Development of The Piano
Compliments of the Bluebook of Pianos
Men have been picking stringed instruments since the beginning of recorded history, the first instruments used by man which might be called melodious were no doubt stringed instruments. The very first stringed instrument was possibly the hunting bow – such bows appear in stone-age cave drawings dating back many thousands of years, and all of our music-making machines today are decedents of those that were used in the remotest ages of antiquity.
Throughout the ages the stretched string has continued to be one of the major means of generating a musical sound, set in vibration by a bow of hair or gut string plucked by the fingers or hard plectrum, or in some instances, struck with a hammer. These stringed instruments have always held an important place in the music of every country.
The piano in its present state of perfection, and the story of their development is an interesting one to the musician and the antiquarian alike. Each of these methods caused vibration of the string forming the central mechanical element of separate groups or families of musical instruments such as the harp, lyre, lute and the zither. All of these instruments belong to the chorda family. From the lute and lyre family came the guitar, banjo and violin, which includes the viola, cello and the double bass. The zither group produced the piano. The most remote recognizable ancestor to the piano is the ancient (2650 B.C.) Chinese instrument called the “KE”.
THE CHINESE “KE” Copyright © 2001 -2014 The “Original Bluebook of Pianos
The earliest stringed instruments on record were invented and used by the Chinese as early as 2650 B.C. and were called “Ke”. The Ke consisted of a set of 50 strings, strung over a box and was much superior to anything known to the Western world even 4,000 years later. It had 5 or 6 movable bridges which determined the pitch of each group of strings. The strings were of silk, each one being made up of 81 finely woven strands, and each group was colored blue, red, yellow, white and black showing that, the Chinese understood the relations of tone to color.
THE MONOCHORD Copyright © 2001 -2014 The “Original Bluebook of Pianos
The monochord consisted of a single string stretched over a sound box, with the strings held taut by pegs or weights on either end. It used a moveable bridge to change pitch, and was usually plucked. A later instrument of the same principle was played with a bow, called the "trumpet marine" (Adkins, New Grove). It was used as an instrument as early 300 BC by Euclid (Ripin, New Grove), and as a scientific instrument by Pythagoras as early as the 6th century BC No one knows when it first appeared, as its origins extend into prehistory.
This instrument was used by Pythagoras about 582 B.C. for experiments regarding the mathematical relations of musical sound. It consisted of a single string (the Greeks used catgut) stretched over bridges resting on a sound board. The bridge was movable according to markings underneath, distinguishing the intervals of the musical scale. On it, Pythagoras determined the three Western Scales – Diatonic, Chromatic and Enharmonic. The tone was produced by plucking a string. It is the true progenitor of the piano – insofar as all succeeding in instruments were improved directly from this – earlier instruments being abandoned. Medieval monks also used the Monochord to set the pitch for their church choirs.
An avid reader has a choice of works bearing such titles as “Heros of Discovery,” “Heros of Science,” etc. For the musician who has read widely in the history of music, and who should know that it is possible to make quite a romance about the “Heros of Music.” In the whole history of music no figure looms so lofty, not as much by what he did for music and in music, but for the whole race, as the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Lofty, perhaps, because he belongs to the early ages when fewer men stood out significantly, but also because his life was one of pursuit of pure thought and living, because his teachings inclined to the moral improvement of mankind, and because he turned their thoughts to intellectual things.
The monochord's impact as a scientific instrument is possibly more profound than its musical importance. Pythagoras' study of ratios on the monochord led philosophers to believe that these ratios also governed the movement of planets and other cosmic matters (Ptolemy). This provided the bridge between the world of physical experience and numerical relationships, giving birth to mathematical physics. In addition, this elevated music to one of the highest intellectual pursuits. Furthermore, since the "perfection of sounds" could now be revealed by numbers, all simple numeric ratios could be visualized as sounds. Kepler's "harmony of the spheres" is based on this, as well as harmonically resounding architecture. If the visible proportions of a building can be expressed in numeric ratios, then their relationships can be "heard" as chords. Like the "golden section" of architecture, musical harmony "imposes order in the hearts and minds of men by virtue of their simple, natural relationships" (Harnoncourt). This also helped support the baroque idea that music was a reflection of the divine order (unless you were a minstrel, perhaps).
The Harmony of the Spheres Copyright © 2001 -2007 The “Original Bluebook of Pianos
The history of music does not show Pythagoras as a practicing musician. Such men had but little esteem in his day; in fact, the professional musician was generally a slave. But he included music and the laws of music among the subjects worthy of scientific study, and thus, at one effort, gave it a place which no skill of the player could ever have claimed or justified. One phase indissolubly associated with the name of Pythagoras is that of “the harmony of the spheres an abstract idea, in all probability, although the master is said to have claimed that, by study and meditation, he had refined his faculties until he could hear the great rhythm and melody of the universe moving in its course in obedience to law, carrying us back to the time in which “the morning stars sang together.”
The central thought of his philosophy is the idea of number, the recognition of the numerical and mathematical relation of all things. This thought crystallized into the formula that all things are numbers or that number is the essence of everything. Number is the principle of order by which the cosmos or ordered world subsists.
