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Posts Tagged ‘piano’

Bartolomeo Cristofori (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Bartolomeo Cristofori (Wikimedia Commons)

From the Middle Ages, Italy’s Medici family was a magnet for artists and artisans, who created extraordinary works under the family’s generous patronage. In 1688, Florence’s Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici hired Bartolomeo Cristofori, then 33 years old, to look after his collection of harpsichords. This was an important position: Cristofori was paid as much as any court musician.

The harpsichord of Cristofori’s time was a well developed instrument, responsive and flexible. But it lacked one feature: variable dynamics. The harpsichord’s mechanism plucked the strings of the instrument. There was no practical way (then) to make it pluck them more gently. The only way to vary volume was to change stops or combine manuals. The possibilities for dynamic variety were fairly limited.

Cristofori's piano action
Cristofori’s piano action

Some time in the 1690s, Cristofori had a brainstorm. He realized that if he replaced the harpsichord’s plucking mechanism with one which struck the string instead, the force of the strike — and thus the volume of the sound — could be under complete control of the player.

The idea of a keyboard instrument that struck the strings rather than plucking them wasn’t really new. The clavichord had existed since at least the 15th century. A clavichord had tangents fastened to the keys. Instead of controlling jacks and quills which plucked the strings, the tangents themselves struck the strings inside the instrument’s case.

The problem with the clavichord was that while it was capable of extraordinarily sensitive dynamic expression, its volume range was from almost inaudible to barely audible. Let’s face it, the force that a keyboard player can transmit through his or her fingers is limited. The clavichord’s tangents couldn’t strike its strings hard enough to make a sound that could be heard, say, in a church sanctuary. This meant that the clavichord wasn’t suitable for anything other than the most intimate music-making. (It made a magnificent instrument for late-night keyboard practice, however.)

Cristofori solved this problem by adding a mechanical action. It multiplied the player’s string-striking force by four (eight, in his later instruments) and used that force to drive a hammer against the string. He also added an escapement mechanism. The escapement allowed the hammer to fall back after striking the string, so the string would keep vibrating.

Cristofori piano, 1720 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Cristofori piano, 1720
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

(Think of the way a fine crystal goblet rings when you tap it with a spoon — as long as you don’t keep the spoon touching the glass after you tap it.)

Cristofori called his invention arpicimbalo che fa il piano e il forte — harpsichord with soft and loud. Today, we shorten that name a bit. We call it the piano.

Maybe you’re expecting me to say here that Cristofori’s piano "took Europe by storm" (or some similar cliche’!) and almost immediately eclipsed the harpsichord.

That didn’t happen. Truth to tell, keyboard players didn’t like the touch. The Florentine piano was harder to play, and the keys just didn’t feel right when pressed. They didn’t like the tone, either; it was too soft, too muffled. Besides, who really needed that much variety in volume anyway?

It would remain for later piano makers to solve these problems. But Cristofori had begun the process of breaking the harpsichord’s lock on public keyboard performance. It’s not hard to imagine that without the financial and moral support of the Medici family, Cristofori probably couldn’t have pushed keyboard technology ahead — but that’s another story for another day.

Domenico Scarlatti (Wikimedia Commons)
Domenico Scarlatti
(Wikimedia Commons)

Now back to 1700, and over to Naples. That’s when and where Domenico Scarlatti, one more musical member of a hugely talented musical family, was named organist and composer of the Royal Chapel. He was even granted a special additional salary for his work as chamber harpsichordist.

Domenico Scarlatti was only 15 years old.

Two years later, Scarlatti and his father Alessandro made the first of two visits to Florence. Their host was none other than Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, Cristofori’s patron. Did Domenico play one or more of Cristofori’s Florentine pianos on these visits? Perhaps. History doesn’t tell us. So far no documentation has surfaced — no letters home raving about (or excoriating!) the new-fangled instrument, no eyewitness reports, no newspaper articles.

By 1708, Domenico had joined his father in Rome. There he attended the weekly concerts originated by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. In 1709, Prince Ferdinando sent the Cardinal a lavish gift from Florence: one of Cristofori’s pianos. Did Scarlatti play or hear that instrument? Again, history doesn’t tell us.

