Psaltery and Hammered Dulcimer
The psaltery is a medieval ancestor of the piano. The hand-held
psaltery is like a small harp, or lyre, enclosed in a wooden
box. The strings of the psaltery are exposed and plucked,
rather than struck like the piano. The hammered dulcimer is
also an ancestor of the piano. Not unlike the psaltery, the
hammered dulcimer is an elongated lyre. However, the dulcimer
has fewer strings, and these are struck rather than plucked.
It is from these two early instruments, one plucked and one
hammered, that the two dominant keyboards of the seventeenth
and eighteenth century were developed.
Harpsichord and Clavichord
The harpsichord is basically a mechanical psaltery. Each
key operates a mechanical device called a "jack." The plectrum-made
of leather, a bird's quill, or, more recently, plastic-is
attached to the jack by means of a pivoting "tongue." When
the key is pressed down the jack is raised and, consequently,
the plectrum plucks the string. When the key is released,
the jack descends, and the plectrum makes contact with the
string. This provokes the pivoting action of the tongue to
tilt back and allow the plectrum to clear the string. A spring
at the bottom of the tongue ensures that both tongue and plectrum
return to their original vertical position. As this happens,
a "damper," made of felt, stops the string from sounding.
The first harpsichords appeared in fifteenth-century Italy,
but it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that
the instrument really flourished. The harpsichord, with its
characteristically brilliant tinkling tone, provided the continuo
for almost every combination of instruments in chamber music
for approximately 200 years. It also accompanied opera, songs,
and large-scale choral works. The Baroque repertory of harpsichord
music is very extensive. Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725),
J. S. Bach (1685-1750), George Frideric Handel (1685-1759),
François Couperin (1668-1733), and many others composed major
solo works for the instrument.
The clavichord is a direct descendent of the dulcimer. It
is mechanically much simpler than the harpsichord, and its
lack of volume limited it to chiefly domestic use. The keyboard
is set perpendicular to the strings, which stretch across
the length of the instrument. Each key is fitted with a brass
implement called a "tangent." When the key is played, the
tangent strikes the pair of strings above it causing the instrument
to sound. The clavichord is often noted for its sensitive
capabilities. The player has great control over the sound
spectrum of the instrument: If the key is struck with great
force, the tangent lifts the strings beyond their usual position,
altering the pitch. Another expressive possibility is that
of manipulating the tone after the initial striking of the
key. While the tangent is still in contact with the strings
and therefore able to influence the sound, an increase or
decrease of pressure on the key can produce a number of effects.
One possible result is a vibrato or "bebung;" another is the
impression of a crescendo; yet another is a "portamento" or
expressive connection between two different notes (often heard
in string or wind instruments, as well as in singing). Bach
taught his keyboard pupils on the clavichord, and one of the
greatest compositions of the eighteenth century is the collection
known as The Well-Tempered Klavier-forty-eight preludes
and fugues that he wrote as study pieces to improve keyboard
Both the harpsichord and the clavichord have severe limitations.
The harpsichord's mechanism makes it incapable of any variation
in volume or tone. The clavichord is responsive to the force
or lightness with which the keys are struck, but it is too
quiet. Composers longed for a keyboard instrument that was
both loud enough and responsive to variations of touch.
Immediate Predecessors of the Modern Acoustic Piano
The solution to the problem was the work of a single man-Bartolomeo
Cristofori (1655-1731), who worked with the instruments in
the Medici court of Florence. Cristofori's piano was in many
respects the instrument that is played today. If anything,
it was more complex than the modern-day instrument. Cristofori
solved the problem of controllable volume by having the hammers
fly free when the key was struck-the harder the key was struck,
the harder the hammer would hit the strings. The second problem
he solved was that of returning the hammers to a playable
position rapidly, thus enabling the same key to be struck
repeatedly without having to wait for the hammer to fall back
into place. This return factor is crucial to all keyboard
instruments and is called the "escapement." The quicker and
more efficient the escapement, the faster the player could
play. The strings of the clavichord and harpsichord are less
taut such that, when a free-flying hammer is applied at force
to such a loose string, the string absorbs some of the force
and the hammer is slow to rebound. Cristofori introduced thick,
high-tension metal strings that the hammers would be able
to bounce off quickly, and designed a frame massive enough
to hold them and act as a resonator. He reduced as far as
possible the distance the hammer had to travel to hit the
string, and created a complex mechanism that allowed the hammer
to fall back, even when the key was released. A lever system
made it possible for the hammers to be quite light. This was
important, because the machinery of Cristofori's piano caused
the player to feel the weight of the hammer multiplied eightfold
as he struck the keys. Cristofori's piano was more laborious
to play than its predecessors. Many scholars use the terms
fortepiano, hammerklavier, and hammerflügel
(literally "winged hammers") to refer to the "piano" of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The history of the piano during this time was one of astonishing
improvement, including the development of heavier and more
agile hammers (capable of a wide range of volume and tone),
and advances in the technology of thicker, more tense strings.
