The Early Keyboard Instruments: Harpsichord and Clavichord

Prior to the construction of the piano, the harpsichord was the primary keyboard instrument from about 1600.  However, the first mention of the harpsichord dates back to the end of the 14thCentury. The harpsichord is a stringed keyboard instrument in which the strings are plucked by a crow-quill plectrum mounted on the end of the key. The shape of the harpsichord varies and can appear similar to a modern spinet piano or a grand. Although harpsichords were popular for centuries and used by many of the great early composers like Bach, they possessed a major disadvantage-they were unable to make changes in expression with changes in the player’s touch.

The clavichord is the simplest and one of the smallest keyboard instruments whose sound is produced by strings. It is clear from both pictures and writings that clavichords, similar to surviving examples, were in existence in the early years of the 15th century. The clavichord was used throughout Western Europe during the Renaissance and in Germany until the early 19th century, but for most of its long history was primarily valued as an instrument on which to learn, to practice and occasionally to compose. Depressing the key causes a thin piece of metal (the tangent) to rise and strike the string. The tangent also acts as a fret, and the note sounds until the key is released. This simple mechanism allows the player to have control over the volume and release of the tone.

 

The First Pianoforte

About 1709, the Italian Harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori built the world’s first piano called the piano et forte (or soft and loud). Shortly after, others built pianofortes with hammer actions based on Cristofori’s work. Progressively, the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord and clavichord because it offered options previously unavailable with the earlier keyboard instruments.  The fortepiano is a hammer-string instrument having the capacity to make nuances primarily through the use of soft or loud playing. It was about 1850 that the “fortepiano” word was replaced with the “piano” word. In the early 1700’s, the piano did not attract much attention or support. J.S. Bach is reported to have preferred the clavichord, which he was accustomed to playing and which offered an easier touch.

 

The Square Piano

From  1760 to about 1880, significant changes were made in piano development. In about 1760, Johannes Zumpe built, in London, the first English square piano (later to be referred to as “square grand”). He was shortly followed by Broadwood of London, and Erard of France. Johann Behrend of Philadelphia demonstrated his square in 1775.  These early squares suffered from a weak tone and could not compare with the grand (wing form) pianoforte. In addition, the early squares did not have an escapement mechanism and the hammers could inadvertently hit the string again. Also, the hammers, made of small pieces of wood, with a thin coat of leather were all the same size, even the ones that struck the largest bass strings. Many of the fine American piano companies produced beautifully carved square grands throughout the 1800s, including Chickering, Knabe, Steinway, Mathushek and others. Many had beautiful rosewood veneers, ornately carved legs and music racks and scalloped ivory keytops. While there were some improvements made in piano construction over the next 75 years, the square piano continued to dominate the market, especially in America.

 A major drawback of the early keyboard instruments, including the early square grands, was that they lacked power in tone. The demand for larger tone could only be answered with the use of heavier strings and a larger soundboard. This solution was limited by the wooden frame construction of the instruments not being able to withstand the tension of such strings. In about 1825, AlpheusBabcock produced a full iron frame. However, it was Jonas Chickering in 1837 who had improved the design and received a patent shortly after. While there was debate that the iron frames negatively impacted the tonal qualities, eventually they won over.  In 1855, Steinway showed its overstrung square grand at the World’s Fair in New York and proved itself a serious contender withChickering as a piano innovator. This new design in stringing created the impetus for future research and design in piano making.

 

The Upright Piano

Records show that the first upright piano was built in about 1780 by Johann Schmidt of Salzburg, Austria.  About 20 years later, John Isaac Hawkins of Philadelphia patented an upright with vertical strings, a full iron frame and a check action.  In the early 1800s, Robert Wornum of London and Ignance Pleyel of Paris made improvements on the upright piano including a more durable and responsive action. By 1835, Germany began the production of well-constructed upright pianos and started phasing out square grand production. When Americans became serious about upright production, around 1860, they used the overstrung scale and full-iron frame, yet the touch and tone was inferior to high-quality squares.  Improvements were made during the later 1800s and today some high-quality uprights are being rebuild and restored.

