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Google honours inventor of the piano with a Google Doodle
4th May 2015
Google today used its iconic 'doodle' to celebrate Cristofori and his ground-breaking invention. On its front page, users can adjust the volume while a cartoon of Cristofori plays Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring on his new instrument.
Cristofori was born on 4 May 1655 in Padua and looked after the harpsichords of the Florentine court for the Grand Prince Ferdinando de Medici. By 1700 he had created a forerunner to the piano, what he called an 'arpicimbalo' - an instrument similar to the harpsichord but, crucially, with a hammer - rather than a plucking action. This hammer, whose strength varied according to how hard the keys were pressed, allowed the instrument to be capable of different dynamics.
If Cristofori had been born in the 20th century he might have dabbled in some SEO. Or perhaps he might have taken out some Google Adwords to increase his sales. Unfortunately his new instrument remained relatively unknown until an Italian writer Scipione Maffei wrote about it in 1711, diagramming its unique hammer mechanism. This article was later translated into German and widely distributed, heavily influencing piano makers. One of these was Gottfried Silbermann, who was better known as an organ builder but quick to realise the value of diversifying. Silbermann's pianos were virtually direct copies of Cristofori's, with one important addition: they all included the forerunner of the modern sustain pedal, which lifts all the dampers from the strings simultaneously.
The development of the piano radically changed the musical landscape for keyboard instruments. Music in the Baroque era was largely polyphonic or imitative. In keyboard instrumental music of this period, the right hand and left hand played similar short melodic snippets, and dynamic contrast was provided largely by repeating a passage of music, but varying between loud and soft on each rendition.
Cristofori's concept hammer action allowed gradual contrasts of volume (crescendo and diminuendo, for example) and these came to feature in the later music of the Classical period (1750-1827). Sudden changes (sforzando, sfz or fp) also featured especially in music by composers such as Beethoven.
One of Gottfried Silbermann's early models was viewed poorly by Bach as possessing too heavy a touch and too weak a treble. Silbermann refined these pianos to greater success, leading to the purchase of several by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (r. 1740-86). Bach later praised Silbermann's pianos, going so far as to become a sales agent for his instruments, thereby extending Cristofori's influence in central Europe. Did he get a commission?
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