The piano is one of the most intimidating instruments in all its glory, intimidating to play, to study, to compose for, and to buy. It's also one of the most satisfying for this one musician.
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The musician is getting a little sleepy. He drinks his nightly cup of coffee, brushes his teeth, and gets into his pajamas. He turns off the lights and climbs into bed. Then, a sinking feeling overcomes him. The musician glances frightfully towards the closet. His mind goes nuts as he frantically keeps his eyes on the door. He can’t get to sleep—he knows something is in there. Eventually, the musician tip-toes to the closet and creaks open the door. There sitting is no monster or creature from the average person’s nightmares. No, it’s a nine-foot, pitch-black, 800 pound, vicious… piano.
Perhaps that scenario is overkill. Actually, it’s definitely overkill. But the idea is not. The instrument that we all grew up being familiar with, the one that almost every person on earth has sat down and clunked around on, is also one that frightens many. I recently read Alexandra Gardner’s article on NewMusicBox titled “Piano Baggage" (all of her articles are worth reading). The article talks about the piano being the most challenging instrument to write for because of its massive amount of repertoire and the fact that many people grew up playing it.
It got me thinking—the piano is probably one of the most intimidating instruments in general—to play, to study, to compose for, or to buy. As a pianist there is a sense of responsibility to sight read well, to have a large repertoire, and to have a vast knowledge of genres and composers because of the large area the piano spans in multiple sections of the music world. However, I’ve found (after experimenting on some other instruments) it’s also one of the most satisfying instruments to play and is easily the best instrument for studying theory on. Through all the stress it has created throughout its 300-and-some year existence, it’s all out of good intentions. And, even with that stress, it’s created a countless amount of wonderful things, too.
If this were a stereotypical biography, I would say the piano we know today was born in 1709 in Padua, Italy and had a father named Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori was an instrument maker and had created other types of keyboards during his lifetime, such as the spinettone (a sort of harpsichord). However, the problem Cristofori encountered with harpsichords and the like had to do with volume control—since a harpsichord’s keys are connected to devices that pluck the various strings, it was very difficult for the musician to create phrases and different dynamics in their playing.
The clavichord was able to do this (by striking its strings with a metal blade), but wasn’t loud enough for performances. While the harpsichord had the structure that proved best for a piano and the clavichord had the correct idea for sound production, both had major downfalls that led Cristofori to create something new.
He decided that this new instrument needed hammers that struck the strings but did not remain in contact with the strings (like a clavichord). His inventions eventually made up the fortepiano. The fortepiano used hammers to strike the strings like a modern piano, but the strings were very thin and harpsichord-like as was the overall structure of the instrument.
Bach endorsed a later version of the instrument, and composers like Beethoven and Mozart wrote for it. Throughout the years the range of the fortepiano grew as is evident in Beethoven’s music. In the 1820s, many improvements were made to the piano, such as the invention of double escapement action, which allowed for a key to be played in quick repetition because of the repetition lever.
Felt hammer coverings, now standard in many pianos, also emerged, allowing for wider dynamic ranges as the weights of the hammers increased because it was a more reliable material than the previously used leather or cotton. Iron frames were developed and sat above the soundboard; these plates helped pianos be able to sustain thicker, heavier, and larger amounts of strings. Throughout the years these gradual adjustments led to what we know as the piano today.
How could an instrument with such understandable backgrounds be so intimidating to musicians? In the NMB article, Gardner wrote, “Composing for piano can be wildly intimidating because of how much we know, both in terms of what and how much piano music came before this moment and in terms of our own ‘muscle memory.’” This is completely true. Many composers grow up playing the piano or end up studying the piano extensively to become better composers. It is also the instrument that claims a category of many composers’ bodies of work more than any other.
Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos and 18 piano sonatas. Beethoven wrote 32 (38 if you count some stray ones) piano sonatas and five piano concertos. Chopin wrote almost 200 pieces for the piano, Liszt wrote around 130, and Mendelssohn wrote almost 100 solo piano works. Even with those large numbers, those composers only make up a microscopic amount of piano music out there. Like Gardener mentions, it must be scary to sit down with a blank score in hand, thinking of all the knowledge we have of how to compose for the piano correctly and try to do the best possible job.