History of the Grand Piano – From Ancient Sumer to Today

Posted by & filed under blog.

Invented around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the piano has a rich history of predecessors from which it evolved dating all the way back to Ancient Sumer and, according to some, Pythagoras.

From Ancient History to the Modern Grand Piano

MIM String Instruments 200x300 - History of the Grand Piano - From Ancient Sumer to Today

Considered in its simplest form, a piano is a vibrating string stretched over a reverberating medium. If we follow that concept all the way back through history we arrive in Ancient Sumer, where writings describe the monochord, or a single string stretched over a resonance box. In his mathematical studies Pythagoras, according to some historians, Pythagoras used this design to develop his theory of Pythagorean

tuning. Thissimple design has popped up all throughout history as the Gugin in China, the Koto in Japan, the Veena in India, and the Dan Bay in ancient Vietnam. These stringed instruments culminated in the Clavichord sometime in the 1300’s, widely considered the grandfather of all keyboard instruments.

The Clavichord – Not Quite a Grand Piano

1920px Hillclavichord 300x200 - History of the Grand Piano - From Ancient Sumer to TodayUnique among all keyboard instruments, the keypress of the Clavichord used a key driven strike of the vibrating strings to produce the sound, but also the duration and pitch of the sound, as well as the hammer action allowing for variation in volume and tone depending on how hard one hit the keys. It was extremely low volume however, relegating its use to private shows, often at dinner parties or small high-society gatherings. Nevertheless, it remained a popular instrument through the Renaissance and Classical eras. Unlike the modern piano the strings run orthogonal to the keys.

The Harpsichord – Getting Closer

Historians credit the advances made in clockwork machinery for the development of the Harpsichord. Instead of a strike, the Harpsichord plucks each individual string with its action, a very precise mechanism for its time. Also important for its invention was the knowledge gleaned from pipe organs and harps form the time. Like the clavichord, the note is produced only for the duration that the key is pressed. Unlike the clavichord, the harpsichord keys on keyboard runs in parallel to the direction of the strings, a key development on our journey to the piano.

Smaller versions of the harpsichord, called a spinet or virginal were invented, in an attempt to provide keyboardists with an instrument with the expressional latitude of the more refined string instruments like the violin, and while these variations on the harpsichord produced more variety, it wasn’t until around 1690 and at the behest of Ferdinando de’Medici – of the Medici family and lover of the harpsichord, commissioned established instrument builder Bartolomeo Cristofori to build an instrument to match the violins of the day. Cristofori answered this call with he gravicembalo col piano e forte – the harpsichord that plays loud and soft – and was eventually shortened to just Piano from the italian term pianoforte. Christofori’s piano suffered from the same damper issues as the clavichord in that the notes sustained only as long as you held down the key, but it offered a much louder capability over the clavichord while retaining the ability to have notes played at different volumes depending on the strength of the key presses.

The Early Piano

Pianoforte Cristofori 1720 300x201 - History of the Grand Piano - From Ancient Sumer to TodayDespite an appearance and construction very similar to modern day grand pianos, Cristofori’s instrument labored in relative obscurity until an Italian writer by the name o Scipione Maffei wrote an article heavily endorsing the instrument. Translated into many languages and distributed widely, the article contained thorough descriptions of the functions of the piano, including illustrations of the action of the keys. This article inspired the next generation of grand piano builders, who largely based their work on the descriptions in the article. One notable builder was the German organ builder Gottfried Silbermann, who, while making a near direct copy of Cristofori’s piano, made one very important advancement in that he included an early version of the modern sustain pedal, which allowed for the dampers to all be lifted simultaneously and the note to sustain after the player’s finger had left the key.

Silbermann brought his piano to Johanne Sebastian Bach, who disliked the instrument initially, citing the instruments quiet higher registers, claiming that this did not allow for a full dynamic range. Silbermann listened, bringing Bach a different version in 1747, who then sold the pianos on Silbermann’s behalf. His sales pitch included the line “Instrument: piano et forte genandt” touting the instruments ability within the dynamic range of volume and tones.

Piano manufacture exploded in Vienna, Switzerland in the late 1700’s, including developments such as leather covered hammers, multiple strings per note, and modern style wooden frames. Interestingly, many of these pianos had an inverted color scheme, where the natural keys were black and the sharp and flat keys white. Woflgang Amdeus Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas on such instruments.

The Modern Grand Piano – The Piano As We Know It

Fueled by the ongoing Industrial Revolution, the piano underwent significant evolution between 1800 to 1860, largely driven by composers and pianists wanting a louder and more sustained note. Two scots, John Broadwood and Robert Stodart and the Dutch Americas Backers set out to design a piano in a harpsichord case, and thus the modern grand piano was born in 1777, further developing their design and adding octaves, up to seven by 1820. This firm sent pianos to Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Haydn. Beethoven especially took advantage of the larger register, using the broader range of notes in his later works.

In 1859, Steinway patented the use of over stringing in their grand pianos, which is having strings for bass notes  and treble notes placed at differing heights on their bridges, allowing for a much more narrow nose, and the shape of the grand piano that we know today. This era also saw huge developments in piano wire, competing firms holding play-offs, and ultimately leading to the modern piano wire.  Read more about what goes on inside a grand piano here.

The piano world saw the introduction of the upright pianos, or giraffe pianos as they were sometimes called, in the early 1800’s.

Buying a Grand Piano

We’ve got an enormous stock of new and used grand pianos, from baby grand pianos for sale all the way to the huge concert grand pianos. We’re proud to provide excellent service from tuning and maintenance to piano moving services. If you have any questions or want to buy a grand piano please give us a call at (770) 717 8047 and we will be more than happy to provide you with whatever you need. Come check out our packed showroom or warehouse where we have a huge selection of used grand pianos as well as options for new grand pianos for sale and beautiful out of the box upright pianos.

Comments are closed.