GR Horst Piano Tuner / Technician
Contact GR Horst:
A Music Canvas
The Piano
The "Pianoforte" - where did this name originate?
Have you ever heard the modern piano referred to as a "pianoforte"? Where did this name originate and why? An early keyboard instrument was the harpsichord. The harpsichord has a keyboard like a piano. When a key is pressed, it moves a quill (still called a quill today although they are made of a plastic or composite material) up to pluck a string. Regardless of how hard or quickly the key is pressed, the volume and tone of that string remains constant. It also plucks a single string. The sound was, although pleasant, somewhat delicate and difficult to hear in a large performance hall. A clavichord was invented that struck the string instead of plucking the string. However, it had similar limitations on controlling the volume and tone, thus limiting the expression of the sound controlled by the player. Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) set out to solve these issues and numerous additional issues encountered in creating a new mechanism for activating the strings. One issue was that if a semi-soft hammer struck the string, instead of plucking, it could not remain in contact with the string. Not only must it recoil back from the string once struck, it must not bounce and repeatedly strike the string. Early attempts moved closer to solving these problems and others that eventually necessitated the dampers and the damper pedal that was added by a harpsichord & organ builder, Gottfried Silbermann. These early instruments were a bit primitive as many new inventions are during the design process. When Silbermann showed the instrument to Bach, legend notes his response was to have been something like “the sound was destroyed like with an axe”. However, later when Bach tried a much-improved version of the instrument around 1747, he approved it. The instrument eventually caught the attention of composers across Europe. Most people still referred to it as a harpsichord. However, since the performer could control the volume and tone by how the keys were pressed, the addition of the word “forte” was added. Thus, the instrument became known as a “pianoforte” to distinguish from the older instruments. More improvements were made over the years such as the damper mechanism and having multi-string unisons for more power and volume. Via some trial-and-error experimentation, the mechanism in the modern piano was pretty much perfected in the late 1800s and little changes have been made to the design of the action (the mechanism that strikes the strings). I have tuned instruments made in the 1885 -1900 time-frame and the core construction is quite similar to those manufactured today. Note that the materials used to construct the action continue to be improved and there remains some element of trial-and-error and continued improvements still taking place.