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Arpicimbalo Sounds
About The Instrument

The piano is the only existing copy of the 1722 Cristofori instrument in the Museo nazionale de' strumenti musicali in Rome. The makers are Thomas and Barbara Wolf of The Plains, Virginia, experienced harpsichord and fortepiano makers, who have also restored and maintained instruments for the Smithsonian Institution. They were able to inspect the 1722 piano closely when the Smithsonian borrowed it for the PIANO 300 exhibit in 2000-2001, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the piano's invention. I was a co-curator of that exhibit, and it struck me soon after the exhibit opened that the Wolfs were the obvious people to make a copy of this remarkable piano. In their work they sought not only to copy the instrument with the same materials as far as possible, but also to work in the ways and in the order that Cristofori himself did, as they could deduce from minutely examining the piano.

Basic Description

Range: C-c3, 4 octaves, 49 keys; octave span 6½ inches

Action: Cristofori 1722 action

Keys: walnut, naturals covered in boxwood, accidentals in ebony

Hoppers: walnut, brass springs

Intermediate levers: spruce

Hammers: buckskin covers on walnut moulding
    Hammer butts: walnut
    Shanks: spruce

Dampers: walnut jack, buckskin damping material

Strings: double-strung, brass

Pinblock (wrest plank): walnut with cypress veneer

Tuning pins, bridge pins, hitch-pins: wrought iron and brass

Stops: una corda, hand operated at cheek blocks

Soundboard and bridges: Italian cypress

Framing: European poplar underbraces and spruce belly rail, cypress gap spacers

Case: European poplar, 89½ inches long, 32 inches wide at keyboard, 8 5/16 inches deep, lid closed

To activate the una corda, the knobs on either side of the keyboard can be grasped to move the keyboard and action to the left, where the hammers strike only one string. The hammers are tapered in size from bass to treble. The strings are strung underneath the pinblock, an unusual design probably intended to keep heavy hammer blows from dislodging strings from the bridges.

This instrument possesses different timbres at different ranges of its notes. The bottom octave is robust, not unlike a bassoon, and sounds get more mellow in the upper octaves. Some people have felt on first hearing that it sounded rather like a harpsichord, but soon they agreed that it sounded like a piano—but not like a Steinway! The tone is quite soft, the dynamic shifts more subtle than on modern pianos, the touch extraordinarily light. I am hearing things in baroque music that I have never heard before, whether on harpsichord, clavichord, or modern piano. This is not merely a primitive stage on the way to Yamaha or Bechstein but is a distinctive voice that I hope will delight and instruct us all in how to hear anew.

Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1732) was a leading Italian harpsichord maker, from 1688 to his death in the employ of the Medici court in Florence , first under Prince Ferdinando de' Medici. An inventory of Medici instruments of 1700 describes his "Arpicimbalo" of new invention that produces "il piano e il forte" by means of martelli, hammers. A document from 1704 dates the invention in 1700. The principle of the arpicimbalo (pronounced ar-pee-CHIM-ba-low), as of the later piano, is that the hammer is pushed into free flight to the string, so that it strikes the string with speed proportional to the player's pressure on the key. The faster the hammer speed, the louder the sound produced. Hence the instrument could play piano (Italian, soft) or forte (Italian, loud)—or any stage of loudness between—by only the finger skill of the player. This differentiates it from the harpsichord, in which the key pushed a jack with a quill plectrum that plucked the string as it went past. The speed of the jack's movement made no difference in loudness. The harpsichord could differentiate loudnesses only by playing more notes simultaneously to sound louder or fewer notes to sound softer.

Cristofori worked on his own in inventing the piano, being quoted as denying any motivation from anyone else. His genius is demonstrated by the fact that he solved brilliantly every problem of a hammer-driven stringed keyboard instrument except one: he did not devise a means of raising all the dampers at once. Nor did he need to. No keyboard music of which he had any knowledge called for such a thing. When the piano got to Germany, perhaps as early as 1717, Gottfried Silbermann copied Cristofori's action but not his mode of case work. German audiences had known the pleasures of undamped struck strings under the hands of Pantaleon Hebenstreit, a fabulous virtuoso on the hammer dulcimer. Silbermann made Hebenstreit's instruments for some time, and when he turned to the piano in the 1730s and 1740s, he devised a hand-stop to raise all the dampers.

