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A History Of The Piano

Jacki Lyden in for Tom Ashbrook

How 88 black-and-white keys changed our history. The untold story of the piano.

Piano player Rolando Luna, of the Cuban band Buena Vista Social Club, practices prior to a concert with Omara Portuondo at the Plaza de Toros Mexico in Mexico City, late Tuesday Nov. 8, 2011. (AP)

Piano player Rolando Luna, of the Cuban band Buena Vista Social Club, practices prior to a concert with Omara Portuondo at the Plaza de Toros Mexico in Mexico City, late Tuesday Nov. 8, 2011. (AP)

It has entertained kings, been pounded out in bawdy halls, enchanted the Medici’s and paupers.  The piano forte was created in Italy in the late 17th century, but what has been created with it is its greatest legacy.

Mozart, in his red coat may have made famous the piano concerto, but Liszt was called a modern Orpheus who played storms, prayers, and songs of triumph.  A new book takes us from earlier centuries to the lightening speed of an Oscar Peterson or Ben Folds.

This hour On Point: a Natural History of the Piano. Here’s Stravinsky:

-Jacki Lyden


Stuart Isacoff, founding editor of the magazine Piano Today and Executive Editor of Sheet Music Magazine. He’s the author of A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians—from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between. You can read and excerpt here.

From The Reading List

Seattle Times “Isacoff’s very inclusive approach is lightened by the style of the book, which will appeal even to those with short attention spans. This “Natural History” is a series of vignettes: historical notes on structural developments of the keyboard, punctuated with often humorous commentary on pianos and concerts by famous practitioners of the instrument.”

Wall Street Journal “It had actually been around since 1700, when Bartolomeo Cristofori, a technician in the employ of Ferdinando de Medici, produced his first working model. But no one before Mozart had brought it to the pinnacle of high art. The composer and instrument turned out to be a perfect match. ”

NPR “The art of the piano is a study in evolution — of both an instrument and of human talent. Among us there have been a rare few whose gifts included the physical dexterity, the innate musicality and the creativity to make the instrument sound brilliant.”


“Basin Street Blues” by Oscar Peterson

Fugue in F-Sharp Minor by J. S. Bach; played by Glenn Gould

Concerto # 20 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Movement # 1 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; played by Murray Perahia

Sonata #3 in F, Movement # 1, “Siciliana” by Lodovico Giustini; played by Andrea Coen

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VDH4GYJMIUFU373W3XUQVD2V4E Patrick

    The most interesting aspect for me was that pianos weren’t always tuned in equal temperament, i.e. that each of the 88 notes are equidistant in tone from the next.  Watch this demonstration of the differences.

  • http://www.webb-firm.com/practice-areas/slip-and-fall Vhien vhien

    Thanks for sharing the link. It’s a very interesting topic, since piano is one of the most popular and most beautifully sound-maker in the music. 

  • Anonymous

    I would add Bill Evans and Horowitz to the short list.

    • Anonymous

      Glenn Gould is the GOD!! :)

  • Dianne Mahany

    Tell me someone can’t tell Jacki Lyden how to pronounce Mozart!  (Whoops–maybe I just heard her say it right–somebody must have told her).  How totally embarrassing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristin.rowe.meche Kristin Rowe Meche

    When I was a child, my parents bought a used baby grand piano at auction. I spent hours lying on the carpet under the piano, listening to Mom play, or just admiring the beauty of the instrument’s construction. I learned to read music sitting at her elbow, waiting to turn the pages. The beauty and majesty of the instrument cannot be matched. The rational laout of the keyboard makes it an ideal instrument for teaching musical theory. Playing it is a joy from the simplest begining level; yet the musical complexity it is capable of delivering never ceases to challenge and delight. I’m enjoying this program, but I can’t wait til it’s over and I can go play!

  • Bolshin

    the evolution of piano making is just as fascinating as the evolution of piano music.   The golden age of Steinway & Sons is the epitome of piano craftmanship, that sadly, is gone today.  While great instruments are still being made, the golden age of piano making in New York and in Germany is bye-gone era. 

  • Marlon

    Thanks for discussing this most fascinating topic.  As a musician who plays a variety of instruments, I feel that the piano allows me to create music in a completely different fashion than a solo instrument.  The piano is the quintessential band-in-a-box that gives one person the ability to play as an ensemble with melodies, harmonies, baselines, and rhythm.  I can sit at the piano and play for hours on end; however, I cannot do the same with my trombone unless there are other musicians.  What a great instrument!

