4 May 2016

Bartolomeo Cristofori - inventor of the piano

Instrument maker adapted harpsichord to play soft and loud notes

The only known portrait of Bartolomeo Cristofori
Bartolomeo Cristofori in a 1726 portrait
Bartolomeo Cristofori, the man widely credited with inventing the piano, was born on this day in 1655 in Padua.

He came up with the idea while working for the Grand Prince Ferdinando de' Medici in Florence, who had hired him to look after his collection of harpsichords and other instruments.

It is thought that Cristofori, who was assumed to have been an established maker of musical instruments when Ferdinando invited him to Florence in around 1690, wanted to create a keyboard instrument similar to a harpsichord but capable of playing notes of varying loudness.

An inventory of Medici instruments from 1700 described an "arpicimbalo", which resembled a harpsichord but which created sounds through hammers and dampers rather than the plucking mechanism employed by the harpsichord. It was said to be "newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori".

In 1711, Scipione Maffei, a poet and journalist, referred to Cristofori's "gravicembalo col piano, e forte" (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte. A Florentine court musician, Federigo Meccoli, noted that the "arpi cimbalo del piano e forte" was first made by Cristofori in 1700, which is regarded as the birth date for the piano.

An early model was dismissed by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach as possessing too heavy a touch and too weak a treble.  Cristofori made further modifications over time and by 1726 his instrument had many of the characteristics of a modern piano, albeit with fewer keys.

In Germany, meanwhile, the organ designer Gottfried Silbermann, using Cristofori's blueprint, began making pianos of his own in 1730, which met with Bach's approval.

Three Cristofori pianos survive, the oldest a 1720 model at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  The Museo Strumenti Musicali in Rome has one dated at 1722 and the Musikinstrumenten-Museum of Leipzig University has one made in 1726.

Cristofori’s invention was initially slow to catch on in Italy, but records show that Queen Maria Barbara de Braganza of Spain, patron and student of the composer Domenico Scarlatti, bought five. It is thought that hundreds of Scarlatti’s single-movement keyboard sonatas, of which there were more than 500, may have been intended for piano, rather than harpsichord.

By the late 18th century, thanks to its range and versatility, the pianoforte had become a leading instrument of Western music. By the end of the 19th century, many wealthier households in Europe and North America possessed a piano and almost every major Western composer from Mozart onwards had played it and put it at the heart of their musical output.

Cristofori remained in Florence following the death of Ferdinando in 1713 and continued to work for the Medici court until his health declined.  There is evidence that his assistants were Giovanni Ferrini and Domenico dal Mela, who both went on to establish notable careers of their own.  Dal Mela is said to have made the first upright piano.  Cristofori died in Florence in January 1731.

Photo of Padua Basilica of St Anthony
The Basilica of St Anthony in Padua
Travel tip:

The city of Padua - or Padova - in the Veneto region of northern Italy is best known for the frescoes by Giotto that adorn the Scrovegni Chapel and for the vast 13th-century Basilica of St. Anthony, notable for its Byzantine-style domes. The old part of the town has arcaded streets and many cafes. The University of Padua, established in 1222, is one of the oldest in the world.

Travel tip:

Florence is said to be the birthplace of opera, a form of entertainment that evolved after musicians, dancers and actors began performing light-hearted scenes known as intermezzi to keep audiences entertained between acts of Roman plays.  Noble Florentine families began to enthuse more about the intermezzi than the plays themselves and in 1600 the first complete opera - Euridice, by Jacopo Peri - was performed at the Pitti Palace at the royal wedding of Maria de' Medici and Henry IV of France.


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