Forte Cristosm Piano2Forte-piano is a name descriptive of dynamics. In Italian, forte means loud and piano means soft. The word forte-piano has been used to describe hammered dulcimers, clavichords, and the instrument of which our modern day piano (an absurd name in comparison) is a direct descendant. The latter description will be the focus of this paper. The forte-piano is the culmination of a long series of efforts on the part of many great craftsmen, and its ancestors are quite diverse.

The beginnings may go back as early as 4359 ‘B.C.,’ (Before Cristo-fori), or 2650 B.C. in China. The Chinese used an instrument called Ke which had fifty strings stretched over a wooden box approximately five feet long. Each string was spun of eighty-one fine silk threads. The Ke also had movable bridges in order to form different scales1. This instrument is far superior to the famous monochord, used by Pythagoras in 582 B.C. which was one single string, probably catgut, over a wooden box. Using the monochord, Pythagoras conducted experi­ments regarding mathematical relations of musical sounds.

One of Pythagoras’ conclusions is known as the Comma of Pythagoras, in which he measured twelve just (pure) fifths over seven octaves and discovered a ratio of 531441:524288, thus inharmonicity2. The Comma of.Pythagoras became an important factor in the building of stringed keyboard instruments and especially their tuning. Monochords like that of Pythagoras were used by Greeks and Romans mainly as a pitch reference for choirs.

By the 2nd century B.C. the first organ had been invented and built by Ctesibius of Alexandria using hydraulics. There is no mention of it yet having keys though. The first mention of an organ with keys was by a Roman architect named Vitruvius around the time of Augustus Caesar3. In 757 A.D. Emperor Constantine sent a musical instrument having keys to King Pepin of France4. It is unclear what type of instrument it was.

Guido of Arezzo (990-1050), an Italian musical theorist, may have been the first to use a keyboard on a polychord-strung instru­ment5. He did, however, establish the use of a four line staff and musical notation. This was probably his most important achievement. Guido’s diatonic scale, consisting of eight tones with seven intervals, two being semitones, were used on the first clavichords6. He also invented the movable bridge as far as the western world was concerned. By the end of the 11th century, church organs had keys which were called clavis, which is Latin for key. Evidently the medieval house key was shaped similarly7.

According to M. Fetis, in his Sketch of the History of the Piano-­forte and the Pianist, which was the first attempt to write a history of the piano-forte, an instrument called the clavicytherium was in­vented about 1300. This instrument had strings of catgut in the form of a triangle which were plucked by quills attached to the end of the clavis or key8.

In 1360 King Edward III of England gave King John of France, a prisoner at that time, an instrument made by Jehan Perrot called eschequier. Guillaume de Machault did not include the eschequier in his detailed inventory, Li temps pascour, written in 1340. In 1377 Machault does refer to the eschaquir d’ Engleterre in his poem La Prise d’ Alexandrie. Eugene Deschamps mentions the eschequier in 1378. In 1388 King John of Aragon wrote his brother-in-law, Philippe the Bold, to send him an instrument which he describes as similar to the organ but sounding with strings which he calls exaquier. In 1511 the Duke of Lothringen buys an instrument described as faisant I’ echiquier, orgues, espinette et fluctes, meaning that it should consist of a small organ, a spinet, and an eschicquier.

There are no pictures, detailed descriptions, or examples of an eschaquier in existence but some deductions can be made. It had keys and strings, therefore was not an organ. The strings were not plucked because the last example refers to an instrument consisting of a spinet as well as an organ, and an eschicquier. A spinet is a small strung instrument which uses quills to pluck the strings. In 1404, Eberhard Cersne of Minden mentions a schachbrett which is German for eschaquier. Cersne notes differences between the clavichordium and the schachbrett by describing them separately. It was likely, therefore, a hammer action. Unfortunately, due to lack of evidence, it cannot definitely be said that this was a forte-piano or even a legitimate ancestor. The last known mention of this instrument is in 1560 by Antonius Arena, who mentions the exacherium as a dance instrument9.