Harmony of the Spheres
The astronomy of the Pythagoreans marked an important advance in ancient scientific thought, for they were the first to consider the earth as a globe revolving with the other planets around a central fire. They explained the harmonious arrangement of things as that of bodies in a single, all-inclusive sphere of reality, moving according to a numerical scheme. Because the Pythagoreans thought that the heavenly bodies are separated from one another by intervals corresponding to the harmonic lengths of strings, they held that the movement of the spheres gives rise to a musical sound-the “harmony of the spheres.”
The sacred decade in particular has a cosmic significance in Pythagoreanism: its mystical name, tetraktys (meaning approximately “fourness”), implies 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10; but it can also be thought of as a “perfect triangle,” as in the Figure.
Speculation on number and proportion led to an intuitive feeling of the harmonia (“fitting together”) of the kosmos (“the beautiful order of things”); and the application of the tetraktys to the theory of music revealed a hidden order in the range of sound. Pythagoras may have referred, vaguely, to the “music of the heavens,” which he alone seemed able to hear; and later Pythagoreans seem to have assumed that the distances of the heavenly bodies from the Earth somehow correspond to musical intervals–a theory that, under the influence of Platonic conceptions, resulted in the famous idea of the “harmony of the spheres.” Though number to the early Pythagoreans was still a kind of cosmic matter, like the water or air proposed by the Ionians, their stress upon numerical proportions, harmony, and order comprised a decisive step toward a metaphysic in which form is the basic reality.
In reviewing the accounts of music that have characterized musical and intellectual history, it is clear that the Pythagoreans are reborn from age to age. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) perpetuated, in effect, the idea of the harmony of the spheres, attempting to relate music to planetary movement. René Descartes (1596-1650), too, saw the basis of music as mathematical. He was a faithful Platonist in his prescription of temperate rhythms and simple melodies so that music would not produce imaginative, exciting, and hence immoral, effects. For another philosopher-mathematician, the German Gottfried von Leibniz (1646-1716), music reflected a universal rhythm and mirrored a reality that was fundamentally mathematical, to be experienced in the mind as a subconscious apprehension of numerical relationships. Encyclopedia Britannica 97
The chief illustrations, or rather grounds of their position, were found in the regular movements of the heavenly bodies, and in the harmony of musical sounds, the dependence of which on regular mathematical intervals the Pythagoras were apparently first to discover. The famous theory of the harmony of the spheres combines both ideas; the seven planets are the seven golden chords of the heavenly heptachord. To Pythagoras is due the honor of having raised mathematics in Greece to a science. He is also said to have introduced weights and measures. From the monochord other instruments developed and from time to time more strings were added. There came the Arab – Sautir and the Dulcimer, which were trapeze – shaped instruments which was composed of a solid frame, sounding board and metal wires struck with hammers held in hand.
Music was a prominent and intricate part of man’s lifestyle throughout history. In biblical times, when King Saul was emotionally and mentally troubled, he used music to heal his troubled soul “Seek out a man who is a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass that when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well” (I Samuel 16:16).
Using music to heal the body and soul was common knowledge to societies in that day physicians would often prescribe music in addition to the accepted medical practices. When depression and trouble descended on King Saul, the royal physician ordered David (later King David) to play his harp for the King “.. when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him” (I Samuel 16:23).
In Greek mythology there were two gods associated with music, Dionysus (Bacchus) and Apollo. Dionysus the “god of wine and orgies”, employed “wild, unrestrained and undisciplined music” – Music, wine, and dancing was an intricate part of the sensual experience of worship and orgies. Apollo, the “god of light, reason, and order” , accentuated precise mathematical forms of music. Apolloian music followed set rhythms and intervals that moved in and out of different keys. Worshipers of Apollo strived to obtain equilibrium and peace in their lives and environments through music. In the old Greek culture, Aristotle practiced his belief that music was the key to emotional and spiritual purification. Likewise, Plato used music and exercise to achieve good health of body, mind, and soul.
Similarly, in later years Confucius’ philosophies and teachings of “ritual and music are the clues to harmonious living” reflected his love of music. Confucius believed that music had direct effects on the mind, body, soul, and emotions, both individually and socially.
THE DULCIMER Copyright © 2001 -2007 The “Original Bluebook of Pianos
This ancestor of the piano originated in Iran shortly after the birth of Christ. It illustrates the basic principles of the piano, hammers striking multiple strings tuned over a flat soundboard. Instead of mechanical hammers, dulcimer players use two light sticks ending with broader blades. Forms of the dulcimer migrated as far as China, and modern examples such as the Hungarian cimbatom and Irania santir continue in use for the folk music of Central Europe and the Middle East. The large dulcimer, which we so often find in ancient Babylonian and Egyptian sculptures, is the particular instrument out of which the pianoforte grew. It had a hollow body covered with parchment and was strung with many strings, and although extremely primitive and unsatisfactory from our point of view, it formed the basis of all old military music and was played at all the great court ceremonials of the Assyrians. It was in Persia that the dulcimer made the first step in the evolution which was to transform it gradually into the modern piano. There it was made with a sounding board strung with wires which were played upon with two sticks.
