In 1698 the world was changed forever: Bartolomeo Christofori invented the fortepiano. It was totally unlike the two keyboard concert instruments in use at the time. The pipe organ is actually a wind instrument and despite its size and multiple keyboards is closely related to the flute. The harpsichord is a plucked string instrument and although the action is initiated by the performer’s use of a keyboard the strings are plucked similar to an acoustic classical guitar or a harp.
Cristofori envisioned the fortepiano as a tuned percussion instrument, much like timpani. Using the same string system as the harpsichord, he devised an integrated system of felt covered hammers and dampers. The hammers hit the strings and the dampers controlled the length of the tone. All keyboard instruments allow the performer to play several notes simultaneously, the pianoforte now had the added advantage of control over those notes. They could be long and sustained, smoothly legato or detached, loud or soft and everything in between. This is how the name came about: forte (loud), piano (soft). The only thing comparable to this new instrument was an orchestra.
Classical era composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven took full advantage of the possibilities of the new instrument composing solo works, concertos, chamber works and on and on. Suddenly the forte piano was everywhere.
A cast iron frame replaced the original wooden one providing a more resonant sound, more bass notes were added and the name changed to “pianoforte”. As concert grands became larger, the piano was also redesigned as an inexpensive space saver “upright”. The frame was vertical instead of horizontal and the universal household instrument was born.
In the time before radio, television, recording, internet and streaming, the piano was the family entertainment centre. Virtually any form of music could be transcribed for piano. It is a solo instrument as well as an accompanying instrument and user-friendly for amateurs. Pianos became ubiquitous. Anywhere there was a gathering of people, there was a piano and someone who could play it. It was the epitome of a chamber music instrument and under the hands of a virtuoso, a brilliant concert instrument.
Technology has changed a lot about music in recent years and the piano in many homes has been replaced by computers. But try to imagine a world without Beethoven piano sonatas, the entire output of Chopin, piano music of Rachmaninoff, even Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joel, Elton John and on and on.
Bartolomeo Cristofori's amazing invention has influenced us all.