20/04/2018 Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

The World's Oldest Piano

daf99909-5ad8-4846-b1c0-6a1a44f5aa22

Sitting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the world’s oldest piano. Dating from 1720, the piano was one of the earliest creations by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano. The very first piano made by Cristofori in 1700 is no longer in existence, but the title given to it, gravicembalo col piano e forte, reminds us of the essential characteristic of early pianos; playing loud and soft. Indeed, gravicembalo col piano e forte translates to “harpsichord with soft and loud”. And this is exactly what Cristofori was striving for. Prior to the piano, keyboard instruments such as the harpsichord or clavichord could not make significant changes in dynamics. Cristofori’s pianos changed that. The new mechanism that created the sound, the striking of the string with a hammer rather than plucking the strings with a quill as happens in a harpsichord, allowed control over dynamics.        

Composers grasped the possibilities presented by the piano and in 1732 Lodovico Giustini published his twelve Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti; the first piano music ever written. Giustini leapt at the piano’s ability to use dynamics with pianos and fortes littering the score.

 

The oldest piano is constructed similarly to Italian harpsichords from the same period, being housed in a wing-shaped case with a single keyboard. A noticeable feature in contrast with modern pianos is the total of only fifty four keys rather than eighty eight. The sound is different too, the thin strings create a timbre that is equally similar to a harpsichord as a modern piano. This timbre resulted in the Italian writer and critic Francesco Scipione, marchese di Maffei describing early pianos as suited for accompanying single instruments or performing alone. Certainly, the world’s oldest piano would not survive a Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff concerto! 

Alongside the piano in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two other pianos made by Cristofori exist; one dating from 1722 in the Museo Strumenti Musicali, Rome, and another dating from 1726 in the Musikinstrumenten-Museum, Leipzig. Distinctly, the two Cristofori pianos outside of New York both include a feature, if activated, whereby the hammer only hits one of the two strings that create the pitch, thus quieting the instrument.

In addition to being historical relics, the survival of these instruments allow us to hear what some composers would have imagined when they wrote for the piano. It is easy to picture and hear a Steinway when one considers piano music, but, as the short clip shows, the earliest pianos are starkly different. This does not diminish the beauty of modern pianos, rather generate food for thought. 

By Alec Coles-Aldridge. Alec is a student at the Royal College of Music studying for a Bachelor of Music Degree.

Back to News

20/04/2018 Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

5 must-know facts about our new cover star: Yeol Eum Son

Test yourself on just how much you know about Yeol Eum Son, our new cover star for the 102nd issue of Pianist ...


Roman Kosyakov announced as winner of the Sheepdrove Piano Competition 2018

After a weekend of closed and open heats, Roman Kosyakov was awarded the £2000 Kindersley Prize. ...


Up Close with Eric Wortham II

Eric Wortham II, the Philadelphia-born pianist who has played with Adele, talks to his near-namesake, Erica ...


The Hibaku Pianos

RCM student Alec Coles-Aldridge explores the surviving pianos of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombs in ...


Other News

Pianist Chenyin Li to give recital at St John’s Smith Square on Wednesday 23 May

An opportunity to hear the pianist whose magical interpretations feature with every issue of Pianist magazine ...


16-year-old pianist Lauren Zhang wins BBC Young Musician 2018

Lauren Zhang, a student at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, wins with Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto ...


Sixteen Contemporary Love Songs for piano

Pianist William Howard's release features 16 world premiere recordings from some of the world’s finest ...


Pianists at the Proms

A strong line-up of piano stars bring concerto classics from Mozart to Shostakovich to the Royal Albert Hall ...