Because of the demand from players and composers for ever
better and more expressive instruments, piano-builders all
over Europe and later the United States applied themselves
to the problems of speed, volume, tone, and expressiveness.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the piano was replacing
the harpsichord. In the early nineteenth century, Beethoven
began to compose the piano works that would result in the
greatest series of sonatas ever written for the instrument.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Robert Schumann (1810-1856),
and the virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886) made the piano the
heart of nineteenth-century Romanticism.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the upright
piano was developed, and factory production made the instrument
affordable to ordinary households. The piano became the center
of domestic entertainment, and found its way into chapels,
clubs, and cafés. Every major modern composer, including Béla
Bartók (1881-1945), Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), and Dmitry
Shostakovich 1906-1975), made the piano central to their work.
Modern Acoustic Piano
The modern piano is the most brilliantly versatile of all
musical instruments. It has the broadest variety of tone and
mood, from thunderous to lyrical, from commanding to delicate.
It has the widest dynamic range, and is equally at home in
a modest living room or a great concert hall. The piano is
played in chapels and pubs and with orchestras and jazz ensembles.
It has a vast solo repertoire that encompasses some of the
greatest music ever written, and its place in chamber music
is immutable. The piano has held a dominant position in music-making
for over two hundred years. A look under the lid of the grand
piano gives us a hint into its history. With its massive frame
and its tautly-stressed strings, which form a triangle as
they go from short to long, the piano resembles a harp laid
on its side.
The piano was used in jazz and popular music, and when recording
began in the early twentieth century, pianists became household
names and international stars. Serge Rachmaninoff (1873-1943),
Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), Vladimir
Horowitz (1903-1989), Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997), and
Alfred Brendel (b. 1931) are some of the greatest pianists
of the twentieth century. James P. Johnson (1891-1955), Art
Tatum (1910-56), Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), and Keith Jarrett
(b. 1945) are among the masters of jazz piano.
The mightiest of all keyboards-indeed, the mightiest of all
musical instruments-is the pipe organ. The first organ was
built in Alexandria during the third century BC, when a Greek
engineer called Ktesibius attached hydraulic bellows to a
set of pan-pipes. The idea was developed first by the Greeks,
then by the Romans, but when the Roman Empire collapsed in
the fifth century AD, so did the craft of organ-making. It
was revived in the tenth century, and early versions of the
great pipe organ were modest affairs. The "portative organ,"
(so called because it was carried around the neck) was an
upright arrangement of wooden pipes of varying lengths. It
was played with one hand on the keyboard and the other operating
a bellows. The sound it made was sweet and not unlike a consort
of recorders. The larger "positive organ" was placed on the
floor or on a heavy table.
It wasn't until the end of the Middle Ages that organs developed
as large-scale permanent fixtures in churches and cathedrals.
The great period for organ-building was the Baroque Era, roughly
from 1600-1750. It was during this time that the greatest
organ music was written by composers like Heinrich Schutz
(1585-1672), Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707) and, pre-eminently,
J.S. Bach. The "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" is one of the
most stupendous pieces of music ever written.
The twentieth century saw a revival in organ music. Olivier
Messiaen (1908-1992) and Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) continued the
sacred tradition, while composers as different as Peter Maxwell
Davies (b. 1934), Philip Glass (b. 1937), and Fats Waller
(1904-1943) took the ancient instrument in new directions.