How the Piano Came to Be Part 1

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How the Piano Came to Be.

by Ellye Howell Glover.

From the dried sinews stretched across the sh.e.l.l of a dead tortoise to the concert-grand piano of the present day is a far flight. Yet to this primitive source, it is said, may be traced the evolution of the stringed instrument which reached its culmination in the piano. The latter has been aptly called "the household orchestra," and in tracing its origin one must go far back into the annals of the past. If we accept the Bible as history, and it is the greatest of all histories, the stringed instrument is of very ancient date. It is recorded that the amba.s.sadors who came to the court of Saul played upon their _nebels_, and that David, the sweet singer of Israel, wooed the king from his sadness by singing to his harp. We must go back to the civilization of ancient Egypt, more than five hundred years before that morning nearly two thousand years ago when, it is written, the angelic choir chanted above the historic manger the glorious message, "Peace on earth, good will to men," and the morning stars sang together.

In the olden times the Greeks laid claim to everything which bespoke culture and progress. The pages of ancient history record no other one thing so persistently as "the glory that was Greece." And so they tell of the time when--

"Music, heavenly maid, was young, And yet in ancient Greece she sung!"

It is now generally conceded, however, that it was not in Greece but in ancient Egypt that art, music, and the sciences in general were born.

That the Egyptians had stringed instruments is unquestionable. Away back in the year 525 B.C. Cambyses subdued the land. He overthrew the temples in the ruins of which have been found the records of musical instruments dating from the very earliest times. But the priests who guarded the temples were slain, and every vestige of what might have helped to determine the origin of the stringed instrument, out of which, later, the piano was evolved, as well as the names of those who wrought and endeavored to construct instruments which would give forth music, was forever lost.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Clavicytherium or Upright Spinet]

[Ill.u.s.tration: Clavichord]

For lack of written authority, then, one must turn back to tradition for light upon the origin of the piano. Tradition says that Ham, or one of his sons, led the first colony into Egypt. In fact there is a legend that Noah himself once dwelt there and some historians have identified him with the great deity of the Egyptians, Osiris. To Hermes, or Mercury, the secretary of Osiris, is ascribed the invention of the first stringed instrument. The story is that Hermes was walking one day along the banks of the Nile. It was just after one of the great inundations.

The Nile had overflowed its banks and the land had been submerged.

But now the water had subsided, and as Hermes walked along the sh.o.r.e, his foot struck accidentally against the sh.e.l.l of a dead tortoise.

Across the inside of the sh.e.l.l the dried sinews were tightly stretched.

Hermes picked it up and touched the sinews with his fingers. He was amazed to hear the sweet tones which the picking of the strings produced. He set to work to make a musical instrument, using the sh.e.l.l of a tortoise for the body and placing strings across it. In substantiation of this legend we find in examining the lyre of the ancient Greeks that almost every one was ornamented with a tortoise. We find also in the records of the Hindus, the Chinese, the Persians, and the Hebrews that these people had stringed musical instruments at a very early date and that the most common among them was the lyre in its various modifications.

The famous sepulcher of Rameses III is elaborately ornamented with harps. Specimens of this instrument have been found also in excavations made in comparatively recent years. In 1823 Sir J. G. Wilkinson discovered in an old Egyptian tomb a harp which, despite the fact that three thousand years had gone by since it had been put to sleep beside its royal master, was in an excellent state of preservation. The strings were of cat-gut and were in marvelously good condition. The custom which the Egyptians had of portraying their daily life upon their city walls, their temples, and tombs has been of incalculable value to the antiquarians in search of authentic information. From the pictures which ornament these temples and tombs we have learned that the harp and the lyre were the favorite instruments of the Egyptians, and these carvings alone furnish indisputable proof of their use by these people.

But all the research which man, thus far, has been able to make has not revealed just who it was that first discovered music in a lifeless instrument. This fact will always be deeply veiled in mystery. All attempts to unravel the threads have failed. None knows yet just who they were who first

"Struck the chorded sh.e.l.l, And, wondering, on their faces fell To wors.h.i.+p the celestial sounds.

Less than a G.o.d they thought there scarce could dwell Within the hollow of that sh.e.l.l That spoke so sweetly and so well."

Just how many strings Hermes had on his tortoise-sh.e.l.l instrument is a much disputed question. Some say there were but three and that they represented the three seasons--spring, summer, and winter--into which it was the custom of the Greeks to divide their year. Some authorities claim that the strings numbered four. Others say there were seven. No one knows. The Greek harp was played by picking the strings with the fingers or with a plectrum. The latter was a small piece of bone or metal, held in the fingers, with which the strings were snapped.

