Cristofori 290

Last month saw 290 years since the death of Bartolomeo Cristofori (4th May 1655 – 27th January 1731), the instrument maker who developed the gravicembalo col piano e forte, or “harpsichord with soft and loud” generally thought of as being the first ‘piano’. As a belated tribute to Cristofori, let us see what relevant things we can find at MusiCB3 and further afield…

Photo of a portrait of Bartolomeo Cristofori. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Cristofori was born in Padua in 1655. Very little is known of his early life. In 1688 he entered the employment of Ferdinando de Medici as Keeper of Instruments, entrusted to look after a large collection of musical instruments at court. Medici court records suggest the existence of a piano built by Cristofori in the collection by 1700. The hammer mechanism of these new instruments allowed for a gradation of volume, unlike the plucked-string mechanism of the harpsichord. This new mechanism was the basic element which would continue through to the fortepianos of Mozart’s time, up to the modern piano of today. For very much more detail, Stuart Pollens’s book Bartolomeo Cristofori and the invention of the piano is available online via iDiscover and a Raven password.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the later ubiquity of the piano, Cristofori’s invention was slow to catch on. An article written in 1711 by Venetian art critic Francesco Maffei suggests that the quiet sound of the instrument, compared to the more strident tones of a harpsichord, might be one reason for this. However, Maffei’s article helped bring more attention to the instrument. Despite this, it is only after Cristofori’s death that any music was written specifically for the piano, so far as is known. In 1732, Lodovico Giustini published 12 Sonate da cimbalo di piano e forte detto volgarmente di martelletti. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can listen to a recording of one of Giustini’s sonatas played on the oldest surviving Cristofori piano, at the MET in New York:

The MET piano is one of three known surviving pianos built by Cristofori. The two others are held at the Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti Musicali in Rome, and the Musikinstrumenten-Museum in Leipzig. The Pendlebury Library holds a facsimile of Giustini’s Twelve pianoforte sonatas, first published in 1732 (Facsimile and modern edition) / XPb.840.70G.S1. Compositions for the piano by Lodovico Giustini are discussed in Rosamond Harding’s article ‘The Earliest Pianoforte Music‘, published in Music and Letters in 1932, which is accessible via iDiscover with a Raven password.

Another video on the MET’s YouTube channel shows a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti being played on the same piano. Queen Barbara of Spain, a keen keyboard player and lifelong patron and pupil of Domenico Scarlatti, had several of Cristofori’s pianos amongst her collection of keyboard instruments, making it possible that some of Scarlatti’s sonatas were written with this new instrument in mind, rather than the harpsichord.

More on Scarlatti and the piano can be found in Eva Badura-Skoda’s book The eighteenth-century fortepiano grand and its patrons from Scarlatti to Beethoven and David Sutherland’s article Domenico Scarlatti and the Florentine Piano.


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