The Invention of the World’s Most Inspiring and Inspired Musical Instrument

The most popular keyboard instrument for the past 300+ years is the piano. Who and why it was invented is a fascinating story, well told in a delightful picture book, The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & The Invention of the Piano, by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated with color and motion by Caldecott Honor winner, Marjorie Priceman.

Bartolomeo Cristofori was an 17th century tuner and builder of clavichords and harpsichords, two variations of harps strung horizontally against wooden sounding boards, enclosed in a box with keys that musicians could strike to produce music. The selling point of these instruments was that they could produce chords, many notes at the same time (using many fingers). Each harpsichord key was connected to a mechanical arm that could pluck strings, while clavichord keys ended in tiny metal strips that tapped strings. The flaws, however, in these instruments were obvious. Every harpsichord note was LOUD and every clavichord note was soft. To Cristofori, a craftsman and inventor who loved music, neither instrument could produce the range of amplitude of sounds he heard every day as he walked down the street. He knew that access to strong and soft sounds in music, produced by violins and flutes, portrayed a range of emotion not available to these keyboard instruments. Piano, depicted by a small “p” on music manuscripts told the musician to play softly. A small “f” meant forte and stood for loud. And there were gradations of these directions that meant very softly or extra loud and anything in between. What if he could find the secret to a keyed instrument that could play chords as well as loud and soft notes? What possibilities could that create?

Cristofori was offered a position of patronage in the court of Prince Ferdinando of Tuscany. It was the kind of financial support that allowed him to ponder this problem. Rusch’s lyrical narrative is emphasized on each page with the words that composers use to instruct musicians: “Decrescendo poco a poco,” “mezzo piano,” “fortissimo,” “morendo.” The narrative builds to a crescendo when his instrument debuts in Florence in 1700.

“……..On the outside, it looks just like a harpsichord. But inside is the marvelous new mechanism. What will his patron think of it?”
And a footnote tells us:
“(A) new invention that makes the piano and the forte…with its red leather cover lined with green taffeta and hemmed with golden ribbon—Medici inventory of instruments.”

As Cristofori continued to tinker with his invention, his pianoforte’s keys became more and more sensitive to a musician’s touch and was embraced by the great composers. In the back of the book, Rusch includes a “Time line of the Life of Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Piano”—ending with Mozart’s concert on the pianoforte in 1877 of compositions written for only one keyboard instrument, its name now shortened simply to piano.

Wanna know what a Cristofori piano sounded like? Elizabeth Rusch kindly gives us a couple of links to replicas: one built by keyboard maker Kerstin Schwartz and the other by Denzil Wraight.

What about the modern piano? Rusch includes information on that at the back of the book along with a list of favorites of both classical and modern music.

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & The Invention of the Piano, is a unique book that will inspire children and adults to listen to music with new ears.

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