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Piano in the Baroque Period: Invention and Evolution

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician, and author of books for children and adults.

A reproduction of a typical fortepiano, the earliest version of the modern piano

A reproduction of a typical fortepiano, the earliest version of the modern piano

Fortepiano versus Pianoforte

The earliest pianos were called "fortepianos" because they could be played loudly (forte) and softly (piano). Over the years the instrument has matured and developed and the terminology has developed with it, so that in modern lingo we call it the pianoforte, usually abbreviated to just piano.

A harpsichord with two manuals (sets of keys), one for softer notes and one for louder notes

A harpsichord with two manuals (sets of keys), one for softer notes and one for louder notes

The Piano Was Born in the Baroque Period

During the Baroque period, which lasted from 1600 to 1750, art, architecture and music shared some common features. These included a gradual shift from sacred to secular music, elaborate and ornamental decoration, and a new sense of drama. As far as music was concerned, these characteristics showed themselves in highly stylized keyboard writing and the use of contrapuntal textures.

Composers at the time were faced with a problem. Every other instrument, such as violin, trumpet, flute or even kettledrums, had the potential to go from soft to loud and vice versa. Keyboard instruments, however, could not. Harpsichords were often equipped with two rows of keys or manuals, one producing soft notes and one producing loud notes, but moving between the two extremes was impossible. So what was to be done?

Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano

Bartolomeo Cristofori, the inventor of the piano

Unveiling a New Keyboard Instrument

To solve the problem, an Italian instrument maker named Bartolomeo Cristofori took up the challenge. He designed a keyboard instrument that looked a lot like a harpsichord but worked in a different way. The strings were now struck with hammers rather than being plucked with pieces of leather.

When strings are plucked the performer has no control over the resulting sound. Striking them with a hammer, however, gives the performer total control. It's a simple idea, but one that revolutionized the world of keyboard music for the last 400 years, since approximately 1700.

How the Piano Began to Catch On

Two of the most important composers of keyboard music at this time were J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel. But the question is, would either of these two musical geniuses have been keen to use it? Playing harpsichord and organ requires a lighter touch and less work, and both of these gentlemen were proficient composers and performers on these instruments.

By the time the piano was in general circulation, Bach and Handel would have already written and performed dozens of pieces for harpsichord and organ. They would have been getting on in years by this time too: Bach died in 1750 and Handel in 1759. Trying to come to terms with this newfangled instrument in their golden years would probably have been something of a challenge. It looked like other keyboard instruments they were already familiar with, but it functioned in a totally new way, producing sounds they had no experience with. They'd already proven themselves as master composers for the keyboard, so they might not have given the fortepiano much consideration.

J.S. Bach, a giant among Baroque keyboard players and composers

J.S. Bach, a giant among Baroque keyboard players and composers

The Piano Music of J.S. Bach

Of the two, Bach is perhaps the more significant in terms of output and popularity. He wrote dozens of keyboard pieces including the Well-Tempered Clavier, a set of 48 preludes and fugues in each of the major and minor keys. This collection is referred to as The Old Testament of keyboard music and forms the basis of the repertoire for many beginning piano students.

Bach wrote lots of music for the keyboard, but it wasn't actually written for the piano. Harpsichord and organ were his instruments, although today much of his harpsichord music is played on a modern piano. He wrote music for orchestras, choirs and combinations, but still had time to write plenty of keyboard music. As well as the set of preludes and fugues mentioned above, his works include:

  • 15 Inventions
  • 15 Sinfonias
  • 6 Partitas
  • 6 French Suites
  • 6 English Suites
  • The Italian Concerto
  • The Goldberg Variations
  • A Musical Offering
  • The Art of Fugue
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You'll also hear harpsichord featuring prominently in Bach's chamber music, the Brandenburg Concertos being a typical example.

The First True Piano Music

The piano (i.e. the fortepiano) took time to make its way into people's hearts. The first music known to have been written specifically for the fortepiano dates from 1732, when the Italian composer Lodovico Giustini published his Sonate da cimbalo di piano. This was a one-off, however—publication was paid for by the composer's patron—and as yet there was no commercial market for this exotic instrument. It wasn't until the 1760s that music for the fortepiano began to be widely published and available, and there are records that tell us about some of the first public performances.

As often happens, Cristofori's invention was picked up and developed by another instrument maker, the German Gottfried Silbermann. It was Silbermann who helped to bring the piano to the masses, making improvements in the structure and function of the instrument. He is credited with the invention of the damper pedal which removes the dampers from all the strings at once, producing the rich and resonant sound we're all familiar with now. Silbermann sold many of his pianos to his patron, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and this royal patronage no doubt helped to raise the instrument's profile among the general public.

CPE Bach's Solfeggietto

Baroque Piano Laid the Foundations

J.S. Bach is said to have criticized Silbermann's early attempts, although there is evidence that the composer approved of his later designs. Bach's Well Tempered Clavier proved that the new major-minor system, the "well-tempered" method of tuning the keyboard, was a good and valid one. It was just a matter of time before other composers would take up the baton and start writing music for this new and wonderful keyboard instrument, the piano. It would be left to Bach's sons, to Mozart and to Beethoven to get the ball rolling and produce what could be truly termed as "piano music."

Many of the forms we associate with classical piano music, such as the concerto and sonata, were actually established in the Baroque era. It spawned the Baroque suite made up of four dance types, i.e. the allemande, courant, sarabande, and gigue. Other forms include the minuet, the gavotte, and the prelude. These provided the building blocks for much of the music that was to come later, when the piano came into its own in the classical period.

Read More About the Piano's Origins


Levenmouth Academy on November 27, 2018:

this website does not answer my question.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 22, 2015:

It was interesting to learn so much on the piano throughout that period. You're welcome.

JohnMello (author) from England on June 22, 2015:

Thanks Kristen, glad you enjoyed it!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 21, 2015:

Great hub John about the piano in the Baroque period and their composers. Real informative and interesting, too. Voted up!

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