by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Magical Mystery Tour through Piano History

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRENT, Italy 12 July 2003


In around 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori, a Paduan at the court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici in Florence, invented the piano. For a long time his fellow countrymen showed little interest in the instrument, which aroused far more enthusiasm in German-speaking lands. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, Cristofori's name was all but forgotten and the invention was almost universally attributed to Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg, Saxony, who had copied Cristofori's revolutionary machine.

Given the central roles played by Italy and Germany in the original construction and diffusion of the piano, Trent, which for centuries marked a key meeting point between the Italian- and German-speaking worlds, is a most appropriate venue for a celebration of this instrument that changed the course of Western music.

Fifty antique pianos have been gathered together at the Castello del Buonconsiglio, tracing the invention and evolution of the instrument in Europe and America for a splendid exhibition: "Reawakening Ancient Chords: Three Centuries of the Piano." Curated by an international team of experts led by Alain Roudier, Bruno di Lenna and Temenuschka Vesselinova, the exhibition is accompanied by a highly readable and richly illustrated catalog, available with a pair of revelatory CDs (which can also be listened to from room to room in the course of the show) of Roudier and Vesselinova playing classic pieces on some of the instruments on display.

The exhibition continues until Oct. 19, with free concerts every Tuesday evening by invited pianists to explore the repertoire of successive periods employing these historic instruments.

Bartolomeo Cristofori understood that his new machine would only function properly if he could find a way of making the hammer hit the string and fall away sufficiently briskly not to deaden the sound, even if the key was still being held down. He cracked this surprisingly complex problem with a system consisting of an arrangement of levers, which operated what came to be called an "escapement" action (the term does not appear to have been coined until 1834). So well did Cristofori meet this challenge that his method could not be significantly improved upon for well over a century, but meanwhile the instrument's progress was slowed by the attempts of makers to devise simpler mechanisms that were easier to build but did not work nearly as well.

Cristofori's newfangled machine gave keyboard players an unprecedented control over the sounds they produced including, at the most basic level, an ability to control volume -- hence the original term "pianoforte" (soft loud), and "fortepiano," names that initially enjoyed equal currency. The latter word is still the standard one for the piano in Slavic languages, and in the West is used as a convenient (if historically not strictly accurate) way of denoting early pianos.

One possible explanation why the piano received a warmer welcome north of the Alps than in the land that gave birth to it is that the clavichord, whose action and "feel" had something in common with the piano's, was more popular there, while in Italy the harpsichord remained king. And, curiously, the only surviving instrument by Cristofori's best-known pupil, Giovanni Ferrini, is a combined piano-harpsichord of 1746, which could be played as one or the other, or both at once.

But whatever the reasons for the Germans' initial love affair with the piano, it was this region that did most to guarantee its wider distribution. The wars and revolutions that disrupted central Europe during the 18th century also had an influence, since quite a few early makers were refugees. To England, for example, in the 1760's and 70's went a group of Germanic migrants, who came to be called the "Twelve Apostles," on account of their "conversion" to the cult of the piano, and turned London into an important piano-manufacturing center, laying the foundations for a native English school, and the factories of Broadwood and Stodart families. To Paris went the Erard Brothers, and the Pleyel family, both to become renowned manufacturers and to make the French capital a formidable rival to London.

Despite the emigration of talent from the region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Vienna remained a prime center for piano making -- with more than 150 piano and organ makers active between 1791 and 1815 -- and, during the period when the piano was consolidating its primacy over other keyboard instruments, was the home of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The Viennese school was also distinct in cleaving to instruments that produced light, delicate, transparent sounds that came increasingly to contrast with the more powerful and robust styles of their northern competitors. Some of the Viennese instruments were also the most refined in design and aesthetically pleasing ever made.

The most amusing pianos on display here are from the early 19th century and fitted with additional pedals to the standard two or three of later instruments. These extra ones operated a series of "bells and whistles" devices, summoning up accompanying effects, ranging from the sound of bassoons and the plucking of lutes to the thump of the bass drum of a Janissary band, the tinkling of triangles and the clash of cymbals. These options, pre-dating the modern synthesizer by a good century and a half, came to be thought infra dig and were eventually dropped by manufacturers.

The strangest piano here is Wagner's "Graalsglocke" or Holy Grail Bell, which consists of just four enormous keys and hammers to strike four sets of outsized bass strings. It was used in every performance of "Parsifal" at Bayreuth between 1882 and 1975, but has been replaced by electronic music, apparently.

As for the makers themselves, it is one of the great virtues of the show and catalog that they focus so much attention on them. To be a really successful piano maker of the old school required multifarious talents, from a profound understanding of music and musical trends to practical engineering skills and a head for business in what became during the 19th century an ever more competitive environment. Huge sums were sometimes committed to improving the technology. Erard Brothers, for example, spent 13 years developing their new patent "double escapement," which facilitated the extremely rapid repetition of single notes, and reckoned to have spent almost $25,000 in the money of the time in developing it.

The makers' relationships with their celebrity customers also became increasingly vital. When the 12-year-old Franz Liszt went to London in 1824, Erard shipped over from Paris several of their most up-to-date pianos for the young prodigy to play. The tour ended with a triumphant royal command performance at Windsor for George IV, at which Pierre Erard, nephew of the firm's boss, hovered discreetly in the background, hoping after the recital to persuade the king to sign on the dotted line and order a deluxe Erard for himself.

Nor could the great virtuosos be counted upon to stick to a single brand. As Chopin was recorded as saying: "When I am somewhat indisposed, I play an Erard piano and I easily find a sound ready to hand. But when I am in form and feel strong enough to find my own sound, I need a Pleyel."

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016