Since the beginning of time, music has been an integral part of human life. This statement is supported by archaeological evidence which indicate that music creation through musical instruments was part of human life even as early as 50,000 years before our birth on the planet! For us, Greeks, this should not sound like news since both mythological and historical references of our ancient ancestors support one such statement.
The first appearance of a stringed instrument (stick zither) was made during the Paleolithic period, and in fact this was nothing more than a hollow reed with a thread tied on the edges. Under certain circumstances (intensity, caliber, etc) this instrument could produce sound!
The stick zither was essentially the predecessor of all stringed instruments, including the piano! Huge role in this process was played by the ancient Greek civilization and even to this day the theories set by Pythagoras are being followed. The main feature of the piano family – the keyboard – makes its appearance much later, namely around the 14th century. The first clavier instrument was the clavichord; an instrument with very thin, weak sound, thus limiting its use in smaller areas. A couple of centuries later the next instrument of this kind made its appearance: the harpsichord. The oldest instrument of its kind that survives today is exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and was manufactured in 1521. Clearly improved compared to the clavichord, the harpsichord still carried certain weaknesses with the most apparent perhaps the player’s inability to “color” his music.
These weaknesses would be overcome with the piano! The first piano was built in 1709 by Italian musical instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (1635-1731) of Florence. Cristofori experimented with the replacement of the harpsichord’s pincers by hammers since 1690 and the fact that the first sample appeared almost 20 years later can only mean that the idea went through several steps of processing and developing. Cristofori created an instrument with a clearly improved mechanism; the most important element of which it was the use of hammers for the production of the sound, thus allowing the musician to color the piece since he could now determine just how loud or soft the sound would be by the force applied on the key! Cristofori named his invention Gravicembalo col Piano e Forte which simply means: harpsichord with soft and loud! Due to its new features, Cristofori’s invention was immediately called Pianoforte, until the first part of the word prevailed over the other and became known simply as… piano!
Before 1720 Cristofori improved the instrument significantly, with the most important perhaps of his improvements being the addition of pedals. Until his death in 1731, Cristofori built 20 pianos but only three survive today and are exhibited in museums in New York, Leipzig and Rome. His invention was well received and many were the instrument makers who adopted his ideas and fought to further develop the new mechanism. Composers wrote music, taking full advantage of the unlimited potentials of the new instrument. The first works written especially for the piano were published in 1732. They were 12 sonatas by 47-year-old Italian Lodovigo Giustini under the name “Sonati di cembalo di piano e forte”. They were reprinted in 1736 by a major publishing house in the Netherlands, but of the original copies of 1732, only three survive today.
The 19th century was particularly important in the evolution of the piano. The instrument’s range was increased (Broadwood), the time the hammer needed to return to its original position was reduced (Erard), the material covering the hammers was improved (Henri Pape), the upright piano was created and the iron framework for holding the strings made its appearance, bringing the string pressure up to 30 tones and enhancing even further the sound of the instrument (John Isaac Hawkins).
Even though Cristofori delivered an excellent instrument which little has changed over time (at least as far as the shape and action concept is concerned), the modern piano has nothing much in common with the petite structure of the Italian manufacturer. The modern piano’s unlimited sound potential, its power and yet its sensitivity, its large range of over seven octaves which no other instrument can match, classify it as the most important of all musical instruments built by man!