The Story of the Piano

Music of Yesterday

by C. A. Browne

A spinet was a small harpsichord, and the virginal a still smaller one. Some say that instruments of this class were often taken on pleasure trips, and even taken on gondolas for serenades. That was before they had feet of their own, and when they were drawn out of their outer cases and placed upon a table when needed.

Some harpsichords had two rows of keys. the harp shaped frame was enclosed in a box, and the wires were plucked mechanically be quills, or by points of some other hard substance, attached to the end of each key. these quills were elevated on wooden uprights called jacks, which raised as the keys were pressed down. Its very un-melodius tone was aptly described as “a scratch, with a sound at the end of it”. Yet is was extensively used by Beethoven, Mozart and Handel, especially in their concert work, because of the brilliancy of its tone as compared with the subdued sound of the clavichord. A fine harpsichord, formerly used by Handel, is now to be seen in the South Kensington Museum.

Harpsichord playing was most esteemed in France and Italy. But in German households the clavichord was always the favorite – probably because it was comparatively inexpensive, easily tuned and kept in order. Father Bach always tuned his own instrument.

The virginal and spinet were still nearer approaches to the pianoforte. They were an improved and more expensive kind of clavichord that was in fashion toward the end of the sixteenth century, and were chiefly found in the Elizabethan boudoirs of the fine ladies of that stirring and romantic epoch. In early times boxwood seems to have preceded ivory as the material for the natural white keys. In elaborate instruments, tortoiseshell and even mother of pearl were not infrequent. I have played upon a piano having pearl keys, but they do not feel half so comfortable under one’s fingers as do those of ivory. The gain in beauty does not compensate for the loss of a highly polished surface.

The cases of the old spinets and virginals were often exquisitely ornamented. There were carved, inlaid with ivory and other precious substances.

The virginal which belonged to the beautiful, ill fated Mary Queen of Scots is described as being made of oak, inlaid with cedar, and richly ornamented with gold. The cover and sides were charmingly painted with figures of birds, flowers and leaves; even the colors are still bright, although over three hundred years have passed away since that bitter day in 1587, when one of the handsomest and most accomplished princesses of her age was led to the scaffold, after an imprisonment of more than eighteen years. Besides having graceful and winning manners, she was a lovely singer, and could accompany herself on several instruments.

Some think the name Virginal refers to Elizabeth, who liked to be called the virgin queen, and also because she was a skillful performer upon it.

Some other authorities claim that the name originated “because maids and virgins do most commonly play on them”, and still others think it was so called because it was used by the nuns to accompany hymns to the Virgin Mary.

In the older German instruments the natural keys were often black, and the sharps white; and the compass of the keyboard was about four and a half octaves, where our present pianos extend over a compass of seven octaves and a third.

The Invention of the Piano

The clavichord was piano – the harpsichord was forte. but in 1709, just exactly two hundred years ago, Bartolommeo Cristofori, and Italian harpsichord maker of Padua, produced an instrument capable of both loud and soft effects, the piano e forte or forte piano, as it was known during the eighteenth century. In this instrument the wires were struck with little hammers, which rebounded instantly.

It will interest American readers to find that the oldest Cristofori piano known to exist is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. And Frederick the Great’s celebrated Silbermann pianos at Potsdam, upon which Bach played in 1747, are copies of the Cristofori pianos. In 1773 Burney described one of them which he saw in his Majesty’s concert room. And in 1880 the same pianoforte was still in Frederick’s music room; for everything still remained as it was at the time of the king’s death. “The keys are of nearly five octaves, and are covered with ebony (black) for the natural notes, and ivory for the upper, or sharp keys”.

The house where Beethoven was born, at Bonn, Germany, has been made into a Beethoven Museum. And in it is still preserved the master’s grand piano, which was specially designed for him by Graf, of Vienna. Upon it was formerly affixed a resonance box made of thin wood, built expressly for him by his friend Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, and this was intended to lead the sounds in a concentrated manner to the ear of the deaf musician. for even in Beethoven’s time the pianoforte was still a feeble instrument compared with the grand of today.

At the time when Haydn and Mozart were in the heyday of the genius, and represented the climax of musical culture in Europe, our forefathers were busy with the Boston Tea Party, and so forth. Therefore, while the first piano known to have been built in this country was made in 1775, at Philadelphia, by John Behrent, on Third Street below Brown – perhaps it heard the Liberty Bell – yet almost all the instruments used in the United States at the close of the eighteenth century were imported. Now, about four hundred firms are engaged in their manufacture, and there is an annual output of about 150,000 pianos.

European cabinet making is almost worthless in our trying climate. And this matter of glue was long what might be called the “sticking point” in the building of American pianos. but American glue will stand any climate, and helps to render our home manufactured instruments more enduring than the pianos of other countries. One writer comments that it is something worth pondering to think that the humble occupation which was part of the everyday life of the philanthropist has been a necessary factor in the art of pathetic expression.

Music has been a plant of slow growth on our side of the Atlantic, particularly in New England, the land of steady habits, where it was long considered  to be a scandalous art, intimately associated with the Evil One. But now it is estimated that there are over 3,000 conservatories in this country, which are attended by nearly 60,000 pupils. And when it comes to musical clubs, their members are said to muster “a hundred thousand strong”, in the words of the good old patriotic song.

It has required about nine centuries for the evolution of an instrument which consisted of a single string into the wonderful mechanism of the modern pianoforte. It would be difficult to overestimate the debt that music owes to this instrument. Almost every modern composer has written more or less for it, and it possesses the largest library of all musical instruments.

Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788), who was conductor of Frederick the Great’s private band, left about 210 pieces. Haydn contributed 34 sonatas, 9 smaller pieces and 20 concertos. Mozart wrote 22 solo sonatas, beside many other works. Clementi, our friend of the “Gradus ad Parnassum”, wrote for the pianoforte only. He was Mozart’s contemporary and rival. Some thought him superior to Mozart in technical skill, and Beethoven is said to have preferred his sonatas to those of Mozart.

Beethoven has been called the center of gravity of all the concerns piano playing in its best features, and he left 32 of the finest sonatas known to the world.

With von Weber began the romantic school of pianoforte playing, which aims to express joy and sorrow and various other moods and sentiments with which we are familiar. Carl Czerny’s name is perpetuated by his useful and practical studies; but his works extend beyond 1,000 in number. Then come Moscheles and Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt. Chopin was one of the most perfect pianists, and Liszt was said “to play the whole orchestra on the piano.” In fact, an enormous quantity of music has been written for the piano, and each year produces more thousands of pieces. As Thalberg says, “The piano is for us all. For rich and for poor – a solace, a companion and a friend.”

Let us not forget Emanuel Bach’s essay “On the True Method of Playing the Clavier”, where he alludes many times to the necessity of singing as much as possible on the instrument. “Methinks”, he says gently, “music ought principally to move the heart”.