The clavichord is one of the legitimate ancestors of the forte-piano because it has an independent soundboard, that is the strings are in contact only at the bridges and not at the ends. Also the clavichord uses a percussion method of sounding the string, metal strings, and dampers in some cases. A clavichord does have the ability to play at different dynamic ranges as well. The dynamic range, however, is from almost nothing at the least to not very much at the most. The first mention of a clavichord is in the German poem, Minneregeln, written in 1404 by Eberhard Cersne of Minden. Cersne refers to the clavichord as clavichordium10. Later in 1440 France, Heinrich Arnold of Zwolle mentions the clavichord as clavicordium zui sonaret ut dolce melos or dulcimer sounded by keys. Arnold also mentions using single and double stringing as well as a tangent action11. The tangent action is basically a metal rod (tangent) fixed to the back of the key, which strikes the string when the front of the key is depressed. The different dynamics are produced by striking the key with different amounts of force. There is no escapement so the tangent stays in contact with the string as long as the key is depressed. Changing pressure on the key while it is depressed causes a vibrato of the string. This is called bebung by the Germans. Many names have been used for this instrument. In Latin it is called clavis or dulce melos; in German, hackbrett, clavier, or clavichord; in English, clavichord, or dulcimer; in French, manicorde, manicordion, clavicorde, tympanon, douce melle, and dulcimer; in Italian, clavicordio, monocordo, manicordo, and salterio tedesco12. The first mention of use of steel strings in clavichord building was in 1511 by Virdung in Germany, and wrapped strings were not used until 1675 by Saint Colombe in France13.

Clavichords were most popular in Germany. During the early 18th century the religious movement called Pietism promoted the outward exhibition of feelings. The clavichords’ dynamic ability and the bebung effect fit perfectly into this movement. Pietism faded away by the mid 18th century but the clavichord had become enormously popular in Germany. It was also inexpensive in comparison to the harpsichord, took up less space, and was easier to tune and maintain due to a simpler action and fewer strings. In 1744 the first triple-strung clavichords were made by H. A. Hass of Hamburg to satisfy the demand for more volume.

The harpsichord is another legitimate ancestor of the piano. It has keys, a wing formed case, two or three strings of metal for each note, and in some cases, a shifting keyboard, a forte pedal which lifts all dampers, and a piano or buff stop pedal which engages all the dampers. The first wing shaped harpsichord was built by Geronimo of Bologna in 152114. The action of a harpsichord is far more complex than that of a clavichord or a forte-piano and used a quill to pluck the string which could sound as long as the key was depressed, or until the string ceased to vibrate. In all of Europe the harpsichord was the most fashionable of the strung keyboard instruments until the end of the 18th century.

A few other instruments may be relative to the forte-piano. A geigenclavicvmbel or geigenwerk is a harpsichord with a friction style action similar to a hurdy-gurdy. A foot pedal would, spin rosen-coated wheels which, when a key was depressed, would contact a string causing the tone. This instrument was first invented in Nurnberg by Hans Hayden in 1610. Other similar instruments were built throughout Europe until the mid 18th century.

In 1637 a keyed xylophone with hammers is described by Father Mersenne in his Harmonie Univeselle. The design of the action, how­ever, is unknown. A little piano forte dated 1610 exists in the Belle Skinner collection in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It is thought to be Dutch but its date is controversial15.

The pantalon was invented in the late 17th century and was a giant hammered dulcimer approximately 6 feet long with two sound­boards, and around 200 strings (gut and metal), single, double, and triple strung. Its strings were struck with hand held sticks covered on both ends with material of different consistency, allowing for a variety of tone color. Another name for the pantelon is dulcimer or hackbrett which is German for hacking board, meaning a block for chopping up sausage meat16. The dulcimer is the first strung instrument to be struck with hammers, therefore can be said to be the oldest ancestor of the forte-piano. This would be a similar relationship to that of the psaltery and harpsichord.

