We mark the birth on May 4, 1655 – 365 years ago today – of the inventor, musical instrument builder, and engineer extraordinaire Bartolomeo Cristofori. Though born in the northern Italian city of Padua in the Republic of Venice, Cristofori spent the bulk of his professional life in Florence, where he designed and then built the first piano sometime before the year 1700. No less than the inventions of Archimedes, Johannes Gutenberg, Karl Benz, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers, Cristofori’s “piano” changed the world.
Inventors are a breed apart. Whether they’re tinkering in a garage or working in a high-end laboratory, an inventor requires imagination, originality, innate engineering skills, deep powers of analysis, and perseverance. And more perseverance. And still more perseverance. (Did I mention perseverance?) But just as much, someone who would be an inventor cannot believe in the status quo, that things are okay as they are. Inventors don’t perceive the world as it is, but rather, as it could be.
In terms of his imagination, originality, innate engineering skills, deep powers of analysis, perseverance, and dissatisfaction with his world “as it was”, Bartolomeo Cristofori was a quintessential inventor.
Pardon me the colloquialism, but beyond the information on his birth record, we know absolutely squat about Cristofori’s early life. The first reliable, recorded event of his life dates from 1688, when the 33-year-old Cristofori was hired to work for Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713). As the eldest son of Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Prince Ferdinando was heir to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the capital of which was the magnificent city of Florence.
Here’s what we know and what we can infer. We know that Prince Ferdinando was not just a music lover who collected a wide variety of instruments, but a genuine geek, a tech-freak who was fascinated by machines and mechanisms; his collection of clocks was famous at the time. We know that he travelled to Venice in 1688 to attend the Carnival. He would have met Bartolomeo Cristofori when he passed through Padua on his way home to Florence in March or April of 1688. As a result of their meeting, the prince offered Cristofori a job.
Now. We read that as Prince Fernando’s previous instrumental caretaker had just died, Cristofori was hired to replace him: to tune, transport, maintain and restore the musical instruments in the prince’s collection of instruments. But as the instrument builder Stewart Pollens (born 1949 and called “one of the world’s foremost authorities on musical instruments”) points out in his book The Early Pianoforte (Cambridge University Press, 1995), there was no shortage of first-rate instrumental technicians already in Florence who the prince could have hired. But instead, he passed them over and, on the spot there in Padua, offered Cristofori the job, with a higher salary and better benefits than his predecessor.
What did Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici see in Cristofori’s workshop in Padua that made him so want to add Cristofori to his staff? We don’t know. But what we can rightly assume is that by nearly 33 years of age, Cristofori would have already been an accomplished instrument builder and that he was already building some pretty innovative instruments.
Stewart Pollens is convinced, as we all should be, that in Bartolomeo Cristofori, Prince Ferdinando saw much more than an instrument builder and a technician: he saw an inventor. And that’s why he hired him on the spot.
Cristofori was not an easy sell; had no desire to leave his native Padua. In the one and only interview he conducted in his lifetime – with the Italian writer and art critic Francesco Maffei – Cristofori recalled that:
“The prince was told that I did not wish to go; he replied that he would make me want to.”
It would seem that in the best sort of Godfather style, the prince made Cristofori “an offah he could’n refuse”, because Cristofori almost immediately took up residence in Florence (in May of 1688), just a month or two after having met the prince.
At the time Bartolomeo Cristofori went to work for Ferdinando de’ Medici in Florence, the harpsichord, invented around 1400, was as ubiquitous as – heaven help us – “electric keyboards” are today.
A harpsichord is a mechanical harp, a wing-shaped instrument in which the strings of a horizontally set harp are plucked via a mechanism activated from a keyboard. In Dutch, such an instrument is called a klavecimbel; in French,a clavecin; in German, a cembalo; in Italian, a clavicembalo.
When a harpsichord key is pressed down, it levers upwards a slat of wood called a jack. Mounted on the jack is a pick (or “plectrum”) which is made from either a quill or a piece of hardened leather. The plectrum plucks a string as it rises past it. When the key is released, the jack-and-plectrum assembly falls back into place by gravity. A small hinge folds the plectrum assembly upwards and thus it passes the string without re-plucking it, at which point a damper stops the vibration of the string.
The nature of a harpsichord’s action precludes it from getting progressively louder or softer or of “accenting”, that is, making some notes louder than others. Pushing down harder on the keys of a harpsichord will not make the instrument play “louder”; all that does is create a wooden thump. You see, the loudness of a harpsichord is not determined by the speed with which the plectrum moves, but by the actual mass of the plectrum itself. The mass of the plectrum is built into a harpsichord; it’s not something that can be modified during a performance. As a result, a harpsichord is incapable of graded dynamics: of getting progressively louder or softer, of producing crescendi and decrescendi/diminuendi.
