Musical instruments have been around for thousands of years, and it is not easy to pinpoint the person who first created the earlier versions. Over the centuries, many respected musicians became makers of instruments, including Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco (1655-1731), who lived in Italy during the 17th and 18th century. Whilst making violins and other stringed instruments was a valued career, Cristofori dreamt of inventing something new: a piano.
Other than the information on Bartolomeo Cristofori’s birth certificate that states he was born on 4th May 1655 in Padua, which was then part of the Republic of Venice, his early life remains a mystery. One story suggests Cristofori served as an apprentice to Nicola Amati (1596-1684), a stringed-instrument maker from Cremona, but census records do not correspond. In 1680, the census recorded that a thirteen-year-old with the name Christofaro Bartolomei lived with Amati, but by this time, the future piano maker had celebrated his 25th birthday.
The first record of Cristofori as an adult is dated 1688 when Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713) recruited the 33-year-old. The purpose of this recruitment is unknown, but it coincided with the death of the prince’s musical technician. Ferdinando owned plenty of instruments and was a lover and patron of music.
Some historians question why Ferdinando, who lived in Venice where many musical technicians lived, sought out Cristofori who lived outside of the city. Perhaps Cristofori had already started inventing instruments, which would explain why Ferdinando offered him time and money to pursue his interests as part of the bargain. As well as having a fondness for music, Ferdinando expressed a fascination with machinery and owned over forty mechanical clocks.
In an interview with the Italian writer Francesco Scipione Maffei (1675-1755), Cristofori admitted he had not wanted to work for the prince, but on hearing this, Ferdinando responded “that he would make me want to.” Cristofori reluctantly agreed to a salary of 12 scudi per month (€288) and moved into a house in Venice that also came with the position.
Cristofori’s job involved transporting and refurbishing the prince’s instruments. Although this was well within Cristofori’s abilities, he found it challenging to work with the other hundred artisans employed by the prince. Cristofori either worked in or near the Galleria dei Lavori of the Uffizi, revealing during his interview with Maffei: “It was hard for me to have to go into the big room with all that noise.” Eventually, Ferdinando gave Cristofori a private workshop.
Although Cristofori takes credit for the invention of the piano, keyboard instruments were already in existence. The harpsichord, for instance, was invented during the middle ages and a smaller version, known as a spinet, was developed before Cristofori was born. Yet, Cristofori was determined to improve upon these early instruments.
Not long after starting his employment, Cristofori invented a new instrument for Prince Ferdinando. Known as a spinettone (“big spinet”), it was longer than a spinet but thinner than a harpsichord, yet its mechanisms made it different from either instrument.
Spinets and harpsichords are designated as eight-foot pitch (8′) instruments, meaning they played at a standard, ordinary pitch. Cristofori’s spinettone contained 8′ strings, but he also included 4′ strings, which allowed the musician to play one octave above the standard. Attached to an internal mechanism the keyboard could be slid back and forth by the player to switch between the two octaves.
The unique design attested to the ingenuity of its inventor; not only was it unlike anything produced before, but it also required careful thought and precision. Cristofori likely engineered the spinettone to complement his patron’s love of opera. Prince Ferdinando often played the harpsichord with the orchestra at the Medici villa at Pratolino, but due to the instrument’s size, the orchestra pit was very cramped. The spinettone was physically compact, making it the perfect size for playing with the orchestra. Its range of notes also complemented the other instruments.
Another invention by Cristofori, which may predate the spinettone, was the oval spinet, based on the keyboard and string arrangements of a virginal. A virginal is a smaller, usually rectangular, version of a harpsichord with a richer, flute-like tone. Cristofori altered the string lengths to make them stronger and designed an oval body to make the instrument more compact.
Some historians believe the oval spinet was Cristofori’s first attempt at making a keyboard instrument suitable for use within an orchestra, but its lack of range made it impractical. Nonetheless, it was considered a luxury instrument that only the wealthy could afford. Musical instrument scholar Stewart Pollens (b.1949) describes the oval spinet as “a tour de force of mechanical design, fully the product of Cristofori’s inventive character,” yet, it never caught on during Cristofori’s lifetime. Only two of Cristofori’s original oval spinets remain, but there are several by later manufacturers.