The Italians developed this construction still more in the Middle Ages and made the dulcimer long and flat so as to rest upon the knees of the performer. Soon after this — for the sake of convenience — a keyboard was added to it, which, of course, was a great advance. It was then placed on a narrow oblong table and was thenceforth known as the clavichord. Its mechanism was of the simplest, the sound being produced by brass pins or tangents, as they were called, fixed into the keys which struck the wire strings. In spite of its very rudimentary construction and thin, tinkling sound, the clavichord survived until well into the last century, and even inspired some of the greatest composers to write sonatas, preludes and fugues for it. Bach wrote his greatest works for it and declared that he “Found no soul in the clavecin or the spinet, and that the pianoforte was too clumsy and to harsh to please him”.
The Dulcimer was a small, rather square stringed instrument built along the lines of the monochord but with several strings. It was played by striking the strings with leather covered hammers held in the hands of the performer. Its popularity was largely confined to Germany where it was known as the Hackebrett and to the gypsies who often called it a Cimbalom. A similar instrument was widely used throughout the East and it was particularly popular in Persia and adjacent lands where it was called the Santir. The Psaltery of the Bible may well have been an early Dulcimer. The Dulcimer’s great importance was that it introduced the hammer, for it is the hammer and its associated mechanisms that distinguishes the piano from other stringed instruments. Both the earlier tangents and plectrums played with the same loudness no matter how hard the keys were struck.
In like manner, during the Renaissance Era, William Congreve wrote the play “The Mourning Bride”, in which the famous quotation “Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast “, expressed the belief and practice that music can console many a woe. Even though it is misquoted as “Music has charms to sooth the savage beast,” the meaning is still the same. The term “breast” refers to the terminology of that day, where the breast held the emotions and soul of man. Savage breast held the meaning of someone whose emotions were of a strong, dark nature. Such emotions as anger, fury, jealousy, etc., were considered savage and uncivilized. Breast also referred to the chest area of a warrior’s armor called the breastplate. Historically, societies believed that music was a powerful and important part of their lives, which should be used to its’ fullest.
The effects of music on the human body are numerous and beneficial when applied properly. First, music with its changes in volume, intervals, and tempo causes changes in bodily functions. These changes include: “pulse rate, respiration and blood pressure. If an adult or a child feels lethargic, he should choose music that has major chords, a fast tempo, and is played moderately loud. This combination is revitalizing, energizing, and stimulating. Likewise, when a child is hyperactive and needs to calm down, or an adult is tense and needs to relax, he should choose music that has minor chords, a slow tempo, and is played softly. This combination induces relaxation. The higher the note, the more rapid the vibrations, which “produce a strong nervous stimulus” that increases the pulse, respiration, and blood pressure, consequently, stimulating the body to activity. Similarly, the lower the note, the slower the vibrations, which “produce a decrease in nervous stimulus” that decreased the pulse, respiration, and blood pressure, thereby signaling the body to relax and rest.
The volume of the music that the individual is listening to will produce different emotions. These emotions have direct effects on how the individual feels physically. Loud music “may give the listener a feeling of being protected.” Whereas, soft music “may give the listener a feeling of intimacy and serenity”
THE CLAVICHORD Copyright © 2001 -2007 The “Original Bluebook of Pianos
Clavichords were first mentioned in 1404. They were rectangular and had brass strings made to vibrate by a brass tangent attached to the end of a key. Early Clavichords had all strings of equal length and each was struck by more than one key. By 1700 a separate string, each of graduated length, struck by only one key came into being. This permitted greater latitude in tuning and the “tempered scale” came into use. It is a compromise between all the keys in musical intonation and is the system used in tuning modern pianos. The Clavichord was the favorite instrument of the 16th and 17th centuries maintaining its supremacy long after the appearance of the pianoforte. The Clavichord possessed four of the most vital points of the present day piano. namely – the independent sound board, metal strings. percussion method of agitating the strings and application of the damper to the strings. Bach, Mozart and even Beethoven used it.
THE SPINET Copyright © 2001 -2007 The “Original Bluebook of Pianos
Next came the spinet, or virginal, which was furnished with little quill plectra with which the strings were plucked instead of the brass strikers used in the clavichord. The Spinet was invented by Giovanni Spinetti of Venice about 1503.The true Spinet was not a piano! It was oblong in form with a range of four octaves. It had long strings. thus increasing the volume of tone, but the plucking system was used for vibrating the string. The plectrums were sometimes of leather, otherwise quill. In England this instrument became generally known as the Virginal, elsewhere it was sometimes called the Clavicimbalum. The tone was thin and monotonous and the need for a fuller range of tonal effects led to the development of the harpsichord. Its tiny mechanism was very ingenious, the sounds produced by it were mechanical to a degree, and the desire for greater expression led to the addition of several sets of strings and to the providing of a second keyboard. This improved spinet was called a harpsichord, and was often a very beautiful instrument. Its case was a small and attenuated form of our modern grand piano.
One charming old spinet still in existence is decorated with pictures of saints and angels singing and playing upon all sorts of quaint obsolete instruments, Sweet Saint Cecilia, who taught organ-pipes to blow’ in their midst playing an Italian dulcimer. The most gloriously-decorated piano cases are, of course, those by or after Vernis Martin, the great decorator of the Louis XVI period. The exquisite coloring and wonderful lustrous sheen of his piano cases have never been surpassed, and they are perhaps the most magnificent ornament that any drawing room could have with their beautifully-blended reds and greens and amber enriched by touches of gold.
