The Greatest Composer of All Time

In 2019, BBC Music Magazine named Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer of all time. The magazine asked 174 current composers to vote for their favourites, of which Bach came out on top. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) followed second, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) third, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) fourth, and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) a respectable fifth. Why does Bach stand head and shoulders above all the other composers that have been and gone throughout history? He came from a family that produced over 50 musicians in 200 years, yet J.S. Bach surpassed them all to become the nation’s favourite.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) – Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31st March 1685 in Eisenach in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, Germany. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-95), the town musical director, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (1644-94). Bach’s father taught him to play the violin from a young age, and his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645-93), taught the young boy how to play the organ. Bach had several uncles and cousins who played various instruments and worked as organists or composers, all of whom had a great impact on Bach’s childhood. Sadly, his parents died when Bach was ten years old, leaving his older brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721) as his guardian.

Johann Christoph worked as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, where he also taught Bach everything he needed to know about the instrument. His brother also gave him lessons on the clavichord and introduced Bach to some of the top composers of the day, including Johann Christoph’s former tutor, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).

Whilst living with his brother in Ohrdruf, Bach attended a local school where he studied theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. In 1700, Bach enrolled at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, which extended his music knowledge as well as providing a prestigious academic education. Bach joined the school choir and took organ and harpsichord lessons from Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a German Baroque organist and composer at the local church.

Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche

After graduating from St Michael’s School in 1703, Bach found a position as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III (1664-1707) in Weimar. Still in his teens, Bach used the opportunity to develop his reputation as an organist. After seven months, rumours of his skill spread to neighbouring towns, including Arnstadt, located 19 miles from Weimar. A new protestant church in Arnstadt invited Bach to inspect their organ and give a harpsichord recital to mark the opening of the building. In August 1703, Bach became the official organist at the church, which until 1935 was known as New Church. Today, it is called Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche because of its association with the composer.

As the church organist, Bach worked with other musicians and a choir. After a couple of years in the post, Bach grew from a teenager into a self-important man who was not afraid to raise his opinion. Bach disliked the singing standard of the choir and, on one occasion, described one member as a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie bassoon player). The man retaliated by attacking Bach with a stick and, although Bach complained, the man was not reprimanded. Instead, the authorities advised Bach to lower his expectations of the choir.

Bach continued to assert his self-appointed authority on those who he deemed beneath him, including his employer. In 1705, Bach requested four weeks leave to visit the Baroque composer and organist Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) in the city of Lübeck. This involved a 280 miles journey, which Bach mostly travelled on foot over several days. Bach failed to return after his allotted four weeks, returning after four months instead. The 21-year-old organist most likely lost his job as a result.

Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)

In 1706, Bach started working as the organist at Divi Blasii, a Gothic church in Mühlhausen. Bach received a higher salary and was no doubt pleased with the better quality of the choir. He also convinced the church to renovate the organ, a task that needed much fundraising. After four months in his new job, Bach married his 23-year-old second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720).

Whilst working in Mühlhausen, Bach composed a cantata for the inauguration of the new council held on 4th February 1708. Gott ist mein König (God is my King), consists of seven movements written for “four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.” The lyrics are based on Psalm 74, in which the author expresses the pleas of the Tribe of Judah in Babylonian captivity. Although Bach only intended the cantata for the festival, it became his first published work later that year. It is also Bach’s only known cantata published in his lifetime.

In 1708, Bach moved back to Weimar, where his wife gave birth to their first child, Catharina Dorothea (1708-74). Two years later, they welcomed a son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), who inherited his father’s talent. Unfortunately, Wilhelm earned very little for his future compositions and died in poverty. In 1713, Maria gave birth to twins Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia. Unfortunately, Johann died on the same day, and Maria passed away twenty days later.

Whilst in Weimar, Bach worked as an organist and composed many keyboard and orchestral works. Bach later compiled many of his preludes and fugues from this time to form The Well-Tempered Clavier. Each piece in the collection is in a different key, totalling 24 key signatures: C major, C minor, C sharp major and so on. The outcome remains one of the most important works in the history of classical music. Bach also studied Italian composers and transcribed some of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) works for the organ and harpsichord.

In 1714, Bach welcomed another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88), who almost surpassed Bach’s musical legacy. Haydn (1732-1809), Beethoven and Mozart admired his work greatly, particularly the latter who said, “Bach is the father, we are the children.” The same year as Carl’s birth, J.S. Bach became the Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court in Weimar. His boss, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715), required Bach to compose one cantata each month for the court chapel service. Bach also transcribed many of Prince Johann Ernst’s violin concertos for the harpsichord and organ.

