The piano – its role and development in the nineteenth century

Posted on June 8, 2013


The role of the piano in the 19th century musical scene

The nineteenth century had seen an explosion in the development of musical instruments and an increase in the size of orchestras, traditional instruments being further improved and new instruments coming to life covering a wide range of the audible spectrum of sounds. After the unprecedented development of musical form and style in the previous classical era, the early nineteenth century public demanded increasing originality and new forms of expression. The taste of the audience evolved together with an increase in the level of sophistication and novelty of music produced by artists like Beethoven, Liszt or Berlioz, who were stretching the capability of their instruments and the size of the orchestra to their limits. Also, inspired mainly by the career of Paganini, a new cult emerged, that of the international concert virtuoso with technical abilities bordering, in the public’s perception, to the realm of supernatural (which they were not quick to dismiss).

In parallel to this trend, a more well to do middle class population in Europe had gained an interest in amateur musicianship, which fuelled an emerging musical industry and mass production of instruments, as well as the publication of easier musical pieces playable in peoples’ homes.

In this social milieu the keyboards gained wide popularity, more than any other instrument, and underwent major structural development. There are several reasons for this outstanding popularity. It allowed a relatively wide range of sounds to be played on a single instrument, mimicking the sound of a miniature orchestra. Also, it is relatively easy to produce a satisfactory sound quality even by amateurs (as compared to woodwind and bowed string instruments where one needs months – years of practice to get the sound right). The piano made it possible for harmony, melody and texture to be created on a single instrument. It provided an easy visual aid to assimilate musical concepts. Covering the whole spectrum of musical notes, it could be used in rehearsals where it would be unpractical to employ a full orchestra on a daily basis. By piano transcriptions of famous orchestral pieces, like the Beethoven symphonies or the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz arranged by Liszt (to mention only the most eminent ones) it could spread music to places where it would not be heard otherwise. Piano was the preferred accompaniment instrument for songs, e.g. the highly successful songs and ballads of Schubert and Schumann. There were far more publications for piano alone than for the rest of the musical instruments altogether, 70-80 per cent of all publications were involving the piano as a solo instrument, either on its own or along a chamber or larger orchestra.


The development of an instrument that is both powerful and subtle

The ancestors of the piano can be traced back to the zither of the Bronze Age, where strings stretched over a soundboard were plucked or hit by the player. Increasingly sophisticated zithers have been used in many parts of the world. Currently used examples of zither-like instruments are the Japanese koto and the Hungarian cimbalom.  The first stringed instrument known to use keys was the hurdy-gurdy. From the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century several generations of keyboard instruments had been developed. The dulcimer was the first instrument to employ small hammers to hit the strings and it allowed for remarkable variation in the volume of the sounds, giving rise to exciting expressive possibilities. This design was further developed into instruments like the clavichord, virginal, harpsichord and spinet during the Renaissance and Baroque era. In the harpsichord, the most popular among these instruments, a string is plucked by a small plectrum attached to a jack, moved by a mechanism that connects it to the key. However, this system doesn’t allow for significant variation in the intensity of the sound produced, therefore its expressive range was limited, as compared to other instruments (e.g. violins, flutes).

For solving the technical problem of creating soft and loud sound elicited by varying intensities of keyboard touch, Bartolomeo Cristofori, an eighteenth-century instrument manufacturer living in Florence is regarded the inventor of the modern piano. He built instruments in which small hammers were used to hit the strings, and developed an escapement mechanism that allowed the hammer to become free from the action and fall back after hitting the string, allowing it to resonate freely. His instrument was called gravicembalo col piano e forte, which later was shortened to pianoforte, alias piano. Cristophori’s design, however did not gain popularity for a long time, until Gottfried Silbremann recreated and further refined this instrument. As keyboard instruments evolved, so did the music composed for them. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach) was among the first composers to extensively write music for keyboard, increasingly involving the piano. By publishing his treatise Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) he laid the foundations of piano playing for further generations of composers and piano virtuosi, influencing, among others, Muzio Clementi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Piano manufacturing became a major industry in the nineteenth century, with dozens of piano manufacturers competing for their slices of the market. London, Vienna and Paris became the major manufacturing centres, and the instruments produced by different companies were different in their tone colour, tonal power and even the range of keys. Different designs of piano action had been marketed. The ‘German action’ (Prellzungenmechanik) was based on Silbermann’s construction improved by J. A. Stein by introducing a check that prevented the hammer bouncing back and repeatedly hitting the strings. The ‘English action’ (Stossmechanik) was more robust and more complex, with a separate hammer rail supporting the hammers. Another improvement introduced by the French manufacturer Sébastien Erard was the double escapement action, making it possible to rapidly play the same note again without the hammer being completely released.


The sound of an Erard Piano (reconstructed period instrument from aroind 1840):


Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel – Das Jahr – played by Olga Andryushchenko


Changes were made regarding the strings as well. Aiming for a stronger sound audible in concert halls manufacturers tried to use thicker stings, which required higher tension to reach the same pitch as thinner strings. This led to the development of an iron frame supporting the strings, which later developed into a cast iron frame that could bear really high tensions (such as 20-30 tons in a modern grand piano).

Thus stronger strings could be used to produce high volume and tonal depth, characteristic to modern grand pianos by the type of Steinway, which became the most popular brand of the twentieth century, manufactured in the USA.

In the same time, the upright piano was developed for homes and small venues, aiming to retain as much as possible from the sound of a grand piano. Several manufacturers and developers specialised in upright pianos, such as Thomas Loud, William Southwell and Robert Wornum.

During the nineteenth century, in comparition to the twentieth, the piano manufacturing market was more varied, with several companies competing with each other, each having different design for their instruments. Consequently, instruments made by different manufacturers had very different tone colours, a variety that was valued by composers. For example, while Beethoven and Liszt demanded ever increasing power and sound volume, Chopin regarded the instrument as an intimate and gentle companion that would be enable him to express the finest nuances of human emotion by gentle touch. While Beethoven valued a large Broadwood piano with the most robust construction available at his time, Chopin preferred to play a Pleyel instrument with much smaller hammers and more intimate and brilliant sound, which allowed playing passages very lightly and very fast. During the twentieth century the market became more uniform, with the Steinway design dominating, a franchise that was also copied by other manufacturers.

Chopin’s Ballade op. 23 played on a Pleyel piano by Arthur Schoonderwoerd:


Beethoven Piano Sonata No.23 ‘Appassionata’ 3rd mov. played by Badura-Skoda on a Broadwood Piano manufactured ca.1815:




Todd, L. (eds) (2004) Nineteenth-century piano music. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Humphries, C. (2002) The Piano Handbook. 1st ed. London: Backbeat Books by Outline Press ltd.

Lockwood, L. (2003) Beethoven: the music and the life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.


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