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Music History

A Brief History of The Piano

March 14, 2024

The piano is a musical instrument that makes sound when the pianist presses black and white keys, which are connected to felt-covered hammers that strike strings inside the instrument. Beneath the strings is a soundboard that amplifies the sound and impacts the tone quality. Pianos have 88 keys with a range of 7 octaves.

Before The Piano

Hammered Dulcimer Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hammered Dulcimer

Originating in the Middle East in approximately 900 A.D., the hammered dulcimer was the first instrument to use strings, a soundboard, and hammers to produce sound. Instead of using keys, musicians manually struck the strings of this tabletop instrument with hand-held hammers. This instrument remained popular throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe.

Clavichord Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Clavichord

The clavichord is a small and quiet tabletop instrument made for personal use and intimate performances. Due to the lack of sound projection, this instrument wasn’t ideal for large audiences. The clavichord was introduced in the 14th century and unlike the hammered dulcimer before it, the clavichord featured a keyboard. These keys are connected to blades called tangents that would strike the strings to create sound.

Harpsichord Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harpsichord

The harpsichord uses a keyboard attached to jacks that lift to pluck the strings much like a musician would pluck the strings of a guitar or other string instruments. This instrument rose to prominence during the Renaissance. While the harpsichord is much louder than the clavichord, the volume is uniform, so cannot be adjusted softer or louder based on force.

Pianoforte Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The First Pianoforte

Bartolomeo Cristofori, a renowned harpsichord maker, is often credited as the inventor of the first piano, also known as the pianoforte, in approximately 1709. In his time, it was called gravicembalo col piano e forte, or “harpsichord that plays soft and loud.” This title refers to the pressure a musician can apply to the keys to affect the volume.

Three Notable Piano Solo Compositions 

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722 & 1742)

This two-book collection of 48 preludes and fugues for the keyboard was written to showcase the possibilities of a system of notes with a particular intonation. Before this, keyboards were typically tuned to favor certain harmonies. That said, these compositions aren’t merely exercises, but explore an astonishing array of musical ideas in all 24 major and minor keys.

Learn more about Bach

Beethoven:  Sonata for Piano No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight Sonata” (1801)

Beethoven dedicated this sonata to his student Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, with whom he shared a romantic history. Although this composition is a sonata, it was styled after the improvisational nature of a fantasia. The name “Moonlight Sonata” comes from German poet, Ludwig Rellstab who claimed the first movement reminded him of a boat on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, in the moonlight.

Debussy: Clair de Lune from Suite Bergamasque (1905)

The third movement of Suite Bergamasque was inspired by the poem Clair de lune, written by French poet Paul Verlaine in 1869. The term Bergamasque refers to the city of Bergamo which is in the foothills of the Italian Alps. This work has thematic connections to commedia dell’arte’sHarlequin because Bergamo is considered her home.

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