The pantalon was an exclusive instrument though, confined to the possession and use of its inventor, Pantaleon Hebenstreit. Hebenstreit achieved great virtuosity on this instrument. The panta­lon was capable of power and sustain far superior to its peers. A very new aspect of this instrument was the undamped strings and the power of its size. Crescendo and diminuendo were possible to a much greater extreme than ever before on such an instrument. Arpeggios over the wide range of the pantalon allowed for very loud passages. The sound of the strings slowly dying away instead of being dampened immediately was a new sensation17. Hebenstreit traveled extensively, performing on his huge hackbrett. In 1705 he traveled from Saxony to France. Louis XIV was so delighted that he suggested Hebenstreit name the instrument after himself, thus pantaleon or pantalon. Hebenstreit returned to Saxony and received a position in the court of the Duke of Eisenach. He then traveled to Vienna where the Holy Roman Emperor gave him a gold chain and locket with an imperial portrait for his performance. By this time he was known as Monsieur Pantaleon, a definite step up the social ladder. On May 11, 1714, the Royal Saxon court at Dresden granted him the position of Pantalonist for twelve hundred thalers a year. Twenty years later J. S. Bach was only receiving a combined income of seven hundred thalers18.

Finally, in 1709 Marquis Scipione Maffei visits Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici of Florence, Italy and sees what are generally thought to be the first forte-pianos. Bartolommeo Cristofori was the creator of at least five forte-pianos present in Ferdinand’s collection. Ferdinand is said to have owned forty harpsichords and spinets. Cristofori was in charge of maintaining all these instruments as well as building new ones.

Maffei was a writer for a quarterly magazine published in Venice named Giornale de Letterati d’ Italia. In volume V, published in 1711, Maffei wrote of “Nuova invenzione d’un gravicembalo col piano e forte,” meaning “New invention of a harpsichord with the soft and loud.” Gravicembalo may be a reference to the gravity operation of the hammers or just a misspelling of the word clavicembalo. Maffei named Cristofori as the inventor but misspelled his name Cristofali19.

In 1711, Father Wood, an English monk in Rome, built a forte-piano and returned to England with it. In 1719 Maffei reprinted his article in the Giornale dei Letterati di Venezia, and in 1725, Mattheson in his journal, Critica Musica, published a German translation of Maffei’s description20. Meanwhile in France, Marius built models of “clavecin a maillets” or “hammer harpsichord.” This took place independently of Cristofori in 1716. Marius built four models and submitted them to the Academie des Sciences where they were patented but never manufactured. The four models consisted of a triple strung unison with a hammer that strikes like a tangent, a down and upward striking hammer, an upright version, and a double strung harpsichord forte-piano combination. Unfortunately the word forte-piano is not again seen in the records of the French Academy for forty-three years21.

Cristofori continued to improve his forte-pianos hoping they would catch on. The forte-piano was for all intent a harpsichord but with a hammer action. By 1720 Cristofori was no longer using simple wedge shaped wooden hammers that were either bare or covered in buckskin. His new hammers were made of parchment formed into a ring and covered with buckskin at the striking point22. This change was presumably to lighten the touch as well as to increase the resiliency and speed up the rebound of the hammer. The forte-piano never became fashionable during Cristofori’s life and he returned to making harpsi­chords after 1726; Cristofori died in Florence in 1731 and is said to have been a disappointed and embittered man23. Cristofori did have a few disciples, however, one of which was Ferrini.

Five Florentine forte-pianos were delivered to Maria Barbera at the court of Spain in 1730 where Domenico Scarlatti was in service. Evidently the forte-piano was not yet ready for Scarlatti, as he was not impressed and most of them were rebuilt as harpsichords. Musicians of the time wanted to work with greater variety in qualities of sounds, especially dynamics. But Scarlatti’s harpsichord works show that composers were learning tricks and techniques that gave an illusion of going beyond the capacities of their instruments.

In 1732, the first music was published specifically for the forte-piano in Florence. They were twelve sonatas specified as being for “Cimbalo di piano e forte, detto volgarmente di martelletti” by Ludovico Giustini of Pistoia24. Domenico Del Mela in Mugello near Florence built the first Italian upright forte-piano in 173925.

