The piano in the nineteenth century – part three, assignment

Posted on August 5, 2013


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

The nineteenth century witnessed an explosion in the development of musical instruments. 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 Chopin who were stretching the capability of their instruments to their limits. Inspired by Paganini, a new cult emerged, that of the international concert virtuoso. In parallel to this trend, a more well to do middle class population gained an interest in amateur musicianship, which fuelled mass production of instruments and the publication of easier musical pieces.  A significant historical development took place – patronage became a rarity and music making had to make the public pay for it.  Beethoven was among the first group of composers who had to find his own patronage; many European courts had been bankrupt by wars, and could no longer employ musicians.

In this milieu the keyboards gained wide popularity, more than any other instrument, and underwent major structural development, for several reasons. It is an excellent instrument for teaching music, it is relatively easy to achieve a satisfactory sound quality on the piano and it provides an easy visual aid to assimilate musical concepts. The piano made it possible for harmony, melody and texture to be created on a single instrument. It allows a wide range of pitches to be played on a single instrument, mimicking the sound of a miniature orchestra, useful in rehearsals. By piano transcriptions of orchestral pieces it could spread music to places where it could not be heard otherwise. Piano was the preferred accompaniment instrument for songs,  it played a significant part in a growing 19th century enthusiasm for ‘Lieder’, such as the ones composed by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Mahler.

The development of a powerful and subtle instrument

The ancestors of the piano can be traced back to the zither of the Bronze Age, developed into instruments like the clavichord, virginal, harpsichord and spinet during the Renaissance and Baroque era. In the (most popular) harpsichord a string is plucked by a small plectrum attached to a jack, moved by a key. However, this system doesn’t allow for significant variation in the intensity of the sound.

For solving the technical problem of creating both soft and loud sound, Bartolomeo Cristofori, a Florentine instrument manufacturer is regarded the inventor of the modern piano. He built instruments called gravicembalo col piano e forte, in which small hammers were used to hit the strings, and developed an escapement mechanism that allowed the hammer to fall back after hitting the string.  Cristophori’s design was later developed by Gottfried and Andreas Silbermann, brothers in Strasbourg (Gottfried moved to Freiburg to build cathedral organs; Andreas stayed to build pianos). Music for piano also started to emerge, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach being among the first composers to extensively write music for pianoforte and wrote an important treatise on piano playing entitled Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments).

Piano manufacturing became a major industry in the nineteenth century, with dozens of piano manufacturers competing for the market. Different companies produced instruments of different tone colour and tonal power, using different designs of piano action and strings. The ‘German action’ (Prellzungenmechanik) was developed by J. A. Stein introducing a check that prevented the hammer bouncing back and repeatedly hitting the strings.  The ‘English action’ (Stossmechanik) was more robust and more complex. The French manufacturer Sébastien Erard introduced the double escapement action, making it possible to rapidly play the same note again without the hammer being completely released. Aiming for a stronger sound audible in concert halls manufacturers tried to use thicker stings, which required higher tension to reach the same pitch. The solution was an iron frame supporting the strings, later developed into a cast iron frame that could bear high tensions (up to 20-30 tons).

Styles end exponents of piano music

Ludwig van Beethoven – the piano remained the most loyal companion of Beethoven. In Vienna he created sensation as a piano virtuoso with his advanced playing technique, elemental power and heartfelt passion. His piano compositions reflected his development at every stage and are among his most original compositions.  His first piano sonatas already reflect compositional maturity, demonstrating not only a mastery of the Classical style, but a spirit of innovation and uncompromising originality. His middle period piano works are subtle reflections of his inner conflicts, whereas his later works move towards high levels of creative freedom, spiritual consolation and transcendental meaning.

Robert Schumann – piano music explosively increased in quantity and technical virtuosity, but few musicians were able to produce works as passionate, soulful and evocative of emotions as Robert Schumann. Although his early music was well received by a small number of connoisseurs, it did not find its way to the general public as it was considered quirky, moody and difficult in its rhythm. Works like Papillons, Fantasistücke, Kreisleriana or the Fantasie in C sound like mosaics of musical sequences evoking starkly different, often opposing moods. His later compositions are less experimental and adhere more strictly to formal clarity.

Franz Liszt was a virtuoso superstar of his era, a great showman, leading his audiences into a hysterical-ecstatic state during his piano recitals. In the same time, he was one of the most progressive and innovative composers of his time, creating artworks of great emotional and spiritual depth, seeking to represent the transcendental meanings of human existence. His piano works were inspired by places he visited, by artistic creations, national ethos, thoughts about God and the Universe. During his later period Liszt was fascinated by the topic of death, creating dreamlike, macabre compositions like Totentanz and La lugubre gondola (1&2).

Frédérik Chopin was the nineteenths century composer whose creativity was most inextricably linked to the piano. Chopin regarded the instrument as an intimate companion that would enable him to express the finest nuances of human emotion by gentle touch. His piano compositions are miniature masterpieces written with exquisite taste, condensing ingenious pianistic solutions to generate certain moods or emotions. Each of them abounds in astonishing harmonic and melodic material that would suffice for large-scale orchestral works.

Franz Schubert – due to his fascination for song, his instrumental works are pervaded with an inherent song-like character. Some of his piano works, like Moments Musicaux, the Impromptus, and the Wanderer Fantasy, became instant favourites of the Viennese musical life. Surprisingly, Schubert’s piano sonatas, some of his most beautiful and ingenious compositions, were almost completely neglected until the twentieth century. Schubert’s piano “tone painting” for his songs bear equal emotional power with the words. Personally I find that Schubert’s music can give me an incredible sense of warmth, intimacy and serenity.

Carl Maria von Weber greatly contributed to piano music being raised to poetic level. His piano works require remarkable virtuosity, contributing to the development of the instrument and nurturing the development of other great masters.

Felix Mendelssohn, although not primarily a composer for piano, produced piano works of great interest. Most importantly, his collection of short pieces Songs without words contain a fascinating wealth of musical ideas and are pieces of subtle lyricism. He aimed at preserving the values of the past against what he considered an explosion of empty musical showmanship.

Johannes Brahms was a perfectionist master of the music of the past, a participant of the romantic movement and a visionary personality. He left a heritage that represented a bridge between pre-classical, classical, romantic and post-romantic music.

A revolutionary aspect of nineteenth century piano music was that it provided a culturally favoured vehicle of training for female musicians. The two most famous female musicians of the era – Clara Wieck Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel found their way to composition through the piano. Their compositions have been widely researched and published since the late nineteenth century.


Open College of the Arts assignment, Music 1, Part Three – incorporating feedback from tutor

Tibor Kovacs, June 2013



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