This was a modification of the Spinet in which the strings were set vertically so that the instrument could have long strings without taking up too much floor space. The Clavicytherium suffered because the artisans of the day were not able to produce an action which worked well on the vertical stringing. The Clavicytherium ’5 malor interest is that the stringing runs vertically as does the stringing of the modern Console or Spinet piano, the most popular piano made today.
Harpsichord, ca. 1675 Made by Michele Todini (none assigned) Rome, Italy Wood, various materials; L. of inner instrument 8 ft. 9 7/8 in. (269 cm); W. of inner instrument 34 3/8 in. (87.2 cm); D. of inner instrument 7 1/2 in. (19 cm); 3-octave span 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm); sounding L. at present (longer of pair for-plucking point) FF 221.9 (14.8), c2 27.4 (7.5), F3 9.9 (4.4), original c2 was approx. 11 in. (28 cm)
The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.2929)
Description This gilded case encloses an Italian harpsichord of typical design but unusual length. Decorated with a frieze depicting the Triumph of Galatea and supported by three Tritons, the harpsichord originally formed part of Michele Todini’s Galeria Armonica and was described in his catalogue of 1676. The flanking figures of Polyphemus playing a bagpipe (Todini invented one like it) and Galatea, holding a lute, were displayed with the harpsichord in front of a “mountain” in which a small pipe organ was concealed. The organ simulated the bagpipe’s sound and the harpsichord represented the sound of the lute. Todini designed several such lavish instruments and charged admission from the aristocrats who visited his gallery. The artistic quality of the case ranks it among the finest examples of Roman Baroque decorative art; Todini’s ingenuity and search for new forms of instrumental expressivity grew out of the same musical climate that led to the invention of the piano.
This instrument also known to the Germans as the “Flugel”, to the French as the “Clavecin” and to the Italians as the “Clavicembalo”, possessed a tone more brilliant and fuller than any former instrument on account of its larger sound board and longer strings. In fact it was only an enlarged spinet if the difference of shape be excepted. It had a harsh tone, and numerous devices were invented to remove this fault. Among these were the forte stops (loud pedal) – soft stops – buff stops (practice pedal) – the shifting key board and 2 to 4 strings were used for each note. Although other devices were used, those mentioned are of importance as they are all used in the piano of today. The strings were plucked by plectrums, usually made of quill, and only by the use of tone modifying devices could any great variations be introduced into the music. The very first pianos ever made were converted Harpsichords. The harpsichord held its own until well into the eighteenth century. The harpsichord is rich in high and dissonant (or disagreeing) harmonics which, to some people, sound extremely harsh. At first, hearing the instrument’s crisp sparkle seems strange – even jarring – but the tone is admirably robust, brilliant, warm, colorful, full and round.
THE INVENTION OF THE PIANOFORTE (From the Italian piano, “soft” and forte, “loud”)
Bartolomeo Cristofori was the first person to create a successful hammer-action keyboard instrument and, accordingly, deserves to be credited as the inventor of the piano. This example is the oldest of the three extant pianos by Cristofori. About 1700 he began to work on an instrument on which the player could achieve changes in loudness solely by changing the force with which the keys were struck. By 1700 he had made at least one successful instrument, which he called “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud). His instrument still generally resembles a harpsichord, though its case is thicker and the quill mechanism has been replaced by a hammer mechanism. Cristofori’s hammer mechanism is so well designed and made that no other of comparable sensitivity and reliability was devised for another seventy-five years. In fact, the highly complex action of the modern piano may be traced directly to his original conception.
Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) was keeper of harpsichords and spinets at the Florentine court of Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici. His invention was described in 1711 by Scipione Maffei in a Venetian quarterly journal:
“Everyone who enjoys music knows that one of the principal sources from which those skilled in this art derive the secret of especially delighting their listeners is the alternation of soft and loud. This may come either in a theme and its response, or it may be when the tone is artfully allowed to diminish little by little and then, at one stroke, made to return to full vigor. Now, of all this diversity and variation in tone… the harpsichord is entirely deprived, and one might have considered it the vainest of fancies to propose constructing one in such a manner as to have this gift. Such a bold invention, nevertheless, has been no less cleverly thought out than executed in Florence by harpsichord maker named Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori (sic)… a harpsichord player.”
Cristofori’s instrument named gravicembalo col piano e forte. (Roughly Translated “soft and loud keyboard instrument”) Eventually, it was shortened to fortepiano or pianoforte, and eventually shortened to just piano. A Cristofori instrument dating from 1720 and is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
To combine the wonderful tone sustaining capacity of the clavichord with the power of the harpsichord led three inventors, working separately, to invent almost identical piano actions – Marius of Paris (1716), Schroter of Saxony (1717) and Christofori of Padua. Marius never completed a piano, abandoning his models as they were not applicable to the existing harpsichord. Schroter’s action developed into the Vienna action and school of piano building while one of the Christofori’s pianos came into the hand of Silbermann in 1747, and it was in Silbermann’s workshop that the English school of piano making was developed. The invention of the Pianoforte as an entire and complete instrument must be credited to Bartolomeo Christofori of Padua, Italy.
