Debate: The most important musical innovation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century

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Gamechangers: The rise of piano
The most important musical innovation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was unquestionably the increasing refinement, development, and popularity of the piano. First invented by Cristofori around 1700 — who single-handedly solved and perfected some of the inherent technical challenges of a hammered keyboard — the piano didn’t really catch on until much later. Mozart didn’t play a piano with hammers until he was 21 and Haydn was in his late forties when he came across the expressive capabilities of the new-fangled Viennese instruments of the 1780s. The two instruments co-existed for a while. In 1774 an English amateur called Thomas Twining compared the two: “If [the pianoforte] has deficits which a good harpsichord has not, it has beauties and delicacies which amply compensate, and which make the harpsichord wonderfully flashy and insipid when played after it. […] There are times when one’s ear calls only for harmony and a pleasant jingle […] but as soon as ever my spirit wakes, as soon as my heartstrings catch the gentlest vibration, I swivel me round incontinently to the pianoforte.” But by the late eighteenth century people “found the scratching of the quill of the harpsichord intolerable, compared with the tone produced by the hammer” (Charles Burney).

Just like any piece of technology, the piano underwent drastic and fluent changes in the early nineteenth century. More and more keys were added. They got louder and more resonant. There were grand pianos for large apartments and rich people and squares and upright pianos for smaller domestic spaces and those less well off. There were pianos with pedals for bells, drums, and for ethereal as well as farty effects (the “bassoon” stop”). There were two basic actions — the so-called “English” action (which ‘pushes’ the hammers) and the “Viennese” action (which ‘flips’ them towards the strings). The action inside your upright or grand is the one that won out in the battle for volume: the “pushing” action.

The piano was the portable music device of the nineteenth century. Whereas today we have MP3 files and CDs, in the nineteenth century people could only apprehend music through live performance. Consequently, operas and symphonies and all kinds of music were transcribed for the piano so they could be studied, enjoyed, and appreciated at home. Most often these arrangements were for four hands. The piano keyboard therefore became the site for many a courtship or seduction as this was the only socially acceptable area in which men and women could be alone in such intimate proximity. Hands and legs often intertwined.
Music was then much more a part of the social fabric than it is today, as everyone could play and sing well enough to make music together. As Leon Plantinga writes, music “was part of the system of signs by which people communicated with each other.” For the last part of the eighteenth century, and for the entirety of the nineteenth, this was focused around this “symbol of both success and sensibility”: the pianoforte.
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This article first appeared in Limelight Magazine in March 2016.

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