GR Horst Piano Tuner / Technician
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The "Pianoforte" - where did this name originate?
Have you ever heard the modern piano referred to as a "pianoforte"? Where did this name originate and why? The harpsichord was an early keyboard instrument that is somewhat similar to a piano. When a key is pressed, it moves a quill (still called a quill today although they are made of a plastic or composite material) up to pluck a single string. Regardless of how hard or quickly the key is pressed, the volume and tone of that string remains constant. The sound of a harpsichord is pleasant but somewhat delicate and difficult to hear in a large performance hall. The clavichord was another keyboard instrument invented later. It strikes the string instead of plucking it. However, it had similar limitations on controlling the volume and tone, thus limiting the expression of the sound controlled by the player. Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) set out to create a new mechanism for activating the strings. One issue he faced was that if a semi-soft hammer struck the string, instead of plucking, it could not remain in contact with the string. Not only must it recoil back from the string once struck, it must not bounce and repeatedly strike the string. Early attempts moved closer to solving this and other related issues. It became necessary to add dampers and the damper pedal which were was added by a harpsichord & organ builder, Gottfried Silbermann. These early instruments were a bit primitive as many new inventions are during the design process. When Silbermann showed the instrument to Bach, legend notes Bachs response was something like “the sound was destroyed like with an axe”. However, later when Bach tried a much-improved version of the instrument around 1747, he approved it. The instrument eventually caught the attention of composers across Europe. Most people still referred to it as a harpsichord. However, since the performer could control the volume and tone by how the keys were pressed, the addition of the word “forte” was added. The instrument eventually became known as a “pianoforte” to distinguish from the older instruments. More improvements were made over the years such as the damper mechanism and having multi-string unisons for more power and volume. Via some trial-and-error experimentation, the mechanism in the modern piano was pretty much perfected in the late 1800s and little changes have been made to the design of the action (the mechanism that strikes the strings). I have tuned instruments made in the 1885 -1900 time-frame and the core construction is quite similar to those manufactured today. Note that the materials used to construct the action continue to be improved. Several manufacturers use a composite material in place of wood for the action parts. There remains some element of trial-and-error and continued improvements still taking place.