Bach’s sixth child, Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715-39), was born in 1715, the same year that Prince Johann Ernst passed away. Bach continued working as Konzertmeister but soon fell out of favour with the musicians and choir under his command. In 1717, his employers tried to dismiss Bach from his position. After stubbornly refusing to leave, Bach found himself arrested and confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for a month. On his release, he begrudgingly accepted his discharge.

Despite Bach’s unfavourable dismissal, Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728) hired Bach as Kapellmeister. Prince Leopold had an ear for music and recognised Bach’s talents. Unlike his previous employer, Bach had a good relationship with the prince and made him the godfather of Leopold Augustus (1718-19), who sadly died in infancy. The prince paid Bach well but disapproved of elaborate organ music in churches. As a result, most of Bach’s compositions from his time in Köthen had a secular nature. Nonetheless, Bach respected his employer’s taste, saying, “He was a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music.”

As Kapellmeister, Bach frequently joined the prince on his travels. In 1720, while away in Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), Bach’s wife unexpectedly died. Bach described her untimely death as the worst event in his life. Fortunately, he found love again the following year with the soprano singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke (1701-60). She also worked for the prince, and the couple married on 3rd December 1721. Anna instantly took up the role of stepmother and raised Bach’s children as though her own.

Die Leipziger Thomaskirche 1749

In 1723, Bach accepted the position of Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas). This involved moving to Leipzig to direct the Thomanerchor, a choir of boys aged 9 to 18 who attended St Thomas boarding school. Bach’s employer also expected him to teach Latin but allowed the composer to appoint others for this task. Bach was also expected to compose cantatas for Sunday services, of which he produced more than 300. The majority of the cantatas reflected the Gospel readings in the weekly lectionary.

During his first six years in Leipzig, Bach fathered six children. Due to the lack of medical care, many of Bach’s children did not survive infancy. Christiana Sophia Henrietta (1723-26), for example, died at the age of three, Christian Gottlieb (1725-28) at two, Regina Johanna (1728-33) at five, and Ernestus Andreas (1727-27) shortly after his birth. Two of the six children lived to adulthood. Gottfried Heinrich (1724-63) learned to play the keyboard well and showed the potential of “a great genius, which however failed to develop”. Writings of the time suggest Gottfried had a mental handicap of some sort and relied on his sister, Elisabeth “Liesgen” Juliana Friederica (1726-81), for all his adult life. Liesgen married one of her father’s pupils, Johann Christoph Altnickol (1720-59), who worked as an organist, composer and teacher.

In March 1729, Bach took over as director of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society that specialised in secular performances. The position, which he held for ten years, allowed Bach to broaden his repertoire, which, until then, was constricted to liturgical compositions. The extra work did not prevent Bach from his Thomaskantor duties because of Bach’s proactiveness in producing six years worth of cantatas during his first three years in Leipzig. He also continued to grow his large family, although the child mortality rate remained high. Three babies born in the 1730s did not reach childhood: Christiana Benedicta (1730-30), Christiana Dorothea (1731-32) and Johann August Abraham (1733-33).

In 1732, Bach welcomed a son who managed to survive childhood and follow in his musical footsteps. Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-95), known as the ‘Bückeburg’ Bach to differentiate him from his father, became a concertmaster in Bückeburg, where he was also a renowned harpsichord player. The Bückeburg Bach composed hundreds of pieces for the keyboard, as well as chamber music, choral work and symphonies. Unfortunately, a lot of J.C.F. Bach’s manuscripts were destroyed during the Second World War.

Johann Christian Bach – Thomas Gainsborough

Another of Bach’s sons earned the epithet “The London Bach” because he established his reputation in England as the music master to Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). J.S. Bach was already 50 years old at Johann Christian’s (1735-82) birth and did not live to witness his son’s success. Nonetheless, J.C. Bach’s talent emerged from a young age, and his father spent a few years teaching him how to play the keyboard. Later in life, J.C. tutored the 8-year-old Mozart in composition, who often credited the “London Bach” for his success. On hearing of J.C. Bach’s death in 1782, Mozart lamented, “What a loss to the musical world!”

