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The 19th Century Piano—Coming and Going

by J. Stanley Ryberg, PhD, Professor of Music (retired) 

Photo by lynda m. ryberg

Stanley RybergAlthough technically outside the subject area, we must begin with Bartolomeo Cristofori—however you prefer to pronounce it (Florence, where he worked, or Padua, where he was born)—who so neatly solved the problem of controlling dynamics, which the leading keyboard instrument of the day, the harpsichord, could not.  (The clavichord could, of course, but it was small and very soft.  Though pleasant, it did not figure in the performance instrument category.)  Cristofori’s invention (at least the second or possibly third iterations of it, around 1720-1722) created the solution to the problem without ANY previous examples to follow.  Indeed, he created the example for all who followed, even though his work went largely unnoticed in Italy at the time.  (Gottfried Silbermann, in Germany, did build copies soon after.)

The problem—how to control dynamics, which is impossible to do with a plucked string.

The solution—strike the string, controlled by the velocity with which the player depresses the key.

The problem—how to do this in such a way that the hammer (oh…the HAMMER!!  Very light, usually covered with leather…there were examples that were made of vellum…mounted on a wooden shank, propelled upward by the key) does not block against the string, damping the sound.

The solution—invention of a proper escapement (so that the hammer is thrown, not pushed against the string) AND a checking mechanism to catch the hammer on its rebound, so that it doesn’t act like a bobble-head doll!  (Oh, and though there was not much sustain in his instruments, based on harpsichord technology, there was also a damper mechanism…which harpsichords also had.)


Through most of the next 100 years, fortepianos were lightly built with wooden frames, much like harpsichord construction, which had been refined over the previous 150 years or so.

BUT…there were a few salient developments leading to the 19th century instrument.

1740 or thereabouts—Gottfried Silbermann included a damper stop, a lever which lifted all dampers, allowing sustain w/o holding down the keys.  (Very inconvenient when located at the keyboard, but quite workable when operated as a knee lever.)

1774—John Joseph Merlin invented the “una corda” pedal.  This shifted the keyboard so that the hammers struck only one of the two strings (there were as yet no tri-chord unisons).

1783—John Broadwood (London) developed the damper pedal, though pedal markings in piano music were largely absent until after 1790.  (Clementi, also a piano builder in London, was probably the first to publish piano music with pedal markings.)

1790—Broadwood began building pianos with 5 ½ octave keyboards.

(Now, on to the 19th century proper….)

1804—Jan Ladislav Dussek (a Bohemian pianist/composer living in Vienna) performs with his profile to the audience, rather than his back.  Liszt capitalized on this 35 years later!

1808—Sebastien Erard invents the agraffe, a metal (usually brass) stud through which the strings pass on their way to the tuning pins.

1810—Broadwood expands the keyboard to 6 octaves.  (Did C.M. von Weber have access to this when writing the sonata on this program?)  Other manufacturers followed suit on the Continent quickly thereafter.

1811—Robert Wornum patents an upright piano.

1816—Nannette Stein Streicher, in Vienna, begins building 6 ½ octave grand pianos.  (See how the ball is rolling more quickly?)

1820—The first successful use of metal in the frame of a grand piano, by Thom & Allen, London. 
--also in 1820, Broadwood builds a 7 octave piano.  (85-note concert grands were commonplace near the end of the century, along with 88-note instruments.)

1821—Sebastien Erard patents the double-escapement action allowing for faster repetition, essentially from half-blows, before the action had completely reset.  This forms the basis for the modern grand action.

1825—Alpheus Babcock patents a one-piece metal frame for square pianos, in Boston.
--same year (or 1826?), Jean-Henri Pape (Paris, born Johann Heinrich Pape, in Germany) introduces and patents felt covering for piano hammers, which had nearly always been covered with leather.  Some makers continue to use leather for quite some time.

1826—Robert Wornum patents a tape-check upright action in London, which forms the basis for the modern upright action.

(As an aside at this point, Wm Braid White, an icon in modern piano tuning history, writes that the years between 1820 and 1825, roughly, form the break between the “old” piano and the new.  There are many reasons to agree with this assessment.)

1826 (or 1828?)—Pape first uses cross stringing (of the bass strings diagonally over the treble strings, with a separate bridge) in a small console cabinet, allowing for longer bass strings (among other things).  Several makers continue building pianos with flat stringing (in one plane) for years, especially in grand pianos.

1835—Wilke, in Breslau, invents the first machine for covering an entire set of hammers with a sheet of tapered felt.  This simplifies the manufacture of hammers, speeding the process greatly (and, eventually, making the sets more consistent).

