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Piano History » Grand Piano History

Grand Piano History

Todays grand pianos are direct descendants of harpsichords built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Around 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori experimented with creating a harpsichord that could play music more expressively, and devised an action that struck the strings with hammers, differing from harpsichords that plucked the strings with quills. The other major feature of his early piano action was a hammer escapement mechanism, that enabled the hammer to disengage from the key once the note had been played, and then played again at a different velocity, changing the expressiveness of the notes. Cristofori's early pianos retained much of the stringing design of harpsichords, and sounded much like them, with the exception of the expression the player could now introduce to the music through the touch response.

Christofori's designs were not capitalized upon until later in the 1700's, when accounts of his piano designs were published. Manufacturers such as noted German organ builder Gottfried Silbermann and his students Christian Friederici and Johannes Zumpe began to develop the piano as a distinctive instrument from the harpsichord. Although unimpressed initially, J. S. Bach approved of the new instrument in 1747. Music began to be written specifically for the piano in 1732, and the true career of the piano as a concert and ensemble instrument began.


Development of the grand piano after 1750 followed two basic paths. In England, the piano action was designed heavier and more complicated, more like the grand actions of today. In Germany, a lighter and more simply constructed action became known as the Viennese action, developed by makers like Johann Andreas Stein; pianos that Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn played and composed on.

As the grand piano developed, it became more and more a solo instrument, and needed to be louder. To increase volume, strings needed to be thicker and the support structure stronger, so that greater tension could be achieved. The frame of the pianos, commonly made of wood, became thicker and heavier, and was strengthened by cross-bracing. By 1820, Thomas Allen was using metal tubes to keep string tension even, and the successful English manufacturer John Broadwood began to build iron hitch pin plates, which now meant plates were made of more metal than wood. In 1825
Alpheus Babcock patented the cast-iron frame and further in 1843, American Jonas Chickering began making piano with the full-perimeter plate, a feature of today's grand pianos. Another notable development was overstringing, developed by Henri Pape in 1828 and patented by Steinway in 1859 which placed the longer bass strings overtop of the shorter treble strings, enabling longer strings in a shorter cabinet, and centering the bass strings over the soundboard for better tonal response.

Grand pianos began being mass-produced in the 1800's, with the establishment of makers such as John Broadwood & Sons, Jonas Chickering, Julius Bl├╝thner, Ignaz Bosendorfer, Friedrich Bechstein, Henry Steinway, and Sebastien Erard, whose company fully developed the basis for the modern grand action by 1821.

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