For many members of the seventeenth century Italian musical community – a community increasingly enamored of the lyric expressivity of opera on one hand and the violin on the other – the limitations of the harpsichord became increasingly problematic. The Italian composer Giovanni Casini spoke for many when he wrote that music should consist of:
“the speech of the heart, now with the delicate touch of an angel, now with the violent eruptions of passion. [Regrettably], the harpsichord cannot fulfill all the expressions of human sentiment.”
The inventor of genius who “solved” the “harpsichord problem” (and in doing so became the Archimedes, Johannes Gutenberg, Karl Benz, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers of Baroque era instrumental innovation and design) was Bartolomeo Cristofori.
On arriving in Florence, Cristofori built a number of innovative keyboard instruments, including an oval-shaped harpsichord in which the longest strings are in the center of the case (see above).
We do not know exactly when he drew up the plans for what would become the first “piano”; we only know that when an inventory of Prince Ferdinando’s instrument collection was drawn up in 1700, one of the entries begins:
“Un Arpicembalo di Bartolomeo Cristofori di nuova inventione, che fa’ il piano, e il forte, a due registri principali unisoni, con fondo di cipresso.”
“An ‘Arpicembalo’ by Bartolomeo Cristofori, of new invention that produces soft and loud, with two sets of strings at unison pitch, with soundboard of cypress.”
As this entry bears out, by 1700, Cristofori had built an instrument that he himself called an “Arpicembalo col il piano e il forte, meaning, literally, a “harp/harpsichord with soft and loud.” Over the centuries, the name of the instrument has been truncated from “il piano e il forte” – “soft and loud” – to simply “piano.”
What Cristofori built was a relatively portable keyboard instrument that sought to address the dynamic shortcomings of the harpsichord, an instrument that employed leather-covered “hammers” to strike – rather than a plectrum to pluck – the strings. For this new instrument, Cristofori designed and manufactured an entirely new sort of action, one that varied the speed of the hammers (and therefore, the loudness of the strike) depending upon how hard a key was pressed. The ingenuity and engineering wizardry behind Cristofori’s new action are breathtaking. Nothing like it had ever existed before him; for all intents and purposes, he did indeed create his wheel from scratch. He created problems and then solved them, and his action is still the basis for every modern piano. Rarely can we unambiguously attribute an important invention to a single person to the degree we can the piano to Bartolomeo Cristofori.
Initially, he considered his “Arpicembalo col il piano e il forte” to be a modified harpsichord. It took both Cristofori and the musical community around him roughly 25 years to realize that he had, in fact, invented an entirely new instrument, one capable of an entirely new degree of expressive nuance.
We do not know just how many pianos Cristofori built. Three of them have survived, all of them built in the 1720s. The oldest of the three, built in 1720, can be seen today at the Metropolitan Music of Art in New York City. A piano he built in 1722 can be seen at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, and one from 1726 at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum in Leipzig.
When Cristofori died on January 27, 1731 at the age of 75, his “Arpicembalo col il piano e il forte” was just starting to catch on. The following year – 1732 – saw the publication of the first music composed specifically for the piano: twelve sonatas by the Italian Composer Ludovico Giustini.
It was also in 1732 that a German organ and harpsichord builder named Gottfried Silbermann built his first piano. Silbermann’s early pianos were straight up copies of Cristofori’s design. Over time and thanks in no small part to the feedback Silbermann received from a local keyboard player and composer named Johann Sebastian Bach, Silbermann’s pianos became known as the most reliable and playable on the market. So dominant did Silbermann’s pianos become that by the late eighteenth century, he was being credited with having invented the thing!
Today, we know better, and we must stand in awe of Bartolomeo Cristofori’s creative and engineering gift.
We close with some idle speculation. If Cristofori had been born not in 1655 but 1955 (the same year as Steve Jobs), his technical genius would almost certainly have played itself out in high tech. Conversely, had Steve Jobs been born in Padua in 1655, his creative wizardry might very well have been employed, like so many others in the city, in building (and very possibly creating) musical instruments. But here’s the kicker for me. What if, in our own time, Hewlett, or Packard, or Jobs, or Wozniak, or Gates was engaged in designing and building musical instruments? What sort of unimagined magic might one of them have created?
Food for thought.
For more on the early piano, join me tomorrow on Patreon, when my Dr. Bob Prescribes post will explore recordings of Mozart’s Piano Sonatas made on a piano built in the eighteenth century.
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