The early pianoforte in a nutshell

In the whole of Europe, new movement arised during the 18th century. The contrast between Rationalism, Pure Reason and the sentiment, the deepened feelings created without a doubt a favourable situation for these new developments. Ancient values were compared with new ones; in literature for example the style of the adventure story rises, in which the central figure compares his culture with exotic cultures. It seems like an enlargement of expressions took place. At the end of the 18th century, this became clear and the fortepiano began to fulfill the musical demand.

When one tries to comprehend the earliest history of the fortepiano (and this is all that this article wants to do, I'm not going to mention the squares, the "giraffenflügel", the pyramids and "Lyra Flügel"), it seems that there are very few data written down; the only thing that remains are a few instruments.

Bartolomeo Cristofori, whose name is related to the first fortepiano, seems to have been far ahead of his time. The actual development only started some time later, in the middle and at the end of the 18th century, and as far known, mostly in the German states. A lot of experiments were conducted through the years, the results are lost, but some names are known: in Germany Schröter and in France Marius.

The idea to use a hammer to reproduce sound wasn't new, think of the cymbal, the xylophone and even the carillon. But it was new, to use it for the harpsichord.

The purpose of the mechanism is to control the dynamic by using the key: in this transmission lay the actual problem. Cristofori solved almost all problems in a short time and made the real precursor of the modern action.

He was in service of prince Ferdinand De Medici in Florence. Scipione Maffei saw Cristofori's invention in 1709, when he asked Ferdinand De Medici for protection of his magazine "Giornale dei Letterati d'Italia". He published his articla about the invention of Cristofori in 1711, and in 1718 again in "Rime e Prose". Through the exchange of the courts in Florence and in Dresden (Saxony), the invention also became famous there, and in 1725 Mattheson published the translation of König, the Dresden's court poet. It's likely that the invention of Cristofori gained familiarity then.

Several harpsichord-builders focused on the production of fortepianos. One of them must be taken into consideration: Gottfried Silbermann, an organ-builder who also, as often took place at that time, made harpsichords and clavichords. After a few experiments he built the later edition of the Cristofori-mechanic around 1740 and received a certain fame for this. Even Frederic the Great bought a large number of his grand pianos. In his workshop, experiments with easier mechanisms also took place. The "Stoss-mechanic" and the "Prell-mechanic" are thought to be his.

His cousin Jean Henri Silbermann continued the tradition in Strasbourg. He was very appreciated in Paris and built several other instruments with the Cristofori-mechanism in 1760.
The cultural connection between Italy and the German states wasn't the only in Europe, there was also a good exchange between Italy and Spain, where they still built conform the Cristofori-way in the middle of the 18th century, for example by Henrique van Casteel.

A lot of Silberann's students started to work for themselves and focused on easier versions like the Prell- and the Stoss-mechanism. Andreas Stein has certainly been one of the most talented of those students, and he gave the final form to the Prell-mechanism (around 1170). We talk about the "German mechanism". Through the later hegemony of the piano-industry in Vienna, the term "Viennese mechanism" was founded.

The same Frederic the Great who encouraged Gottfried Silbermann to build Fortepianos, caused a bad climate for undertakers through his free expansion wars. The third Silezian war (called the seven year war), in which England chose for the Prussian side because of the stability of Europe was the final blow for the Central-German people. It partly explains the decision of a lot of craftsmen to choose the safety of England, that was in fact an ally, to work and to live. A lot of Silbermann's students were involved in this emigration. This way, a lot of knowledge reached England and the "English mechanism" was developed out of the Stoss-mechanism. Other builders, who didn't choose for England, founded their company in South Germany.

There were two types of mechanism that had been established, which were 'most used'; the German or Viennese, and the English. The distribution of this first type was largely limited to the German area, while the second type conquered England and a large part of the Continent.

The appearance of the Viennese grand piano in the period between 1790 - 1815 was pretty stable. The side of the keyboard enlarges towards the descent, but the idiom of the sound doesn't change. Though there was no uniformity. Each builder had his own special qualities.

The use of a lot of pedals, with different effects, was fashionable during a certain period. Instruments with four or seven pedals were no exception around 1810. In the fourties most factories and builders restricted themselves to the use of two pedals, one for "una corda" and one for "forte". The pianist/composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1788 - 1837) gives a nice image of those two ruling types in Europe:

"...Der Wiener lässt sich von der zartesten Händen leicht behandeln. Es erlaubt dem Spieler, seinem Vortrage alle möglichen Nuancen zu geben, spricht deutlich und prompt an, hat einen runden flÖtenartigen Ton, der sich, besonders in grossen Lokalen, von dem akkompagnirenden Orchester gut underscheidet, und erschwert die Geläufkigheit nicht durch eine zu grosse Anstrengung. Diese Instrumente sind auch dauerhaft und beinahe im halben Preise der Englischen...
Dem Englischen Mechanismus muss man, wegen seiner Dauerhaftigkeit un Fülle des Tones, gleichfalls Recht ciderfahren lassen. Diese Instrumenten gestatten jedoch niv-cht den Grad von Fertigkeit, wie die Wiener, indem sich der Anschlag der Tasten debeutend gewichtiger anfühlt, sie auch viel tiefer fallen, und
daher die Auslösung der Hammer bei wiederholtem Tonenanslag nicht so schnell erfolgen kann. Wer an solche Instrumente noch nicht gewöhnt ist, lasse sich durch dies Tieffallen der Claves und durch den schweren Anschlag der Tasten keineswegs stören; nur übernehmende er sich nicht im Tempo, und spiele alle geschwinde Sätze und Rouladen durchaus mit der gewöhnlichen Leichtigkeit... Im ersten Augenblick fühlt ma sich zwar etwas unbehagluch, weil wir, besonders im Forte bei Rouladen, die Taste bis auf den Grund fassen, was hier mehr oberflächlich geschenen muss, da man sonst nut mit höchster Anstrengung fortkommen und die Fertigkeit doppelt erschweren würde. Dagegen bekommt der Gesang, und bekommen alle Bindungen, auf diesen Instrumenten durch die Fülle des Tons einen eigenen Reitz und harmonischen Wohllaut.
Indessen habe ich beobachtet, dass,
so stark diese Instrumente im Zimmer tönen, sie dennoch in einem grossen Lokale, wo nicht die Naur, doch die Wirkung ihres Tond verändern, und bei komplizirter Orchster-Begleitung weniger durchdringen, als die unsrigen; weites, nach meiner Meinung, dern oft gar zu dicken, vollen Ton zuzuschreiben ist, nach welchen sie sich von den Tone der meistes Orchester-Instrumente zu weinig absondern."

The Viennese desing wasn't very suitable for change and had to give eventually in to the developments which were taking place in France and England (the volume race).

In France Erard had laid the fundamentals for the modern grand piano (1821). He combined the English developmets (which he had discovered when he fled the French Revolution) with the original design (Cristofori's) and realised the repetition-mechanism (mécanique à double échappement). It took a while though before they accepted his solution;

considerably high number of original instruments (especially those of the beginning of the 19th century) survived the time. These instruments can be seen as the source of inspiration for builders of our time.

Jan van den Hemel