Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731), a harpsichord maker for a Florentine duke, built the world's first piano. He later made several technical alterations to improve the instrument's acoustics that have remained essential components of its construction.
Almost nothing is known about the personal life of Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori, except that he was born in the northern Italian city of Padua on May 4, 1655. He became a harpsichord maker, and by 1688 his reputation brought him to the attention of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, son of the grand duke of Tuscany. The prince owned forty harpsichords and spinets, and hired Cristofori to both curate the collection and build new ones. The harpsichord, also called a clavecembalo or clavecin, dated back to the fourteenth century and took the form of strings stretched over a wooden sounding board. Notes emerged when a plectrum, or pick made from a bird's quill or leather, struck the string. Its main drawback was an inability to emit gradations in tone; striking the keys hard, or barely at all, produced the exact same vibration. Larger harpsichords, instruments that contained three or even four sets of strings, were eventually developed that gave an added depth to the sound. However, even the smallest harpsichord was expensive to build and maintain. They were the sole province of kings and minor nobles who possessed a fondness for the arts, like the Medicis.
The harpsichord was the predecessor of Cristofori's piano, but it also had links to a less rarified instrument. The dulcimer, an ancient stringed instrument probably brought to Europe from Asia by Romany gypsies, was a far more populist musical instrument. It was a simple stringed board, and could be played by those with a rudimentary musical ability. Literature of the era rarely even mentions it, so lowly was it considered to be inside established musical circles. A violinist named Pantaleon Hebenstreit improved on the dulcimer around 1700, creating a double one with a five-octave range. The player could inject much more emotion into the playing, and was able to produce a range of tones. Hebenstreit demonstrated his invention, which he called a Pantaleon, before King Louis XIV of France in 1705. Back in Germany, Hebenstreit gained a measure of renown, and others thought about improving on his innovation by making the two hand-held hammers into a series of keys instead, each of which would be connected to its own hammer. An instrument-maker in France named Marius and one Christoph Gottlieb Schroeter of Germany devised designs for such instruments, but they were never built.
Improved on Harpsichord
Cristofori was probably unaware of Hebenstreit's Pantaleon.. He is thought to have started work on his own invention while in the service of the Medicis in Florence around 1698, though he may have begun as early as 1694. A 1700 inventory of the Grand Duke's musical assets listed an arpicembalo che fail piano e il forte, or "harpsichord that can play quietly and loudly." From there Cristofori constructed what became the first piano around 1709. Instead of the quilled jacks used to pluck the string on the harpsichord, Cristofori's innovation was to devise a way in which the strings were struck from below by individual hammers covered in deer leather. The truly revolutionary part of the process was the way by which the downward pressure of the key, when struck by a finger, was carried to the hammer that struck the string. He called it a gravecembalo col piano e forte, or "clavichord with soft and loud." The clavichord was another type of keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord. The name was soon shortened to simply "pianoforte."
Cristofori's invention might have languished forever inside Florence's royal palaces had it not been for the Marquis Scipione Maffei, who wrote about it in 1711 in his Giornale dei Letterati d'Italia, a publication funded by the Medici family. An article titled "New Invention of a Harpsichord with the Soft and Loud" appeared in Volume V. "Everyone who enjoys music knows that one of the principle sources from which those skilled in this art derive the secret of especially delighting their listeners is the alternation of soft and loud," Maffei wrote. "This may come either in a theme and its response, or it may be when the tone is artfully allowed to diminish little by little, and then at one stroke made to return to full vigor—an artifice which has often been used, and with wonderful success, at the great concerts in Rome." Scipione then remarked that the harpsichord was unable to produce as many variations as a bowed string instrument, "and one might have considered it the vainest of fancies to propose constructing [a harpsichord] in such a manner as to have this gift. Such a bold invention, nevertheless, has been no less cleverly thought out than executed, in Florence, by Mr. Bartolommeo Cristofali." Unfortunately Maffei misspelled Cristofori's name.
Died in Obscurity
Cristofori made about twenty of his pianofortes between 1709 and 1726. His patron Ferdinando died in 1713, but he remained curator under the prince's successor, Cosimo III. In 1716 Cosimo named him curator of all musical instruments in the Florentine royal collection. He continued to improve on his pianoforte: in 1720, he installed what would become the forerunner of the soft pedal in the form of two knobs at either side. Cristofori failed to win riches or fame for his invention, however. Most who tried the pianoforte dismissed it as far too difficult to master. Those who did possess a dexterity for the keyboard, such as accomplished organists and harpsichord players, tried it but were put off by the variations in tone; their attempts, which might have furthered its popularity, emitted clumsy sounds and were soon abandoned. Only in 1732 did the first music written for the piano—twelve sonatas written by Florentine composer Ludovico Giustini—appear in print.
The piano languished in relative obscurity, eclipsed by the popularity of opera, which had emerged in Italy in the last century; music practitioners became more interested in the possibilities of the human voice as a musical instrument. Tuscany was also the center of the violin industry at the time. But Cristofori inspired others in Florence, and there emerged a small piano-making industry for a few years. His most famous apprentice was Giovanni Ferriri, who made several of them. It is thought that George Frederic Handel may have encountered one of Cristofori's pianos on a visit to Florence or Rome, and it is known that five of them were shipped to Spain after harpsichord virtuoso Domenico Scarlatti came to Florence.
Germans Marketed the Instrument
In 1725, a German translation of Scipione's 1711 article appeared in Saxony. Titled Critica Musica, it included the diagram of the string mechanism Maffei had drawn. Gottfried Silbermann, an iconoclastic organ builder and clavichord maker from Dresden, is thought to have constructed the first two pianofortes in Germany around 1730. Silbermann knew Hebenstreit in Dresden, who had risen to the post of Royal Chamber Musician, and was hired to maintain the famed Pantaleon; he then secretly copied it and tried to sell it. After Hebenstreit discovered the treachery, he enlisted the help of his patron and was given exclusive rights over the instrument that bore his name. When Silbermann made the pianos, he refused to divulge his know-how. He invited Johann Sebastian Bach, a famed musician and composer in Leipzig by then, to play one, but Bach disliked its sound. Silbermann then worked to improve the instrument until a better version met with the composer's approval.
Various other forms of the instrument came into being in Germany during the latter decades of the eighteenth century, and German manufacturers perfected Cristofori's invention to such a degree that it was believed to have sprung from German soil itself. Even Ludwig van Beethoven, whose concertos and sonatas for the piano remain the some of the most revered of all classical compositions, wrote in 1816 that the instrument was most certainly a German invention. Cristofori died in Florence on January 27, 1731. A few of his pianofortes exist: an instrument dating from 1720 is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, while another is in Leipzig and a third at the Museo degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome. A three-keyboard harpsichord thought to have been built by Cristofori, dated 1702 and with the coat of arms of Prince Ferdinando, resides at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Brinsmead, Edgar, A History of the Pianoforte, with an Account of Ancient Music and Musical Instruments, Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, 1879.
The Cambridge Companion to the Piano, edited by David Rowland, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Closson, Ernest, History of the Piano, translated by Delano Ames, Paul Elek, 1947.
Hipkins, Alfred J., A Description and History of the Pianoforte, Detroit Reprints in Music, 1975.
Loesser, Arthur, Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History, Simon and Schuster, 1954.