In 1736, J.S. Bach received the title of “Royal Court Composer” from Augustus III of Poland (1696-1763), the Elector of Saxony. At this time, Bach was working on his first publication of German Organ Mass, which he eventually published in 1739. The collection includes a triple fugue in E flat major, which is understood to represent the Trinity. “The first fugue is calm and majestic, with an absolutely uniform movement throughout; in the second the theme seems to be disguised, and is only occasionally recognisable in its true shape, as if to suggest the divine assumption of an earthly form; in the third, it is transformed into rushing semiquavers as if the Pentacostal wind were coming roaring from heaven.” (Albert Schweitzer, 1905)

Following the birth of his final two children, Johanna Carolina (1737-81) and Regina Susanna (1742-1809), Bach’s music style shifted. He adopted stile antico from the 16th century and combined it with the music of his contemporaries, for instance, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel and Bach were born in the same year, yet they never met. Bach attempted to visit Handel in 1719, but he had moved to London. Bach incorporated several of Handel’s arias into his version of the St Mark Passion, composed in 1747.

In mid-1747, Bach visited King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) in Potsdam, who introduced Bach to the fortepiano. This new instrument was an early version of the piano built by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). Bach had come across Silbermann’s earlier constructions and criticised them heavily. Yet, the fortepiano impressed Bach and inspired him to write a collection of keyboard canons and fugues, which he published under the title The Musical Offering. Many musicologists consider this work one of the first piano compositions in history.

Although Bach continued to compose, often returning to and adapting older works, his eyesight rapidly deteriorated. He stubbornly refused to step down as Thomaskantor, but his employer made arrangements to hire another composer to start working “upon the eventual … decease of Mr Bach”. By 1750, Bach was almost completely blind due to cataracts and underwent eye surgery by the British eye surgeon John Taylor (1703-72). Unfortunately, Taylor was a charlatan and permanently blinded Bach as a result. He also blinded the composer Handel and up to 100 other victims. Sadly, Bach passed away on 28th July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful operation.

Not much is known about Bach’s funeral other than he was buried in an unmarked grave at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. Yet, he did not die a poor man. An inventory drawn up at the time claims Bach owned five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet. Whilst his funeral remains a mystery, Bach’s life is recorded in detail in a Nekrolog (obituary) written by his son Carl and one of his students, Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-74).

Image of the Bach memorial erected by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1843

During his lifetime, Bach was highly regarded amongst his colleagues. Yet, those outside his social circle were not so familiar with his compositions. As a result, only a limited number of people played Bach’s music. It is thanks to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), who conducted a famous performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on 11th March 1829, that Bach is popular today. Mendelssohn later erected a monument to the composer in Leipzig. Also credited with reviving Bach’s compositions is Bristol-born Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the son of the famous hymnodist Charles Wesley (1707-88). At the beginning of the 19th century, Wesley, sometimes known as “the English Mozart”, occasionally performed some of Bach’s organ pieces in London concerts.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded by Moritz Hauptmann (1792-1868), a cantor of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, to promote Bach’s music. Around that time, musicians referred to Bach as one of the Three Bs, a term coined in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung to represent Bach, Beethoven and Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Later, a German conductor replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (1833-97), saying “I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.” (Hans von Bülow, 1880) Since then, the English composer David Matthews (b.1943) has proposed adding Benjamin Britten (1913-76) to the legacy, making them the Four Bs.

Bach’s popularity continued to rise during the 20th century with the appearance of several organisations and awards in his name. Choirs and orchestras, including the Bach Aria Group, Deutsche Bachsolisten, Bachchor Stuttgart, and Bach Collegium Japan, have developed and performed various Bach Festivals around the world. Every two years, the Bach-Archiv Leipzig holds the Internationaler Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig (International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition); and the Royal Academy of Music in London awards the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize to “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the performance and/or scholarly study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So, why is Bach the nation’s favourite composer? Admittedly, it is a matter of personal taste, but Bach may come out on top due to his versatile style of compositions. Whilst Bach usually wrote for organ and other keyboard instruments, he also produced concertos for the violin and music for orchestras. Bach composed hundreds of religious works, making him popular in churches, but he also wrote secular music, which is enjoyed by people of all faiths and none. Bach wrote something for everyone, and it is this, alongside his expertise, that earns him the title “The Greatest Composer of All Time”.

Some of the compositions mentioned in this blog are available on YouTube through the following links:
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I: Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major (BWV846)
German Organ Mass : Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV683a)
Prelude in E-flat Major (BWV 552/i) – Representing the Trinity
Six-voice ricercar from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079)
Opening to St. Matthew Passion (BMW 244)


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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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