The piano is the ultimate celebrity instrument. American pianist Liberace, one of the 20th century's best-loved virtuosos, was the highest-paid entertainer in the world from the 1950s to the 70s. Many kinds of keyboard instrument existed in earlier times but the piano as we think of it was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori, keeper of instruments at the Medici Court in Florence, at the turn of the 18th century. Whether concert grand or domestic upright, the piano is a large percussion instrument, consisting of a wooden case containing an array of strings, a soundboard, a mechanism known as an ‘action’ that propels hammers towards the strings when the keys (usually 88) are struck, and foot pedals that alter the sound.
A complex feat of engineering, Cristofori’s ‘piano e forte’ was distinguished from previous keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord and clavichord by its capacity for a range of dynamics and potential for expressive playing. Beethoven, always pushing the boundaries of what the instrument could achieve in works such as the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata op. 106, championed the greater power of the ‘English-style’ instruments from the Erard and Broadwood factories.
The piano’s sensational explosion in popularity is in part due to its central place in domestic music making. Johannes Zumpe, part of an immigrant piano making community in 18th century London, pioneered the compact ‘square piano’, small enough to fit in any front room. Pianos became part of the upper- and middle-class furniture over the next 100 years, and were particularly important for music making amongst women. Music was deemed to be one of the ‘accomplishments’ of a well-bred young woman. In contrast to wind and stringed instruments, piano playing was considered in keeping with ideas of female decorum. The instrument was also part of the flourishing of a European ‘salon culture’, where learned women curated intellectual exchange and the performance of solo and chamber music.
In the 19th century piano playing became increasingly professionalised, with the development of a solo concert repertoire and the sensational popularity of virtuosic pianists. Composer-performers such as Chopin and Liszt established an elaborate pianistic style full of ornamentation, and were amongst the superstars of their day. Liszt in particular became known as one of the all-time great virtuosos, one of the first true celebrity musicians.
Contemporaries such as Schumann and Charles Hallé marvelled at Liszt’s unrivalled technique and his ability to conjure up a range of tones and colours from the instrument. Mendelssohn asserted, “I have heard no performer whose musical perceptions so extend to the very tips of his fingers.” The cult of the pianist continues today in the deification of eccentric virtuosos such as Glenn Gould, renowned for his revolutionary recorded interpretations of Bach, or Lang Lang, emblematic of classical music’s symbolic status in Asia. Depending on which source you read, anything from 5 million to 40 million children in China are learning the piano today.
The increased industrialisation of piano production has contributed to the piano’s ubiquitous place in contemporary culture. The manufacturing innovations and economic successes of America at the turn of the 20th century and post-war Japan led to the popularity of Steinway and Yamaha pianos respectively. Grand pianos are now made in a variety of different sizes, from the full-size concert grand, to the more compact boudoir or baby instruments. While most of the London piano-making workshops have now closed, new traditions are fast being established: The Pearl River Piano Group in Guangdong, China, is said to be the biggest piano factory in the world, producing over 100,000 pianos a year. Its special edition Butterfly Grand is 198 metres long and available in silver, blue or pink. At the top end of the market, the Italian firm Fazioli and the Hungarian 'Bogányi' are new names on the concert platform.
20th century composers explored the idea of the piano as an iconic instrument of Western classical music and a complex feat of engineering. Messiaen paid homage to the instrument’s timbre in his mystical Vingt Regards sur l'enfant–Jésus. On the other hand, John Cage deconstructed its familiar sound in his Sonatas and Interludes written for ‘prepared piano’, with objects placed on and between the strings. Philip Corner took a more blunt approach to deconstruction in his Piano Activities, instructing performers to painstakingly destroy a grand piano.