  • Privyet

    In the popular arena, how about mentioning Tori Amos and her Bosendorfer?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Charlie Rose once said to her that she looked as though she was making love to the piano.  Her answer:  Of course, it’s eight feet long.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Jacki, I think you’re showing your ignorance of this topic and your producers have really put together a distracting and ultimately unenlightening show about a fascinating subject. Playing excerpts of some fairly large-scale pieces while trying to continue the discussion ‘over’ it just made it hard to focus on either the music or the discussion. We all know what a piano sounds like, so to give us an out-of-context piece of a Mozart concerto or a Debussy piece tells us nothing. It would have been a lot more interesting, for instance, to hear a bit of a Mozart sonata on the fortepiano, which is really the instrument Mozart knew and composed for, and which differs in significant ways from the modern piano. The author’s classification of pianists is an interesting idea, but you’ve stepped all over it by arbitrarily steering the discussion back to your excerpts. And here we are, three-quarters through the program, and there’s been almost no discussion of the author’s assertion that the piano ‘changed the world’, not just the musical world.

    Oh, well, I guess I’ll just have to read the book!

  • Krista Schmidt

    When I was a little girl and budding pianist, my mother took me and my little sister to a piano concert.  We sat on either side of her and proceeded to whisper our thoughts throughout the performance.  I would tell my mom, “I love how the lady is moving so much as she plays,” and my sister would whisper almost simultaneously, “Why is the lady rocking back and forth?”  

    For the duration of the performance, we whispered contradictory thoughts and opinions to my poor mother caught in the middle.  She still loves to tell that story as an example of how personal reactions to music can be!

    • Philipmarz

      Sorry to be the fly in the ointment, but could it be that your differing reactions had as much, or more, to do with the difference in your ages than in your embryonic musical ‘tastes’?

  • John – Williamstown, VT

    It was too short – thank you to Stuart.  I wanted to hear his comments on Bud Powell  or even McCoy Tyner – the most percussive jazz pianist I’ve ever heard.  I’m glad you got to Fats and Jerry Lee.

    There are so many great players of the ‘orchestra in a box.’

  • Rod Daynes

    I thought I’d add this little “pitch”: Our family music business will celebrate 150 years in 2012. And we are one of the Nation’s oldest Steinway dealers, since 1873. Pianos were shipped to us around Cape Horn to the Port of San Francisco, and then by train (wagon or otherwise) to Salt Lake City. It’s always a joy for me to go to “the store”; the smell of the place, the craftsmanship, and almost invariably, an eleven-year-old prodigy, testing one or another of our Steinway’s. It’s a refuge from the craziness and hurly burly on the outside. Like so many others, the piano is in my blood, and has been since my Great Grandfather began our little business. Thanks for recognizing the piano as the essence, the basis, of our musical world, and thanks for this wonderful show, Jackie!

    • Paul Murphy

      M. Steinert & Sons is a little older, 152 this year and we’re proud to represent Steinway since 1869. We are the second oldest Steinway dealer in the world. The oldest by 14 months is Denton, Cottier & Daniels in Amherst New York.

  • Brett

    This could have been an interesting topic…I’m sorry, I struggle with getting through one of Jackie’s shows; she sounds stiff and scripted, yet she’s not. I have to say, she seems less comfortable with On Point’s format and spontaneous approach than she was when she first started subbing. She sounds like an intern being given her first on-air opportunity. Her learning curve seems to be working in reverse!

    P.S. -Art Tatum! 

  • Lynn

    Okay, what’s up, On Point??  Where’s Tom?  Can you post something on the blog that let’s us know that he’s okay and coming back??

  • Gregg

    I have made a decent living behind a piano for the last 30 years and hold the instrument in reverent awe. Thanks for having this show, unfortunately in my area this segment airs at the same time as the Rep. debate. I’ll definitely listen to the podcast and have been catching a few nuggets along the way. As a big fan of the Romantic era, I appreciated the nod to Chopin. O well, no point really, just wanted to say thanx before this thread disappears. 

  • Ilene

    Love the show. Thanks Jackie.  You were great.  (Ignore the picky people.)  I’m sending the link to my piano restorer+tuner nephew.

  • http://rocketpianosoftware.net/ John Swift

    Hi, Thanks a lot for this nice post!

  • Annocon

    Where’s Tom???????

  • Anonymous

    Being a trained classical pianist, I think this is one of the best piece On Point has done in recent days. I absolutely love this program and I told every one of my student to tune in!!

  • Regorhunt02052

    does anyone remember the comment about victorian era women tearing their favorite maestro’s white glovers apart for souveniers

    • Chorn

      I think it was mentioned in Sacheverell Sitwell’s 1956 biography of Franz Liszt.

  • Greg

    Jackie don’t listen to those piano snobs.  You did a terrific job pulling the best out of Isacoff’s rich knowledge of the piano.  What a great story on the piano that will serve to expand its appreciation throughout my family.

  • http://twitter.com/PlantPowered PlantPoweredLiving

    Wonderful!  Love, Light and Aliveness :-)

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