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The piano universe: a 300 year old legacy for a prestigious instrument

By Lola, published on 16/07/2017 Blog > Music > Piano > All there is to know about the piano and its history

To see the birth of the great grandfather of the piano as we know it today we need to go back to the dawn of the 18th century.

Born in Italy the piano was remodeled several times in Germany, industrialized in the United States and now present in all music styles from all over the world. It has a rich history and many functionalities.

Formerly reserved for the elite and upper bourgeoisie, this instrument became popular during the second half of the 20th century.

Today, even the middle class can learn to play the piano, buy their own instrument – electronic, synthesizer or upright piano – and take piano lessons. Music sheets are available not only in music books from specialized bookshops but also in downloadable versions online. Rare are the piano songs for which you can’t find one or even several versions of piano scores.

Anyone wanting to start the piano should also try and take interest in the history of his instrument.

To play the piano well, it’s interesting to know its culture.

Here is a general presentation of everything you need to know about the world of pianos.

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A step back to the history of a prestigious musical instrument: the piano

It is Bartolomeo CRISTOFORI, a Florentine, who invented the first version of the keyboard instrument: the Clavicorde, named Gravecembalo piano e forte.

Firenze, the Italian city where pianos were born Invented in Italy in Florence – the piano is a relatively young instrument

The piano emerged from the evolution of the clavichord and the cymbalum, two stringed instruments.

B. Cristofori (1655-1731) develops the idea that pressing on keys could actuate hammers that would strike strings.

Progressively, the process evolves, and an Alsatian family of German origin improves the plans and the hammer strike: the Silbermann family.

Around 1770, the piano forte was born. It is the flagship instrument of the classical period in music from J.S. Bach (1685-1750) to W. A. ​​Mozart (1756-1791) to F. Schubert (1797-1828).

The end of the 19th century saw the rise of the industrial revolution, and in its wake, marked improvements for the piano forte:

  • Evolution of the sound, improvement of the accuracy
  • Flexibility of keys, keyboard flexibility
  • Work on the strength of steel ropes

For industrial firms in the years 1850-1870, the piano became an economic outlet, a thriving market to exploit.

The first major industrial manufacturer of pianos is German, and is called Blüthner. The pianos become more aesthetic, more robust, more powerful.

The brand helps to rise the piano to the rank of a prestigious instrument and to be make its way in musical history.

It was not until about 1880-1890 that the piano as we know it will be built.

At that time, there were 20 firms producing “modern pianos” in 1885, including Blüthner, Broadwood, Pleyel, Erard and Stein, which alone accounted for 70% of the world production of pianos.

The Industrial Revolution and the scientific works on acoustic and mechanical problems disrupt the workers, who can’t apply the great machining processes in their work.

In order to develop their image and position themselves in this new competitive market, firms seek the image of the great pianists of their times to gain in competitiveness.

Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin thus lent their names to the great pianos factories.

The piano becomes an instrument that is coveted for the beauty of its music, and a piece of furniture of prestige desired for the finesse of its frame made of cast iron.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the leather wrapping the heads of hammers is replaced by sheep’s wool, still embellishing the sound of the piano keys.

The piano is internationalized in America (Steinway is still a pioneer in the field of piano) and in Asia (including the famous Yamaha in Japan, created in the Meiji era).

Playing the piano becomes a worldwide pleasure. Thanks to research on excellence and quality of play, the piano industry is still flourishing today.

The era of digital and web 2.0 does not contradict the life of this “noble” instrument: today, the electronic piano offers the same sounds as a straight piano but is mobile, lightweight, compact and removable.

The development of the electronic piano allowed the middle class to discover the instrument and to find piano teachers to learn how to play this instrument. Songbooks developed and piano became a common accompaniment to popular songs.

Since the flagship years of jazz (1940-1950), the golden age of tango (1930-1950), the rise of rock since the 1960s and the development of our consumption driven society (from the “Trente Glorieuses” ), we now find pianos everywhere:

Cinema, television, radio, music festivals, SNCF stations, music schools, college music courses, and many households.

What is there to learn about this instrument’s rich history?

Can we learn the piano thanks to tutorials on the internet?