Italian and German makers now replaced the quills of the harpsichord by hammers and gradually overcame the many problems presented by its construction until Sebastian Erard, a French instrument maker gifted with great mechanical cleverness, contrived a mechanism far in advance of all previous ideas, and from his invention the “action” of our day has been developed. The Broadwood’s also did much to develop the power and tone quality of the instrument, and the manufacture of pianofortes came to be one of the world’s industries. Germany and France, Austria and England were all doing their best to improve the popular instrument. The demand for greater power led to the introduction of the massive metal framing made necessary by the increased strain of the steel strings. In the matter of increased strength and solidity, qualities which add power and sonorousness to the tone, American inventors and makers have contributed much to the development of the instrument.
These are the outlines of the history of the horizontal, or grand, piano. The upright pianoforte so familiar in the modern household is a thing of comparatively recent introduction. The earlier forms introduced about the beginning of the nineteenth century were much larger than our present convenient instrument which came into vogue some fifty years later. The construction of an upright piano differs very much from that of the grand piano, and it has been subjected to many changes of design; in fact, it is only within the last one hundred and fifty years that it has been made the beautiful and excellent instrument that it now is. The pianoforte has been brought to perfection as the result of the labors of many lifetimes.
As the 18th century drew to a close, the piano was firmly established as a musical instrument. It then had a five-octave normal range and sixty-one keys not eighty-eight as it has today. Mostly, pedals were worked by the knees but the foot pedal introduced in England was catching on. The framing was still wooden; the iron frame had not yet been thought of. The strings and hammers often broke. The tone and action was very light. In about 1800, Joseph Smith of England made a complete frame of metal for resistance to strains. It is only fair to say it did not much resemble the modern conception of a metal plate. About 1820, various makers used sections of metal for hitch pins, resistance bars and pin plank reinforcements.
In 1822, the most famous of all piano actions was patented by the Erard brothers: the double escapement action. The purpose of the mechanism was the same as that of 1808, but while showing its descent from the Cristofori – Silbermann action, the function of each of its separate parts was worked out with still greater insight and ingenuity. Again the hammer did not fall back completely after its initial escapement, but returned to rest simultaneously on a check piece and a sprung, oblique lever which retained the hammer close to the strings. If they key was then raised slightly, the check released the hammer and it could be propelled against the strings once more, the movement of the key being transmitted to the hammer not by the hopper, but via the oblique lever. The action was noted at once for its remarkable lightness, flexibility and reliability. Its significance cannot be exaggerated since, with only small modifications of detail, it became the action to be fitted to the modern grand piano.
In the history of the grand piano, the advantages of gravity-operated over dampers were not so clearly appreciated as the superiority of up striking to down striking hammer mechanisms. In his earliest pianos, Erard had chosen the conventional over dampers of the English piano, but in his action of 1822, he opted for an under damper which his firm continued to use even until near the end of the nineteenth century.
Alpheus Babcock of Boston, in 1830, cast a square piano – the first one-piece frame. While it was crude in design, it was the first. The evolution from this simple frame by Babcock to the carefully designed powerful frame of the modern piano was gradual; but by about 1860, was essentially what it is today and was capable of withstanding any strain that might be imposed by the piano maker.
The development of this plate was the greatest single invention in development of the modern piano with the exception of the Cristofori escapement. As it was with the development of the metal plate, so it was with the development of the action. There was more than one hundred years of continuous inventive genius put into it before Pierre Gerard came out with his so-called “double repeating action” for grand pianos in 1821. This action contained every essential of the modern grand action. It was the invention of the full metal plate that finally permitted makers to greatly increase diameters of strings as well as lengths and tensions which finally produced the modern piano tone. The iron frame was not developed in one swoop, but was a very gradual growth. The use of metal for added strength goes way back to the harpsichord.
Until the early years of the nineteenth century, two types of piano appealed to professional pianists: the Viennese piano and the English piano. The action of the first was light, had little carrying power and needed very little pressure on the keys. The tone was round and flute like.
Compared to modern pianos, many of the earliest ones looked awkward. Most were like pieces of overwrought furniture thick-legged and heavily carved. It seemed unlikely that they could make delicate music. The designs were fancy and the outer-case decorations unbelievably elaborate. Some of the instruments were almost smothered by decoration – ivory and precious stones, silver and gold, colored glass and enamels. Many of the pianos had paintings and complicated inlay work inside their lids. The entire outside cases of some instruments were painted with fanciful designs in oils.
Because the strings of many of these pianos were mounted vertically above and behind the keyboard, the instruments looked tall and top heavy. Some of these so-called pyramid pianos that were made in Prague even had clocks in their string towers. A similar skyscraper was a piano called the giraffe. The fanciest giraffes with the most ornate carving were made in Czechoslovakia. Another curious piano of those pioneer days was the metal pianoforte, made about 1815. It consisted of a normal piano with a keyboard for fingering, and a second legless instrument on which the first one stood. The keyboard of the lower piano was operated by the feet, like the pedals of an organ.
