Brief History of Pianos
The Early Keyboard Instruments: Harpsichord and Clavichord
Prior to the construction of the piano, the harpsichord was the primary keyboard instrument from about 1600. However, the first mention of the harpsichord dates back to the end of the 14thCentury. The harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked by a crow-quill plectrum mounted on the end of the key. The shape of the harpsichord varies and can appear similar to a modern spinet piano or a grand. Although harpsichords were popular for centuries and used by many of the great early composers like Bach, they possessed a major disadvantage-they were unable to make changes in expression with changes in the player’s touch.
The clavichord is the simplest and one of the smallest keyboard instruments whose sound is produced by strings. It is clear from both pictures and writings that clavichords, similar to surviving examples, were in existence in the early years of the 15th century. The clavichord was used throughout Western Europe during the Renaissance and in Germany until the early 19th century, but for most of its long history was primarily valued as an instrument on which to learn, to practice and occasionally to compose. Depressing the key causes a thin piece of metal (the tangent) to rise and strike the string. The tangent also acts as a fret, and the note sounds until the key is released. This simple mechanism allows the player to have control over the volume and release of the tone.
The First Pianoforte
About 1709, the Italian Harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori built the world’s first piano called the piano et forte (or soft and loud). Shortly after, others built pianofortes with hammer actions based on Cristofori’s work. Progressively, the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord and clavichord because it offered options previously unavailable with the earlier keyboard instruments. The fortepiano is a hammer-string instrument having the capacity to make nuances primarily through the use of soft or loud playing. It was about 1850 that the “fortepiano” word was replaced with the “piano” word. In the early 1700’s, the piano did not attract much attention or support. J.S. Bach is reported to have preferred the clavichord, which he was accustomed to playing and which offered an easier touch.
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