Broaching the history of the piano and the keyboard is a subject best left to academics and essays, rather than musicians and blogs. But having said that, I am a keen pianist and I get a thrill out of being able to step onto the keys when I get the chance. From the piano in the window of Pizza Express to the hotel lobby to the keyboard on stage, I’ve always enjoyed playing and I’ve always had an interest in what is one of the most historical instruments around. So this won’t be a thorough analysis of Mozart’s finest work, but a whistle-stop tour of where the piano began and where it is today.
The piano was invented in Florence in 1700, by the fantastically-named Bartolomeo Cristofori. With a name like that, you either have to do something fantastic or you end up being called Bart. Luckily he found the recipe for what was to become one of the most sought-after, admired and respected instruments of the time and beyond. The pianoforte was further supported a decade later when Englishman John Shore invented the tuning fork and the eminent scholar Scipione Maffei published an article about the instrument. Translated into German in the 1720s, this article was part of the reason for the instrument’s extraordinary early success.
Handel and Bach both played their first notes in the 1740s, paving the way for a revolution in contemporary music and orchestra. Johann Baptist Schmid is thought to be the first public performer, playing in the city where the piano was first conceived. Mozart and Beethoven are born in 1756 and 1770 respectively, both would go on to become the most well-known names in musical history for their genius with the piano. Chopin and Brahms would take over that mantle during the 1800s.
By this time, there was a wealth of choice for budding pianists of the day. The word ‘Grand’ had been patented when used musically, uprights had become more popular, pedals had been introduced. Many modern piano-makers that still trade today were established in the 1800s as pianos took the world by storm. Advances in technology continued to improve the sound of the instruments and companies dedicated time and money into making them beautiful pieces of furniture for the home too. Despite an almost international halt in production during World War Two, pianos came out fighting and Liberace‘s extravagance helped to bring the piano into the 20th century.
With the advent of electric power, companies now looked to reproduce the sound and capacity of the piano without its weight and bulk. Keyboards, which shouldn’t be confused with electric pianos, have since become a mainstay of modern music. Their adaptability made them the perfect instrument for bands, producers and performers around the globe; able to program the keys to replicate almost any other instrument. This unique feature drove the keyboard into the majority of popular songs during the 20th and 21st centuries, with its peak in the Prog-Rock stages of the 1980s. You only have to look at the success of bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes to see that the keyboard penetrated the charts with ease. Kansas, Billy Joel, Deep Purple and The Who all played their parts too.
Opinion is rarely split so extremely as when it comes to talking about whether Prog-Rock was good or not, so try not to fall out about it! At the end of the day, we should all step back and admire the transition of one of the greatest instruments; developing from an Italian shop front in the 1700s and continuing to dominate our modern music in 2014…
One last thing…
People often ask me who I think is the best modern pianist. It’s a misconception that there are fewer famous pianists now than there were a century ago, it’s just become more of a niche subject and the general public aren’t exposed to that music on a regular basis. One of my favourite artists in that niche is one of the only recent performers to have managed to penetrate the popular market. No, not Jools Holland…