1500s and 1600s
Forerunners of the piano include instruments such as the monochord, hammer dulcimer, clavichord, virginal, and finally the harpsichord. The harpsichord is very common in these centuries. J. S. Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers write music for the harpsichord.
The earliest “pianoforte” is invented by Italian composer Bartolomeo Cristofori. It is similar to the harpsichord, except that it uses hammers to strike the strings instead of plectra to pluck the strings of a harpsichord. This enables the sounds produced to be “piano” (soft) or “forte” (loud), thus the name, which eventually is shortened to piano.
Cristofori adds dampers, or escapement mechanisms to quiet or “damp” the strings after being struck, creating a clearer, cleaner sound.
Johannes Zumpe creates the square piano in London. This is created as a smaller and less expensive version of the grand piano. The first piano concerto may have been composed for this instrument.
The giraffe piano is invented. This is an attempt to have vertical strings to resonate.
Jonas Chickering is granted the first patent in for a metal frame, which allows for heavier strings and a stronger tone.
Steinway & Sons is founded by German immigrant Henry Engelhard Steinway, a master cabinet maker who built his first piano in the kitchen of his Seesen, Germany home. The first piano produced by the company, number 483, was sold to a New York family for $500.
The Steinway company creates a cross-stringing mechanism so that there will be greater vibration of the strings, and to save some space in the design of the piano without sacrificing sound.
Upright pianos come into fashion in the United States, replacing the square piano as the primary instrument in the home.
Throughout the 19th century, additional improvements are made to the frame, soundboard, hammers, keys, and strings of the piano. By about 1880, the instrument reaches a point where it no longer needed any major changes. It has remained basically the same for over 100 years.
Periods and Players
Baroque Period (1600 – 1750)
During this period, the piano was invented. Composers struggled to determine how to compose for this new, very different keyboard instrument.
J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750), often called “the Father of Modern Music,” wrote some music for the piano, but was partial to the pipe organ and harpsichord. His Well-Tempered Clavier was composed to show off the equal temperament of the piano. He was one of the first composers to write concerti for piano and orchestra.
George Frederick Handel (1685 – 1759) wrote keyboard pieces for the piano as well as the harpsichord.
Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1787) wrote many works for the piano and loved to use special techniques like hand-crossings, wide leaps, and repeated note figures.
Other events of the Baroque period: Jamestown Colony settled; arrival of Pilgrims at Plymouth; Dutch purchase of Manhattan; publication of King James version of the Bible.
Inventions during the period: paper money, the game of tennis, the telescope, and the mailbox
Other famous folks of this time: Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Rembrandt.
Other important instruments: trumpet, violin, viola, cello, oboe, wood flute, pipe organ, harpsichord, and clavichord.
Classical Period (1750 – 1825)
By the time of the Classical period, the harpsichord had become virtually extinct, replaced by the piano. Piano compositions still called for much precision and “cleanness” like those for harpsichord, without a great deal of pedal use. The piano, still made from wood, did not have the strength and power of our modern instrument. All three of the Classical composers below wrote piano concerti as well as solo piano repertoire.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) wrote exclusively for the piano. Known for his symphonic writing and experimentation, Haydn composed piano concerti as well as solo sonatas.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) wrote many sonatas for piano, as well as piano concerti with orchestra. Beethoven said that Mozart “taught the instruments to sing.” Mozart’s piano music has beautiful lyrical melodies. He also loved composing variations on both new and existing themes.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote 32 very famous piano sonatas and five piano concerti. He brought a new passion to the piano and demanded more volume and drama from the instrument. He anticipated the Romantic period of piano technique and passion.
Events during the Classical period: signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence; American and French Revolutions; Lewis and Clark expedition.
Inventions during the period: steamboats, railroad locomotives, bicycles, the encyclopedia, the sewing machine, and the sandwich
Musical developments: introduction of the clarinet; opera, string quartets, and symphony orchestras are popular; Vienna is a music center.
Romantic Period (1825 – 1900)
This period is often called “the Golden Age of the Piano” in music appreciation and music history books. Pianos were as common in American households of the 1800s as televisions are today. Many music conservatories opened, with piano playing as a core field of study. Many composers wrote for the piano, each with his/her distinct style. The pianist as performer, not just as composer, became a new phenomenon, and many piano compositions were created to “show off” a particular performer. Emotion and passion were trademarks of this period of music.
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) composed sonatas referred to by their “heavenly lengths.” He is also very famous for virtuoso piano accompaniments in the art song genre.