Sometimes a short piece of wood was used to strike the strings.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Spinet]

[Ill.u.s.tration: Queen Elizabeth's Virginal]

A step forward in the evolution of the stringed instrument was made during the Middle Ages when the psaltery became popular. It consisted of a box with strings across it, and records for us the first attempt at a sounding board. This was followed by the dulcimer, which closely resembled it but was somewhat larger. A plectrum was used to play them both.

A very good idea of the psaltery and dulcimer may be obtained from the xylophone. This instrument has bars of wood or metal which are struck with a wooden mallet. The keyboard was invented in the eleventh century.

It was applied first to an instrument called a clavier and later to the organ. The first stringed instrument to which this new device was applied was the clavicytherium, or keyed cithara. It had a box with a cover and strings of cat-gut, arranged in the form of a half triangle.

It was made to sound by means of a quill plectrum attached in a rude way to the end of the keys. This was the progress the piano of today had made in the thirteenth century.

Next in order of development comes the monochord, clarichord, or clavichord, the latter being the name by which it is generally known. As it was the instrument most used during the six centuries which followed, it is worthy of close study. In shape it much resembled a small square piano without frame or legs. The strings were of bra.s.s, struck by a wedge made of the same metal which was called a tangent. It was capable of soft tones only, but they were very sweet and melancholy. The elder Bach loved this instrument. He did not take kindly to the piano which was about to supplant his beloved clavichord. One regrets that he could not have lived to have seen it perfected. In playing the music written by Bach we must remember that he wrote entirely for the clavichord. The instrument he used was, without doubt, the product of Italy, as during this time the Italians led all Europe in the arts. At a later period the clavichord was copied by the Germans and Belgians. It was used by them for centuries on account of its simple construction and low price.

Mozart always carried one with him as part of his baggage when traveling. The virginal, spinet, and harpsichord followed the clavichord in rapid succession, considering that the last named instrument had been in favor for such a long time, with seemingly no attempt at improvement.

All of these three instruments had strings of bra.s.s, with quill plectra attached to pieces of wood. These were called "jacks"--a name still used today in making up the action of the piano.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Double Spinet or Virginal made by Ludovicus Grovvelus Flanders, 1600]

The virginal and spinet were almost identical with each other, but the harpsichord was larger and occasionally was built with two keyboards.

There are several explanations as to why the virginal was so called.

One is that it got its name from its a.s.sociation with hymns to the Virgin. Another is that it was thus called in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. We may accept whichever theory best suits us, but history records that both Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland were proficient in its use and that it was the favorite instrument of Henry VIII. Items for repairs and for instruction in playing the virginal appear frequently in the royal expense book, showing conclusively that His Majesty was not unmindful of such accomplishments. Four octaves was the range of these old instruments, from the second added line below in the ba.s.s to the second added line above in the treble. There was but one string to each note, and one can well understand why a writer of that period describes the tone as "a _scratch_ with a _sound_ at the end of it." Queen Elizabeth's virginal is still preserved at Worcesters.h.i.+re. It is a most elaborate creation, having a cedar case ornately covered with crimson velvet and lined with yellow silk. Its weight is only twenty-four pounds. Gold plate covers the front. Thirty of its fifty keys are of ebony with tips of gold. The semitone keys are inlaid with silver, ivory, and various woods, each key being composed of two hundred and fifty pieces. The royal arms are emblazoned upon the case. The Queen's virginal instruction book is also carefully kept, one of the many silent records of the accomplishments of this gifted and brilliant woman.

The instrument which belonged, once upon a time, to Mary Queen of Scots was not quite so gorgeous. Its case was of oak inlaid with cedar, but it was ornamented with gold and had rare paintings on the case. It was customary to employ the best artists to decorate these instruments, as this greatly enhanced their value. There is a story that Salvatore Rosa, on a wager, made his almost valueless harpsichord worth a thousand scudi by painting a landscape with figures upon the lid.

In July of the year 1701 the London _Post_ had an article relating to virginals which reads: "This week a most curious pair of virginals, reckoned to be the finest in England, was s.h.i.+pped off for the Grand Seigneur's seraglio."

