#12: A Grand Piano was not always Grand!

Loads of thick books on the history of the piano have been written. Here is a short version!

Cristofori and the world’s first pianos

Around 1720, the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) invented the ’gravicembalo col piano e forte’ – harpsichord with soft and loud. By replacing the plectra of the harpsichord with small hammers (thus the German name Hammerklavier), he got the desired effect of gradual dynamics: A stronger touch produced a loud tone, and a softer touch a softer tone. Cristofori is thus regarded the inventor of the piano.

Bartolomeo Cristofori

One of the pianos made by Cristofori around 1720, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum, New York:

Developing Cristofori’s invention

But not everyone was happy. The critics meant that the ’forte’ of Cristofori’s piano was not loud enough…. And ever since, piano manufactures have done their uttermost to meet the demand of more volume in the never-ending flow of new piano models. 

The aesthetic desire of regulating volume and grades of expression, drove the development of Cristofori’s new invention. Instrument makers in Germany, France and England raced to create piano models that would be both durable, stable, reliable and loud enough to play in ensembles.

This is an exciting period that definitely deserves another blog post! But in this short version, I’ll stop here.

The Viennese fortepiano of the late 18th century

Gradually, the fortepiano was preferred over the harpsichord as the main keyboard instrument. By the end of Mozart’s life, the fortepiano grands were already considerably louder.

In an earlier post, I talked about some pianos suitable for Mozart’s music. Here is the fortepiano previously owned by Mozart, purchased from the maker Anton Walter in Vienna in 1782:

Mozart’s fortepiano by A. Walter. (Photo from wikipedia).

The construction, however, still consisted of an entirely wooden case similar to that of the harpsichord. Two ‘pedals’ operated with the knees are thus called knee levers – one works just like a standard right pedal of a modern piano, lifting the dampers, and one gives a softer tone by supplying a layer of felt (‘moderator’) between the hammers and the strings.

The strings of these early pianos are much thinner than those of a modern piano, and a fortepiano is always straight-strung like on a harp (the bass strings are not crossed over the middle strings as in a modern piano – this is clearly visible both in the Cristofori above and the Thÿm piano below).

Then, there is the compass – the sheer number of available keys. Until the 1790s, the maximum compass was five octaves, which is the reason that Mozart’s music never exceeds f3!

The Viennese fortepiano in the early 19th century

From around 1800, the pianos got larger and the compass grew almost constantly. Several piano builders even included special effects like ‘bassoon’, ‘percussion’ (or Janitscharenzug) and different moderators operated by seven pedals at the most!

Here is one astonishing example, built by a. M Thÿm in Vienna around 1815 – with seven pedals and exotic-colonial carvings and paintings!

The Oriental fashion influenced even the piano

(A. M. Thÿm, ca. 1815; National Music Museum,
University of South Dakota).

Here is even a demonstration of this piano being played:

Beethoven, however, meant that this was rubbish and ordered a plain Graf model with 3 pedals only. It looked quite like this one:

A beautiful fortepiano in Montepulciano, Italy, built by Conrad Graf in Vienna in 1826.

Period pianos in England

Then, there are the English pianos. The action of the early English piano is different from the German/Viennese one. The Viennese pianos produce a short, clear tone, while the English pianos have more sonority – it is all about taste! The Italian Muzio Clementi (1752–1832) moved to England and excelled as a pianist,composer and piano builder. In addition to grand pianos, he also made square pianos, which may double as coffee tables when closed! In an earlier blog, I wrote more about a square piano by Clementi.

Square piano by Clementi, c. 1802.

In 1783, another Englishman, Broadwood, introduces the pedals. The placing, however, looks somewhat funny….but at least, the pedals on the floor are a fact. From now on, pianists could make music with their feet, not only their hands!

Broadwood Grand Piano, 1794. National Museum of American History, MI*303530.

What about France?

The two most important piano builders in France were Erard and Pleyel. France had depended heavily on pianos imported from England, which explains why the French action was basically identical to the English action before Sebastian Erard patented his invention the ’double escapement’ in 1821.

‘Double escapement’ improves the repetition of the keys and is still used in modern pianos today. This became crucial when the pianos ‘outgrew’ the light, Viennese action that works just perfect on small fortepianos. Erard founded piano factories both in France and England, and one could say that the modern grand piano is a further development of the English piano with Erard’s double escapement.

Pleyel grand piano, 1842. (Edwin Beunk collection).

 The fortepiano in 1790 vs. the modern concert grand – a comparison:

A fortepiano (Walter, ca. 1790):  

– 63 keys

– Total length: 222 cm

– Weight: ca 85 kg

– The hammers are covered by  thin layers of leather                    

– string tension: 950 kg

Johann Andreas Stein’s ‘German action’, common in Viennese fortepianos.

A modern grand

(Steinway D):

– 88 keys

– Total length: 274 cm

– Weight:  480 kg

– The hammers are covered by 8,39 kg wool       

– String tension:  20418 kg

This was a very short version! Hope you enjoyed it! Let me know if you’ll like a longer version one day 🙂

Share it with your piano students, if you like! And please follow my blog if you want to read more about the history of pianos and piano playing!

Christina Kobb, 30 June 2023 (revised from earlier paper versions)

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