Classical and Romantic Piano Comparison

The piano can be directly linked to two instruments οf centuries past. The first is the clavichord, a box-like structure in which strings are stretched and struck by metal blades to produce notes and pitches. The clavichord could be manipulated to produce different chords, but even at its best, it could barely be heard by anyone other than the player. Intent upon creating a superior to the clavichord, musical engineers created the harpsichord. The harpsichord used a frame similar to modern grand pianos but utilized a wooden bar and a quill to pluck strings (the jack), which amplified the sound οf a clavichord greatly. Harpsichords were more expensive than clavichords and became a fad in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. The harpsichord was a particularly important development leading to the invention οf the piano.

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However, the harpsichord was limited to one unvarying volume. Its softness and loudness remained the same while playing. Therefore, performing artists could not achieve the degree οf musical expression οf most other instruments. The artistic desire for more controlled expression led directly to the invention οf the piano, on which the artist could alter the loudness and tone with the force οf his/her fingers.

The first piano appeared in Italy sometime around 1693, originally named the gravicembolo col piano e forte (the harpsichord with loud and soft). An Italian harpsichord-maker named Bartolomeo Cristofori replaced harpsichord’s jacks with leather-covered hammers, activated by a remarkable mechanical system. Where the harpsichord could only make a string produce one sound, the new piano could be played loud or soft, make dynamic accents, and could produce gradations οf sounds. Even though this new invention attracted little attention at the time (because οf the existing popularity οf the harpsichord), the piano would captivate the world in the years to come. Cristofori made only two pianos before he died in 1731, but an article was written about the new invention, and the article made its way to Germany. There, an organ-builder named Gottfried Silbermann read the article and became fascinated with the idea οf a modified harpsichord.

Additionally, Silbermann had recently seen a performance dedicated to Louis XIV, which included a piece οf music played on a huge dulcimer, which is played by striking strings with a mallet. One end οf the mallet was hard, while the other was covered with soft leather. Fascinated and inspired, Silbermann set out to create a piano οf his own, using leather-covered hammers. When Silbermann’s first piano was finished in 1736, the great composer Johannes Sebastian Bach evaluated it. Bach admired the tone but complained that the action was heavy and the upper register weak. Though slightly discouraged, Silbermann introduced his piano to King Frederick the Great, who was thrilled with this new instrument. It has been rumoured that the king acquired 15 οf Silbermann’s pianos, but if this is true, only three have made it into the twentieth century. The acceptance οf the piano by King Frederick began what is known as the Twilight Era, a time οf transition between the rejection οf the harpsichord and the acceptance οf the piano.

In the late seventeenth century, the piano had begun to shed the reputation οf an improved harpsichord and was starting to be recognized as an entirely new instrument. The piano’s popularity steadily increased partially due to the standard οf living at that time. Clavichords were inexpensive, but their uses were limited. Harpsichords cost more than early pianos and were more difficult to maintain. The material resources οf the rising middle class encouraged musical amateurs and created a climate favourable to the new keyboard instrument. Even Wolfgang Mozart, a future virtuoso, who was a primary advocate οf the harpsichord, had taken to the piano and practically discarded his old instrument. The piano’s popularity spread through Europe at a surprising rate. Piano makers experimented and made improvements on current pianos; the piano industry was becoming rivalries, with everyone trying to outdo each other. Eventually, this competitive nature spread to England.

Oscar Bie best describes Lizst’s concerts like this: Using the full weight οf his shoulders, arms and wrists, he made the instrument speak with power, drama, and even violence that had never been done before. Pianos suffered at his hands, and it was not at all unusual for one or two strings to break and for the piano to require retuning in the midst οf one οf his concerts. A spare piano stood ready on the stage, and reports οf his concerts suggest that the audience felt cheated if a piano survived intact. Lizst’s works were all passionate and beautiful, and since his passion was sometimes violent, pianos needed to be built stronger and more durable to sustain the blows dealt by passionate players.

Piano-makers had to keep up with the changing times, and with Beethoven contributing to the piano’s hype, change was imminent. Ludwig van Beethoven was the king οf pianists in his time. Beethoven wanted the piano to sound like a whole orchestra instead οf just one instrument. Beethoven was accustomed to standard five-octave pianos, but in 1818, he received a six-octave grand piano from the Broadwood Piano Company. Excited with this new style and extra octave, Beethoven wrote his last three sonatas for the six-octave. Beethoven, however, was deaf by 1818, loved his Broadwood because he could more feel the music than hear it. Since Beethoven favoured Broadwood, so did the rest οf the musical community. The Broadwood Grand continued to be a very popular model through the 1850s.

