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The piano is one of those inventions where it’s hard to think of it as an invention because it’s always … When you think about someone actually inventing it, it’s hard not to wonder: Why haven’t I heard of this person? Why isn’t his name plastered on every piano in existence?
The First Piano Ever Made
Bartolomeo Cristofori, who would have celebrated his 360th birthday today, is generally credited with inventing the piano. That his name is largely forgotten is a reflection of his time, that one genius can be another’s servant.
Who Invented The Piano
The first official recording of the piano appears in 1700, although Cristofori may have been working on it for some years before that. Cristofori’s most recognizable piano was later, until 1720. But more important than the date is the piano’s step forward.
At that time, the harpsichord was the main keyboard instrument. The biggest problem is not being able to play notes with a different smoothness. To play a note, a small device called a plectrum plucked a string and played the note. There is no easy way to change the sound and give it extra nuance. Although some hacks (and other tools) try to fix the problem, they don’t work well enough.
, which means “harp-harpsichord”, and he often worked on and invented other instruments such as the harpsichord. But the piano took a giant step beyond that instrument by using a hammer instead of plucking a string. Thanks to its hammers and dampers, which could manipulate sound more artistically than the harpsichord’s plucking motion, it allowed for better modulation of volume.
The earliest surviving piano dates from 1721, and it is clear that it was a transitional instrument: its sound has notes of the harpsichord. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, it had a shorter range than modern pianos, thinner strings, and harder hammers, making it look like a harpsichord.
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It is rare that such an old instrument has so clear a finder and so obvious an expression. Why should we remember Bartolomeo Cristofori’s name? After all, there must be a reason
The only portrait of Bartolomeo Cristofori. In the lower right corner, you can see what looks like a piano. Wikimedia Commons
We probably know very little about Cristofori because he was a mercenary (albeit a reputable one). As an employee of Ferdinando de’ Medici, an Italian prince and member of an illustrious Italian family, Cristofori was hired to serve only music.
As an employee of the Medicis, Cristofori was a cog in a royal machine. Although he was eagerly recruited for the Medicis work, he was initially forced to work with about 100 craftsmen (he complained about how noisy it was). Ferdinando de’Medici encouraged Cristofori to innovate, but the inventor worked on tuning and moving instruments and restoring some old ones. Unlike musicians, who traveled around royal courts and could become famous beyond their borders, Cristofori was a local commodity. He was not seen as a revolutionary genius – rather, he was a skilled tinkerer.
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At the same time, the Medicis would not have invented the piano without Cristofori. The royal family gave him a house to work in, a place to experiment, and eventually, his own workshop and a pair of assistants. As the Medicis’ fortunes declined, Cristofori sold a few pianos of his own, but he held nothing like a modern patent—others were free to sell their own improvements on the instrument. He remained at court until his death in 1731.
The piano’s relatively slow adoption may also have stolen Cristofori’s credit. Even if an invention went “viral” in the 18th century, it still had to travel at a glacial 18th century pace. Queen Maria Barbara di Braganza purchased five pianos of Cristofori’s design, after which the instrument slowly spread among elite circles. There were early objections to the piano – Johann Sebastian Bach thought it could use some modification – and even Mozart, born in 1756, played the harpsichord as a child. It took 100 years for his invention to dislodge the harpsichord from elite musical circles, diminishing Cristofori’s popularity.
Finally, there were many improvements to the piano, and those improvements were critical to its success. Organ builder Gottfried Silbermann added a standard pedal, and he also increased sales of the piano. Other inventors added materials better suited to the piano’s unique capabilities. Finally, composers eventually came around to the piano, which helped make the harpsichord the primary instrument.
Although Cristofori was clearly the inventor of the piano, it is unclear why he was forgotten outside of musical circles. This may be a combination of his work, the slow adoption of the piano, and subsequent improvements. He wasn’t famous when he was alive – that’s why there’s only one portrait of him – and he’s not famous today. But in a way, that subtlety befits an innovator who introduced new sounds to music. Cristofori’s legacy isn’t a harpsichord strumming—it’s a piano, still playing.
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’s journalism is free because we believe everyone deserves to understand the world they live in. That kind of knowledge helps us make better citizens, neighbors, friends, parents, consumers, and stewards of the planet. In short, understanding benefits everyone. You can join this mission by making a financial gift today. Reader support helps keep our work free for everyone. Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy, is undoubtedly credited as the inventor of the piano. But he was actually trying to create the first harpsichord to offer a touch-responsive keyboard.
Pressing a key on a harpsichord causes a small plectrum to pluck a string, but this mechanism (or action) does not control the volume of the note. By the end of the 17th century, the holy grail of the harpsichord industry was the creation of a keyboard instrument that could add expression to a performance.
Cristofori realized that to achieve this, he had to ditch the plectrum and use the hammer to strike the strings. He developed a revolutionary new action that drove the hammer toward the strings with a rate proportional to the keys. Actually, it is a mechanized dulcimer.
Thus the “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (loud and soft harpsichord) was born. It later became known as the pianoforte.
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The quality of Cristofori’s design means that the oldest surviving of his instruments, made in 1720, is still played today. It takes center stage in a new exhibition titled
The Met houses its extensive collection of musical instruments in the Andre Mertens Galleries. These four galleries (Nos. 680, 682, 683, and 684), all on the second floor, have reopened after two years of major renovation and remodeling.
Stunning new footage gives viewers a more insightful story about one of the world’s most diverse and important collections of musical instruments.
”, will open in 2019 and will serve as a venue for special installations of instruments from the Met’s collection.
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“Exhibition. Here the instruments are arranged to illustrate how people around the world have simultaneously created extraordinary music and instruments for thousands of years.”
Gallery 684: “The Art of Music Through Time” exhibit with a Cristofori piano displayed prominently on a plinth. Photo:
The exhibition includes instruments from the early 1st millennium BC – the openwork rattle bell, to 2017, one of the museum’s most recent acquisitions – the E-pa – a form of electric harp. Here you can see the Cristofori tool featured prominently. It is also featured in the exhibition’s audio guide.
In 1876, J.P. Morgan’s partner and musical instrument collector Joseph Drexel retired to devote his time to charity. In 1885, he decided to gift his collection of 44 classical instruments to the Met.
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The collection attracted other donors, notably Mrs. Elizabeth Brown. He began his collection by purchasing several instruments from Florence for his music room in New Jersey, and continued to add to it. In time he gifted all his instruments to the Med.
One of Brown’s acquisitions was a 1720 Cristofori piano, one of two known pianos by the later maker. Signed by Cristofori, it was sold to Brown as the second piano he built. It became the world’s earliest piano. However, Cristofori is believed to have built his first piano in 1700.
. It was named after her husband because “no woman wants publicity around her name”. When he died in 1918, the collection consisted of over 3,600 items.
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