The harpsichord was one of the most widely played keyboard instruments before the piano came into its own. However, the harpsichord was not the forerunner of the piano. This is particularly true of its mechanical structure. The harpsichord is identical in structure to the piano. However, the strings are not struck, but plucked.
The instrument whose mechanism most closely resembles that of the piano is the clavichord. This is an instrument whose strings are struck. Unfortunately, the clavichord was no match for the famous harpsichord used by the greatest composers of the day. Now, let’s explore the development and history of the piano over the years.
The clavichord: the piano’s ancestor
Consider that the clavichord appeared in the late Middle Ages (15th century), as the earliest and most distant ancestor of the piano we know today.
In the years following its invention, the clavichord attracted the attention of many music lovers, not least because of its sound quality and remarkable string system.
As time went by, many engineers tried toincrease its capabilities and the volume of sound produced (which were comparatively insignificant on the clavichord) in favor of more powerful instruments. Seeing that it wasn’t possible to release a version 2.0 of the Clavichord that would overcome these shortcomings, a new instrument was born: the pianoforte. It is nothing other than the direct heir to the clavichord created in the second half of the 17th century.
The invention of the pianoforte
TheItalian “Bartolomeo Cristofori“(1655-1731), one of the world’s greatest instrument makers, was the first to build a pianoforte. He created it in 1698. The principle of this instrument was the use of hammers on the strings of the instrument, rather than plucking them, which is the norm in the traditional harpsichord mechanism.
On the contrary, although extremely ingenious, the invention of the pianoforte was not very successful during Bartolomeo Cristofori’s lifetime. This was mainly due to the fact that the sounds the instrument produced differed from those of the harpsichord, making it unsuitable for the compositions of the time.
It was only in later years that the pianoforte began to be appreciated by musicians. It was capable, among other things, of broadening the variety of emotions felt by the listener (more so than the harpsichord specifically).
The action of the first pianoforte already possessed the key features of modern pianos: hammers articulated independently of the keys, simple escapement systems and unique dampers for each string. This mechanism enabled the level of sound to be altered by pressing the keys more or less. When he invented the pianoforte, Bartolomeo Cristofori was also the inventor of the pedal that would become the standard sustain pedal on modern pianos as we know them today.
Invention of the pyramid piano and the square piano
Christian Ernst Friederici, a renowned German musician, is the creator of two types of piano: the pyramid piano (also known as the Giraffe piano), which was first introduced in 1745 and is the forerunner of the upright piano we know today, and the square piano (although rectangular), which appeared in 1758.
The distinctive feature of the square piano is the horizontal arrangement of the strings, which run parallel to the keyboard. This arrangement was achieved to make the instrument’s design more functional (notably by making it less cumbersome), while increasing its accessibility to the general public and making the instrument increasingly popular over time.
The invention of the double escapement mechanism
In 1821 In 1821, in France, Sébastien Erard invented the only device not present in Bartolomeo’s original idea: the repeating mechanism, also known as the double escapement mechanism. This improvement made it possible to reduce the time needed to play a note, and even to play a note without having completely released the key. This astonishing invention marked the beginning of the contemporary piano.
The modern version of the contemporary piano
It was in the late 19th century that the piano was transformed into the instrument we know today. And thanks to the growth of industry, the instrument was subsequently mass-produced.
The piano’s success and importance grew in the 20th century. While the instrument hasn’t changed much since its creation, the keyboard has expanded considerably, from 54 keys at the time of its invention (the first version of the pianoforte) to 88 keys today, making its palette of sounds ever more diverse and complete. In all likelihood, the piano we use today will continue to evolve in the years to come!