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By 1853, the United States had become part οf the piano scene, producing pianos such as the upright and the Chickering, but perhaps the most important piano-makers in America in the nineteenth century are Steinway and Sons. As German natives, these men came to America to flee the German government and found their calling in the piano-making business. Using the same frames as older pianos, the Steinways’ piano models remained in style for a time, but the showstopper came out in 1855 when the Steinways introduced their own homemade iron frame. This frame was that οf the grand piano, which became the primary concert piano in America by 1900. In the early 1900s, pianos began to be the primary vocal accompanying instrument. With the Big Band Era and the Swing Era between the 1920s and 1940s, the piano continued to be a major part οf all music.

From the 1960s to the present day, the digital piano has been a vital part οf almost all music recording studios. Being easily transported and virtually perfectly pitched, digital pianos are the preference οf recording artists. This transformation exemplifies the piano’s evolution in relationship to human music growth and change. Concert pianists, however, use only true grand pianos, perhaps to preserve the tradition set by early Europeans. Worldwide, the piano has lived a full and momentous life. Since Steinway’s success, pianos have been used for recreation, employment, entertainment, and education. Though the piano has had many different faces, the general intent οf all players was (and is) to bring joy to someone’s day. The piano is not only a musical instrument but also an instrument οf internal harmony. From its origination as a little tiny clavichord to the unblemished beautiful grand pianos οf today, the piano has and always will be one οf the centrepieces οf all kinds οf music.

As a music faculty member οf a small liberal arts college, part οf my teaching responsibility is to provide all music majors with rudimentary piano skills. In similar colleges and universities across the United States, this process is generally accomplished through group piano lessons in an electronic keyboard laboratory. These classes usually meet two or three times a week for a fifty-minute class period. Depending upon the institution, after two to four semesters οf lessons, students are prepared to take a piano proficiency examination. The components tested in this exam also vary across institutions but generally include the performance (in some form) οf scales, arpeggios, and cadences; harmonization and transposition οf a melody; sight-reading; and performance οf a prepared repertoire piece. Students who fail several components οf the test are οften sent back to class or private lessons for more training. Those who successfully pass the examination are usually excused from the further piano study.

Is the short amount οf piano study required to pass the proficiency exam enough preparation for music education majors? Those professors who place and monitor student teachers often mention the fact that the cooperating teachers want these students to possess a high degree οf capability at the keyboard, including the ability to accompany and play voice parts for choirs and lessons, as needed. These are the same skills that administration members hiring teachers look for when screening applicants for permanent positions. Too often, graduates who are now working in classrooms or studios tell me that their piano skills are not sufficient and that they wish they had taken more piano lessons in college.

Even the best university and college piano teachers realize that only so much can be packed into a two-semester piano requirement οf group lessons, especially when instructing music majors who come to college having no keyboard experience. The camaraderie and enthusiasm for learning among teachers and students can be excellent in these classes, but we piano instructors know we would like several more semesters with these students in order to build their piano skills to a higher level. Unfortunately, investing the time to do this is often impossible. Our students barely have enough space in their packed curriculums to take even one elective, and they must be careful in planning semester schedules if they are to fulfil all graduation requirements in the traditional four-year timespan. Another, less satisfying option might be to raise the piano proficiency standards so that a majority οf music majors could not pass the exam after two semesters of οf study and would therefore be required to take more Plano. This circuitous approach would most likely leave students depressed and instructors frustrated.

There is another solution. However, that does not involve tacking on extra hours οf piano study or subjecting students to the humiliation οf an impossible test. If we as college and university teachers want our students to be truly proficient in playing the piano, we must include keyboarding across the curriculum and not depend solely on the piano class to get the job done, even if it requires a bit οf extra effort and cooperation. The following are a few possibilities:

Include keyboard assignments in all levels οf theory class. Students should be encouraged to hear what they have written. They should be able to play all οf their homework exercises on a keyboard, including their first attempts at four-part writing.

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Have students add piano accompaniments to the melodies played by instrumental music education majors in brass, string, and woodwind techniques courses. Be sure to have the students design the chordal harmonization, as this can be a useful exercise in transposition. Students should also be encouraged to transpose and play at the piano the individual parts from instrumentation class projects.

Incorporate piano into the aural skills curriculum by having students play chords at the keyboard while other students sight-sing exercises or by having all students in the class accompany themselves as they sing. Students should also be able to play melodies on the keyboard as they practice any prepared reading assignments.

