Chopin: The Man Behind the Music

Frédéric Chopin is remembered as a composer and piano player whose “professional technique […] was without equal in his generation.” With over 230 compositions under his belt, Chopin became one of the world’s first celebrities in the music industry. Influenced by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin combined new and old techniques to develop new genres of music that made him a leading symbol of the Romantic era. Yet, Chopin died young at the age of 39, robbing the world of his talents. Nonetheless, he left behind a hole that musicians have since tried and failed to fill. How did someone so young achieve everlasting fame and admiration?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was the second child born in Poland to Nicolas Chopin (1771-1844) and Justyna Krzyżanowska. There is some discrepancy about his date of birth, which is either 22nd February or 1st March 1810, although the latter is generally accepted today. His father, a Polonised Frenchman, received a teaching post at the Warsaw Lyceum in the same year of his son’s birth, prompting the family to move to the capital. Chopin and his sisters, Ludwika (1807-55), Izabela (1811-81) and Emilia (1812-27), grew up within the grounds of the school where their father taught the flute and violin, and their mother the piano.

Although his parents were musicians, Chopin’s father arranged for his children to have professional music tuition. At the age of six, Chopin started receiving piano lessons from Wojciech Żywny (1756-1842), a Polish teacher who instilled Chopin’s love of Mozart (1756-1791) and Bach (1685-1750). His elder sister Ludwika also received lessons, and they occasionally played duets, but of the pair, it became apparent Chopin was the child prodigy. Chopin gave his first public concert to the Polish aristocracy at seven years old and composed two polonaises, a style of Polish dance. Unfortunately, these manuscripts are missing, so Chopin’s earliest known work is a polonaise in A-flat major, which he wrote and dedicated to his piano teacher in 1821, aged 11.

In 1823, Chopin began attending the Warsaw Lyceum as a pupil. As well as academic instruction, Chopin received organ lessons from Czech musician Wilhelm Würfel (1790-1832). In 1826, Chopin enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory to take a three-year music course under the tuition of Józef Elsner (1769-1854). During this time, Chopin focused on composition work, which he performed at many recitals in the city. Chopin wrote mainly for the piano, but in 1825 he was invited to try out a unique instrument: the aeolomelodicon.

The aeolomelodicon is an obsolete keyed wind instrument consisting of a keyboard and pedal, which when depressed triggered a set of bellows to produce a soft, ethereal sound. The designer, Fidelis Brunner, based it on the earlier, unsuccessful instrument, the aeolodion. The older instrument used steel springs to produce the sound, but Brunner used brass tubes and reeds instead, which proved more powerful. In May 1825, Chopin performed one of his compositions on the aeolomelodicon, for which he received great praise.

The success of Chopin’s performance on the aeolomelodicon led to the invitation to play for Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) on another strange instrument: an aeolopantalon. Jozé Dlugosz of Warsaw, the inventor of the aeolopantalon, combined the earlier instruments with a piano, which played both in conjunction or separately from the bellows. Impressed with Chopin’s recital, the Tsar presented him with a diamond ring. Another concert was arranged at which Chopin performed his Rondo Op. 1., which subsequently became his first published work.

As a student, Chopin took the opportunity to visit other parts of Poland. He particularly enjoyed staying in the Polish village Szafarnia, where he discovered rural folk music. The atmosphere and traditions Chopin observed differed greatly to the city and made a significant impact on the young composer. Sadly, the death of Chopin’s youngest sister Emilia in 1827 put an end to these excursions, and he returned to his parents, who ran a boarding house for students of the Warsaw Lyceum.

In 1829, Chopin completed his education at the Conservatory. The same year, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Posen, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł (1775-1833), invited Chopin to Berlin. As visualised in a painting by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), Chopin performed for the Radziwiłł family and guests. Chopin also composed a piano and cello piece called Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for the prince, an aspiring cellist. Yet, when Chopin officially published the manuscript, he dedicated it to the Austrian cellist Joseph Merk (1795-1852), who Chopin claimed was the only violoncellist he respected.

