The piano is a staple of modern music practice, and can be found virtually anywhere that music is played, from living rooms to orchestra halls around the world, in many genres. But what is the origin of the piano? Phil Edwards, writing for Vox on the topic, says “When you do think about someone actually inventing it, it’s hard not to wonder: why haven’t I heard of this person before?”
Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padua, Republic of Venice in 1655, was a talented inventor and craftsman. Cristofori’s early life is a bit of a mystery, but records of his work begin in 1688, when he was recruited by Prince Ferdinando de Medici to maintain musical instruments for the court in Florence. Aside from his work tuning and repairing existing instruments, he was given access to materials and tools that would enable him to experiment with new designs. From this tinkering was born Cristofori’s most famous invention, the pianoforte.
To understand the impact of the pianoforte on musical practice, it is important to understand the instrument that it would come to replace. The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that is superficially similar to a piano – it has black and white keys and a wood case full of strings that produce the sound. The major difference lies in how the strings are struck. Harpsichord keys are attached to a mechanism called a plectrum, similar to a modern guitar pick, which pluck each string when a key is pressed. Plectrums were effective because they could create a crisp, loud tone that was always the same volume. Cristofori replaced the plectrum with a device called a hammer, which strikes the string instead of plucking it. Hammers enable the instrument to respond to variable levels of pressure applied to the keys, creating loud and soft sounds in the process. This dynamic response is what gives the pianoforte its name, since in Italian piano means soft, and forte means loud. Although the pianoforte’s spread throughout Europe was initially slow, musicians were quick to recognize its significance. Within a century the most prominent composers and performers on the continent were regularly composing with and for the pianoforte.
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