 Like many of the squares before it, many 19th century uprights were true works of art. Hand-carved rosewood and mahogany cases with intricate scrollwork dressed many of the instruments.  The heavily built cases and frames have caused uprights to sacrifice a little purity in the tonal department. This concern was debated in the late 1800s and some manufacturers produced uprights with three-quarter rather than full plates in order to allow the sound to escape better and decrease the likelihood of a “metallic” sound. However, the full-plate was later used in most uprights in order to provide greater strength and stability.

 

The Birth of the Modern Grand and American Piano Production

The early great composers did not require a keyboard instrument that could exceed the traditional 5 octaves in range. Until 1803, even Beethoven’s music did not exceed this range. But by 1818, Beethoven was composing music that exceeded 6 octaves in range, including the Sonata in B-flat, op. 106. It has been contended that Beethoven, through his composing, forced piano makers into developing instruments capable of greater ranges.  However, others claim that his music evolved with the ability of the current instruments to perform it. Erard in France and Streicher in Vienna were early producers of grand pianos with escapement mechanisms, but did not produce a significant number of instruments by 1818.

By the mid 1820s, stronger cabinets and iron frames were produced, which led to heavier strings and thus, greater power was produced by the instruments.  Jonas Chickering of Boston was among the first in the world to produce pianos with iron string plates.  From 1830 to about 1850, French piano companies including Erard and Pleyel made significant contributions to the development of the grand piano, especially in the ability of the action to repeat more quickly and smoothly.  During this period, pianos were being produced with felt covered hammers rather than leather-covered hammers.

While there is some evidence that Americans built pianos as early as the 1780s, Chickering was the first American piano company, established in Boston in 1823. and was the dominant force in American piano production for the next several decades and the first to market quality grand pianos on a continuing basis. Some of the greatest pianists of all time, including Franz Liszt, and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, preferred Chickering grands to every other piano they tested.

In 1856, Henry Steinway, who had emigrated to New York from Germany, started building grands. Steinway drew on the work of his predecessors and in a short time became a major international contender in the piano building industry. In 1859, Steinway received a patent for cross-stringing grands. This type of design allowed for longer strings in a given case. By 1860, Steinway had expanded its factory to an entire block in Manhattan and was increasing piano production at a significant rate.

By 1900, more than half of the world’s pianos were made in America and the five largest manufacturers were all American. During the 1920s, the heyday of piano production, thousands of American piano companies were producing uprights and grands, and many were well-constructed instruments quite suitable for the average consumer. During this time, a significant percentage of American upright pianos produced were player pianos. Following the Great Depression, the emphasis on piano production was economy, and both uprights and grands were sold in much smaller sizes. The “baby grand” became a popular consumer grade piano during the ’30s and ’40s. Inventions like the gramophone, the radio, the record player and the television hampered piano production in the early 20th Century.

During the 1960s and 1970s, piano production quality generally declined. Cases were often poorly constructed with plastic veneers covering particleboard and action parts suffered as well. Even companies like Steinway started replacing traditional bushings and joints with plastics and teflons. Needless to say, these instruments did not stand the test of time.  Many of the 1970s and 1980sgrands needed rebuilds within 15 years while some pianos from the 20s are still going strong today with original parts. Japan increased piano production at an alarming rate during the 1970s, mastering the art of efficient production, and many Yamahas and Kawais have been sold in the U.S since. While these instruments are often quite adequate for the general consumer, it is doubtful that rebuilders will take the time and invest in rebuilding these imports since they often come up short when compared to the early 20th Century American pianos.

Unfortunately, by the 1990s, most American piano companies had either gone under completely or sold their names to companies in Asia, including Weber and George Steck. Because of cheap labor and rapid production, imports from abroad have dominated the American piano business. Fortunately, for those interested in high-quality American made pianos, there are still some excellent vintage pianos being restored.

  Approximate Annual Piano Production

Year Est.