Later that year, Chopin made his debut in Vienna, where he premiered his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”. These were variations of a song of the same name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and received favourable reviews, although some commented that Chopin was “too delicate for those accustomed to the piano-bashing of local artists.” Yet, the performance drew attention to the young composer and he played at another concert before returning to Warsaw. When the up-and-coming German composer Robert Schumann (1810-56) heard Chopin play, he exclaimed, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

In 1830, Chopin set out “into the wide world, with no very clearly defined aim, forever.” (Zdzisław Jachimecki, 1937) Little did he know he would not see his home city again, which suffered damages during the November 1830 Uprising. Also known as the Polish-Russian War 1830-31, Polish rebels turned the capital into a military garrison, forcing the Warsaw Lyceum and Conservatory to close. Although Chopin expressed his nostalgia for his homeland, he did not return to the city to enlist in the army. Instead, he remained in Western Europe, performing in Vienna and Paris.

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, inadvertently becoming one of the many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration who fled from the uprising. To gain French citizenship, Chopin began using the French version of his name, Frédéric François Chopin, yet he always considered himself Polish at heart. While in Paris, Chopin became acquainted with many french composers and artists, including Hector Berlioz (1803-69), Franz Liszt (1811-86) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). He also remained in close contact with his Polish friends, especially Julian Fontana (1810-69), who boarded with Chopin during their years at the Warsaw Lyceum. Although Fontana wanted to establish himself in England, his lack of success prompted him to become Chopin’s “general factotum and copyist”.

Chopin’s debut concert in Paris took place on 25th February 1832 in the salons de MM Pleyel, a virtuoso pianist and piano maker. Critics exclaimed, “Here is a young man who … taking no model, has found, if not a complete renewal of piano music, … an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else …”. Chopin earned the patronage of the wealthy Jewish Rothschild family, and by the end of the year, had a steady income from the publications of his compositions. He no longer relied on public performances or money from his family for day-to-day living.

In 1835, Chopin visited his family in the Slavic city Carlsbad. As it turned out, this was the last time Chopin saw his parents. On his way back to Paris, Chopin stopped in Dresden, where he met the Wodziński family with whom he had made the acquaintance during his student years. While there, Chopin became enamoured with 16-year-old Maria Wodzińska (1819-96), who painted a portrait of Chopin, which is considered the best likeness of all images of the composer. The following year, Chopin returned to Dresden, where he proposed to Maria. From there, he travelled on to Leipzig, where he composed many pieces, which he compiled into an album for his fiancée. Unfortunately, the gift did not receive the reaction for which Chopin hoped, and the relationship came to an end.

While living in Paris, Chopin befriended Franz Liszt, whom he performed with on at least seven occasions. Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op.10 to Liszt, but some historians suggest their relationship was often strained. In a letter, Chopin revealed his jealousy of Liszt’s skill on the piano, saying, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies.” Chopin also forced Liszt to apologise after embellishing one of his nocturnes during a public performance rather than playing the music as written. Yet, Chopin continued to refer to “my friend Liszt” in his letters to other friends and family members.

Another reason for Chopin and Liszt’s unsteady friendship may involve their relationship with women. Liszt felt concerned that his mistress, Marie d’Agoult (1805-76), who wrote romantic novels under her pen name, Daniel Stern, gave Chopin too much attention. His jealousy heightened after Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op. 25 to d’Agoult, especially as the reason for this was unclear. Nonetheless, Liszt and d’Agoult had a lengthy affair, resulting in three children: Blandine Rachel (1835-62), Francesca Gaetana Cosima (1837-1930) and Daniel (1839-59).

In 1836, Chopin attended a party held by Marie d’Agoult where he met the author George Sand (born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, 1804-76). At the time, Chopin was still engaged to Maria Wodzińska and thought little of Sands, saying, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” Sand, on the other hand, admitted to her friends her infatuation for the composer. After discovering Chopin and Maria were no longer an item, Sand let her feelings be known to Chopin. By 1838, Chopin and Sands were lovers.