Infanta Maria Barbara  (
Infanta Maria Barbara (

In 1719, Scarlatti left Rome, ostensibly for England. In actuality, he was on his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he had a job offer — he was to be master of the Royal Chapel there. In Lisbon he encountered an exceptionally talented royal youngster — the infanta Maria Barbara, who, as a contemporary report said, “Surprise[ed] the amazed intelligence of the most excellent Professors with her Mastery of Singing, Playing and Composition.”

In January of 1729, Maria Barbara married Ferdinando, the Spanish infante. It was a rather uncomfortable union whose purpose was entirely political. Maria Barbara soon found herself in the hostile company of the jealous Queen Isabella of Spain. Isabella even refused to allow Maria Barbara to bring along her personal servants — all but one, that is: her music teacher, Domenico Scarlatti. During the remaining 28 years of his life, Scarlatti composed and catalogued over 550 keyboard exercises for Maria Barbara — from 1746, queen of Spain.

Scarlatti and the Florentine piano are linked (if only circumstantially) at several other times and places, but what’s undeniable is that Maria Barbara herself was a point of intersection.

Maria Barbara owned pianos. We know this because she died just over a year after Scarlatti did, and at her death, her instruments were inventoried. Of her dozen (!) keyboard instruments, three were pianos, and two more were harpsichords which had been converted from pianos (perhaps because their actions failed, or because they were judged unsatisfactory as pianos). It thus becomes rather difficult to deny that Scarlatti was acquainted with the piano.

But did he play them? Did he intend for Maria Barbara to play his sonatas on them?

Ralph Kirkpatrick (
Ralph Kirkpatrick

Ralph Kirkpatrick didn’t think so. Kirkpatrick was an American harpsichordist (1911 – 1984). He had a distinguised career as a performer, but his magnum opus was his biography of Domenico Scarlatti. It occupied him for 16 years, from 1937 to 1953. When it came to Scarlatti’s sonatas, Kirkpatrick’s views in that 1953 publication were enormously influential, guiding the performance practice of a generation of historically-oriented keyboard musicians.

Kirkpatrick pointed out that 73 of Scarlatti’s 550-some sonatas required more keys than the queen’s pianos had. This is pretty hard to argue with! It seems very unlikely that either Maria Barbara or Scarlatti played those 73 sonatas on any of the pianos to which they had known access. That’s a carefully qualified statement, but it’s about as definitive as we can really get in this discussion.

Kirkpatrick thought that was sufficient evidence to declare that Scarlatti probably had the harpsichord in mind for playing all of his sonatas. There is more to his argument, but it’s mostly conjectural, related to what he saw as the musical suitability of the piano of the time to the sonatas. What else can one do without definitive surviving documentation?

But from 1970, other historically-oriented musicologists and performers began to question Kirkpatrick’s assessment. Their re-evaluation of the evidence, sketchy as it was and is, led to harpsichord maker David Sutherland’s 1995 article in Early Music magazine, “Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano.”

Sutherland argued that, in making his recommendation, Kirkpatrick should have given more weight to the circumstantial evidence connecting Scarlatti and the early Florentine piano. Sutherland also questioned Kirkpatrick’s judgement of the Florentine piano as unsuited to Scarlatti’s sonatas, but in all honesty it’s difficult to see Sutherland’s view of this matter as any less subjective than Kirkpatrick’s. Finally, he took issue with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the piano was mostly used at court for accompanying singers. Sutherland’s evidence here seems about as persuasive as Kirkpatrick’s. Stalemate.

Who’s right? I don’t know.

Keyboard isn’t my instrument, so maybe I’m able to view this whole discussion with a bit of detachment. We’ve invested over 70 years in poring over what little documentation exists (reckoning from when Kirkpatrick began his research for Domenico Scarlatti). We have more informed opinions than ever (and thank goodness for that), but informed as they are, they’re still opinions. We don’t have a definitive answer as to whether Scarlatti intended his sonatas for the harpsichord or the piano. Perhaps he intended some of them for one and some for the other, but we have no way of knowing that. If he did, the 73 I mentioned before are the only ones which we currently have much hope of assigning. Actually, we don’t know whether Scarlatti even cared which instrument they were played on. We may never know. There just isn’t enough evidence to say.