1880

1890

1900

1910

1920

1930

Cable 1880

2,400

2,400

5,000

15,000

8,000

1,000

Cable & Nelson

1903

5,000

7,000

2,400

Chickering 1823

2,900

1,300

1,500

2,200

900

700

Emerson 1849

1,600

2,400

2,300

2,200

2,000

2,000

Fischer 1840

1,900

3,300

2,300

1,100

1,400

1,500

Gabler 1854

1,000

1,000

800

2,000

2,000

2,000

Hardman-Peck 1842

1,000

1,000

2,000

1,900

2,000

4,000

Hazelton 1849

800

1,100

1,600

2,000

3,000

1,000

Kimball 1885

7,500

7,200

22,000

6,000

5,000

Knabe 1854

1,400

2,000

2,000

2,000

2,000

900

Kohler & Campbell 1894

4,000

11,000

4,000

2,000

Krakauer 1878

600

600

1,500

1,500

1,300

200

Kranich & Bach 1864

1,200

1,000

1,500

1,000

1,000

700

Kroeger 1879

1,400

1,300

2,000

2,000

2,000

1,000

Marshall & Wendall 1836

600

1,400

1,800

1,300

3,000

1,000

Sohmer 1872

800

900

1,200

1,100

1,300

3,000

Steck 1857

400

600

1,600

2,100

1,700

2,000

Steinway 1853

2,000

2,500

5,000

5,000

5,000

5,000

Story & Clark 1869

1,700

3,000

6,000

1,000

Weber 1852

2,300

3,000

3,100

2,500

1,200

1,000

 

 

Players, Push-ups and Reproducers

The pneumatic player piano, played by perforated paper music rolls and powered by suction created by pumping air through the bellows, came onto the American scene in the late 1890s.  The first player was the Aeolian Pianola, a “push up”external piano device. This device operated by using the keys and action of a regular piano. It was “pushed up” to the piano whereby its mechanical fingers would strike the keys. Due to its large size, making it difficult to maneuver, it was quickly phased out of production the once the self-contained player piano was produced.  Early Pianolasused 65-note music rolls, later ones used the 88-note music rolls (which later became the standard), and some higher end instruments could play both.  Today, Pianolas are very difficult to find, with most of them owned by museums.

The heyday of the self-contained player piano was from about 1910 to 1925.  During this period, a high percentage of all pianos made in the United States were players – uprights and grands alike.  A number of companies produced player actions for regular piano companies.  Among these were Standard Pneumatic Action Co., Pratt-Read Player Action Co., and Auto Pneumatic Action Co. (Autopiano). Many of the large piano manufacturers produced their own player actions, including Aeolian, Baldwin, Gulbransen, Kimball, and Story and Clark.

The player piano opened up numerous opportunities for composers. For example, the instrument could play more than 10 notes at once and could play arrangements that a pianist would never have been able to perform. Some composers such as Moszkowski, Malipiero, and Stravinsky took advantage of this in their music.  Casella composed a fox-trot for pianola in 1918 in which all the notes within a chromatic scale of two octaves were struck at once! In addition to these transcriptions, skilled musicians set up pieces for four hands on to one roll.

By the 1920s, there was a tremendous range of rolls available for the player, including great piano and orchestral pieces, popular songs, dance music, hymn tunes, musicals, movies, and more. Music rolls were written that had the words stenciled along the side so that someone could sing along with the music. This was not an easy task since they were written from bottom to top and often hyphenated.

By the late 1920s, the player piano was being phased out, due to production of the radio and phonograph, which served as means of entertainment at a fraction of the cost and the economic depression. During the war, piano production was limited and therefore players were not produced. In the 1950s, some companies started producing players, but the quantities were limited, due to a lessened demand. Today, player pianos are still produced, though they are very different from the paper roll playing pianos of 80 years ago.  The self playing pianos today are electric instruments that play music CD-ROMS and most are produced in Japan. Many piano experts will tell you that a finely rebuilt 1920s player piano can play circles around the ones produced today.

