What Does the World’s Oldest Surviving Piano Sound Like? Watch Pianist Give a Performance on a 1720 Cristofori Piano

Imag­ine your favorite works for the piano—the del­i­cate and haunt­ing, the thun­der­ing and pow­er­ful. The min­i­mal­ism of Erik Satie, the Roman­ti­cism of Claude Debussy or Mod­est Mus­sorgsky, the rap­tur­ous swoon­ing of Beethoven’s con­cer­tos. Maybe it’s Jer­ry Lee Lewis or Lit­tle Richard; Thelo­nious Monk or Duke Elling­ton. Tom Waits, Tori Amos, Rufus Wain­wright, Prince… you get the idea.

Now imag­ine all of it nev­er exist­ing. A giant hole opens up in world cul­ture. Cat­a­stroph­ic! Or maybe, I sup­pose, we’d nev­er know the dif­fer­ence. But I’m cer­tain we’d be worse off for it, some­how. The piano seems inevitable when we look back into music his­to­ry. Its imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, the clavi­chord and harp­si­chord, so resem­ble the mod­ern piano that they must have evolved in just such a way, we think. But it needn’t have been so.

The harp­si­chord, writes Geor­gia State University’s Hyper­physics, “has a shape sim­i­lar to a grand piano,” but its oper­a­tion pre­vents one crit­i­cal musi­cal prop­er­ty: dynamics—“the play­er has no con­trol over the loud­ness and qual­i­ty of the tone.” On the whole, every inno­va­tion of the harpsichord’s design aimed to solve this prob­lem. Over the instrument’s 400-year his­to­ry, none of them did so as ele­gant­ly as the piano, invent­ed around 1700 by Bar­tolomeo Cristo­fori. In the video above, you can hear a slight­ly lat­er ver­sion of his instru­ment from 1720 played by pianist Dong­sok Shin—an excerpt from one of the first pieces of music ever writ­ten for the instru­ment.

Cristo­fori called his design the grave­cem­ba­lo col piano et forte, “key­board instru­ment with soft and loud” sounds. This soon short­ened to sim­ply pianoforte. It’s inter­est­ing that the word for “soft” even­tu­al­ly became its sole name. For all its grandeur and thun­der­ous capa­bil­i­ty, it’s the piano’s soft­ness that so often cap­tures our attention—the abil­i­ty of this lum­ber­ing beast of an instru­ment to pull its punch­es and move with qui­et grace. As you’ll prob­a­bly note in Shin’s demon­stra­tion, the ear­li­est pianos still retained a bit of the harpsichord’s twang, but we can also clear­ly dis­cern the woody thumps, rum­bles, and tin­kling highs of mod­ern pianos. (Com­pare it to this, for exam­ple.)

True to its name, the “qui­et nature of the piano’s birth around 1700,” writes the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, “comes as some­thing of a sur­prise.” It was invent­ed “almost entire­ly by one man,” Cristo­fori, whose exper­tise had made him stew­ard of Flo­ren­tine Prince Fer­di­nan­do d’Medici’s entire col­lec­tion of harp­si­chords and oth­er musi­cal instru­ments. The first men­tion comes from a 1700 Medici inven­to­ry describ­ing a harp­si­chord-like instru­ment “new­ly invent­ed by Bar­tolomeo Cristo­fori with ham­mers and dampers, two key­boards, and a range of four octaves, C‑c.” The first pianos had 54 keys rather than 88, and used “small wood­en ham­mers cov­ered with deer­skin.”

Oth­er mak­ers tried dif­fer­ent mech­a­nisms, but “Cristo­fori was an art­ful inven­tor,” the Met remarks, “cre­at­ing such a sophis­ti­cat­ed action for his pianos that, at the instrument’s incep­tion, he solved many of the tech­ni­cal prob­lems that con­tin­ued to puz­zle oth­er piano design­ers for the next sev­en­ty-five years of its evo­lu­tion.” These design­ers made short­cuts, since Cristofori’s “action was high­ly com­plex and thus expen­sive.” But noth­ing matched his design, and those fea­tures were “grad­u­al­ly rein­vent­ed and rein­cor­po­rat­ed in lat­er decades.”

Cristofori’s inge­nious inno­va­tions includ­ed an “escape­ment” mech­a­nism that enabled the ham­mer to fall away from the string instant­ly after strik­ing it, so as not to damp­en the string, and allow­ing the string to be struck hard­er than on a clavi­chord; a “check” that kept the fast-mov­ing ham­mer from bounc­ing back to re-hit the string; a damp­en­ing mech­a­nism on a jack to silence the string when not in use; iso­lat­ing the sound­board from the ten­sion-bear­ing parts of the case, so that it could vibrate more freely; and employ­ing thick­er strings at high­er ten­sions than on a harp­si­chord.

The piano Shin plays above is the old­est sur­viv­ing instru­ment of Cristofori’s design, and it resides at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. Only “two oth­er Cristo­fori pianos sur­vive today,” notes CMuse, “in Rome and anoth­er at Leipzi Uni­ver­si­ty.” This instru­ment might have rep­re­sent­ed an ele­gant dead end in musi­cal evo­lu­tion. Though Baroque com­posers at the time, includ­ing Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach, “were aware of it,” most, like Bach, har­bored doubts. “It was only with the com­po­si­tions of Haydn and Mozart” decades lat­er “that the piano found a firm place in music.” A place so firm, it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to imag­ine the last 250 years of music with­out it.

via CMuse

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Musi­cian Plays the Last Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

Why Vio­lins Have F‑Holes: The Sci­ence & His­to­ry of a Remark­able Renais­sance Design

Musi­cians Play Bach on the Octo­bass, the Gar­gan­tu­an String Instru­ment Invent­ed in 1850

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Margaret Hasselman says:

    Dong­sok Shin is also an excel­lent harp­si­chordist.

  • Lisa Lapp says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle — thank you! I had no idea that the evo­lu­tion of the mod­ern piano was advanced so ful­ly by one per­son­’s inge­nu­ity.

    And…the head­line should be updat­ed: “world” should be “world’s”; and (per most style guides) you don’t need a colon after the ques­tion mark.

  • Paula says:

    It would be nice to see a lit­tle video of the action so we could under­stand how it works to give the plucked harp­si­chord sound with the vari­able vol­ume lev­els.

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