An inventory of the prince’s possessions, taken in 1700, lists the oval spinet and spinettone. Also documented are two harpsichords made by Cristofori, one made from ebony; and a clavicytherium. The latter was a form of upright harpsichord designed in the 15th century purposely to save floor space. Less prevalent than the traditional harpsichord, the clavicytherium was harder to play and had “a fairly heavy touch and unresponsive action” (Ripin, 1989). Unlike the harpsichord, which relied on gravity to move the jack or plectrum, the clavicytherium needed a spring to assist the movement.
“An ‘Arpicembalo’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress without rose…” The inventory contains a paragraph about an instrument invented by Cristofori called an Arpicembalo. Meaning “harp-harpsichord”, this was the name of Cristofori’s first piano, which eventually became known as pianoforte, meaning soft and loud.
The Arpicembalo remained publicly unknown until Scipione Maffei mentioned the instrument in an article in 1711. By this time, Cristofori had built two more pianos. Unlike harpsichords, whose strings are plucked by a plectrum, Cristofori devised a mechanism using hammers. It was not as simple as replacing the plectrums with hammers, but they also needed to return to their positions after striking the string, allowing it to vibrate. The hammers also let the player rapidly repeat the same note if desired. The strength in which the player pressed the key determined the volume of the sound.
It is difficult to determine what type of strings Cristofori used in his first pianos since they have been lost or destroyed. Over time, the strings in his later pianos have all be replaced due to breakages, wear and tear. Complaints about the Arpicembalo stated it was too “soft” and “dull” in comparison to the much louder harpsichords, suggesting Cristofori used thin strings. On the other hand, it was louder than a clavichord, which until that time had been the only keyboard instrument capable of dynamic nuance concerning the force in which the keys depressed.
Maffei’s article about Cristofori’s Arpicembalo was translated into German in 1725 by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König. As a result, many instrument makers began to replicate Cristofori’s design. Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753) went one step further, adding a damper-lifting mechanism, which allowed the strings to vibrate freely. This device, the forerunner of the sustain pedal, helped the player to produce a greater variety of tones.
Although instrument makers were quick to take on the new keyboard instrument, composers and musicians were harder to convince. In the early 1730s, Silberman introduced the Arpicembalo to Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) who was less than impressed with the weak tones, which he claimed prevented the instrument from a full dynamic range. Unhappy at receiving criticism, Silberman made adjustments to the mechanisms until they met Bach’s approval in 1747. Advertising it as an “Instrument: piano et forte”, Bach acted as Silberman’s agent, encouraging musicians to adopt the fortepiano. These early instruments are so named to differentiate them from the modern pianoforte developed at the end of the 18th century.
Despite inventing a new instrument, Cristofori’s fame never spread much further than the Medici court. Prince Ferdinando passed away in 1713 at the age of 50, possibly from syphilis, leaving Cristofori without a patron. Fortunately, the prince’s father Cosimo III (1642-1723) appointed Cristofori the custodian of his son’s collection of instruments, thus allowing Cristofori to remain at court. The inventor continued to build pianos until his death on 27th January 1731, aged 75.
Only three pianos or Arpicembalos built by Cristofori exist today, although damages and refurbishments have altered them over time. A Latin inscription proves the authenticity of the instruments. “Bartholomaevs de Christophoris Patavinus Inventor Faciebat Florentiae” is followed by the date in Roman numerals, which translates as “Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, inventor, made this in Florence in [date].”
The oldest of the three instruments was made in 1720 and currently lives in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The cypress and boxwood piano spans three octaves with strings in length from 4.75 inches to 74.25 inches. A new soundboard added in 1938 inadvertently altered the sound of the notes. Denzil Wraight (b.1951), a professional researcher of Italian keyboard instruments, laments that “its original condition … has been irretrievably lost.” Mary Elizabeth Adams (1842-1918), an American curator of musical instruments, donated the piano to the museum.
Although unplayable due to damage caused by worms, the 1722 instrument is the best preserved of the three pianos. The piano, which belongs to the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, has a range of four octaves and may have once belonged to the Venetian composer Alessandro Ignazio Marcello (1673-1747). The museum claims Cristofori aimed to “give an instrument the speech of the heart, now with the delicate touch of an angel, now with violent eruptions of passions.”
The third piano was built in 1726 and is in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University. The instrument is currently not playable, but old recordings exist, which give a general sense of how the notes once sounded. The use of cypress for the soundboard produced a warmer, softer sound than modern pianos.
The piano became more prevalent in the late 18th century after piano-making flourished in Vienna. Although piano-makers based their instruments on Cristofori’s designs, they made a few changes, including the colour of the keyboard: black for natural keys and white for the accidentals. Future piano-makers reverted to the original colours. The earliest surviving version of this type of piano, a fortepiano, was built in France by Louis Bas of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon in 1781.