Far from Florence, across the Alps in Dresden, Christoph Gottfried Schroter invented two hammer actions in the year 1717; not knowing that Cristofori had already beat him by over eight years. Schroter was not a craftsman, only a musician. But after seeing Pantaleon Hebenstreit perform, he said, “I considered it certain that it would be possible for me to invent a keyboard instrument upon which one could play loud or soft at will.” Schroter, with the help of his cousin who was a skilled cabinet maker, designed and built a model “which had an overall length of four feet and was six inches wide. In front and rear it had three keys. At one place the stroke upon the strings came from below, but at the other it came from above. On each of the models loud or soft sounds could be brought forth in differing degrees27.” Accounts of these dates are conflicting but Franz Hirt, author of Stringed Keyboard Instruments, has somehow narrowed this following event down to the hour. Hirt writes that on November 11, 1721 between 8 and 9 am Schroter took his models to the Royal Palace in Dresden- August I- King of Saxony, was interested and ordered construction of an instrument. No instrument however, was ever built and the models were not returned to Schroter. Argument over copyright ensued later, but Schroter was never given much credit in his lifetime28. By 1724 forte-pianos with actions similar to Schroters were being built in Dresden. Schroters action would turn out to be the predecessor of the German or Vienna action because of his design of the hammer butt being pivoted in a fork or flange.

Unlike Cristofori’s which rested in a circular pocket29. Schroter continued inventing new improvements to claviers and in 1739 is credited with building a model of a tangent action with a spring jack30. Spring jacks are still an important component in modern piano actions. He also made use of an iron bar pressing on the strings which probably was similar to a capo bar on modern pianos which serves as a string termination point as well as setting proper string angle for tunability31. Schroter argued his claim as inventor of the forte-piano until his death. In 1763 he is quoted as saying, “More than twenty towns and villages are known to me which, since 1721, in place of the customary harpsichord, there have been made keyboard instruments with hammers which their makers and purchasers call ‘pantalons1 when the stroke upon the strings comes from above but when such an instrument with hammers is so designed that the hammers strike from below, they call it pianoforte. If one finally asks each maker of such an instrument, who it was that really invented it, almost everyone claims himself to have been the inventor32.”

Another German forte-piano builder was Gottfried Silbermann of Freiberg. It is not certain when he first built a forte-piano. Silbermann began his career building clavichords and harpsichords. In 1723 he invented an improvement to the clavichord called Cembal d’amour. “By lengthening the string to the left a double length is achieved which the tangent strikes at the center of the whole length, enabling both halves to sound, the left half having its own bridge on a second soundboard33.” This improvement doubled the volume of the clavichord. Silbermann was also a patron of Pantaleon Heben-streit, both repairing and building new pantalons for him. When Silbermann began building pantalons for himself, presumably to sell, Hebenstreit objected and complained to King Frederick II. On November 20, 1727 Frederick gave Hebenstreit exclusive rights to his instrument and threatened to fine any person who made or caused a pantalon coy to be made, the sum of fifty Rhenish gold florins34. Thus Silber­mann abandoned pantalon building.

In 1728 Silbermann built forte-pianos with Schroter actions. J. S. Bach played one of Silbermann’s first two pianos and “praised the tone, which he admired.” He also criticized the instrument for being weak in the treble and having a heavy touch. Silbermann was greatly upset and did not build a forte-piano of the same design again35.” Sometime after that Silbermann evidently saw Maffei’s description of Cristofori’s action, which had traveled cross the Alps. By 1746 Silbermann had returned to building forte-pianos, but now used an action nearly identical to that of Cristofori’s. It was on one of these that J. S. Bach composed a fugue using the theme of Frederick the Great on May 7, 1747. Bach praised this forte-piano. It would, however, have been in bad taste for a guest to criticize the new toy of the king. Bach used Frederick’s theme in composing his Musical Offering, but never composed specifically for the forte-piano. Silbermann continued to be successful building and selling forte-pianos and employed others when he could not meet demand himself. When Gottfried Silbermann died in 1756, his nephew, Johann Daniel Silbermann, continued his business building only grand forte-pianos. By this time the piano buying aristocrats were more interested in war than music. In 1760 twelve German piano makers, known as the twelve apostles, escaped the war by moving to London. Most of them were pupils of Silbermanns, including Zumpe, Becker, and Geib. They would found the piano-forte industry in London. It seems that this is approximately when the description piano-forte became more common than forte-piano. Other names included Flugel, grand piano, piano a queue, and pianoforte a coda. Johann Andreas Stein was also a pupil of Silbermann’s. In 1768 Stein built his first piano in Augsburg.

