Cristofori's "gravicembalo col piano e forte" was designed after the pattern and usage of the harpsichord to meet the demands of the ever more technical keyboard literature. Many developments by many independent builders and design engineers since 1700 resulted in a wide variety of cabinet styles, ton e s , and touch characteristics . Many combinations were rejected through the years, so that the "modern piano" is the result of a natural selection of the most popular features to date, and is still changing.
The pianoforte did not attract much attention in the early 1700's. Builders simplified the action for ease of manufacture , eliminating the escapement and the check, the two features most essential to good control over dynamics and articulation. The pianoforte was simply grouped with other keyboard novelties of the day and few were made. In the 1760's and 1770s more significant advancements began to appear on the scene. For example, Johann Andreas Stein of Vienna included an escapement on his piano that pleased Mozart in 1777. Johann Christian Bach was the first to perform in public on the pianoforte in England. His promotion of the small, "square" pianos of Johannes Zumpe made th em fashionable. By the late 1770's, hundreds of the Zumpe-style pianos were being made each year by various s builders in England. It was a small, rectangular Instrument with a simple action without escapement or check. The sound was louder and brighter than a clavichord and more capable of musical expressiveness than a spinet (small harpsichords popular at that time).
By the late 1700's, John Broadwood and Company had made many improvements by taking a scientific approach to design. Broadwood's "grand" piano action had escapement and check.
His scale was engineered by a scientist for proper string length, composition, and striking point of the hammer. The large, harpsichord shaped case was sturdy, and concern was given to the balance of string tension. At that time, some manufacturers began to build various types of upright pianos. A number of devices for sustaining or altering the tone were added. Several dozen manufacturers In London were producing less than 40 pianos per year each by 1800. In contrast, Broadwood, with a factory employing 300 technician, was then making 400 pianos per year.
Between 1791 and 1815, 135 keyboard instrument builders are listed in Vienna, and many changes were being made in the piano. Key color changed to white with black sharps, having previously been the reverse. Cases became heavier as longer, thicker, higher tension strings were used with large hammers. By 1820 the typical Viennese grand piano was nearly 2.5 meters long, with a range of 6 or 6 1/2 octaves, and had two to six pedals each activating some devise to alter the tone of the instrument.
Around 1800, iron bracing began to be used to strengthen the frame the which allowed the use of heavier hammers on thicker, higher tension strings. Many types of hammer coverings were tried to replace the harsh toned leather covered style of early days . By the middle of the 19th Century, felt over wood became the norm for hammers. Improved actions were more complex for grands and included a sticker or stick reaching up from the end of the key to operate the upright pianos, which at that time were more like awkward, upended grands.
In the early 1800s a smaller upright "cottage piano' and a larger 'square piano' were developed for the popular market. Large numbers of there were sold In England and France to those who could not afford a satisfactory musical instrument but were enthused by the piano's charm and appeal.
America began receiving pianos in the 1770's. The first built was in 1775 by Johann Behrent in Philadelphia. The first American piano patent was applied for In 1796. The first U.S. born piano manufacturer was Jonas Chickering. He started his firm in 1823 and became successful and innovative In piano design. His full cast iron plate for the grand made possible more advances In string tension and a resultant big piano sound. Heinrich Steinweg immigrated to New York from Germany in 1853. The Steinway and Sons piano company that he developed made significant improvements in reliability and resilience.
In the 1860s, Steinway applied the new piano technology to the uprights, opening a new era of piano manufacture. Specialty houses began to supply standardized parts to manufacturers. Expensive, technical procedures were replaced by efficient assembly line techniques. Quality pianos could then be built by every size of manufacturing firm. Traditional European builders resisted these changes and American manufacturers, after the Steinway model, took the lead in world trade. Square grands consisted of 90% of the U.S. market in the 1860's, but were almost entirely replaced by grands and especially the uprights by the 189O's.
Most pianos built after 1900, and many of the pianos of the 1890's and 1880's reflect modern technology, style, and performance. They are similar to the modern piano of today in most respects. Reblitz (1974, p.l) divides pianos into three chronological periods: 1700-1830 "antique", 1850-1900 "Victorian", and 1900 to now "modern". These demarcations generally are characterized by the style of cabinetry as well as the maturity of the action design and quality of the tone production of each period. That the piano has been popular can be exemplified by the fact that over 5000 different brands have been produced (Reblitz, 1965).
The 19th Century was also an age of innovation, trial, and error in piano design. Every style and combination imaginable was attempted, including building into the piano a harpsichord, an organ, or harmonium, disguising the piano as some other type of furniture, or installing innumerable devises to alter the tone. One Interesting experimental category is the "Sostente Pianos", referring to the attempt to make a sustained sound like the organ or the violin. Methods attempted include:
Endless bows . A bow that revolves continually is pressed against the string on demand. A few of the many examples include: Clavecin-Vielle, Paris, 1708; Lyrichord, Plenius, 1741; Bogenhammerklavier, Grenier, 1779; Claviola, U.S.A., 1802; and many others through 1892.
Compressed Air. After the hammer Is struck, the string continues to vibrate by a jet of compressed air: Anemocorde, Paris, 1789, others through 1871.
Transmitted Vibrations. An elastic body like music wire will vibrate if a rod connected to it is rubbed: Harmonichord, Dresden, 1809 (a rotating drum touching the strings); Coelison, Bohemia, 1821 (keys attached directly to the strings) and others.
Quick and Repeated Movement of the Hammers. Included optional attachments that used a mechanical device to have the hammers, or smaller auxiliary hammers or strips of cloth or leather make repeated strokes against the string: Piano tremolopone , Paris, 1844; Melopiano, 1873 Armonipiano, France; and others.
The Combination of Hammer Striking the String and Free Vibrating Reeds. Piano a prolongement; Piano Scande, Paris, 1853; Piano a sons soutenus, and others.
Electronic Principle. Electrochord, Bohemia, Forster Co., 1932; Electronic Piano, Phillips Co, 1958 (no strings, no hammers , no sound board). Electronic instruments with piano like touch and tone have become very popular In the 1980's.
In the 1890's, the "reproducing pianos" started to gain popularity. The earliest type of player was a device that was pushed in front of the piano. While the operator pumped the foot treadles, the player mechanism played on the keys with wooden "fingers". In the early 1900's manufacturers began Installing player mechanisms inside the large upright t and the grand pianos. By 1904, mechanisms and rolls were developed that more effectively reproduced the special nuances of the performer. One such, the Welte-Mignon (Germany) was available in 115 brands of pianos. Many famous artists made piano roll recordings, most of which are still available today. The popularity of reproducing pianos reached its peak In the early 1920's. After The Depression, sales never recovered due to alternatives to reproduced music that were less cumbersome and expensive, such as the gramophone and the radio. Player pianos are still manufactured today In many styles, both old fashioned and modern, large and small Some play the old style paper rolls, others use electronic media such as tape or disk.
In an effort to recover from the devastation of the Great Depression, manufacturers who remained created new styles to stimulate interest. Like the markets of the 18th Century, the mid-20th Century emphasis had to be on economy rather than quality, and appearance rather than performance. Thus, the great number In the 1930's and 1940's of varying styles of small pianos such as the "baby grand" (small horizontal piano). Click to view grand styles made currently by Bösendorfer in Vienna.
Comprehensive bibliography by Edward Swenson
History of the Piano Action by William White
Go to beginning of Piano History