THE PIANO IN AMERICA
The period of greatest development in piano construction lay between the years of 1760 and 1830 and then between 1835 and 1880. The first piano made in America was by John Behrent of Philadelphia in 1775
CHICKERING & SONS. Established in 1823, Chickering & Sons celebrated in 1923 the completion of a century of continuous manufacture of the Chickering pianos. This illustrious firm, the oldest piano house in the United States, has been at all times in the forefront and has received world-wide recognition for its part in developing the pianoforte on distinctive lines. Jonas Chickering, the founder, was born at Mason Village, New Hampshire, in April, 1796, where, after a sound schooling, he thoroughly learned the business of cabinet-making. Impelled by a restless ambition to seek a larger field, he went to Boston in his early twenties.
There he entered the factory of a well-known piano maker of those days and pursued a course of study in piano-making in its then primitive stage. It was not long before the genius of Jonas Chickering manifested itself, and he introduced a series of changes and improvements which have since become standard and which revolutionized the methods then prevailing. His name from the earliest times has been constantly linked with the Americanizing of the piano by methods of such importance and value that both America and Europe today admit their worth by universal adoption. This invention was accepted by the scientific world as one of far reaching importance; indeed, it proved to be the foundation of all modern piano construction, for without it the sonorous grand’s of today would not have been impossible. It successfully solved the problem of the proper support for the great strain of the strings and defined a new era in the history of piano-making .
In 1843, Jonas Chickering invented a new deflection of the strings and in 1845 the first practical method for over stringing in square pianos, that is, instead of setting the strings side by side, substituting an arrangement of them in two banks, one over the other, not only saving space but bringing the powerful bass strings directly over the most resonant part of the sound-board, a principle which obtains to this day in the construction of all pianos, both grand’s and uprights. Until the year 1852, Jonas Chickering superintended each department of his business with his usual scrupulous care but was relieved of much of this responsibility upon his taking into partnership his three sons, all of whom had received under their father a practical training of the highest order. The genius of C. Frank Chickering as a “scale” draftsman soon became internationally know and acknowledged and to his extensive scientific research is to be attributed much of the renowned beauty of the Chickering tone. Not content with retaining this invaluable knowledge himself he imparted the secrets of his studies to those in the factory in whose gifts he had confidence, thus insuring their perpetuation. In addition to the many patents taken out by Jonas Chickering, his sons and their successors, various methods exclusive to themselves have also been employed and there are in constant use operations of an abstract character which may be described as mechanical subtleties possessing great value and which are an integral part of the Chickering system.
The outline of the significant importance of the Chickering system will appeal to the practical minded but to those who would know more of the romance and charm which the Chickering story holds for the student of America’s musical development. The significance and historic value of the Chickering in the development of the pianoforte in America is seen in the preservation at the Ford Museum at Dearborn of several important Chickering’s including the very first instrument made by Jonas Chickering in 1823. Others are: the first Chickering upright made in 1830 and the first Chickering grand completed prior to 1850. Chickering & Sons have received upwards of 200 first medals and awards. These have been received from States and sovereigns, international expositions and learned societies in all parts of the world embracing every known method of honoring distinguished merit. C. Frank Chickering was personally vested with the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honor at the hands of Napoleon 111. The significance of this high honor is the more appreciated because of its extreme rarity, very few such honors having been bestowed for accomplishments in the fine arts. In 1923 Chickering & Sons were the recipients of a remarkable tribute from musicians and persons of prominence in all walks of life who united in celebrating the Hundredth Anniversary of the founding of Jonas Chickering’s epoch making enterprises. A committee headed by the Hun. Calvin Coolidge (then Vice-President of the United States) carried to a successful and brilliant conclusion what was termed the Jonas Chickering Centennial Celebration, culminating in a banquet held at the Copley Plaza, Boston, at which Mr. Coolidge was the chief speaker. It marked in a most significant manner a century of musical achievement that is without parallel in the history of American piano making. The most famous virtuosi including pianists, singers and instrumentalists have exhausted superlatives in expressing their high admiration of the Chickering. The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston the world’s foremost oratory group, established 1815, has used the Chickering exclusively for more than a century. His name from the earliest times has been constantly linked with the Americanizing of the piano by methods of such importance and value that both America and Europe today admit their worth by universal adoption.
THE SQUARE GRAND PIANO
The Square piano was inspired by the desire to produce a piano taking up less space than those instruments then in use. In its early stage the Square Grand, as with all stringed instruments built previous to it , had a weak wooden frame. This meant that thin wires at low tension could only be used.
In 1825 Alpheus Babcock of Boston invented the one piece full cast iron frame or plate as it is now called. This allowed pianos to be built with heavier wire at higher tension which caused the instrument to have a much fuller singing resonant tone than had heretofore been possible. This was one of the most important of piano inventions. Near the end of the 18th century, square grand pianos became widely used. Measuring 3-1/2 by 7 feet, in a rectangular case. The square piano would be replaced as the dominant piano for the home by the upright piano which gained increasing popularity during the second half of the 19th century.
The modern, streamlined vertical that hugs the wall of today’s compact apartment may be a far cry, socially and culturally, from the ornate upright that graced the parlor in 1900, but the piano remains above all instruments the one most worthy of esteem. As Busoni pointed out in his preface to the 1910 edition of Gottfried Galston’s Studienbuch, for all its “obvious, great and irremediable” disadvantages, “the piano’s excellencies and prerogatives are little miracles.”