Meanwhile, players of the modern piano, from Dame Myra Hess to Vladimir Horowitz — and countless others since — have never stopped playing Scarlatti. Why should they? For them, I suspect that the question of what instrument Scarlatti had played was pretty much academic. His music worked for them on their chosen instrument. They gave Scarlatti a voice, and also found their own expressive nuances in the sonatas. Audiences loved it. I imagine that was enough for them.

What I do know is that I’ve heard successful and musically enlightening performances of Scarlatti sonatas on harpsichords, Florentine pianos, and modern pianos. But don’t take my word for it; compare for yourself. Here are three short clips from Scarlatti’s Sonata in f minor, K519 — played on modern piano, a reproduction of Cristofori’s Florentine piano, and harpsichord.

Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on modern piano (Beatrice Long)

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Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on Florentine piano (David Schrader)

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Scarlatti’s K519 sonata on harpsichord (Colin Tilney)

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I’ve also heard some pretty good Scarlatti on other instruments, including harp and guitar. His music seems to suit many different instruments, and I for one am glad that one more avenue of timbre and style has opened up for interpreting Scarlatti sonatas.

Further reading:

Domenico Scarlatti. Ralph Kirkpatrick, 1953 (1983 revision).

Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano. David Sutherland, Early Music, 1995 (Note: JSTOR access is required to read this article. A public-access computer associated with a university or library will usually connect immediately, but most home or business computers will not.)

A Florentine Piano c.1730 for Early Piano Music. Denzil Wraight.

Domenico Scarlatti, a brief biography. Chris Whent, Here of a Sunday Morning, WBAI, New York.

Cristofori, Inventor of the Piano. Roy E. Howard, Cantos Para Todos.

This article was originally published in WKSU Classical on 17 July 2008.

QuoteHere are the Beethoven symphonies, arranged as [piano] duets … I would not claim that I have ever got any tremendous emotional excitement out of playing these duets, because as soon as the main theme is announced one gets so excited that one forgets to count.

– Beverley Nichols, A Thatched Roof
Krystian Zimerman (Middlebury College)

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman stunned his Los Angeles audience Sunday evening (26 April 2009) when he announced that he would no longer perform in the US.

According to this piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian, this is the second time Zimerman has renounced performing in our nation. In 2006 he vowed not to play another US recital until then-president George W Bush had left office. This time he expressed his opposition to the current administration’s plan to construct a missile defense station in his native land.

Audience members reacted predictably. Some walked out, some booed, some applauded. That’s interesting but academic: Zimerman is welcome to express his opinion in this way — or any other he chooses. That freedom is one of the great strengths of our nation.

What I find unsettling is some of the history behind Zimerman’s earlier performances in the US, as revealed in this article.

In 2001, security officials at JFK Airport confiscated and destroyed Zimerman’s Steinway piano. The officers reportedly thought the piano’s glue "smelled funny" and might be explosive.

In 2006, airport security again held up his instrument. This time they returned it to him, but five days later — too late for him to adjust it to his satisfaction in time for his concert.

I realize that airport security officials have a job to do. I don’t know whether they may have later issued an apology and financial compensation for the destroyed piano (a new customized Steinway grand can easily run into six figures). Regardless, I can hardly comprehend such an action. Did they not know who Zimerman was? Did they not know the value of his instrument, not just in dollars but in musical terms? What on earth were they thinking?

That Zimerman even returned to our country at all after such a heartbreaking experience is almost unimaginable. Would you? And with such a background it’s not at all difficult to imagine that a point of political disagreement could easily become a reason to never set foot in the US again.

Let’s hope the situation changes. Zimerman is a powerful and compelling musical presence, and his absence from these shores will be both our loss and Zimerman’s.

Further reading:

Polish pianist stops show in The Guardian

Krystian Zimerman’s controversial appearance in the LA Times

Lang Lang (Photo: La Scena Musicale)

Young star pianist Lang Lang is unquestionably a distinctive artist. In another way, though, he represents the evolving musical culture of his homeland. China is now the home of the world’s most active piano manufacturer — and as many as 80 million piano students (see A Nation of Pianos and Pianists).

