action (Fig. 6 a) the dampers are below the hammers, as distinct from the overdamper action, in which the dampers are above the hammers. (Fig. 6b). Overdamping was extinct by the end of the 1920's, and certainly the new breed, the miniatures, offered no space for dampers above the hammers. The underdamper is a simpler, sounder arrangement. Overdamper instruments are still encountered. but today are mostly too aged to be of value.

Then came war. One of its legacies was that it gave pianomakers experience of newly developed glues. As solid timber for the cabinet became increasingly costly, producers turned with renewed enthusiasm to veneers, which enable more decorative figuring to be achieved, confident that the glues would endure the rigours of extreme climates.

A further legacy was kilning, or the controlled drying of wood using heat, steam a ventilation. With its aid timber can now be dried to lower moisture contents than possible before 1939. Kilning enables soundboards, tuning planks and casework to withstand the worst effects of the harsh central heating introduced since the war, although sensible humidification is still advisable. Modern soundboards are unlike to split, tuning pins unlikely to work loose, or casework to crack. When pre-war pianos are introduced to modern conditions, these catastrophes may occur, ruining tone causing the instrument not to stay in tune. Laminated tuning planks with the grain alternate laminations running at right angles, are now used universally, supersede pre-war solid plank, more likely to dry out.

Since the war plastic has been introduced to carefully selected action parts. Its pros cons are hotly disputed, but in some applications it has the advantage that it is less sensitive than wood to humidity changes, which can cause notes to stick or to become wobbly and click. Ivory is used today only on the most expensive grands, perspex, which unlike ivory is colour fast, providing an acceptable alternative for all but the expert pianists. In the 1960's polyester and polyurethane were introduced, and prove a more resistant and durable casework finish than earlier systems.

With several decades experience of the miniature upright, makers have achieved substantial tonal improvements, Today's small uprights (pl. 6) are infinitely superior to their pre-war forbears. Indeed all contemporary pianos made in the better-known nations are more soundly constructed and assembled than was the average pre-war instrument. New materials and techniques have been placed at the service of those craft skills which are irreplaceable. The piano with its in excess of five thousand intricate pieces (pl. 7), is not only a handsome musical instrument, but a good investment, retaining its value far longer than other consumer products.

In the 1970's the taller upright of 1.07-1.2m (42-47 inch) has returned to popularity in many continental countries; this trend is now modestly apparent in the United Kingdom. The taller upright yields fuller tone, and it is after all a fallacy that the low upright requires less floor space. It does not-it takes up less wall space.

That casework design of the 1950's evolved from the 1930's is often apparent to the eye. In the 1960's and '70's the simple, unfussy, box-like contemporary case, thought to blend with modern furniture, was universally predominant. In the last five years, however, more ornate and period stylings have again found increasing favour (pl. 8).

Although today the piano is not sold in such quantities as at the peak of its popularity, it has found renewed prominence in the last fifteen years, as people increasingly wish to occupy their leisure time creatively. The pianoforte evolved from the need for an instrument with a great range of expressiveness. In this role it exceeds the dreams its pioneers., and remains the incomparable universal keyboard instrument.

© copyright David S. Grover, M.A.Cantab., F.I.M.I.T., F.R.S.A.

The First Edition of this article is available in special booklet form including all the photographs. Please contact the publishers for further details

Omicron Publishing,
Other books you may like to read by David:

The Piano it's Story, from Zither to Grand by David S Grover, Robert Hale, London, 1976.
In depth description of how the piano evolved.

Other history book you may like to read

If you need more information on your pianos history please use our history forums to ask questions.

The Association of Blind Piano Tuners would like to thank the author Mr David S. Grover, M.A.Cantab., F.I.M.I.T., F.R.S.A. and the publishers Omicron Publishing, for allowing us to put this book on the UK Piano Page. This page may be printed out for personal use only. This page or any part of this page may not be used or placed on any other web site.