The Grand Piano
- The first predecessor of the piano was the
clavichord. A simple keyboard instrument consisting of a single string that was
muted at one end and hit with tangents. Tangents were brass plates fixed
to the keys which would hit the string at a certain length and make the
free length of the string vibrate at the corresponding note. The Clavichord was
well loved by J.S. Bach, and his son C.P.E. Bach composed some of the instrument’s
- The next instrument to be instrumental in the
piano’s history was the Harpsichord. Somewhat resembling a modern grand piano,
the harpsichord created sound through the use of a series of plectrums that
rubbed against the strings, similar to a guitar. The issue of the Harpsichord
was its inability to play with expression, meaning all the notes were of a
- The pianoforte was an instrument designed to
match the beautiful expression of a clavichord and brilliant sound of a
harpsichord. The credit for the first functional piano is given to Bartolomeo
Cristofori some time before 1709. Cristofori’s instrument, dubbed a
“gravi-cembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud), utilised
hardened leather hammers to strike the strings. These hammers could be struck
at different force and would provide a sound proportional in volume to the
force. By 1726 Cristofori had developed the simplest version of the modern
grand piano action, which included back checks, escapement, and an una corda
mechanism (replaced by a soft pedal in later years).
- Over the coming years a number of builders would
modify Cristofori’s action for their own designs:
Silbermann built his two first pianos for J.S. Bach, who was less than enthusiastic
about the instruments which brought Silbermann to such a rage he is reported to
have taken to them with an axe. He later succeded in pleasing Bach with a
modified Cristofori action which was supplied to Frederik The Great in 1747
Zumpe became famous with the manufacture of square pianos, similar to later
clavichords, these were large square instruments meant to fit into rooms
easily. They had a myriad of problems but were popular because of their more
modest price, and had the first system devised to remove the dampers from the
strings permanently in the form of a hand mechanism.
Square piano was heavily improved by the Scotsman John Broadwood in 1781,
placing the pin block at the rear of the piano, and his student Robert Stodart
along with him developed the English action, which is the basis of grand piano
actions to this day.
the Viennese action designed by Silbermann’s student Johann Andreas Stein,
rivalled the English action in its light touch, brilliant resounding sound and
unlike the English action had even sound volume across the entire keyboard.
This design finally faded from existence in the early 20th century.
final development in the modern grand piano action was developed by Sebastian
Erard, in his repetition action. Combining the finest qualities of the English
and Viennese actions, this action was light in touch like the Viennese, but
powerfully loud akin to the English and has remained unchanged since Henry
Hertz of Paris made minor modifications in 1850
-- Another development at this time was the pedal
system of moving the dampers away from the strings. Introduced by Broadwood,
the pedal replaced hand operated systems of sustaining the notes after playing
them, allowing for a more full command of the keyboard.
The Upright Piano
- The original upright pianos were little more
than grand pianos moved 90 degrees to have the strings running vertical. They
were usually very crude and rarely effective, not to mention still too large
for most rooms.
- The first noteworthy upright piano was developed
by John Isaac Hawkins of London (later Philadelphia) in 1800. It was unsuitable
for manufacture but was only 4 feet 7 inches tall, just over half the height of
the prominent ‘giraffe’ pianos that preceded it.
- In 1826 Robert Wornum of London developed the
tape action, the action that has been used for all upright pianos to the modern
day. This included an overdamper system which mean that the dampers were placed
above the hammers of the piano action.
- Since 1800 the emphasis has been on increasing
string tension, giving more brilliant tone and volume, which means reinforcing
the frame to deal with the extra force. The development of high carbon steel
and diamond drawing dies meant that strings were now far stronger and needed to
be held tighter, necessitating the development of the frame.
was used by all piano builders, as far back as Cristofori. In 1785, William
Stodart used metal arches, Broadwood used metal braces in the treble sections
of the pianos from 1808 and Allen and Thom of London used Iron tubes in 1820.
Babcock of Boston developed the first iron framed square piano in 1825, far
more reinforced than the existing wooden framed instruments and Jonas
Chickering also of Boston was given a patent to the first single casting iron
frame for “flat scale grand pianos”
iron was proven as the most reliable material for a supportive frame due to the
very small percentage (1%) of shrinkage due to the cooling after the casting.
Many makers disliked the tone given by the iron frames as it felt too
‘metallic.’ Broadwood and Steinway New York however embraced the strength
provided by the material, and revealed instruments in 1851 and 1859
respectively that were powerful, tonally and in terms of volume.
(the bass strings run diagonally across the piano, top left to bottom right)
gives better load distribution on the frame, meaning pianos could have
the same volume and tone with a far reduced size. Thomas Loud was granted a
patent for a diagonally strung upright piano in Philadelphia in 1802 and Pape
of Paris introduced cross stringing in 1828
also invented all felt hammer faces which were developed in 1826 and had taken
over almost entirely by 1855. Combining this with the sostenuto pedal of Claude
Montal also of Paris in 1862, gave the upright piano it’s modern form. By this
time all concert instruments were manufactured with 88 keys by 1885, and any
further developments were only minor details.