There were certain limitations to the regular player piano, the primary one being that it did not have the ability to reproduce the expression of a concert pianist. What was sought after was a piano that could accurately produce all the nuances that would occur during a pianist’s performance, such as changes in volume, intensity and speed. Hence, the reproducing piano was invented. The reproducing piano’s purpose was to re-create or reproduce the pianist’s playing without sounding mechanical. The reproducing piano is basically a regular player piano with the addition of expression control mechanisms and an electric pump. Three major manufacturers sold their products in American. These were: the American Piano Company, makers of the Ampico; the Aeolian Company, manufacturers of the Duo-Art; and the Auto-Pneumatic Action Company, makers of the Welte-Mignon mechanism.

The Ampico mechanism was available in America in the Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, Knabe, J.&C. Fischer, Marshal & Wendell, Haines Bros., Franklin, and some others. The Duo-Art could be purchased in Steinway, Steck, Weber, Wheelock, Stroud, and Aeolian pianos in electric and foot-powered form. Welte-Mignon of Germany licensed more than 100 American companies to use its action, including the Baldwin piano company. There were a few other reproducing actions made by other American companies but they were short-lived.

 

Pianos in Europe

The English grand piano action was first developed by Americus Backers with help from John Broadwood and Robert Stodart around 1772.  The Stodart and Broadwood grands were the first musically important pianos to be built in England.  During the 1800s, Broadwood made numerous developments in piano construction including improvements in piano wire and scaling. Throughout the 19th century, Broadwood continued producing large numbers of pianos, including uprights, squares and grands.  Broadwood grands are considered historically important due to their long history as a piano builder and the fact that Beethoven was so fond of his large Broadwood grand.

French piano making around 1800 was influenced by the developments in England.  It was not until a little later that the French became equally respected. Of course, Paris was considered a a city of culture, including musical culture. The piano companies of Erard, Pleyel, Kriegelstein and Herz were held in high regard in French homes and concert halls. Beethoven owned a Erard grand which he used for a number of years. Chopin and Liszt did much to add to the respect and prestige of Erards and Pleyels during the 19th century.  Sebastien Erard had numerous patents for the piano dating back to the turn of the century. He invented the agraffe (the metal stud that holds the wire near the tuning pins) and the most importantly, the repetition action that is still used today in Europe and America. Erard moved to England in the early 1800s, and so many of the fine Erards were built in London.

Piano construction in Vienna was influenced by the musical culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Walter, Stein, Streicher, Graf and of course Bösendorfers were the prominent piano builders of the time. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms were some of the great pianists served by Viennese and German pianos.  The piano during Beethoven’s time underwent numerous changes including increased octaves, heavier construction and better wire. While these changes coincided with developments in America by Chickering and Steinway, the Viennese and German builders were a bit more conservative with some other aspects of piano construction. They continued to produce straight-strung pianos up until late in the 19th century, nearly 40 years after Steinway decided to move to the overstrung piano we see today.  It was believed by the Europeans that overstringing (having the bass run over the top of the treble wire) creates a muffled sound. There may be some truth to that, as the fine Viennese pianos like Bosendorfer and Streicher do have a beautiful, clean tone. However, the Americans were concerned with increased power and wanted to fit the longest wire possible in a piano.

Another stark contrast between the Viennese pianos and the rest of the world was the action design.  While the repetition action was being used in quality grands (not square grands) during the late 1800s, Bösendorfer continued to use the old Viennese action in which the hammer and shank is mounted on the back of the key, facing the opposite direction of the hammers in a modern action, until 1909. Two differences are that 1. without a double escapement mechanism, the fall of the hammer is a bit more apparent, and 2. the Viennese action has a lighter touch more reminiscent of the early piano-fortes. When playing a Viennese piano for the first time, pianists often remark at how much fun they are to play.

Sources of Information

Dolge, Alfred. Pianos and their Makers. 1911.

Givens, Larry. Rebuilding the Player Piano. 1963.

Good, Edwin M. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos. 2001.

Howard, Roy E. Ph.D. Piano selection. www.cantos.org

Ripin, Edwin, Scott, Howard. Early Keyboard Instruments. The New Grove Musical Instruments Series