I will close this introductory explanation with two remarks, made by the distinguished musician, mechanician, and inventor, Theobald Boehm, of Munich, whose inventions were not limited to the flute which bears his name, but include the initiation of an important change in the modern pianoforte, as made in America and Germany. Of priority of invention he says, in a letter to an English friend, "If it were desirable to analyze all the inventions which have been brought forward, we should find that in scarcely any instance were they the offspring of the brain of a single individual, but that all progress is gradual only; each worker follows in the track of his predecessor, and eventually, perhaps, advances a step beyond him." And concerning the relative value of inventions in musical instruments, it appears, from an essay of his which has been recently published, that he considers improvement in acoustical proportions the chief foundation of the higher or lower degree of perfection in all instruments, their mechanism being but of secondary value.
I will now proceed to recount briefly the history of the pianoforte from the earliest mention of that name, continuing it to our contemporary instruments, as far as they can be said to have entered into the historical domain. It has been my privilege to assist in proving that Bartolommeo Cristofori was, in the first years of the 18th century, the real inventor of the pianoforte, but with a wide knowledge and experience of how long it has taken to make any invention in keyed instruments practicable and successful, I cannot believe that Cristofori was the first to attempt to contrive one. I should rather accept his good and complete instrument as the sum of his own lifelong studies and experiments, added to those of generations before him, which have left no record for us as yet discovered.
The earliest mention of the name pianoforte (piano e forte), applied to a musical instrument, has been recently discovered by Count Valdrighi in documents preserved in the Estense Library, at Modena. It is dated A.D. 1598, and the reference is evidently to an instrument of the spinet or cembalo kind; but how the tone was produced there is no statement, no word to base an inference upon. The name has not been met with again between the Estense document and Scipione Maffei's well-known description, written in 1711, of Cristofori's "gravecembalo col piano e forte." My view of Cristofori's invention allows me to think that the Estense "piano e forte" may have been a hammer cembalo, a very imperfect one, of course. But I admit that the opposite view of forte and piano, contrived by registers of spinet-jacks, is equally tenable.
Bartolommeo Cristofori was a Paduan harpsichord maker, who was invited by Prince Ferdinand dei Medici to Florence, to take charge of the large collection of musical instruments the Prince possessed. At Florence he produced the invention of the pianoforte, in which he was assisted and encouraged by this high-minded, richly-cultivated, and very musical prince. Scipione Maffei tells us that in 1709 Cristofori had completed four of the new instruments, three of them being of the usual harpsichord form, and one of another form, which he leaves undescribed. It is interesting to suppose that Handel may have tried one or more of these four instruments during the stay he made at Florence in 1708. But it is not likely that he was at all impressed with the potentialities of the invention any more than John Sebastian Bach was in after years when he tried the pianofortes of Silbermann.
The sketch of Cristofori's action in Maffei's essay, from which I have had a working model accurately made, shows that in the first instruments the action was not complete, and it may not have been perfected when Prince Ferdinand died in 1713. But there are Cristofori grand pianos preserved at Florence, dated respectively 1720 and 1726, in which an improved construction of action is found, and of this I also exhibit a model. There is much difference between the two. In the second, Cristofori had obtained his escapement with an undivided key, reconciling his depth of touch, or keyfall, with that of the contemporary harpsichord, by driving the escapement lever through the key. He had contrived means for regulating the escapement distance, and had also invented the last essential of a good pianoforte action, the check. I will explain what is meant by escapement and check. When, by a key being put down, the hammer is impelled toward the strings, it is necessary for their sustained vibration that, after impact, the hammer should rebound or escape; or it would, as pianoforte makers say, "block," damping the strings at the moment they should sound.
A dulcimer player gains his elastic blow by the free movement of the wrist. To gain a similarly elastic blow mechanically in his first action, Cristofori cut a notch in the butt of his hammer from which the escapement lever, "linguetta mobile" as he called it--"hopper," as we call it--being centered at the base, moved forward, when the key was put down, to the extent of its radius, and after the delivery of the blow returned to its resting place by the pressure of a spring. The first action gave the blow with more direct force than the second, which had the notch upon what is called the underhammer, but was defective in the absence of any means to regulate the distance of the "go-off," or "escapement" from the string. In the second action, a small check before the hopper is intended to regulate it, but does so imperfectly. The pianoforte had to wait for fifty years for satisfactory regulation of the escapement.
In the first action, the hammer rests in a silken fork, dropping the whole distance of the rise of every blow. The check in the second action, the "paramartello," is next in importance to the escapement. It catches the back part of the hammer at different points of the radius, responding to the amount of force the player has used upon the key. So that in repeated blows, the rise of the hammer is modified, and the notch is nearer to the returning hopper in proportionate degree.