Piano History


Piano manufacturing returns to the UK

When Kemble was acquired by Yamaha, the British door was closed on piano making after a long period high quality marques being produced. Now, Yorkshire Pianos in Bolton Abbey has started to manufacture Cavendish Pianos:

There is a tradition of piano making in Britain which stretches back over 200 years. Many of history's greatest composers owned and played British pianos; Chopin, Liszt, J.C. Bach among many others. In "The golden age of piano making" Britain boasted 360 piano makers at the turn of the century which supplied the entire globe. Sadly, this great industry has now all but disappeared from our shores. Notably in April 2003 The British Piano Manufacturing Co. and in October 2009 Kemble Pianos closed their gates for the last time.

Cavendish Pianos, based in Yorkshire, are resurrecting the lost art of piano making in Britain through the creation of a Craftsman's Co-operative.  Piano Builders, Action specialists, Stringers, Cabinet-makers, Polishers, and PianoTuners all exist in this country.
Through the Craftsman's Co-operative these skills have been pooled together to create a single finished product. Thus, rather than being produced in one factory, Cavendish Pianos are made by a series of small businesses each with their own speciality. This promotes a higher degree of efficiency, less waste and more integrity and pride in each individual aspect of the piano's make-up. 
Craftsmanship-based small businesses in the UK are often finding themselves marginalized by mass-produced imported goods. Cavendish Pianos supports home-grown business and believes such firms can be competitive, have a part to play and a real future. 
Many components also continue to be made in this country. British felts and cloths are widely regarded as the worlds finest. String-makers still exist who have learned the specialized skill of hand winding piano strings have practised all their lives. British oak, ash and walnut is used for components and cabinets. A high grade hammer and British made strings and design give Cavendish Pianos their distinctive classic, European tone. This is a far cry from the harsh Japanese tone of many mass-produced pianos. In many ways taste in tone has gone full circle as we see a tendency for people to prefer a more mellow, sweeter, traditional sound.


The History and Development of the Modern Piano

In Europe during the Baroque Period, musicians and artists were supported by the church, the state, and the rich. Such a patronage system was the case in Italy for hundreds of years, Including the late 1400s and early 1500s when Michelangelo worked as a sculptor and artist for the Medici family in Florence. From 1690 until his death Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) went to work at the court of Prince Ferdinand de' Medici in Florence as a designer and custodian of keyboard Instruments. He Is noted for various innovations in harpsichord construction and especially for the invention of the piano.

Francesco Mannucci noted in his diary (February 1711) that in 1698 Cristofori began work on the "arcicembal che fa il piano e il forte" (harpsichord with soft and loud) The inventory of Medici instruments for 1700 establishes that at least one had been completed by that date. An article by Scipione Maffei In 1711 stated that In 1709 Cristofori had built three "gravicembalo col piano e forte" The unique characteristic of his invention was a mechanical action that made it possible to sound simultaneously as many notes as one had fingers and therefore, to be able to produce any work in the entire literature of Western music with variations of loud and soft according to the player's touch at the keyboard. Cristofori's "piano e forte was a combination of harpsichord shape and power with almost clavichord expressiveness. It included a complex mechanical action with a hammer that rose towards a string (heavier than a harpsichord string) four times as fast as the key movement (eight times as fast in his later instruments). It also included an escapement to allow the hammer to rebound from the freely vibrating string, a check for the hammer to prevent bouncing, and a shift so the hammer would play only one of the two strings to reduce volume.

Cristofori's "piano e forte" did not generate much enthusiasm in Italy. Harpsichord players found the touch difficult to master and the tone similar, but less brilliant and softer, than the best harpsichords of the day. In the late 1730's Gottfrled Silberman read a German language account of Maffei's article and started experimenting on the new design. Bach tried one of his pianos but did not like the heavy touch and weak treble. Eventually Silberman obtained a more accurate description of Cristofori's action. It is reported that Bach was well pleased with Silberman's latest piano design, which had an action identical to the 1720's Cristofori pianos that survive to this day.

Cristofori and Silberman strived to build a harpsichord with expressive capabilities. The latter half of the 18th Century was dominated by Germans and Austrians concerned with building a louder clavichord. Unfortunately, Cristofori' s design for the action was so complex that subsequent builders greatly simplified it for economy resulting in a less efficient system which was not widely accepted. Later in the 18th Century, developments in action design were really a re-invention of the principles worked out by Cristofori , the inventor of the piano, a stringed keyboard instrument with mechanically operated rebounding hammers.

Translated from the original German text

The piano is the world's most popular musical instrument  and is used as a concert instrument as well as private homes. The two oldest, still preserved, pianofortes were made by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). The case of one from 1720, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City while the other, dated 1726, is in a museum in Leipzig, Germany.

Importance of the Piano Action

The development of the pianoforte has been  related to the development of the hammer mechanism. In 1709, Cristofori invented the hammer mechanism, a blend of the beater strike of the dulcimer with the keyboard touch. This newer action made it possible for the instrument to be played both soft and loud, hence the name pianoforte. It was crucial for the progression of the piano's expressive capacity. While  improvements in the action of the piano made  way for the advance of the pianoforte, a half century passed before it was to impress people such as Johann Sebastian Bach, and take prominence over the harpsichord and clavichord.

The piano owes its 'liberation'  to Gottfried Silbermann, a magnificent craftsman  in both the building of organs and piano-making. By 1730, Silbermann had made two pianofortes, and within ten years had produced instruments considered as  successful and supported by the prominent musicians and theorists of the day. Indeed, Silbermann was for many years regarded as the inventor of the piano! Eventually, Bach gave his approval of the instruments and tested the Silbermann pianoforte at the Potsdam court of Frederick the Great as requested to by the Monarch in 1747.

Although composers at the early part of the 18th century focused mainly on the harpsichord and clavichord, it was the Bach sons Philipp Emanuel and Christian along with Mozart and Clementi who began to exploit and  the advantages of the piano, and eventually contributed to its  introduction around the world.

Evolution of the Piano

The pianoforte has undergone many advancements in its details up to the present day. In the early stages, the piano-makers built  piano actions themselves. It is believed that there were about 400 piano factories with more than 8,000 employees in Germany in 1894,  apart from several master piano-makers who built  pianos with the help of a few  apprentices.

In Berlin, there were more than 200 independent piano-makers by the end of the l9th century. The London World Exhibition of 1851 provided a wide-ranging survey of the emerging piano industry. The key companies demonstrated their products which, according to the conditions of the exhibition management had to be the product of new technical innovation. The piano gained its earliest popularity  in the U.S.A. The industrial revolution had invoked the construction of pianos in large numbers. A successful campaign was held in the early part of the 19th century, with the aim of introducing music lessons in America's  schools. The piano found its way into the homes of hoi polloi and was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy.