Like most of the best inventions, the piano we see today is the product of a long and laboured line of developments, fuelled by three centuries of enterprising individuals dedicated to solving problems.
The piano’s roots can be traced right back to the harpsichord, which was invented in Italy around 1500. The structure of the harpsichord resembles the piano, except, unlike a piano, where the strings are hit with small hammers, the strings of the harpsichord are plucked with a small plectrum.
The first official piano was invented two centuries later in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who had the job of looking after the harpsichords in the Florentine court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici. Cristofori wasn’t happy with the lack of control musicians had over the volume of the harpsichord, so he swapped the plucking mechanism for a hammer, making it possible for the player to play both softly and loudly.
The very first piano is born
And voilà, the first piano was born in 1709! It wasn’t known as a piano at the time though – it was called the “clavicembalo col piano e forte”, which translates to a harpsichord that can play soft and loud noises. Unsurprisingly, it was soon shortened to the shorter name we know today. At first, the piano was only accessible to aristocrats, but it gradually started to overtake the harpsichord in popularity.
Over the following 150 years, the piano rapidly evolved. The first model had only 49 notes, covering four octaves – which was good enough for Bach, but by the time Mozart came on the scene, it had progressed to five octaves. Beethoven had 73 notes and six octaves by the time the 19th century rolled around. But up until this point, players like Beethoven would break pianos when playing them on stage, simply because it couldn’t withstand the pressure of being played so powerfully.
A piano powerful enough to holds its own
The piano was soon on its way to becoming powerful enough to hold its own in a full orchestra. It was becoming sturdier, with higher string tension and tonal control that allowed players to play more expressively and at different volumes. During the mid-1800s, upright pianos started replacing square pianos, and strings went from running horizontally along the keyboard to a vertical position.
Now, pianos players are spoiled, with seven octaves and 88 notes – and the piano’s louder sound has led to the development of stronger cases with metal plates, so they can withstand reverberation. The typical design we see today has become standardised over the last century, with few fundamental changes.
A scientist’s approach to building pianos
In 1975, our founder, Mr Norman, a physicist and concert piano tuner, took it upon himself to handcraft his own pianos, breaking the mould of tradition and leading with innovation. He went on to engineer some of the world’s finest-sounding instruments, rivalling even the biggest names in pianos.
That curiosity to continually push the boundaries of what’s possible remained one of our core values, and in 2008, Edelweiss was born—the evolution of this heritage instrument and the first dedicated, self-playing piano with full audio.
A very different instrument today
It was perfect timing. In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in digital pianos, where the pace of innovation is rapidly speeding up. The most recent development is the self-playing piano we’re so proudly leading the industry with. Bringing music to life with live piano accompaniment; it’s quite an achievement for an instrument that once used to fall apart under the player’s fingers.
At Edelweiss, we blend the traditional with the modern. Beautiful real instruments, classic design and state-of-the-art, self-playing technology. A click of the dedicated iPod—featuring music from Bach to Bruno Mars—wakes an invisible virtuoso, filling the room with breathtakingly sonorous live music.
Want to see, listen or play one for yourself? Get in touch here. Or visit our exclusive showroom in Harrods, or our workshop in Cambridge. We’d love to see you there!