Sand had a reputation for having many lovers and had married, although now separated from Casimir Dudevant (1795-1871), which resulted in two children: Maurice (1823-89) and Solange (1828-99). Chopin appeared unfazed by Sand’s past and agreed to spend the winter of 1838 in Majorca with Sand and her children. Before travelling, Chopin complained of feeling unwell but hoped the Mediterranean climate would revive him. Unfortunately, the couple struggled to find lodgings on the island because the Catholic population disapproved of their relationship. In the eyes of the church, Sand was still married. As a last resort, Chopin, Sand and the children moved into a former Carthusian monastery in the Majorcan village of Valldemossa.

Chopin’s health failed to improve, and the prognosis given by three doctors did not make him feel any better. “Three doctors have visited me … The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die.” Despite feeling miserable, Chopin continued to compose music and completed several preludes, two polonaises, his Ballade No. 2, Op. 38, and worked on Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. Chopin dedicated the ballade to Robert Schumann, who had recently dedicated a piano solo to Chopin.

The Mediterranean climate that Chopin hoped would cure him failed to materialise. Instead, poor weather ravaged the island, prompting the couple to move to Barcelona on the mainland, then to Marseilles in the south of France, where Chopin spent two months convalescing. Chopin’s health improved a little, and in the summer of 1839, he moved to Sand’s estate at Nohant in central France, much to Maurice’s disgust. The 16-year-old boy wished to establish himself as the man of the house and feared Chopin would take that role from him. Nonetheless, Chopin and Sand continued to spend their summers at Nohant until 1846.

During one of his stays at Nohant, Chopin composed Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 (1842), which gained the nickname Polonaise héroïque (Heroic) during the Revolution of 1848. Many pianists find the piece physically demanding to play, although Chopin usually played it much more gently than most performers. When hearing the music played at the time of the Revolution, George Sand declared, “L’inspiration! La force! La vigueur! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on, this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol.”

Chopin’s health took a turn for the worse in 1842, the same year he composed the Héroïque. Although he gave solo recitals in Paris, he complained to a friend that “I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much.” Soon, Chopin was declining more invitations than he was accepting, and on one occasion, he was discovered on the floor “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” The worse his health became, the less work Chopin could achieve. Usually, he wrote dozens of compositions each year, but in 1844, he only managed to complete Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor. Nonetheless, many consider this one of Chopin’s most technically challenging compositions.

The historian Adam Zamoyski (b. 1949) observes, “[Chopin’s] powers of concentration were failing and his inspiration was beset by anguish, both emotional and intellectual.” As well as his health, Chopin had problems with his relationship with Sand, who accused him of being more supportive of her daughter Solange than herself. Nonetheless, Sand continued to care for Chopin, becoming more like a nurse than a lover to the “beloved little corpse”, as she nicknamed him. In 1847, Sand published a novel Lucrezia Floriani, which featured characters based on herself and Chopin – a story that Chopin allegedly admired. Yet, by the end of the year, their relationship ended with an exchange of angry letters.

On 16th February 1848, Chopin performed his Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 with the cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808-84), but felt too unwell to give any more performances. For a while, Chopin continued to take on pupils, but this soon became too difficult for him. To avoid the Revolution of 1848, Chopin visited England at the suggestion of his Scottish pupil Jane Stirling (1804-59), who arranged an introduction with Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert (1819-61). Chopin agreed to perform to the royals, much to the delight of the Prince, who eagerly watched Chopin’s fingers on the piano to observe his technique.

In August, Jane invited Chopin to stay with her family in Scotland, which sparked rumours about a romantic relationship. Whilst Jane desired to marry Chopin, he did not reciprocate her feelings. In letters to friends, he described Jane and her family as boring. Chopin also realised his poor health was deteriorating rapidly, writing, “They have married me to Miss Stirling; she might as well marry death.” Despite his illness, Jane took him to visit all of her relatives and arranged concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester. At the latter, which he performed on 28th August, Chopin was so weak he needed someone to carry him off the stage.