Fundamental tenets of Confucian philosophy emphasize the importance of education and success, acceptance and recognition of authority, and service to one’s neighborhood and country. These principles remain influential in many Asian nations, including China. Families often make enormous personal and financial sacrifices to ensure that their children achieve these goals.

Lang Lang’s book Journey of a Thousand Miles tells the story of his family’s efforts to help him develop his artistry and career. He’ll visit Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cleveland Wednesday (8 October 2008) at 7pm to discuss Journey and autograph copies. For more information, ring up Joseph-Beth at 216 691-7000.

Further reading:

A Nation of Pianos and Pianists in WKSU Classical

Classical Music in China: A Closer Look in WKSU Classical

Journey of a Thousand Miles at Powell’s Books

Playing With Flying Keys at Barnes and Noble

Lang Lang’s website

Pearl River's Factory in Guangzhou, ChinaWhen I was in the early grades, more years ago than I care to discuss, music was still an integral part of elementary education (at least in my district). We piped out This Old Man and The Itsy-Bitsy Spider to the pounding chords of a wheezy, ill-tuned upright piano. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to learn almost 20 years later that music education students at Kent State University were offered a class which included the rudiments of accompanying kids at the keyboard.

At about the same time, or perhaps a few years earlier, I read that the elementary school instrument of choice in China was the accordion, not the piano.

That wasn’t too difficult to believe. Accordions are relatively cheap. A new small vertical piano good enough for practice and casual playing will set you back a few thousand dollars. A modest accordion is perhaps one-tenth that amount.

Accordions are obviously much more portable than the smallest spinet. They may not be more portable than a cheap electronic keyboard, but for some people the accordion’s sound might well be preferable to the tinny plinks that many portable keyboards emit from their undersized transistor-radio speakers. Accordions also have the advantage that a teacher playing one can keep an eye on the class clown — which isn’t so easy for a teacher planted on a bench behind a tall upright piano.

That was then, this is now. Except for a staged concert, my web search didn’t turn up a single mention of the accordion in Chinese classrooms. The nation that produced pianist Lang Lang now produces his instrument, and in rather astonishing quantities.

For years, China has manufactured most of the world’s toys and electronic gadgets. Today, it also has the world’s most active piano manufacturer. The Pearl River Piano Factory, one of the first to export pianos to the US, built 100,000 pianos last year. To put that in perspective, only 95,000 pianos of all types, makes, and origins were sold in the US in 2005.

So where are they all going? Certainly many of Pearl River’s instruments ended up in our own music stores, wearing familiar American, European, or even Japanese names on the fallboard, and low numbers on the price tags. But eighty percent of the pianos from Pearl River and other Chinese manufacturers never board a container ship. They are sold at home.

China is possessed by some kind of piano fever. As piano sales trail off in the States, they explode in China. Piano shops and studios line the main streets of the cities.

This is the flowering of a demand that has long existed. Even 20 years ago, when Chinese pianos were scarce, buyers would quite literally queue up when a shipment arrived. Once, the piano represented western decadence. Today, under China’s authoritarian capitalism, there are many times more instruments, more dealers, and more consumers.

More pianos means more pianists. It’s estimated that at least 30 million Chinese children are studying piano; some sources put the number as high as 80 million. Their parents are motivated by stringent childbearing restrictions and deep-seated Confucian traditions placing a high value on education. They will make sure the children study, practice, and succeed.

If the pattern followed by the Japanese (and more recently Korean) piano manufacturers holds with the Chinese, we’ll see a change over the next decade or two. The Chinese instruments in the music stores will no longer hide their origins behind famous American and European names. Pearl River and such competitors as Taishan and Saganhaft will proudly stencil their own names on the fallboards. Indeed, this is already starting to happen. Where it will leave the non-Asian piano builders remains to be seen.

And what of those 80 million piano students? Believe me, we will hear from them. Lang Lang and Li Yundi are just the beginning.

Further reading:

Keyboard Moment in China’s Cultural Evolution in The Australian

It Takes a Nation of Maestros in New Statesman


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