As their peers take turns at the podium in basic and choral conducting classes, encourage other students to accompany at the piano. This often requires the use οf simpler exercises for the pianist’s benefit and also some extra planning on the teacher’s part to ensure that the accompanist has adequate preparation time beforehand. Be sure that the pianists know they don’t have to hit every note. They should, however, be able to stay with the performing group and conductor with a reasonable degree οf accuracy and musicianship.

Encourage music majors who are not piano majors to use their keyboard skills in choral literature classes. Avoid playing the piano yourself as students explore and perform choral literature. Assign each student several moderate-level choral pieces to accompany before this friendly audience. They’ll have to do it soon for their own students, students’ parents, and school administrators when they take a job.

Be sure that students in choral arranging, composition and counterpoint classes can perform their own creations. Encourage students to use the piano during the compositional process so that they can hear what they wrote. Then have them play their final projects for the class.

When the choir breaks into sectionals, have a music education major in each group play the single-line part for that rehearsal. Don’t always depend on keyboard majors or tape recordings for this task-it’s a great experience for music education students.

Encourage music education students to accompany as often as possible, whether it be for an elementary or secondary music methods class, a vocal performance class, or a fellow freshman’s beginning applied lessons. A few οf the easier vocal anthologies are listed in the Useful Anthologies for Beginning Keyboard Accompanists sidebar.

You may find as you begin to implement some οf these suggestions that your students will be hesitant and scared to share their piano skills before others. Too often, we as teachers sympathize with our music majors’ sparse keyboard backgrounds and give in to their anxiety by excusing them from playing. It can be time-consuming and definitely less “perfect” to encourage these students to use their piano skills in class. Careful planning and choosing οf repertoire and exercises, however, can be quite helpful. Teachers must also realize that the eventual payoff is enormous. Our music education majors will be building the skills necessary for successful performance in the studio and classroom.

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Few instruments are as familiar to the person on the street as the piano, yet most students οf the piano know little about its physical and performance history. Granted, most are aware that Cristofori is credited with its invention, but the subsequent details are less well known. As a result,

A History οf Pianoforte Pedalling will probably be one οf the more popular books in its series. The author, David Rowland, has collected essays covering the history οf the instrument, the history οf its performance, and a study οf its repertory. Obviously, less than 250 pages are hardly enough space to deal thoroughly with each οf these topics, but the book is aimed at piano students and amateurs–not professional musicologists.

The book divides into two parts: Pianos and Pianists, and Repertory. The former is more successful for various reasons but perhaps above all because the subject is more clearly limited and somewhat less arbitrary. Interesting morsels οf information abound in Part One, such as Mozart’s use οf rubato (the two hands do not synchronize) as opposed to Chopin’s (the more typical interpretation). This section contains numerous photographs and diagrams οf historical pianos and their actions, all οf which aid in the explanation οf what could be a rather dry topic–the physics οf the piano mechanism. The account οf the development οf the modern grand piano, especially the innovations made by Steinway, is particularly illuminating and useful.

Liszt has always been an engaging figure to pianists οf every level, and his exploits in performance especially so. Hamilton details the competition between Liszt and Thalberg and comments on the lasting effect Liszt’s playing has had on subsequent generations. Robert Philip’s essay on early recordings οf famous pianists provides fascinating reading, even for a specialist in the piano repertory; he cautions, for example, against relying on piano rolls for tempi, which were οften speeded up to fit a long piece onto too short a piece οf paper, and elsewhere against the common temptation to establish a “simple family tree οf teachers and pupils”.

Part two is less satisfying because οf the obvious selectivity that must accompany such a slim book. In J. Barrie Jone’s two essays, a decidedly German bias affects the writing, and whereas composers such as Schubert receive their own headings, all French music is grouped together. This would seem the obvious place to introduce amateurs to figures less familiar, such as Faure, but Barrie deemphasizes that composer by not giving him his own place. As expected, Chopin receives special emphasis in both οf his chapters (“Piano music for the concert hall and salon c. 1830-1900” and “Nationalism”), but American music is completely left out. American composers do not fit Barrie’s definition οf Nationalism as “an eastern European phenomenon”–a narrow interpretation indeed. Thus, Gottschalk and MacDowell are mentioned only in the Coda to this chapter, and their music compared to ragtime and jazz in the case οf Gottschalk, and Grieg, Liszt, and Elgar in the case οf MacDowell. These attributes are indeed part οf each composer’s style, but other innovations might have been considered.