Taking piano lessons online is a good way to learn how to play the piano. Internet offers great possibilities to benefit from a method adapted to the level of each and everyone. Some piano teachers will prefer using the more reliable music sheets for songbooks. But if you want to go for online courses, this is mostly what is on offer:

Any Internet user of any age and level can watch these tutorials on sites such as Youtube or Dailymotion.

The tutorial is a short video of ten or fifteen minutes associated with a small article detailing each step of learning an activity.

So watching tutorials is a way to learn how to play your piano pieces, without having to put to price into costly music lessons, but be careful: you have to be wary of certain sites because anyone can record and offer these “tutorials to learn the piano”. What you need to look for is more than a good musician, it’s a good pedagogue.

Watching a tutorial to play a piano piece has several advantages:

  • Usually, it’s a good way to get free sheet music
  • The self-taught or beginner pianist can dissect the piece into small bits and pieces
  • Normally, one can see the fingers of the internet user on the piano’s keyboard at the same time as we hear the music
  • We work on our musical ear
  • We deal with sometimes simplified arrangements
  • We avoid having to read the score, and thus accelerate the learning
  • The piano chords are decomposed
  • We can tackle a piece more difficult than our current level normally allows

Here is an example of a tutorial on Youtube to learn how to play the song Mistral Winner of Renaud:

 

 

The tutorial can be a good learning method for the piano, but if you use it in addition to private lessons by a professional musician.

  • A tutorial will not sound off the alarm when bad fingering interferes
  • A video will show you how to play a song but it doesn’t push you towards the right methods and behaviors.
  • The pitfall of the tutorial is that the student has a mimetic behavior, without an understanding of music or of the instrument.

The tutorial is good, but it is recommended to watch tutorials when you have already acquired a certain level.

Before switching to online videos, opt for traditional piano lessons, adapted to your level, with a competent teacher.

The video tutorials make it possible to assimilate a piece more quickly in addition to the course with its piano teacher. You may be able to play the toughest pieces this way.

What are the most difficult piano pieces to play?

Learning how to play a difficult piece on the piano will require a lot of willpower because you will have heavy challenges.

Learning may require lots of writing practice. Practicing writing music helps.

You will have to repeat your piano scores again, and again, and again. But if you start all the same, for taste of challenge, here are some difficult pieces or very very difficult to play:

Classical piano

  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, written between 1804 and 1808
  • Sonata in the moonlight, 3rd movement, Beethoven
  • The Piano Sonata No. 18 in D major by W.A Mozart
  • The bolero of M. Ravel, composed in 1928
  • The toccata in D minor by J. S. Bach (1703-1707)
  • Swan Lake, op 20 by Tchaikovsky (1875-76)

Jazz

  • Libertango, of A. Piazolla (1921-1992)
  • Yesterdays, by Art Tatum (1909-1956)
  • Caravan, by Mr. Petrucciani (1962-1999)
  • Take the A train, D. Ellington (1899-1974)

Pieces that are difficult to play on the piano, but less so

  • Another summer’s rhyme, Y. Tiersen
  • Fly, soundtrack of the film Intouchables, by L. Einaudi
  • Son Bleu, by singer Renaud
  • The Stroll of Johnny Jane, by S. Gainsbourg

Have you all played them, even those of the greatest jazzmen above? You are a virtuoso!

Who are the greatest pianists in the world?

A virtuoso pianist who goes into the cultural history and the piano annals is an artist who is capable, with his fingertips, of putting millions of spectators in turmoil and making them shiver at the first note.

Listen to Elton John's best piano pieces Pianist Elton John, known worldwide, composes 80% of his piano repertoire.

It’s impossible to list to them all.

And if music has represented a medium of expression of the people, there are also great piano geniuses that have died unknown.

But let us make every effort to quote some of the greatest pianists in the world.

Composers of music for movies

  • Hans Zimmer
  • John Williams
  • Yann Tiersen

Great international pianists

  • Martha Argerich
  • Yundi Li
  • Lang Lang
  • Ievgeni Kissin
  • Radu Lupu
  • David Kadouch

All these pianists, alive or dead, were not known in the same musical stream. But they all have one thing in common: to be piano performers.

With the exception of the great jazz pianists, it’s almost impossible to get back into their tracks, you can always have fun reinterpreting Yann Tiersen, Jacques Brel or Renaud, or learn to play Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks.

Good luck !

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