Bartolomeo Cristofori is a name that is mostly unrecognized today. However, his greatest invention has been a constant influence in music since the mid- 1700s and is still relevant today as a fundamental instrument in modern music.
The pianoforte (or as we commonly know it today, the piano) has become a musical staple crossing centuries and spanning a multitude of musical genres, despite the slow adoption over its first 50 years of existence. Today, we’ll dig in and look at who Bartolomeo Cristofori was as well as the origins of the piano, the ubiquitous instrument we know and love.
Bartolomeo Cristofori was born in Padua, Venice in 1655. Not much is known of his early life, and it isn’t entirely clear how exactly he came to work for the Medici family in 1690. But we do know that it was around this time that he began working on what would be his masterwork – the pianoforte.
It is generally believed that the Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici of Florence – an accomplished harpsichordist and art collector who was known to sight read a piece once and play it from memory – recruited Cristofari in about 1690 to create a new instrument, while caring for the courts’ harpsichords and other instruments in the vast Medici collection.
Although we don’t know the details, his recruitment by the Medici family suggests Cristofori was already well known as a highly-skilled keyed instrument builder. Cristofori was really an employee of the royal court, and even though he was recruited for his abilities, he was initially working in a noisy warehouse type space with up to a hundred other artisans (surviving papers from Cristofori note that he had a terrible time working in the noise of it all).
By 1711, Cristofori had built four of his new instrument, the pianoforte. Like many revolutionary artists and inventors, his invention of the piano was not well known or appreciated in his lifetime.
Cristofori built many other stringed, keyed instruments before the piano. A three-keyboard harpsichord built by Cristofori that bears the coat of the Medici family is kept in the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments at the University of Michigan.
Some of his own lesser-known and less successful inventions were created while he worked for the Medici family. For example, he built the spinettone, a harpsichord style instrument built in a space-saving format meant for use in tight spaces like orchestra pits. He also created the highly unusual oval spinet, whose strings ran parallel to the keyboard and in a layout with the longer strings to the middle, giving a roughly oval shape to the body of the instrument.
These and other keyed instruments like the harpsichord and clavichord were only able to play either soft pieces (clavichord) or louder pieces (harpsichord) thanks to their construction. Users had to utilize a “plucking” action mechanism which could not be attenuated to “pluck” with a softer or heavier pull.
Cristofori’s invention of using hammer mechanisms to strike the strings, which allow the volume of each note to change depending on how hard the musician pressed the keys. This breakthrough revolutionized music.
The sophisticated features we see in today’s pianos, including mechanisms that hold the hammer away from the string after striking and dampers that silence strings that aren’t in use, were all developed by Cristofori and found in his original work. Some of the more elaborate action mechanisms found in Cristofori’s original pianos were costly to reproduce, eventually leading many 18th century makers to drop pricier features – only for them to be reintroduced later.
The earliest surviving piano is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is dated 1720. This instrument, which closely resembles a harpsichord, has only 54 keys in a single keyboard, as opposed to the pianos of today with 88. You can listen to pianist Dongsok Shin perform a Sonata on the oldest surviving piano on this YouTube video. As you can hear, the early piano has a sound more like a harpsichord than what we think of when we consider a modern piano timbre. This is thanks to thinner strings and harder hammer materials. These early pianos offered a quieter voice, well suited for accompanying a vocalist or played as a solo.
Although today the piano is found in virtually every major musical genre, the piano wasn’t an instant hit. In fact, even many years after the initial introduction, Bach learned to play on a harpsichord – not a piano. He generally dismissed the piano in its original Cristofori form. The first documented music written specifically for piano was in 1732 by Lodovico Giustini.
Around this time, an organ builder in Germany, Gottfried Silbermann built his own version of the piano based on Cristofori’s design, expanding the influence of the instrument throughout central Europe – and eventually becoming a household mainstay across Europe and America.
While today’s pianos may have a far more refined sound and wider dynamic range, we owe it to Cristofori to recognize their origins. Interested in owning a piano? Make an appointment for a one on one demo of Moore piano’s stock today!