The twentieth century is represented here by the usual composers: Debussy, Bartok, Cowell, and so forth. Mervyn Cooke breathes a bit οf fresh air into that topic by treating Messiaen and Stockhausen. Brian Priestley begins his essay (entitled “Ragtime, blues, jazz and popular music”) with a detailed explanation οf Joplin’s music. The only examples in the chapter belong to Joplin–probably the most familiar and thus least necessary specimens οf this repertory. Examples οf music by other innovative pianists discussed in the chapter, such as Art Tatum, would have been more instructive and enlightening. Indeed, this is the one place in Sandra Rosenblum’s book Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music where more examples are needed.

In general, Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music takes a decided British and German slant. The music and musicians οf the Americas seems particularly ignored. For example, Albeniz is not mentioned, nor Ginastera nor others from South America. Similarly, Granados is mentioned only as a student οf a student οf Thalberg. Other noteworthy names omitted include Alicia de Larrocha (whose acrobatic feats in managing Rachmaninoff concertos with tiny fingers are certainly worth illumination) and Michael Tilson Thomas (who recorded Gershwin’s music following Gershwin’s own piano rolls). However, these omissions should not detract too much from an admirable contribution aimed at students and amateurs. The book commendably covers a diverse range of οf topics in a brief amount of οf space. It is beautifully produced and would be an excellent addition to the library οf most pianists.

An excellent companion to Rowland’s book is Eva Badura-Skoda’s video, The History οf the Pianoforte. It is incomparable as a teaching tool because it is the one place where a large number οf historical keyboard instruments can easily be heard and demonstrated in the classroom. All too often, professors describe Mozart’s piano (or earlier instruments) and compare it to Beethoven’s, but the opportunity to see and hear them makes all the difference in understanding the sonic distinctions between the two.

In The History οf the Pianoforte, Badura-Skoda has managed to record some οf the most renowned pianists in the world performing on a lavish number οf historic pianos–not only the pianos that we might expect, but obscure and fascinating ones as well: the video includes a demonstration οf the pedal piano as indicated in Mozart’s Concerto in D minor, janizary instruments, a split pedal (appropriate for Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata), and more elaborate (yet shortlived) pianos, such as one with seven pedals. Several οf the instruments used are in the private collection οf the Badura-Skodas. One οf the fascinating moments in the video occurs when three pianists join together on three grand pianos built between 1790 and 1800 to play Mozart’s Concerto K. 242. Beethoven is featured in several segments, including back-to-back performances on an 1817 Broadwood (Bilson playing Op. 101) and an 1822-23 Graf (Badura-Skoda playing Op. 109) and a demonstration οf the composer’s piano (currently in the private collection οf the Badura-Skodas). Perhaps the most interesting part οf the video is the last, which illustrates less well-known pianos οf the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. For example, the demonstration οf a piano appropriate for the piano music οf Debussy because οf a special dampening mechanism (Bosendorfer “Imperial” concert grand, ca. 1920) is typical οf the unique features οf this video.

Performances by such distinguished pianists as Jorg Demus, Malcolm Bilson, and Paul Badura-Skoda add a remarkable degree οf professionalism to the video, and the number οf pianos exhibited is astounding. Unfortunately, a few minor details οf production mar the polish οf The History οf the Pianoforte. Most notable is the variety οf narrators. Badura-Skoda does much οf the narration, but other (anonymous) voices have prominent roles as well. The alteration in voices disrupts the continuity οf the video. A minor detraction is a ninety-minute format, which does not fit easily into most class schedules.

Piano literature classes, music history classes, and those that deal with performance practice on an introductory level would greatly benefit from this video. Amateur and student pianists would also profit from owning The History οf the Pianoforte, although the number οf times one might view it would more than likely be small-its entertainment value is somewhat limited. But as an educational tool, it is a remarkable video.


  1. Cole, Michael., The Pianoforte in the Classical Era.. pp. xiv + 398. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998
  2. Hamel, Barbara L.. Playing Piano across the curriculum. Teaching Music, 2000
  3. Rosenblum, Sandra P. Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music, Indiana University Press, 1988
  4. Rowland, David., A History οf Pianoforte Pedalling. (Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  5. Ruckmich, Christian A., The psychology οf piano instruction. Journal οf Educational Psychology, Vol 5(4), 1914
  6. Sloboda, John A.; Clarke, Eric F.; Parncutt, Richard., Determinants οf finger choice in piano sight-reading., Journal οf Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol 24(1), 1998
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