Harpsichords are keyboard instruments with strings played by plucking mechanisms whereas pianos are keyboard instruments whose sounds are produced when struck by hummers controlled by the keyboard. Over the years, the refinement of the instruments has involved many technologies for instance; the making of strings, hammers, plucking mechanisms, action wires, and frames were done by specialists. These developments needed organized cooperation of many specialists as they are industrial instruments. This review of the literature on the development of the harpsichord and piano focuses its attention on answering two main questions: one, explain the early developmental history of the harpsichord; two, explain the transformation of the harpsichord into a piano or pianoforte.
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Development of the Harpsichord
The harpsichord instrument played a central role in the 18th-century music. Its importance then is comparable to that of the concert piano popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over the years, the harpsichord has undergone unprecedented revival to the present century. The instrument has been dominant from the 15th century to about 1750 as a keyboard instrument. Its history can be traced back to the middle ages when a stringed instrument called psaltery appeared in many shapes. The strings were plucked by the fingers and it was comparatively simple to adjust the keyboard to the psaltery and to supply each key with a plucking mechanism. A second set of strings were added to the harpsichord by 1500, and some period before 1579 a set of ‘four-foot’ strings that is, where the pitch sounds an octave higher the key pressed, was also included in some instruments. Originally, the range was limited to some 20 notes, was increased towards the lower regions. The rectangular shape was transformed to the present outline of the horizontal harp. The instrument was then mounted on four legs for playing convenience (Gillespie, 7).
In the 17th century, the harpsichord competed successfully with the lute. Many European countries had favored the lute instrument for many years, thus, the improved harpsichord replaced it. The invention of this instrument influenced music compositions for instance; it produced master musicians like Couperin and Chambonnieres, French composers. The beginning of the French Clavecin School during the 17th and 18th centuries is attributed to the development of harpsichord (Kottick, 258). This school fostered Couperine’s musical dynasty and also the ability of Jean – Philippe Rameau. Members of the Bach family were also motivated by the refinement of the harpsichord. They were able to create a rich musical legacy for Germany. In Spain, improved harpsichord enabled Domenico Scarlatti, Neapolitan composer to compose scintillating pieces (Kochenvitsky, 1).
The harpsichord varied from 6 to 8 feet in length and had 2 keyboards with about 5 octaves each during the period 1650 to 1750. The instrument had 3 to 4 strings played by means of small quills or leather plectra hinged on wooden jacks. The pitch and tone quality of each string varied and were operated using stops placed above the keyboard. The construction of the harpsichord was greatly improved by the Rucker’s family. This explains harpsichord’s popularity and development then. Hans Rucker started making harpsichords in 1579 in Antwerp, and the family firm existed until 1667 (Gillespie, 8). There were isolated harpsichords with 2 keyboards before Rucker’s period. These harpsichords had ‘four-foot’ and ‘eight-foot register. They also had stopped coupling and manipulating the registers. However, the Rucker family standardized the use of these principles and developed them further. Modern harpsichord manufacturers modeled their instruments after the Rucker’s family example. For instance; manufacturers in Germany introduced a ‘sixteen-foot stop that is, an octave below the standard pitch. This provided an expansive sonorous range (Kottick, 257).
Development of Piano or Pianoforte
The harpsichord began to lose favor as keyboard producers learned how to construct instruments with greater nuances. In 1709, Bartolomeo Cristofori invented a harpsichord with hammers. He gave the instrument the shape of a big harpsichord called ‘harpsichord with soft and loud. Christofori became the pioneer of the piano era. His invention of an escapement mechanism for the new harpsichord with hammers heralded a great transformation in keyboard instruments. In 1720, Cristofori improved the striking action of the piano and added a side-slip. This device was able to be activated by a hand-stop. This led to the origin of soft or ‘Una Corda pedal (Kochenvitsky, 1).
Gottfried Silbermann, an admirer of Cristofori together with his pupil Zumpe Johannes, preserved the general principles of Cristofori’s invention, that is, during 1683-1753. Jean Marius further invented harpsichord models with hammers: striking down onto the strings from above; with hammers striking upward from below the strings. He was inspired by Pantaleon Hebenstreit who played directly with 2 single hammers on huge dulcimers (Kochenvisky, 1).
In 1726, Sebastian Bach came across the two instruments made by Silbermann at the court of Saxony. Silbermann with the help of Bach constructed the first pianoforte with a sonority equal along with its range keys in 1745. He became the first builder to exploit the commercial possibilities of the piano. During 1752-1832, a piano factory was founded in London by Muzio Clementi. Clementi was a composer and keyboard player. Johann Stein built a piano that used a forte pedal to raise the dumpers from the keys in Vienna after 1789. Pianos of diverse shapes and construction were experimented on during the 19th century; the upright small piano was more popular due to its practicality and affordability. In 1825, a framework that was to become a standard for all later pianos was invented by Babcock. However, few inventions were recorded in the 19th century. The modern piano developed during the period 1830 to 1850. The builders mostly made two basic models; upright, and grand. In this century, a choice of piano depends on the specific quality required in a keyboard instrument.
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Gillespie, J. Five Centuries of Keyboard Music: An Historical Survey of Music for Harpsichord and Piano. New York: Courier Dover Publishing, 1972.
Kochenvitssky, G. The Art of Piano Playing. California: Alfred Publishing, 1967.
Kottick, E. A History of the Harpsichord. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003.