No small credit for making these “little miracles” possible is due Henry Engelhard Steinway. What’s in a name? Everything its possessor has been and done goes into whatever evaluation others may place upon his name. At birth, a name may be no more than an identification tag, or it may be something to live up to-or live down, but that is not important. What matters is that each of us is given a name, in trust, for a lifetime to pass on to the future, embellished, or tarnished, or unchanged.
To inherit a good or noble name might seem to be an advantage, but history disproves this theory, for the temptation to bask in the glory of a predecessor’s credit is too strong for most great men’s sons. No benevolent despot can guarantee a succession of benevolent despots; no artist or musician can insure his progeny’s inheritance of talent. In the world of business, founders of empires are often grandfathers of paupers. Man can inherit neither goodness nor greatness. He may be exposed to their beneficent influence, but he must achieve them for himself.
When six generations successively honor and distinguish their common name, this is not only a family of a great man – this is a great family! A name thus honored and distinguished is Steinway, symbol and trademark of the world’s most esteemed piano. The secret of this rare and proud achievement is simply that the Steinway name has been accepted by each generation, not as an honor or advantage, but as a solemn trust and threefold responsibility, to the family, to the product which bears it’s name. and to the public it serves. Each new member, however, before being assigned a task best suited to his abilities in the hierarchy of the firm, must undergo a rigorous period of apprenticeship in the factory, where he is thoroughly grounded in all aspects of the art and craft of piano making.
The achievements and tenacity of the Steinway dynasty are all the more remarkable when we remember that at the turn of the century, and for a decade or more thereafter, there were at least a dozen, out of some 200-odd independent piano manufacturers in this country, competing for the quality market. Among them were such time-honored fallboard names as Mason & Hamlin, Chickering & Sons, Gildemeester & Kroeger, Knabe, Weber, A. B. Chase, Henry F. Miller, Ivers and Pond, and Everett.
Today the piano hardly seems worth shouting about It has suffered one turn of the screw after another – the bicycle, the radio, the phonograph, the automobile, movies, television, the computer, pop music, video games. the digital keyboard – and has emerged thoroughly scathed. The number of pianos sold in the United States dropped from 282,000 in 1978 to 99,000 in 1994.
Recorded history shows that mankind has always tried to create music by mechanical means. The first big commercial development came with the Swiss music boxes of the late 1700s. In Switzerland and the Black Forest of Germany, artisans long famous for their precision watches created music box music of astonishing beauty on tuned steel combs plucked by raised pins arranged on a cylinder. These craftsmen produced inexpensive novelty music-boxes as well as elegant furniture-styled consoles affordable only by the super-rich.
The piano as a modern musical instrument experienced its greatest period of development in the 1800s, and it is not surprising that attempts to mechanize it were widespread. As in the case of so many devices, it is not easy to pin down just who should get the credit for the earliest piano playing machine. A Frenchman named Forneaux, who developed the first player operated on pneumatic principles, probably deserves the most recognition. He named his machine the “Pianista,” and it was first exhibited in America at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. It operated by means of a hand-crank which operated a vacuum pump; the vacuum in turn was used to operate little bellows or ‘pneumatics” that pushed the levers that played the keys of the piano.
It remained for a business genius by the name of H. B. Tremaine to bring about the commercial exploitation of the piano player on a big scale. Tremaine’s father had built a successful small business making hand-cranked table-top-sized mechanical organs, a very popular item in homes in the late 1800s. He founded the “Aeolian Organ and Music Company” around 1888; the firm achieved considerable success with larger instruments and organs. His son took over in 1899 and immediately set about to apply his own business acumen to the company’s affairs. With the newly perfected “Pianola,’ he launched an aggressive advertising campaign which was entirely new to the stodgy piano business. With four page color advertisements (almost unheard of in that day) published in the popular magazines, he literally stunned the piano industry with the message that here, indeed, was the answer to everyone’s prayer for music in the home! Tremaine and Pianola built an enormous business empire over the next thirty years .It wasn’t long after the turn of the century that it was deemed desirable to “miniaturize” the clumsy Pianolas and other similar, instruments so that they could be built directly inside the pianos. Within a few short years, the “push up”players disappeared from the scene.
It was a great period in American history, when every backyard inventor saw the chance to reap his fortune by developing some new gadget, and the piano business provided a fertile field for the clever minds that thought along these lines. By the turn of the century, a number of piano playing devices had appeared on the Most of them took the form of an apparatus which sat in front of the instrument and “played” the keys.
The paper music roll business was thriving but disorganized until 1908 when the roll makers got together in Buffalo, New York, and agreed on a standard size- and-hole arrangement. All music rolls without expression made for regular player pianos since the “Buffalo Convention” are interchangeable. This constructive move resulted in the formation of over fifty new companies operating solely in the roll business in the United States. In contrast, however, the rolls of the three major expression reproducing piano companies were not compatible-and could only be reproduced on the pianos made specifically for that roll.
The peak popularity of the piano occurred in the early 1909 when an all time high record of 374,00 new pianos were sold. You can probably remember the old upright player piano that may have graced your grand fathers parlor, but you have little recollection about the reproducing piano, the digital computer technology of the day. Today, when we hear the words “digitally enhanced,” we think of a highly-sophisticated disc electronic sound system replete with elaborate and costly loudspeakers, magnificent cabinetry tailored to fit properly into one’s home and all backed up by extensive marketing and advertising by numerous manufacturers. One wonders how anything could possibly sound finer.