The 1722 instrument is probably the one bought from Cristofori by Alessandro Marcello, brother of the more famous Benedetto Marcello. He collected instruments but apparently never wrote any music for the piano. It later went through the hands of a famous Italian tenor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and came to the Rome Museum in 1966. Three Cristofori pianos are known to survive: one of 1720 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ; this one of 1722; and one of 1726 in the Musikinstrumenten Museum of the University of Leipzig . The latter has been copied a number of times.

This view of the Wolf/Cristofori piano shows the case and interior bracing. The piano is lying on its spine, and the key-bed, where the action will go, is at the right.

Notice especially four aspects of the instrument: 1. The bottom is closed, unlike the modern piano.

2. There are basically two kinds of framing pieces. One set of six go across the case, from spine to bent-side (the one closest to the front of the piano goes from the middle of the strong rail (called the belly rail) perpendicularly across the case to the bentside). Another comes from next to that one to the corner, where the cheek meets the bentside. Four of these frames coincide or nearly coincide with battens attached to the outside of the case. The other pieces are basically struts that follow along the longer axis of the case, each one butted against one of the framing members and nailed to the intervening ones.. One of these comes at an angle from the belly rail to butt up against one of the frames. These framing pieces give the case both stiffness against the tension of the strings inside it and some flexibility to respond to temperature and humidity changes.

3. One of Cristofori's innovations was the way he mounted the Italian cypress soundboard. Instead of bringing the soundboard to the bentside, he glued it to the top of a separate wall that follows the contours of the bentside and tail, a small distance in from them. This removes all string tension except downbearing from the soundboard, allowing the soundboard to respond to humidity changes entirely apart from the case. The result is a quite remarkable stability. This arrangement became known only when the Metropolitan instrument was X-rayed in the 1980s, revealing the line of what is now called the "interior bentside."

4. Notice the fairly closely-spaced lines along the inside of the bentside. Those are saw or knife cuts (technically called "kerfs"), which were used to allow the bentside to be given its curvature without steaming or bending by main force. Cristofori used kerfing in his harpsichords as well as in his pianos.

The keyboard and action outside of the instrument. This shows the entire mechanism.

The keyboard and action in its constituent parts. In front is the upper part, which in all Cristofori-type actions is removable. This holds the hammers and shanks in their rack and the intermediate levers beneath the hammer shanks. The hammers are graduated in size, the lower ones being larger than the upper ones. Behind is the keyboard and the lower part of the action, showing the "hoppers" mounted in the keys and the row of leather-covered backchecks along the back. The hoppers move upward against small blocks on the undersides of the intermediate levers, which are then pushed against the butt of the hammers to propel the hammers to the strings.

Further Reading

David Crombie. Piano. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1995. A lavishly and beautifully illustrated history of the piano and its forebears.

Cyril Ehrlich. The Piano: A History. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. An industry study of the piano, mostly since 1850.

Edwin M. Good. Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos: A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand. 2nd edition. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Edwin M. Good. "Reflections on a Year with Cristofori," in Piano Technicians Journal, vols. 45, no 12, and 46, nos. 1-2 (2002-2003). An article in three parts detailing my experience of the original 1722 Cristofori piano in the Smithsonian's PIANO 300 exhibit in 2000-2001.

Cynthia Adams Hoover, Patrick Rucker, and Edwin M. Good. Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution and NAMM-International Music Products Association, 2001. A catalog of the exhibit, Piano 300, at the Smithsonian Institution, distributed by Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD.

Arthur Loesser. Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954. An absolutely charming social history of the piano, beautifully written and absorbing--sometimes somewhat mistaken about the technology but wonderful nevertheless.

James Parakilas, ed. Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Essays on many aspects of the piano's history by leading students of the matter. A somewhat abridged paperback edition, titled Piano Roles: A New History of the Piano, was published in 2002.

Stewart Pollens. The Early Pianoforte. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A technical examination of the earliest pianos from 1700 until about 1760, along with translations of the most important early documents of the piano and many pictures and drawings.