1837—An early version of “Dueling Banjos…uh…Pianos” is held in Paris (where, historically, there is a tendency to choose up sides!) between Franz Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg. 

(Which then leads to…)

1839—Liszt “invents” the solo recital, performing an entire program from memory, without the assistance of supporting artists.  A STAR is born!

1840—Henri Herz modifies the Erard double escapement action, making it more consistent and reliable.  As an aside here, in spite of the obvious (to us) advantages of the new and improved action, both Frederick Chopin and Friedrich Kalkbrenner preferred the Broadwood single-escapement action, particularly as found in the Pleyel pianos.  Chopin SAID it was capable of more musical expression—one wonders if his technique were so attuned to the older action that he found it impossible to change.
--also 1840—Chickering (Boston) is the first to use a one-piece iron frame in a grand piano.  Babcock (remember him?) was employed there.  It was subsequently patented by Chickering in 1843.  The one piece cast plate was not used extensively in Europe until nearly 1900, most manufacturers preferring “built” frames using smaller pieces bolted together.

1843—Antoine-Jean Bord invents the Capo d’Astro bar, a downbearing bar used nearly universally today in the high treble (from about the middle in less expensive instruments), a simpler solution to the front termination than agraffes extending to the top (though there have been pianos built that way, too).

1844—Jean-Louis Boisselot invents the sostenuto pedal (the middle pedal on most longer grand pianos) which allows selective control of dampers without the need to hold down the keys.  This has recently had some unintended consequences…in Europe it was common for home grand pianos to have only sustain and una corda pedals (true even lately in Japan).  In the US, however, pianos MUST have three pedals…some perfectly good instruments had a third pedal added which frequently either did nothing or impaired the operation of the other two!  In truth, the piano music which requires this pedal is a VERY small number of compositions.

During the next 20 years or so, there was furious activity, as new piano manufacturing companies were established in Europe, the United States and Canada.

1851—a “Great Exhibition” in London awards the grand prize to….Erard, a London manufacturer, of course.

1859—Henry Steinway, Jr. patents cross-stringing in grand pianos (30+ years after its use in upright instruments).

1872—Steinway patents the Duplex Scale, string lengths left undamped which (theoretically) improve and enrich the tone (this feature is still hotly debated as to its effectiveness).  Some were tunable sections (by movable individual bridges, of sorts), others, including modern Steinways, are merely set into the plate at the desired distance, but are immoveable.

1874—Albert Steinway revises (presumably to improve it) the sostenuto mechanism (middle pedal) and patents it.

1878—Paris Exhibition, a Japanese square piano is exhibited.  Built by……who else?  Yamaha!

1880—Theodore Steinway develops the laminated grand piano rim, made of several thin layers of wood.

1888—The last Steinway square piano is manufactured (Broadwood had stopped building them in 1860)…other American manufacturers continue for some time.

1899—Torakusu Yamaha begins manufacturing pianos in Hamamatsu, Japan—the site of today’s home factory, offices, school, etc.

We’ve seen the birth of the piano, not looking or sounding like today’s instrument, but possessing all of the essential properties that made it a piano, which led to the modern piano.  The 18th century was basically a time when the piano was struggling for approval…even the young Mozart started on harpsichord.  The 19th century, by contrast, was from the outset a time of amazing development and experimentation.  (We’ve only barely touched on that…there were MANY short-lived ideas that went nowhere, owing to impracticality or the lack of materials or techniques to build them successfully.  That process continued well into the 20th century, but that topic should be the subject of at least one rather lengthy lecture at another time!)

By the 1860s (according to some) or at least the end of the 1870s, the modern piano was in place…further refinements were relatively small, often just for manufacturing convenience.  The 19th century saw the major developments in the instrument.  Now…the question is often asked, what drove this furious development?  Pianists developing their techniques, wanting more?  Certainly.  Composers extending the scope of music beyond the capabilities of the current pianos?  Maybe…some of these composers WERE the above pianists, after all.  Piano builders (often small shops struggling to be recognized)?  Perhaps—I’m privately (well, until tonight, I guess) of the opinion that composers by and large dealt with the instrument (and the sound) that was available to them.  This is the age-old desire of composers to have their music performed…of what benefit was writing music that COULDN’T be performed on available instruments?

Did pianists, composers AND builders all have an effect?  Most resoundingly, YES!!  It was likely a synergistic relationship which produced a century of great change, resulting in the instrument that we all know and love.