The piano is one of the instruments that can truly move the soul.
Most of us who play the piano don’t think about its history. Let’s travel 400 years back to the Baroque period to see what the piano was like—before it was the piano.
In the 1600s craftsmen toiled by natural light or candlelight to produce these early keyboard instruments that, indeed, were primitive by our standards. Large churches and cathedrals (mostly in Europe) contained pipe organs. Depending on the builder and resources, these instruments could have one or two manuals (keyboards) plus a pedal board to play bass lines with the feet. Music of this period sometimes called for complex pedal parts, which called for a specialized, accomplished musician. Many of the keyboards were of inverted color (the white keys were actually black, and vice versa). Some of the pipes were 16 feet in length. Many of the consoles (cabinetry) and pipe chambers of the period were very ornate and delicately carved. Composers and performers in the Baroque era included the unparalleled Bach of Germany, Frescobaldi of Italy, Soler of Spain, Buxtehude of Denmark, and Couperin of France. Much of their music was composed for church services and festive occasions.
The wealthy of the day, including royalty, had smaller keyboards at their disposal, to be played by the talented musicians in their area. In many palaces the court musician was expected to entertain and perform on the resident instrument, usually a harpsichord. These keyboards were not mass-produced, but rather individually conceived by a builder. The sound was produced by the plucking of the strings that emitted a twangy tone with little sustain. Similar to a hammer striking the strings of a piano when a key is depressed, the harpsichord strings were literally plucked by a series of quills when the keys were struck. There was no damper to deaden the sound, but the vibrating string naturally stopped quickly. All of these early keyboards emitted a very quiet, intimate tone that was never intended for large concert halls. When Bach was not playing organ in the church he performed and composed almost entirely for the harpsichord. Many compositions, including The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Goldberg Variations, Italian Concerto, and the Brandenburg Concerti were written for harpsichord. In fact the accompaniments for almost all of the orchestral works employed a continuo player—the Baroque equivalent of a jazz player, who today improvises based on a series of chord symbols written above the melody. In the Baroque era symbols were written below the bass line called a thorough bass or figured bass. These numerical symbols enabled the player to improvise harmonies in the proper inversion above the bass and creating pleasing voice leading. Much like today, the fluency and ability of the performer varied greatly. All of the aforementioned composers also wrote for and performed on the harpsichord.
One thing all of these instruments had in common early on was the fact that you could not increase volume (crescendo) or decrease volume (diminuendo) on the same keyboard as we do on the modern-day piano. The players instead used what was called terraced dynamics. Volume changes were accomplished by registering one manual louder than another on a two manual instrument, or by just adding or subtracting stops judiciously on a one manual instrument. (Stops are mechanical tablets or knobs that activate and “stop” the air flow to the pipes of an organ, or activate and “stop” the number of quills in use on the harpsichord.)
The piano’s immediate predecessor, the pianoforte, was invented by the Italian Bartolomeo Cristofori in 1703. The pianoforte was sensitive to the touch, allowing the performer to play soft and loud at the same time and shade one’s dynamics as we do today. One of the many improvements to this instrument (whose name was later shortened to piano) was a sophisticated pedal system that gives us the nuances we all expect. The monumental proliferation of piano in our culture is due to the many geniuses that composed for and performed on this versatile instrument.
[Reprinted From: http://makingmusicmag.com]