In the autumn, Chopin returned to London with Jane, who continued to support her piano tutor despite his rejection of her romantic advances. On 16th November 1848, Chopin gave his final public concert at London’s Guildhall, even though he was critically ill. Jane continued to look after him and helped Chopin travel to Paris, where he gave the occasional piano lesson. His sister Ludwika came to stay in the city at Chopin’s request, and many of his friends visited him at his bedside, often entertaining him by playing music.

Jane commissioned the Polish artist Teofil Kwiatkowski (1809-91) to produce an oil painting of Chopin on his “deathbed”. He sits in bed surrounded by five guests, including his sister and a pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (1817-94). This was the artist’s second painting of Chopin, the first being a picture of him playing at a ball at Hôtel Lambert in Paris.

In the early hours of 17th October 1849, a visiting doctor enquired whether Chopin was suffering greatly. Chopin replied, “No longer,” and died shortly after, age 39. According to Chopin’s death certificate, he succumbed to tuberculosis, but more recently, other suggestions have cropped up. These include cystic fibrosis, cirrhosis and pericarditis. Due to Chopin’s popularity, his funeral was delayed until 30th October, and attendees needed to reserve tickets. Over 3,000 people were refused entry to the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where the service was held, many of whom had travelled from other countries for the occasion. A choir sang Mozart’s Requiem and Chopin’s Preludes No. 4 in E minor and No. 6 in B minor were also played, followed by a rendition of the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 at his graveside.

Auguste Clésinger (1814-83), the husband of George Sand’s daughter Solange, sculpted Chopin’s tombstone, which sits in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. It features the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre. Although Chopin’s body rests under the sculpture, his sister took his heart back to Poland as per her brother’s request, symbolising that he always considered himself Polish.

Chopin’s music is his long-lasting legacy. Preferring to play in salons rather than ballrooms, he adjusted well-established forms of music to suit the setting. His waltzes had faster tempos than those written for dancing, and he was the first composer to write ballades and scherzos as individual concert pieces. Whilst Chopin respected the style of Bach and Mozart, who he regarded as his greatest influences, Chopin also introduced Polish music. As one music historian puts it, “it was Chopin who put the mazurka on the European musical map.”

“Chopin’s unique position as a composer, despite the fact that virtually everything he wrote was for the piano, has rarely been questioned.” (J. Barrie Jones, 1998) Although Chopin’s work does not favour orchestras, his music remains popular and is regularly performed today. An International Chopin Piano Competition is held in Warsaw every five years by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, which is devoted to performances of his polonaises, mazurkas and piano concertos.

To commemorate Chopin’s 100th birthday, Wacław Szymanowski (1859-1930) designed a sculpture of the composer to stand in Warsaw’s Royal Baths Park. Unfortunately, an argument over the design and the outbreak of World War One delayed the erection of the monument, but it was finally put in place in 1926. Sadly, the statue was blown up during World War Two by the Germans. Allegedly, on the following morning, a handwritten sign was found in the rubble, which said, “I don’t know who destroyed me, but I know why: so that I won’t play the funeral march for your leader.” The statue was rebuilt after the war and placed on a plinth featuring the inscription: “The Statue of Fryderyk Chopin, destroyed and plundered by the Germans on 31 May 1940, rebuilt by the Nation. 17 October 1946”. Also etched into the monument is a line from a poem by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), which reads, “Flames will consume our painted history, sword-wielding thieves will plunder our treasures, the song will be saved…”

Although Chopin only lived for 39 years, his influence on the world through music is evident. Over 80 societies across the world dedicate themselves to the composer and musician, and more than 1500 videos of performances of Chopin’s works are on Youtube. You can listen to some of the music mentioned in this blog through the following links:
Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1
Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2
Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3
Revolutionary Etude No. 12, Op. 10
Etude No. 2 in F minor “The Bees”, Op.25
Prelude in E Minor No. 4, Op. 28
Prelude in B Minor No.6, Op. 28
Marche Funèbre (Funeral March), Sonata Op. 35
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op. 38
Scherzo No.3 In C Sharp Minor, Op. 39
Heroic Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op. 53
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor, Op. 65


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Cristofori’s Dream

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 centuries. 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 been 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 replicate 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]”

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