There are several other less significant forte-piano builders. One is Balthaser Schiedmayer who build his first piano in 1735 at Erlangen36.” Domenico del Mela di Gagliano built the first Italian upright piano-forte in 1739. This style is known as giraffe because of its high-rising body.

In 1744 Johann Socher built a square piano which is the oldest surviving of its type37. Socher worked independently of Silbermann and Cristofori and probably only thought he was improving the clavi­chord. The workmanship of his forte-piano is thought to be good enough to lead us to believe it had predecessors. Perhaps the eschaquier? Sochers action is called prellemechanik meaning rebound mechanism. “Each hammer is pivoted on rear end of the key in its own housing (kapsel) with hammer pointing toward the front. The hammer is a wedge-shaped piece of uncovered wood. There is no escapement or backcheck as in Cristofori’s action but since the hammer is free to rebound rather than continue to press on the strings it can be called a forte-piano.”38

Friedeici made first use of oblique stringing for a pyramid piano in 1745. Reducing length or height of a piano without changing tone or volume can be achieved by stringing obliquely or diagonally, 39 therefore not decreasing the length of the string.

By the mid 18th century the forte-piano began to become more fashionable and was more frequently accepted as an alternative harpsichord or clavichord. In 1752 Johann Quanty, in his Anleitung, die Flote Traversiere zu Spielen, mentions the forte-piano with appreciative words. In 1757 Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach pub­lished the first German composition for the piano-forte, Sonate fur Klavicymbel oder Hammerklavier40. In 1759 .C.P.E. Bach, in his Versuch uber die wahre Art, das Clavier zu Spielen, mentions the piano-forte as being the equal of the clavichord. The clavichord had become louder and the piano-forte was not as loud as a harpsichord at this time. Due to primitive hammers and thin strings, subtle graduations of tone were not yet possible on early piano-fortes. The tone was like a harpsichord, only duller. Josef Hirt states that, “The ideal of piano building in the 18th and early 19th century was to retain the silvery tone of the plucked instrument. The length and thickness of harpsichord strings standardized the measurement for piano strings which were kept as thin as possible.”41 A hard blow would break the thin wire. No scientific calculation had yet been done to determine the best striking place along the length of the string and voicing inconsistencies were abundant. The harpsi­chord was clearly still the master in the mid 18th century, but to compare the piano-forte with a modern piano is unfair. As Franz Hirt stated, “Nowhere is the theory of ‘progress’ more out of place than in the art of musical instrument building, for, in conformity with the times, each epoch has produced the perfect instrument. The music of Hayden, Mozart, and Schubert cannot be accurately portrayed on a modern piano any better than Liszt, Brahms, or Debussy can be on a piano-forte.” 42

Music evolved simultaneously with the forte-piano. The growing economy in Europe provided many Europeans the luxury of leisure time. It was considered a status symbol that one’s daughter did not have to work and a limited knowledge of how to play was seemingly enough to prove such status. Counterpoint proved to be too difficult for most young ladies who preferred simpler harmony. The thumb began to be commonly used in the early to mid 18th century and scales, and arpeggios became basic clavier study.

Tuning was a problem but clavierist accompanied only by their own singing made do. Printing was rapidly improving, making sheet music more readily available. Easy music was especially popular. The Alberti bass line was probably conceived with this in mind. It became very popular because people could keep an easy steady rhythm with their left hand while the more coordinated left hand played a melody. Virtue was extremely important to young ladies in the 18th century and the compromising positions many instruments, such as the violin, flute or especially the cello demanded, made them less desirable. The clavier was favored because young ladies could sit still in a very natural uncompromising position and play with little muscular effort, therefore appearing as dainty and demure as possible. Clothing had a lot to do with this draw to the clavier. Imagine playing a double bass in a hoop skirt, a horn with those tremendous collars, or the violin with puffy sleeves flapping all about.