The modern piano began to evolve between 1790 and 1860, the “Mozart-era”. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) was one of the first composers to write sonatas and concertos specifically for the instrument. Although he died in 1791, his work lived on, inspiring hundreds of other composers, including Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49).
Beethoven and his tutor Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) were among the first to own a pianoforte or grand piano. Broadwood and Sons, founded by the Scottish manufacturer John Broadwood (1732-1812), constructed these pianos, which were louder, more substantial and ranged over five octaves. They quickly gained a reputation for their instruments and added a sixth octave to the keyboard in 1810. A seventh octave had been added by 1820, and other piano manufacturers began to follow suit.
London-born Robert Wornum (1780-1852), built the first upright piano in 1811, but his design did not catch on. Modern upright pianos developed from those made by Pleyel et Cie (Pleyel and Company), founded by the composer Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), in 1815. By 1834, Pleyel was producing 1000 pianos a year and was the preferred manufacturer of French composers such as Chopin, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).
Piano-makers continued to improve the instrument throughout the 19th century. Jean-Henri Pape (1789-1875) added felt to the keys and hammers to improve the sound quality. Jean-Baptiste-Louis Boisselot (1782-1847) designed a sostenuto pedal, which sustained only those notes held down when the pedal is depressed, meaning the following notes would not be affected. Not all piano manufacturers adopted this pedal, but the American company Steinway & Sons made it a key feature of their instruments. Steinway pianos tend to have three pedals, the other two being the sustain pedal, which sustains all the notes, and the soft pedal, which produces a duller sound.
Today, there are several types of pianos as a result of the various improvements made over the last two centuries. The grand piano is the closest in appearance to Cristofori’s design in which the strings horizontally extend away from the keyboard. Yet, within this category, there are three types of piano: baby grand, parlour grand and concert grand, each getting progressively bigger.
There are also categories of upright pianos. Console pianos are the shortest, whereas a studio piano is usually between 107 and 114 cm. Although these are both upright pianos, the term usually describes those that are taller than studio versions. Upright pianos tend to be cheaper than grand pianos, and their sound quality is not quite so impressive. It is unusual to see an upright piano in a concert hall, but they are commonplace in churches, schools and homes.
Less common are the specialised pianos developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. These include the toy piano for children, the player piano, which plays itself by reading perforated rolls of paper, and the pedal piano, which resembles an organ. With technological advances, the electric piano arrived in the 1920s, which used metal strings, although it did not sound much like an acoustic piano. The electronic piano of the 1970s was better suited to replicated the timbre of an upright piano and became popular with jazz musicians.
Digital pianos, which appeared on the scene in the 1980s, do not use strings or hammers. Instead, they are fitted with pre-recorded sounds and never need to be tuned. More recent versions have weighted keys and pedals to make them both feel and sound like an acoustic piano. In the 21st century, hybrid versions, which contain both acoustic and digital aspects, have appeared on the market.
It is doubtful Cristofori foresaw the potential of his Arpicembalo, yet it has become the great-great-grandfather of the most versatile instrument in the world. The pianoforte was an essential instrument in the classical era of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, as well as the romantic era of Chopin and Debussy. It was a favourite instrument of ragtime composers, which was succeeded by jazz, blues, honky-tonk, folk and rock.
Unlike orchestral instruments, the piano is polyphonic, meaning it can play more than one melody at the same time. As a result, it is the preferred instrument of composers, even if the final piece of music is for several musicians. The composer can, for example, play melodies and bass lines on the piano to ensure they complement each other.
After Cristofori died, his reputation went into decline; for some time, Gottfried Silbermann was believed to be the inventor of the piano. Careful studies of Cristofori’s instruments in the 20th century proved they predated Silbermann’s pianos. Since then, the credit for inventing the piano is solely with Cristofori, about whom the early-instrument scholar Grant O’Brien has written: “The workmanship and inventiveness displayed by the instruments of Cristofori are of the highest order and his genius has probably never been surpassed by any other keyboard maker of the historical period … I place Cristofori shoulder to shoulder with Antonio Stradivarius [sic].” (Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) was a maker of string instruments.)
Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco is arguably the inventor of the best musical instrument ever made. It is only right we remember his name and celebrate his achievements. To quote Grant O’Brien again, “We must treat Cristofori’s instruments with the same respect and admiration that we would treat an instrument by Stradivarius. [sic]”