The Early Piano

The piano’s invention mainly occurred because of the demands of musicians for a stringed keyboard instrument with a greater volume of tone and additional expressive powers.  The idea of the struck string seemed to be the answer.  A mechanism was therefore needed that would propel a hammer to a string, but would not let it block or bounce. 


Three men of different nationalities, apparently unknown to each other, were to suggest the idea in the space of eight years.  These men were Cristofori of Florence, Italy in 1709, Marius of Paris in 1716 and Schroeter from Germany in 1717.  Neither Marius nor Schroeter made profit from their work.  The Marius invention was called a “mallet harpsichord”, while the Schroeter invention was rather like a developed dulcimer.  (Schroeter probably having seen the instrument used by the great dulcimer virtuoso Pantaleon Habenstreit). 


The inventor of the piano was thus Cristofori (1655 – 1731), who was working on this project from the late seventeenth century onwards.  However, his invention was first revealed to the public in 1709.    Cristofori was a maker, tuner and keeper of clavichords, harpsichords and pianos in the instrumental collection to Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici of Florence.   


Cristofori’s Action

The action that Cristofori used was simple by today’s standards, but at the time of its conception was revolutionary.  It contained all the essentials that we now expect from a piano action: hinged hammer, independent of the key, an escapement (set-off), hammer check fitted into the rear of the key, and, of course, a damper.  Bartolomeo Cristofori called his invention “Gravicembalo col piano e forte” (Harpsichord with soft and loud). 


The invention of the piano meant that there was now a stringed keyboard instrument that could be used expressively, and this led to a new breed of musician and writing style.  Cristofori’s action was remarkably mature.  The action worked well and was acceptable to most musicians, although he continued to perfect this mechanism.   Surprisingly there was little interest in the piano in Italy.