Old Pepys, in his diary, gives a description of the great fire in London which occurred in 1666, in which he says: "The river was full of lighters and boats, taking in goods, _good_ goods swimming in the water; and only I observed that hardly one lighter or boat but that there was a pair of virginals on it." The word "pair" as it is used then had no more meaning than when we now say "a pair of scissors." This extract shows that the instrument must have been almost as commonly used as the piano of our day. In Shakespeare's time it was customary to have a virginal in a barber shop for the entertainment of customers, probably to beguile the weary moments while they waited for the barber to say "next."

[Ill.u.s.tration: Clavichord made by John Christopher Jesse, Germany, 1765]

In shape the spinet resembled the harp placed horizontally in the framework. A very good example may be seen at the South Kensington Museum in London. It was made by Rossi, a celebrated manufacturer. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has rare specimens of the harp which were given by the late Mr. Drexel, of Philadelphia, who purchased them in Europe. There are two theories as to the origin of the name "spinet."

One is, that it was taken from Spinetti, a Venetian who invented the oblong form of the case. The other is that the strings were made to vibrate by the points of a quill, and that the word "spinet" came from thorn or point.

In tone the spinet was usually a fifth higher than that of the harpsichord, which came into favor during the eighteenth century. The latter was almost exactly like our grand piano, only very much smaller.

To Italy has been accorded the honor of its origin, also, away back in the fifteenth century. It was not commonly used, however, until about 1702. A harpsichord on exhibition at the South Kensington Museum in London bears the date of 1521. A step towards the present-day construction of the piano is shown by the fact that there were always two wire strings to each note and sometimes three or four, and that it had a keyboard covering five octaves. It was like an organ in that it had register stops and sometimes a double keyboard.

Hans Ruckers, of Antwerp, was the most celebrated maker of the harpsichord in those days. One of his best specimens belongs to the Drexel collection in New York. Handel delighted in his Ruckers harpsichord and gave it preference over all others, which is adequate proof of its superiority. It was his pleasure to play upon it long after his failing eyesight forbade the use of notes. He had to improvise entirely, but was so expert that the orchestra with whom he played was often diverted by his wonderful accompaniments. This partiality was resented by the soloists and one of them told Handel that if he ever played him such a trick while he was singing, he would jump down on his harpsichord and smash it. This amused Handel immensely and he exclaimed, "You vill jump, vill you? Varey well, sare. Be so kind und tell me ven you vill jump, und I vill advertise it in der bills." We are told that every key of Handel's instrument was hollowed like the bowl of a spoon, so incessant was his practice. One very lovely harpsichord still in existence has its history veiled in mystery, but the supposition is that it once belonged to Marie Antoinette.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Dulcimer]

Clementi had one of the last harpsichords made. The date upon the case was 1802. Beethoven's famous "Moonlight Sonata" was written for either harpsichord or piano. It was published in 1802. Hummel played on the harpsichord as late as 1805, but it had to give way, though most reluctantly, to the new invention called the pianoforte. Just how slow the public was in accepting the innovation and improvement upon the instruments mentioned, the following quotation from a folio gotten out by Thomas Mace, who was one of the clerks of Trinity College, at the University of Cambridge, testifies. He was pleased to call his booklet "Musick's Monument," and it was printed in 1676 in London.

He scorned the new invention but warmly upheld the lute and viol. He explained that the lute was once considered difficult to play because it had too few strings, only ten to fourteen, while at the time of his writing it had sixteen to twenty-six. He makes the statement that he never spent more than a s.h.i.+lling a quarter for strings. The care of a lute he describes quaintly:

"And that you may know how to shelter your lute in the worst of ill weathers (which is moist) you shall do well, ever when you lay it by in the day time, to put It into a Bed that is constantly used, between the Rug and Blanket, but never between the Sheets, because, they may be moist. This is the most absolute and best place to keep It in always, by which doing, you will find many Great Conveniences. Therefore, a Bed will secure from all these inconveniences and keep your Glew as Hard as Gla.s.s and all safe and sure; only to be excepted, that no Person be so inconsiderate as to Tumble down upon the Bed whilst the lute is there, for I have known several Good lutes spoiled with such a Trick."

