History of Pianos: The Classical Era

The history of pianos during the Classical era: The Fortepiano was a relatively small instrument with a modest sound. Throughout the Classical era, this early piano became very popular and eventually replaced the Harpsichord and the Clavichord. At the same time the Square piano was also invented. It later developed into the upright piano during the 19th century.

Square piano

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History of Pianos: The Classical Era (1750-1825)

What happened musically during the Classical era had a huge impact on the development and the rising popularity of the new instrument; The Pianoforte.

Some important developments were:

  • The use of "Basso Continuo" disappeared, and the use of the Harpsichord gradually faded away... 
  • The orchestra expanded. The classical orchestra now had up to 40 members. 
  • Like other composers of the era, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven wrote piano concertos. This meant that the Forte Piano had to be improved in loudness so it could be heard over the now larger orchestra.
Mozart FamilyNannerl, Wolfgang Amadeus and Leopold Mozart (Dad) at the piano.

W.A. Mozart (1756–1791) loved the new instrument and wrote an enormous amount of piano music for it. (27 concertos, 18 sonatas and lots and lots of other solo piano pieces.)

The first pianos weren’t very large. The fortepiano had a keyboard range of about four octaves at first but gradually got more. (Modern pianos today have seven octaves plus a third)

Interesting Fact: Mozart wrote piano compositions for pianos with about five octaves.

Square PianSquare Piano 1760

The Square piano or "Tafelklavier" was invented by Johannes Zumpe in England in 1766. This was another important invention in the history of pianos. 

The square piano was a popular instrument also because of its practicality. You could just close the lid and it turned into a table. A real space saver! The square piano paved the way for the first upright pianos that were developed during the 19th century. The pianos had found their way into the homes of a rising middle class, and more and more pianos were built.

Beethoven at the piano.Beethoven at the Piano

L.van Beethoven (1770–1827) wanted more from the pianos.

He became infamous for breaking the strings all the time, possibly because of his impending deafness.

But not only that, Beethoven craved big contrasts, louder sounds, and the Fortepiano, or "Hammerklavier" as he preferred to call it, just couldn't handle it. 

It is said that when Beethoven no longer could hear, he took off the legs of the piano and put his ear close to the piano as he sat on the floor to at least be able to hear the vibrations of the tones.

The piano works of Beethoven show us how the range of the piano keyboard kept expanding since his last piano compositions have a range of about six octaves. 

With the piano, and especially with his 32 Piano sonatas, Beethoven explored and expanded the borders of what was possible- and not! 

Some of his sonatas have a suggested range that is both higher and lower than what existed on most keyboards at that time! Talk about a visionary!

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