Yet to many, the true ultimate in “digital piano” occurred when the reproducing piano reigned supreme in its ability to re-create “live” the performances of great keyboard artists right in the home. The ordinary player piano performs only one basic function, that of striking the notes. The reproducing piano added the ability to recreate the touch, the shadings, the nuances, of the original recording – all the expression characteristics, and making the difference between purely mechanical sounds and true artistry. The paper roll was obliged, therefore, to include extra perforations which carried the “expression information” in coded form. These codes, which bear a resemblance to the language of modern computers, were either captured at the time of the initial recording or added later in an editing process. The reproducing piano was equipped with apparatus to “read” these expression holes and to reconstruct the exact expression of a piece while other holes played the notes.
In 1903, the German firm of M. Welte & Sons in Freiburg introduced its “Welte-Mignon” piano player, and immediately set about to make recordings of all the great classical piano artists of the day. Made with typical Teutonic thoroughness, the Welte machines were not only magnificent in construction, but were enormously costly to purchase. It is extremely fortunate that this development came as early as it did, for keyboard giants whose works would otherwise be only a memory can come alive through the Welte -Vorsetzer; To mention just one example among many, Edward Grieg, the great Norwegian composer, made several piano roll recordings before his death in 1907. No other technology existed to capture his work for future generations. Now, right in our own homes, we can hear exactly how Grieg performed and enjoy his work as did those who heard him in person during his lifetime.
Edwin Welte and his able partner, technician Karl Bockisch, claimed the only “true” recording system and kept it a dark secret. Apparently the Welte system used a piano with a special keyboard containing a trough of liquid mercury beneath the keys. Attached to each key was a spring mounted electrical probe which would dip into the mercury a distance proportional to the force with which the key was struck by the pianist. The electrical resistance to a current passing through the probe was thus variable, and this was then translated to the proper holes in the paper. These holes would, in turn, control the amount of pneumatic force applied to the keys which played the resulting roll.
The message of the reproducing piano was not lost on American builders. It wasn’t until a full decade after the Welte introduction of their machine, however, that a home-grown reproducing system appeared on the market. It was put out by the Aeolian Corporation, and named the Duo-Art. It was fitted into such fine pianos as the Weber, the Steck, and even the prestigious Steinway under an agreement whereby that firm made pianos with specially designed frames and cases. In those days, the reproducing piano was a very costly item, within the reach of only the wealthy. For example, in 1929 a typical Steinway Grand Piano model “L” was around $1,600, a reproducing-grand piano cost some $4,500 which was, in those days, half the price of a nice home! The rolls were costly, too: one of Josef Hoffmann playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G, for example, sold for $4.00, the equivalent of $20 or $25 in today’s purchasing power. For companies that made and sold the rolls, it was a period of great prosperity and the business was enormously profitable. But then, in the 1920s, almost everyone had a chance to be wealthy, if only on paper.
Two or three years later, the American Piano Company introduced its device to the market and called it the Ampico. It was based on the designs of an eccentric mechanical genius, one Charles Fuller Stoddard. Stoddard, whose home was a maze of new-fangled contraptions of his own design, spent the last few years of his life entertaining the world’s greatest piano virtuosos who would record on his unique Ampico recording piano. Ampico reproducing systems were eventually installed in such fine pianos as the Mason & Hamlin, the Knabe, the Chickering, the Beale in Australia, and the Willis in Canada.
In the mid-twenties, the Ampico Corporation engaged a scientist, Dr. Clarence Hickman, to completely re-engineer the Ampico reproducing system and roll making process. His work resulted in the so-called “Model B” Ampico pianos which represented the highest possible standards of technology available at the time. Hickman developed the famous “spark chronograph” method of capturing expression characteristics of individual pianists and today, the “Model B” Ampico pianos are in great demand by collectors, and at prices that go right through the roof, $100,000 to $200,00 in mint condition. Hickman recognized that the best way to measure expression is in terms of the energy imparted directly to the piano strings by the piano’s hammers. He devised a scheme by which the velocity, and hence the energy, of each hammer could be measured just prior to hitting the string. This information was then directed to a recording device and the coded expression holes were adapted directly to the master production roll. Hickman was also a renowned expert on explosives, and he is responsible for the development of the tank busting recoilless rifle, the “bazooka,” which helped the United States secure victory in World War II. The bazooka is named after still another musical instrument, but that’s another story.
The years from 1900-1935, saw a revolution in the piano business. The invention of the automobile and the radio had a tremendous influence on the way people lived. No longer able to afford living in spacious homes, they moved to small apartments. The whole social pattern of living took a mighty flip-flop. One result was that the old upright went out like a light, to be replaced by the spinet-type piano. During the depression we developed the two sizes of verticals one 40,’ high, the other 45″-which we manufacture today. The trend turned all manufacturers to making spinets. Today, by units, about 95 per cent of the market are small verticals. The market for grand pianos has remained fairly stable and in the last few years has been on the increase. With the tremendous changes it has brought about in our way of living has come a terrific competition for the few luxury dollars that are left over. There is a constant pressure to buy this, that and the other thing. The social evolution changed the piano business.
And, the piano changed the world !