The first piano was invented in Florence, Italy in 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1732), a craftsman who repaired harpsichords for Italy’s royal court. Cristofori’s invention was a simple keyboard that he called a gravecembalo col piano et forte, “keyboard instrument with soft and loud,” named for the strings that produced different dynamic levels upon vibrating when struck by small wooden hammers covered with deerskin. Cristofori experimented with the instrument’s design throughout the years, and the instrument grew popularity among the upper class. By 1730 pianos were purchased and played by the most elite Europeans.
Although still expensive, pianos were made smaller by the 1760s so that wealthy families could own them in their homes. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), a pianist prodigy, was born into such a home. He began touring Europe at four years old, giving concerts alongside his musically talented family.
By 1770, the piano had reached America by German immigrant John Behrent, a piano maker. Most American songs composed then related to the American Revolution, involving dynamic melodies to describe the war.
During and after Ludwig van Beethoven’s time (1770 – 1827), the piano grew to have more keys, therefore not only increasing in size but also sounds. To create more depth in dynamics, piano makers began designing the instrument out of iron for a louder effect. The piano was incorporated into orchestras, which very quickly became a popular source of entertainment, and concert halls were built bigger with more seats.
Pianists gained popularity that paralleled rock stars of today, often inducing men to cry, women to weep and the stage to be showered with flowers. Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), a Hungarian pianist, was such a musician. He introduced the solo piano performance as opposed to orchestral and wrote more then 600 pieces. Frederic Chopin (1819 – 1849), a Polish pianist who most likely had tuberculosis, was another favorite performer who also gave private lessons to many of the elite in Paris. And in America, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869) of New Orleans became known internationally for his “tremolo” technique, which involves rapidly playing one note or alternating between two or more.
In the 19th century, women were often shunned for playing the piano in public, but there were a few exceptions. Parisian Marie Moke Pleyel (1811 – 1875) performed in Europe and Russia and impressed both Liszt and Chopin. And Clara Wieck Schumann, who began playing piano at the age of nine, only made an even bigger name for herself upon marrying German composer Robert Schumann, performing his works.
Despite not being allowed to publicly perform, however, women were expected to know how to play the piano at home and teach their children how to play as well. As a result, many American women made careers out of becoming piano instructors. In Germany and Australia, pianos were even built into sewing tables, allowing women to conveniently practice both “womanly” tasks. Pianos were made in different shapes and sizes around the world to accommodate different middle-class homes, often appearing square-shaped in America and curvier in Germany and Austria.
With the Industrial Revolution came the birth of piano factories, which eliminated handmade pianos and adopted a more standard design for the instrument. Many of these companies still operate today, such as Bechstein and Boston’s Chickering & Sons, which was America’s leading piano maker in the 1850s. Another manufacturer, Steinway & Sons, used creative techniques to prosper, such as sponsoring piano tours, building concert halls and actually creating a town for its employees, providing homes, education and religious services.
Taking piano lessons was a popular past time in the late 1800s and early 20th century, especially among children. Serious students often went on to study abroad in Europe and actively participate in community recitals and church choirs. Piano prices dropped so the instrument could be afforded by nearly any family, and piano and sheet music sales prospered with traveling salesmen and the option of ordering through the mail. In the 1930s, however, the Great Depression arose, and piano sales decreased dramatically. Piano companies even began to manufacture gliders and coffins just to stay in business.
African Americans in the 1900s came up with their own styles of playing the piano, first ragtime and then jazz, which also induced new dances. Famous artists such as Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Mary Lou Williams emerged to shape the new music movement. Pianos were also incorporated in gospels to invoke religious feelings and inspire music participation.
Player pianos, pianos that play songs on their own, only requiring an individual to pump the pedals, developed in the early 1900s, allowing families to sing along with piano tunes. Player pianos actually outsold normal pianos until the Great Depression, but as technology increased with movies and the radio, the player piano was able to keep the piano alive.
Piano manufacturing took over in Asia, where companies such as Yamaha in Japan became leading producers. Asian inventors prospered after World War II, when musicians turned to their electronic keyboards. Today, pianos have also gone digital, using computer software to compose and perform songs.
With over 300 years of history, the piano has survived longer than most instruments that exist today. It remains to be a popular instrument, still played by musicians as just as it has for the past three centuries.
- Hoover, Cynthia Adams, Patrick Rucker, and Edwin Good. Piano 300 Celebrating Three Centures of People and Pianos. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution and NAMM-International Music Products Association, 2001.