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Dr. Laura Runge
3 April, 2005
The Rise of the Pianoforte in Late Eighteenth Century England
The Italian term pianoforte, which literally translates loud soft, is an unabbreviated version of what today we simply call the piano. In essence, the two terms are interchangeable, though some historians and scholars prefer “to reserve ‘fortepiano’ for the 18th- and early 19th-century instrument” (Steward Pollens). Bartolomeo Cristofori, “keeper of the instruments of the Medici family in Florence,” (Cole) invented the first pianoforte around 1700. Cristofori’s invention in many ways resembled the harpsichord and the clavichord, however, unlike the popular harpsichord, the pianoforte could produce varying dynamics through the use rebounding hammers. In fact, the instrument was originally called ‘ravecembalo col piano, e forte,’ or harpsichord with soft and loud (Cole). While the harpsichord produces sound by the plucking of chords activated by keys, the pianoforte’s sound comes from a series of hammers striking highly tense chords at varying lengths and thickness. Even though Cristofori created the first pianoforte as early as 1700, European music circles did not accept the instrument until many years later. This was mainly due to the complicated mechanisms and parts that made the instrument difficult and expensive to manufacture.
In 1740, while touring Italy, Samuel Crisp, close friend of the Burney family, brought back the first of its kind to England (Cole). The response to the instrument was very positive and it gained a great deal of popularity in England for many reasons. For .
one, the instrument was more versatile than the harpsichord, in that a composer writing for the instrument could include nuances like dynamics into their works. Another advantage of the instrument was that unlike harpsichord, the pianoforte was loud enough to accompany an orchestra. This attracted the most talented musicians and composers of the day. In 1768, preferring the instrument to the quiet harpsichord, Johann Christian Bach, youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach and court musician to Queen Charlotte, played the “first pianoforte solo ever heard in English concert” (Arthur Loesser 221). After Bach’s endorsement of the new instrument, the pianoforte became fashionable, and the upper classes of England immediately created a demand for the instrument.
Another cause for the pianoforte’s rise in England can be attributed to the nation’s large pool of talented instrument makers. After being introduced to the still very rare pianoforte from friends and colleagues, many instrument makers began toying with how to produce the instrument more efficiently. In 1761, instrument maker and German immigrant Johannes Zumpe started producing his famous “small, compact square pianofortes with a very simple action” (Loesser 219-220). His ‘square’ pianos—though in actuality they were more rectangular--became very popular for many decades throughout Europe and North America (Cole). This was because his pianos were both small and relatively easy to produce. Later, in the 1780s and 1790s, John Broadwood came to the scene and began his legendary career for superior pianoforte making. Broadwood improved the striking actions of the hammers and used better material for the strings, which in turn improved the tone of the instrument. Broadwood also added two octaves to the keys, making it complete six octaves. By adding two extra octaves and
increasing the overall size of the piano’s box, Broadwood created some of the first grand pianos. Broadwood’s improvements on the Zumpe piano made it “a product that was unmatched anywhere in its day for strength, sonority, and range” (Loesser 227). Due to craftsmen like Zumpe and Broadwood, England became famous for the quality of its pianofortes. In fact, Beethoven was known for preferring the English pianoforte to any other type of pianoforte (Loesser 234-235).
Another reason why the pianoforte took England by storm was due to the nation’s particular prowess in industry. At the time, England was undergoing many transformations and modernizations due to the Industrial Revolution. Factories, with division in labor and newly invented mechanical implements, began producing all kinds of new products with never before seen efficiency. Arthur Loesser argues that “the pianoforte, with its manifold, intricate structure—and especially with its abundance of serially repeated parts—seemed particularly suited to the new mechanical processes” (233). England’s superior industry allowed it to produce more pianos than any other nation in the world (James Parakilas 97). From 1782 to 1802, John Broadwood’s piano making firm produced seven thousand square pianos and a thousand grand pianos, about four hundred a year (Loesser 234). In comparison, leading Viennese pianoforte maker Frau Streicher only produced about fifty pianos a year (Loesser 234).
As the piano became more popular and more available, upper and even many middle class English families began purchasing pianos for their homes. In the late eighteenth century, the piano became, in Loesser’s words, “a symbol of respectability” (236). James Parakilas states that “the piano rose to prominence in late-eighteenth-
century musical life because it became a necessary accomplishment for a growing class of women" (97). “Accomplishments” were talents, skills or abilities (usually related to the fine arts) in which a woman of rank could increase her suitability for marriage. The piano became a tool for women of gentility to increase their attractiveness in the eyes of male suitors. Also, having a skilled daughter at the piano displayed the wealth of her family. A proficiency at the piano indicated that her father could afford to spend money on lessons; it also “demonstrated to the world that the men of their families didn’t need them to be gainfully employed” (Parakilas 99). In other words, the piano was not only an integral part of the upper classes courting process, it was also a way of confirming her family’s gentility.
Throughout the late eighteenth century and continuing well through the nineteenth century, the piano secured a special place in the hearts and homes of England. The piano’s place in England is one of its brightest spots in its music-making history. Especially in the time period of Jane Austen’s novels, the piano proved to possess crucial cultural importance. Without a doubt, anyone who wanted to be considered genteel and socially significant at the time made it a point in having a pianoforte in their home.
Cole, Michael. “Pianoforte, History of the Instrument: England and France to 1800.”
Grove Music Online 3 Apr. 2005 http://www.grovemusic.com.
Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos: a Social History. New York: Simon and
Parakilas, James, et al. Piano Roles. New Haven: Yale, 1999.
Pollens, Stewart, and Ripin, Edwin M. “Pianoforte, History of the Instrument: An
Introduction.” Grove Music Online 3 Apr. 2005. http://www.grovemusic.com.