The History of Pianos - An Overview of Masterful Composers

In the history of pianos, Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was the Keeper of the Instruments for Ferdinando de’ Medici, the Grand Prince of Tuscany, holds a special place. He invented the modern piano around 1698.

The major dilemma that Cristofori had to overcome was the fact that the piano hammer had to strike a specific string and then disengage. If he could perfect this mechanism, it would result in a keyboard instrument that was loud but that could also be controlled.  Total control of the keys and hammers had to be attained for the piano to be a success and that is what Cristofori did.

From the 18th century on, the piano was a musical instrument that some of the greatest and most popular composers would utilize. One way to look at the history of a musical instrument is to consider the contributions of some of the most important artists who have played it. In this history of pianos, five composers and their contributions will be examined.

Baroque Period – Lodovico Giustini

Lodovico Giustini (12 December 1685 – 7 February 1743), who was an Italian composer, was the first to write compositions for the piano. His 12 Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti, opus 1 predates any other piano pieces by 30 years. His first piano composition was published in Florence in 1732. Because of the manner in which the piano was constructed, it gave composers a new dynamic with which they could work. There was more nuance and power in a piano than in either the harpsichord or clavichord; both of which preceded it. Giustini’s ability to utilize the active nature of the piano keyboard was noted at the time.  

Classical Period – Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (December 17, 1770- March 26, 1827) was one of the best-known German composers to have ever lived. Although he eventually went deaf, Beethoven was still able to create expressive masterpieces on the piano. He wrote in a wide range of musical genres; his works include 32 piano sonatas, nine symphonies and seven concerti.

His work is divided into three periods with the middle one featuring epic pieces that invoke grand passion and heroism. His late period shows amazing intellectual depth and a new type of personal expressiveness. His early period is defined by various predecessors, including Haydn and Mozart.  

Romantic Period - Frédéric Chopin

In many ways, Frédéric Chopin (February 22 or March 1, 1810- October 17, 1849), who was from Poland, defines the expressiveness of the Romantic Period.  As a pianist, he was a child-prodigy who wrote specifically for the piano. His works include piano sonatas, impromptus, waltzes, mazurkas and more. His pieces call for a high level of technical proficiency and a wide range of emotion.  

Impressionist – Claude Debussy

French composer Claude Debussy (August 22, 1862- March 25, 1918) is considered to be one of the preeminent composers of his generation. His pieces, which were written in a variety of forms and for various instruments, are usually built around one key or note. He created many works for the piano, including Mazurka for piano (1890), Symphony for piano, four hands (1880) and Nocturne et Scherzo for piano and cello (1882). He composed well over 60 pieces for the solo piano, piano and vocal and piano and other instruments.

20th Century – Igor Stravinsky

Born in Russia and then naturalized in France and then the US, Igor Stravinsky (June 17, 1882- April 6, 1971) is considered to be one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His long career was defined by stylistic diversity and the desire to always expand his horizons. He purposefully pushed rhythms beyond bar lines, incorporated folk music and elaborated on works by earlier composers. He was one of the greatest innovators to ever compose music for the piano and other instruments.

Can You Be the Next Great Composer?

Of course everyone who enjoys piano lessons and playing the piano won’t become a great composer. But taking piano lessons can broaden your enjoyment of music, teach you new skills and expose you to different styles of music. For those who are looking for knowledgeable teachers, you can find out more about piano lessons online. The next great composer in the history of pianos has to come from somewhere.

About the Author

Duane Shinn knows music. Called “the man who wrote the book,” he has created over 500 books, CDs and DVDs focusing on every aspect of playing the piano.  With a BS & Masters Degree in Humanities (Music & English literature - a double major) from Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, Duane offers piano lessons to a wide range of students. He loves working with new musicians and helping them to understand piano technique and then how to apply it.

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