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A History of the Pianoforte in a Nutshell

The pianoforte is the result of an evolution having its beginning many centuries back. The very first stringed instrument was possibly some form of the ancient lyre, associated with poetry and Greek history, although the instrument originated in Asia, not Greece. The number of strings varied at different epochs, and probably in different localities, four, seven, and ten being the favorite numbers. They were used without a fingerboard. Nor was a bow possible. The plectrum, however, is thought to have been in use at all times. It was held in the right hand to set the upper strings in motion, the fingers of the left hand touching the lower strings.
 
Next came the monochord, invented in the sixth century, B. C., by Pythagoras. It consisted of an oblong sound box, with one string stretched across it and a movable bridge for dividing the string. It was used in the eleventh century in singing schools, to teach the intervals of the plain-song of the church. Jean de Muris, 1323, teaches how true relations may be found by a single string monochord, but recommends a four-stringed one, properly a tetrachord, to gain a knowledge of unfamiliar intervals.
 
Still later there came the Arab-Sautir, a trapeze-shaped instrument composed of a solid frame, sounding board and metal wires struck with hammers held in the hand.
 
A keyboard of balanced keys may have been first introduced in the little portable organ, known as the regal, so often represented in old carvings, paintings, and stained windows. It derived its name, regal, from the rule (regula) or graduated scale of its keys, and was used in giving singers in religious processions the note or pitch.
 
More strings were added to the mono- chord from time to time, and possibly in the fourteenth century, the clavichord was finally invented. Black and white keys were added, but the principle of the action remained the same as the mono- chord—the hammer simultaneously sounding and dividing the string. Next in line came the virginal, having the same principle, but being a parallelogram in shape and having a projecting key board.
 
From all the various forms, two main instruments developed—the harpsichord and the Spinet. The first harpsichord was made about 1430, springing from the clavichord, but consisting of a separate string for each sound, the keys instead of setting in action a device for striking and, at the same time, dividing the strings, causing the strings to be plucked by quills, thus giving not only an entirely different quality of tone, but the pitch of the string remained unaltered.
 
Spinetus of Venice
The Spinet was first made by Spinetus, Venice, 1500. It was on the order of the harpsichord, only the case was square and the strings ran diagonally instead of lengthwise. Sometimes strings and sounding board were arranged perpendicularly and this was called a clavicitherium. There were three sizes of Spinets.
 
Two and one-half feet wide—tuned to Chapel pitch (one-half tone above present medium pitch).
Three and one-half feet wide, tuned to the fourth below.
Five feet wide, tuned an octave below the first.
 
Thomas Hitchcock, in 1703, made a great advance by giving them the wide compass of five octaves—from G to G— with a very fine keyboard. The sharps inlaid with slips of ivory or ebony, according to the naturals.
 
Many attempts were made to increase the resources of these instruments, one of the most curious being that of combining two harpsichords in one, having two actions, two sounding boards and sets of strings, and two keyboards, related like those of an organ.
 
The Advent of Cristofori
The pianoforte proper was not invented until 1711, when a Florentine mechanic, named Cristofori, invented the Forte-piano, called so because of its capacity of being played loud or soft.
 
This invention was taken up immediately in Germany and improved, and in England the iron tension bar was introduced, giving a greater solidity and resisting power to pull the strings. They were still small and strung with fine wires, but there was, however, a tendency toward increasing compass.
 
Between 1808 and 1827, a great many improvements were made. Sebastian Erard, maker of the first square piano, patented his grand action (which still remains a model of what piano action should be). The stringing was made heavier and the hammers proportionately stronger and the power of tone greater. Thus the instrument became ready for the great pianists, Liszt having made his appearance in Vienna in 1823, and within seven years after, being generally recognized as a phenomenal appearance in art.
 
Meanwhile, great improvements were continually carried on for the purpose of rendering the instrument impervious to the forcible attacks made upon its stability, by these new virtuosi. Mathews says: "In the early appearances of Liszt it was necessary to have several pianos in reserve upon the stage, so when one hammer or string broke, another instrument could be moved forward for the next piece."
 
The American Piano
The most important improvement in the solidity of the piano came in the iron framework. Babcock first introduced this and it was later perfected and patented by Conrad Meyer, of Philadelphia, in 1833. Meyer's idea was again improved, and applied to the grand piano as well as the square. This brought the principle to a high degree of perfection, establishing it by the independent construction of the American pianoforte.
 
In 1855 the first overstrung instrument was exhibited in which the bass strings are carried over the treble, thus affording more latitude for vibration without interference.
 
The chief centers of pianoforte trade are:—London, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Brussells, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore.
 
It may be interesting to note here, that up to 1700, the system of playing the harpsichord did not make use of the thumb, also, that the first published work on piano technique and fingering was by C. P. E. Bach, in 1751. No finer pianofortes are made in the world than those made in America, and the volume of business done in this industry is prodigious.

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