On the professional side again, music had become very decadent or rococo. Counterpoint was giving way to harmony with more surface decoration. Muzio Clementi is an example of this style. His music is like the aristocrats of the period, garnished with ornaments, and not always limiting itself within the bounds of good taste. This is the music for which the forte-piano was conceived.

Meanwhile, the growing number of amateurs became very influential in the marketing schemes of concert promoters and concerts soon became a middle class institution. Johann Christian Bach in June of 1763 gave his first concert on forte-piano in London. It is in London that Mozart learned the classical sonata form from J. C. Bach. And back in Hamburg, C. P. E. Bach was also busy writing sonatas for forte-piano. The sonata became more fashionable than the fugue or passacaglia because of its ability to surprise dramatically with sudden forte or piano, and long crescendos and diminuendos. By this time the day when the forte-piano would become the equal of the harpsichord was very near. Still the harpsichord was the most fashionable strung keyboard instrument. Voltaire defended the harpsichord saying, “This newcomer will never dethrone the majestic harpsichord. The piano-forte is an ironmonger’s invention compared with the harpsichord.” 43 In his book, Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making, Frank Hubbard states that, “So long as there was no general demand for the nuance of dynamic offered by the piano mechanism, there was no reason for musicians to wish to exchange the brilliant and clean tone of the harpsichord for the false and dull sound of the earliest pianos.” 44


Dolge, Alfred. Pianos and Their Makers. Covina Publishing Company. Covina, California. 1911.Dubal, David. The Art of the Piano. Summit Books. New York, New-York. 1989.

Hirt, Franz Josef. Stringed Keyboard Instruments 1440-1880. Boston Book and Art Shop. Boston, Massachusetts. 1968.

Hollis, Helen R. Pianos in the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institute Press. City of Washington. 1973.

Hubbard, Frank. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1967.

Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women, and Pianos. Simon and Schuster. New York, New York. 1954.

White, William Braid. Piano Tuning and Allied Arts. Tuners Supply Company. Boston, Massachusetts. 1946.


1. Alfred Dolge. Pianos and Their Makers, Covina Publishing Company. Covina, California. 1911, p. 28.

2. William Braid White. Piano Tuning and Allied Arts. Tuners Supply Company. Boston, Massachusetts. 1946, p. 162.

3. Dolge, p. 77.

4. Dolge, p. 77.

5. Dolge, p. 77.

6. Dolge, p. 77.

7. Franz Josef Hirt. Stringed Keyboard Instruments 1440-1880. Boston Book and Art Shop. Boston, Massachusetts. 1968, p.140.

8. Dolge, p. 27.

9. Hirt, p. 127.

10. Hirt, p. 142.

11. Hirt, p. 95.

12. Hirt, p. 156.

13. Hirt, p. 95.

14. Dolge, p. 216.

15. Arthur Loesser. Men, Women, and Pianos. Simon and Schuster. New York, New York. 1954, p. 36.

16. Loesser, p. 24.

17. Loesser, p. 25.

18. Loesser, p. 26.

19. Loesser, p. 29-30.

20. Hirt, p. XVII.

21. Hirt, p. 157.

22. Hirt, p. 111.

23. Hirt, p. XIV.

24. Loesser, p. 41.

25. Hirt, p. XIV.

26. Loesser, p. 28.

27. Loesser, p. 28.

28. Hirt, p. XVII.

29. Dolge, p. 44.

30. Hirt, p. 157.

31. Hirt, p. 96.

32. Loesser, p. 107.

33. Hirt, p. 97.

34. Loesser, p. 38.

35. Hirt, p. XVIII.

36. Dolge, p. 168.

37. Hirt, p. 151.

38. Helen R. Hollis. Pianos in the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institute Press. City of Washington. 1973, p. 11-12.

39. Hirt, p. 95.

40. Hirt, p. 99.

41. Hirt, p. 80.

42. Hirt, p. 94.

43. David Dubal. The Art of the Piano. Summit Books. New York, New York. 1989, p. 18.

44. Frank Hubbard. Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1967, p. 125.


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