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Brief history of the piano

Thanks to its great harmonic range and its polyphonic properties, the piano is an instrument that is an indispensable part of today's musical life. No other instrument gives a single musician so many possibilities of expression, and it is therefore no wonder that, since the invention of the piano, a large part of compositional work has concentrated on literature for the piano.

The essential components of a piano are hammers and strings that were adopted from the dulcimer, as well as a keyboard, through which the hammers can be set in motion, and which is derived from the harpsichord and the clavichord. In contrast to the harpsichord and clavichord, however, the hammer mechanism of the piano enables the pianist to play the desired notes loudly or softly by pressing the keys more or less. The piano owes its name to this fact: the world's first piano, built in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker from Florence, was named by its inventor "gravicembalo col pian e forte" ("harpsichord with loud and quiet"). In some languages ​​the term "pianoforte" has survived to this day, in others it has been shortened to "piano".

Forerunner of the piano

The strings of a stringed instrument can be made to vibrate in three different ways: they can be plucked, bowed or hit. The prototype of an instrument in which the strings are struck is the dulcimer. It was already known in antiquity and can still be found today in different cultures and in different forms. For example, it plays a major role in Tyrolean folk music. Around the 14th century - with reference to the already well-advanced development of the organ - the idea of ​​replacing the strumming of the strings by hand with mechanical operation via keyboard came up. This resulted in the first real forerunner of the piano, the manichord or clavichord (there is disagreement about the contemporary naming of the first pianos, the name "clavichord" first appeared in literature in 1484).

Although a direct development from the clavichord to the piano would have been technically conceivable, the history of the instrument has followed other paths: Instead of further developing the attack mechanism, piano makers began to think about the principle of plucked strings from the beginning of the 16th century and developed one amazing range of keyboard instruments, especially the spinet and the harpsichord. However, a decisive step in the history of the piano goes back to this epoch, namely the development of the characteristic grand piano shape, which later gave its name to one of today's piano models. And at the very end of the development of the harpsichord, at the end of the 18th century, the "upright clavecymbel" appeared, which can be seen as the forerunner of the modern pianino.

Invention of the hammer piano

The greatest disadvantage of the harpsichord family was that a dynamic way of playing was not available to the harpsichord player due to the lack of the ability to play notes at different levels of volume and volume. Interestingly, this handicap was initially circumvented by instructions from the composer to the musicians, at which points they should give the playing a certain "expression" through which posture and facial expressions. Later, with the advancement of technology in harpsichord construction, various forms of pedals and levers were available, through which the mechanism could be moved more or less strongly, and which finally enabled up to eight levels of loud and quiet.

In order to achieve the goal of infinitely variable volume control by the pianist, a complete departure from the principle of the plucked strings had to be made and a step back to the hammer action of the clavichord had to be taken. This happened - independently of one another - in different countries. In the German-speaking world, Christoph-Gottlieb Schröter, who presented such an instrument in Dresden in 1721, is considered to be the inventor of the hammer piano, five years after Marius in Paris (1716) and twelve years after the aforementioned Cristofori in Florence (1709). However, the first attempts were by no means crowned with success: Most composers refused to use the new instrument, and, according to Beethoven, Mozart still had the typical way of playing a harpsichordist, even when he played the piano.

Nevertheless, the fortepiano was so well established in Italy by 1770 that, according to travel reports from British travelers, it was difficult to find a harpsichord at all. In France, the "ancien régime" with its tendency to be conservative ensured a longer lifespan for the harpsichord. It was not until the revolution of 1789 that it literally swept away. Unfortunately, the numerous old harpsichords that were available were not suitable for technical retrofitting, they were therefore largely destroyed in order to be able to reuse the decorative elements of the case, or in part even used for heating purposes, as was the case with the most extensive in 1816 At that time preserved harpsichord collection happened in the Paris Conservatory.

Today's piano models

Although there are still serious differences between different piano makers with regard to the techniques used in piano making, the currently widespread piano models can be summarized in two large groups: grand pianos and pianinos. The differences between the two models are explained in more detail on the Piano Models page.

Piano tuning and piano repairs

Via Piano tuningscom you can quickly and easily arrange appointments for piano tunings in and around Vienna as well as viewing appointments for piano repairs with our team of professional piano makers at the Watzek piano workshop. If you are interested in our services, you can reach us by phone +43 6991 148 17 19 or by email at