Felix Mendelssohn(1809 – 1847) composed pieces he called “Songs Without Words,” as they sound lyrical.
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) is called the “Poet of the Piano,” and tried to emulate the operatic stylings of Bellini, the virtuosity of violinist Paganini, and his own personal style. He expanded piano technique, particularly with his famous collection of études. His piano concerti are not performed often, as the orchestra has a very subservient part to the dominant piano part.
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) is nicknamed “the Lion of the Keyboard.” He took virtuoso piano technique to its limits with very demanding, physical, and rapid finger passagework. He was a famous pianist of his age and was treated like our modern-day rock stars.
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) battled mental illness most of his life. He created two bipolar characters which he named “Florestan” (manic) and “Eusebius” (depressive). His music is very dramatic and expressive. His one piano concerto is quite famous.
Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896) is one of the first significant female composers in history. She was an acclaimed pianist, and supported her husband Robert’s composing career. She also composed works for piano and chamber music.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote many short pieces for piano, as well as concerti that are very beloved and famous. He loved to use thick textures, countermelodies, and cross-rhythms, taking advantage of the piano’s ability for harmony as well as melody.
Other events of the Romantic Period: Napoleonic wars, American Civil War; building of transcontinental railroad in U.S.; Darwin introduces theory of evolution; discovery of the planet Neptune
Inventions: the phonograph, zippers, light bulbs, cameras, the telephone, and postage stamps; first Hershey bars and colas are sold.
Musical developments: addition of keys and valves to woodwind and brass instruments, allowing them to play more notes; supremacy of melody in music compositions; age of the virtuoso performer (like pianist Liszt and violinist Paganini); opening of Carnegie Hall and the New York Metropolitan Opera
Modern Period (1900 – Present)
The Impressionist movement, which originated with the visual arts, intersected both the Romantic and Modern periods. The emphasis was on tone color and dynamics, so the piano, with its wide range of expression, was a perfect instrument for Impressionist composers.
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) wrote two books of preludes, and many pieces for the piano, including children’s piano music.
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) was a brilliant orchestrator as well as piano composer. He wrote beautiful piano compositions, then adapted most of them for orchestra. He wrote a piano concerto for the left hand only to help a friend with a war injury.
Much experimentation began in the early 1900s, as composers branched away from the bombastic, hyper-emotional Romantic style of composition. They tried new techniques, such as using the elbows, fists, tone clusters, strumming or plucking the strings. Jazz elements influenced many popular piano styles, such as rock and roll, blues, ragtime, and boogie-woogie.
There were many composers of this period, some with more traditional piano styles, others with dramatically different techniques. Some of the most notable composers include:
Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) was an ethnomusicologist who loved the music of other peoples. He travelled the world with Edison’s new sound recorder, and wrote a graded collection of teaching pieces for children using sounds he heard in his travels.
Serge Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) wrote piano music utilizing the percussive aspect of the instrument. Much of his music sounds “wild”. His piano concerti are very well-liked and often performed.
Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) was influenced by jazz, as well as other modern harmonies. He wrote for many instruments and styles, and loved the piano.
Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) wrote music that is quite conservative and traditional compared to some of his peers, but he created an “American” sound using jazz harmonies and modern syncopated rhythms.
John Cage (1912 – 1992) was a composer who did much experimentation, including tone clusters and a piece called “4’33” of Silence.” His music takes piano technique to new dimensions, including nontraditional styles.
Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965) was also a pioneer in radically different piano techniques, such as strumming the strings, and using the elbows and fists.
George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) loved jazz and the blues. “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most-loved pieces in the piano/orchestra repertoire. Gershwin wanted his music to appeal to everyone, and tried to bridge the gap between “classical” and “popular” music.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) was a pianist who wrote concerti and solo pieces. He had large hands, so his music is difficult for pianists with small hands to play. He wrote gorgeous melodies and used a traditional, more Romantic style of composition.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951) used new techniques such as twelve-tone, with interest not on the melody, but on the tone colors and harmonies of the piano.
Other events of the Modern Period: World Wars I and II; moon landing; rise of automobile culture in America; American Civil rights and women’s liberation movements
Inventions: airplanes, television, computers, Internet, convenience foods developed
Musical developments: electronic instruments and synthesizers; many new musical styles (big band, swing, ragtime, rock and roll, rap, etc.); much recording change and technology (phonograph records, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, CDs, mp3 players, iPods, etc.). The musical is developed and very popular on Broadway and other large cities. Movie music becomes a huge part of the recording industry.