Again we are indebted to Italy for the invention and name of the pianoforte. It is a strange fact that, entirely unknown to one another, three men were working out the same principle--namely, the hammer action--at the same time. Marius in France, Schroeter in Germany, and Bartolomeo Christofori (often called Christofali) in Italy worked secretly and simultaneously, and for a long time it was undecided to whom the honor really belonged. A careful examination of all records, however, establishes beyond a doubt the priority of Christofori's claim. The hammer action was what all previous instruments lacked, and it seems strange that it took nearly two thousand years for this principle to be discovered and applied. Many times the inventors appeared to be almost upon it. They worked all around it, but the idea seemed illusive and they never grasped it.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Christofori Piano from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City]

At this point it might be well to enumerate in order the instruments which preceded the piano, if only to fasten them clearly in memory: the lyre and harp of the ancients; the dulcimer, played by means of the plectra and to which, as the hand could use but one plectrum, there was a keyboard added to use all the fingers, thus moving the plectra faster; the clavichord, with tangents of bra.s.s to strike the strings; the virginal and the spinet, in reality the same; the harpsichord, with its crow quills to half rub, half strike the strings, still far away from the hammer action of the present-day piano. It seems almost unaccountable that the manufacturers who so greatly improved the mechanism of the harpsichord at this stage failed to discover the hammer action. But at last, after the quest of centuries, the quill, thorn, and ivory were discarded and a small hammer struck the string, giving a clear, precise, but delicate tone hitherto unheard. The "scratch with a sound at the end" was gone forever. The harpsichord had been changed into an instrument of percussion, and it only remained for man to perfect that primitive creation into the superb piano of today.

Although Italy gave the invention to the world, it remained for northern Europe and England to take up the idea and improve it. Christofori solved three important problems: first, the construction of thicker strings to withstand the hammer action; second, a way to compensate for the weakness caused by the opening in the tuning-pin block; third, the mechanical control of the rebound of the hammer from the strings, so that the hammer should not block against the latter and prevent vibration.

The first Christofori instrument was brought out in 1709. Marius did not come forth with his claim until 1716, and Schroeter not until the next year. The name "pianoforte" is traced clearly to the year 1598 and is said to have been originated by an Italian named Paliarino. In some of his ma.n.u.scripts he mentions an instrument called _piano e forte_. The English put in a claim for a monk living in Rome who had made an instrument resembling Christofori's in 1711 and had brought it to England, where it created a profound sensation. This may have been true, but England did little to develop even the harpsichord until long after Continental makers had achieved marked success in the business. In 1760 German workmen to the number of twelve went to London. They were known as the Twelve Apostles, and it is their descendants who became identified with the successful development of the piano down to the present time.

Very few of the first Christofori pianos have been preserved. One, in excellent repair, is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Two are in Florence, dated 1720 and 1726. They show, beyond a doubt, that he had antic.i.p.ated the plan of escapement and hammer checking. Like many other pioneer inventors, this man died in comparative poverty. Schroeter, the German claimant, became a famous maker of instruments. He succeeded in improving the piano to a large extent. But his life was made miserable fighting the claims of other manufacturers who sprang up and immediately went into business. Marius met the same fate, being driven to distraction by compet.i.tors, some of whom turned out instruments far superior to his.

England did not accomplish much before the middle of the eighteenth century. Up to 1760 all pianos were made in what is known as the "grand"

form. Then a German in the employ of the Tschudi's, famous makers of harpsichords, invented the familiar "square" style. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the most noted European makers were the Steins, Stodart, Broadwood, Pleyel, Erard, and Silberman. Pleyel was distinguished not only for his fine instruments, but for the fact that he was the twenty-fourth child born to his mother after she married Martin Pleyel. She died soon after his birth, whereupon his father took unto himself another wife and had fourteen more children, making a family of thirty-eight, thirty-five of whom lived and prospered. Pleyel was chapel master of Strasburg Cathedral. He was the author of some fine hymns and other compositions which we know and love today. He lived in Paris, manufactured splendid pianos, and was, before his death, proprietor of one of the largest establishments in Europe.

To show against what prejudice the piano had to struggle as compared to the harpsichord (and even the clavichord), we quote from a musical critic in Leipzig who said:

"The clavichord stands highest of all instruments, and although on account of its nature it is excluded from the concert hall, it is the companion of the recluse. The latter says to himself: 'Here I can produce the feelings of my heart, can shade fully, drive away care, and melt away a tone through all its swellings,'" This critic says further:

"The piano is so deficient in its shadings and minor attractions, it is adapted only for concerts and chamber music." This dissertation closes as follows: "In order to judge a virtuoso, one must listen to him while at the clavichord, not while at the piano or harpsichord."

To ill.u.s.trate the novelty of the piano in the year 1767, we find on an old English play bill of the Covent Garden Theater a certain Miss Brickler advertised to sing a favorite song from "Judith," accompanied by Mr. Dibdin on "a new instrument" called the pianoforte. This was at the intermission after the first act of "The Beggars" opera.

How the Piano Came to Be Part 1

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