In modern day America, most know what a piano is, regardless of whether or not they can play one. Many people with little interest in music know piano musicians by the names of Ludwig Van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and even Frederic Chopin. Many people also believe Johann Sebastian Bach played piano, but that simply isn’t true. Bach, a composer of the Baroque/Renaissance period, played the father instrument of the piano, the harpsichord. Harpsichords are just as important as pianos because without harpsichords, we wouldn’t have music’s signature instrument to enjoy.
Harpsichords made their first appearance in the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music. The earliest known reference to a harpsichord dates from 1397 when, “A jurist in Padua wrote that a certain Hermann Poll claimed to have invented an instrument called the ‘clavicembalum,’” (“A Brief History”). Harpsichords are typically considered a string instrument, as the strings are plucked by plectrum, which are small pieces of plastic used to pluck strings on various instruments.
A pick for a guitar is also a plectrum. Both harpsichords and pianos perform their functions when the keys are pressed.
The Harpsichord was a favorite of the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach, despite the invention of the piano when he was fifteen. He wrote many famous pieces for harpsichord, and is hailed by musicians as a musical genius.Bach has become one of the most famous composers of all time, all by playing brass and harpsichord. Bach even has a famous instrument company dedicated to him after his death(“J.S.Bach”). Despite being famous, his fame has not carried the harpsichord with him for various reasons.
One reason the harpsichord failed to stay in fame was while the harpsichord did have its own advantage of being relatively easy for musicians to understand, it lacked one important thing. Harpsichords were only capable of one single dynamic. “Dynamics are the levels of sound, loud or soft, in a piece of music” (“Dynamics”).For an idea of how important dynamics are, think about your favorite song. Say this song has a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, and a singer. Typically, the focus of these kinds of songs is the singer, and sometimes the guitarist playing a melody or a solo. If you really listen to your music, the main focus is louder than the other parts to the music, say, the bassist and the drummer. If they were all the same dynamic, they would sound boring, and there would be no specific focus. The harpsichord only had one dynamic, so rather than having one part loud and melodic, and one part soft and supportive, the harpsichord could only be played at one level of volume.
Musicians have a natural affinity for always wanting to find something bigger, better, and prettier. Because of this, the pianoforte was born. As lovely sounding as harpsichords are, the lack of dynamics poses a problem. Eventually, a musician named Bartolomeo Cristofori, found a solution to this issue in 1700. Bartolomeo was a harpsichord repairman who invented the first piano, then called a pianoforte. (“The Piano”). The piano was called this because of its ability to play both piano, soft, and forte, loud. This occured almost 303 years after the invention of the harpsichord.
This brings to question how they were ever different instruments in the first place. The answer is in how the sound is produced by the two. Though they look extremely similar, pianos and harpsichords produce sound differently. Sound is produced by frequencies in vibration, and while both instruments are capable of producing the sound, the piano is both a string and percussive instrument using small hammers hitting the inner strings to play, and dampers to quiet them down when the key is no longer pressed. Because the force of the hit could be controlled by how hard the keys were pushed, this fixed the dynamics and gave musicians more choice on how to present their pieces. Each feature of the piano is based on either a piece of the harpsichord, or made to make up for an aspect the Harpsichord lacked.
Something important to think about when comparing harpsichords and pianos is how the changes made by Bartolomeo affected the playing aspect of the instruments. When the keys of the harpsichord are pressed, a musician can feel the pressure of the plectrum on the string. Once the plectrum plucks it, the pressure is released and the key finally goes all the way down. This makes the playing a bit clunky. On a Piano, the hammer/damper mechanism never has any pressure build up to perform its functions, making the keys press easily and creating a much smoother movement as the musician plays.
While Bach and his harpsichord pieces were lovely, one amazing man came 60 years later with just as stunning pieces on the piano. Frederic Chopin was a very famous composer focused solely on the piano. “Considered Poland’s greatest composer, Frederic Chopin focused his efforts on piano composition and was a strong influence on composers who followed him.” (Frederic Chopin). While Frederic wasn’t as famous as Mozart or good ol’ Beethoven, he widely contributed to making the piano popular. However, He would have never been a famous piano player if the harpsichord had never been invented, and afterwards, the piano.
In conclusion, no matter how lovely the piano is, it would have never been around if it wasn’t for the original keyboard creation, the harpsichord. Not only did harpsichords come before pianos, but pianos were structurally based off of the original harpsichords. Next time you hear about a harpsichord, just remember how historically important it is for musicians everywhere. If you get the chance to play it, definitely give it a go, because it’s pretty awesome to touch a piece of history.
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