Getting Soft with Bartolomeo Cristofori

Bartolomeo CristoforiOn this day back in 1852, the model for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice Liddell was born. And Audrey Hepburn was born in 1929.

Criminal or glorious leader (I tend to think the two are the same), Hosni Mubarak is 85 today. Jazz bassist Ron Carter and surf guitarist Dick Dale are both 76. Climate change denier George Will is 72. Star of The Visitor Richard Jenkins is 66. And Will Arnett is 43.

But the day belongs to Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was born in 1655. I know: you have never heard of him. Perhaps you are aware of Bartolomeo Beretta, the gun manufacturer. Or Bartolomeo Bosco, the great magician. Or one of the many painters. Bartolomeo is a common name! Our Bartolomeo is the musical instrument maker who invented the piano. Please forgive me while I explain why this matters.

Before the piano, there were mainly two kinds of keyboard instruments. Everyone knows the harpsichord. It has a very distinctive sound that is good for accompaniment of other instruments. But it is much harder to play expressively because of the nature of its mechanism: strings are plucked. As a result of this, there is more resistance when you hit a key. It lacks control. Here is a nice bit of harpsichord using a bit of Domenico Scarlatti. Note the lack of expression, even though it is played by a master:

The second instrument is the clavichord. It is more like the piano in that the strings are stuck. The problem is that unlike a piano, the striking mechanism stays in contact with the strings. So while the clavichord is perhaps as expressive as the piano, it is not loud enough for a large audience. Here is an excellent example of the attributes of the clavichord using a little Bach. Note the dynamic range:

So what Cristofori discovered was a way to hit the strings and then release. If you’ve ever looking into a piano while it was playing, you will see that the hammers act very much like someone playing a xylophone. Of course, it took many improvements after Cristofori to make the piano a truly useful instrument. But he did create what we would recognize as a piano today. And just listen to this performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with all baroque instruments:

And it is all thanks for Cristofori.

Happy birthday Bartolomeo Cristofori!


I’m still very sick. I will try to write more, but it is hard to concentrate.

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