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GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, Victorian England’s celebrated playwright, was also one of its crustiest music critics. Working under the pseudonym “Corno di Bassetto” (basset horn), he regularly skewered the greatest ɹgures of his day with the same acerbic wit that animated his plays. Of Brahms’s A German Requiem, he wrote, it “could only have come from the establishment of a ɹrst-class undertaker.”
But in his 1894 essay about the “religious” fervor that surrounded the piano, he sounded like a true believer. “Its invention was to music,” he declared, “what the invention of printing was to poetry.” At the time, it must have seemed as though the sky was raining pianos. By the late nineteenth century, they were everywhere. Hundreds of thousands were being sold each year, in a market that was rapidly expanding, with no end in sight. There were many reasons. Citizens with social aspirations saw in the decorous home piano a key to future success. Family-minded folks found it perfect as the emotional hub of a household—in D. H. Lawrence’s poetic description, a shelter for a child, who could sit under the instrument “in the boom of the shaking strings,” while his mother’s ɹngers pressed the little hollows she had worn into the ivories.
More practically, it put the experience of great music close at hand, even works from the magniɹcent symphonic repertoire, which composers like Liszt thoughtfully transcribed for keyboard players. Just a century earlier, a piano had been nearly impossible to ɹnd. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose piano concertos catapulted the instrument to the center of the musical world, never set eyes on one until he toured Germany in the mid-1770s. By then, half his life had passed. And the piano he came upon at that time was seriously inferior to the ones that Shaw experienced: an instrument still in its infancy, little advanced beyond the primitive version that first appeared in Florence some seven decades earlier. Even then it was bound for greatness. The piano gave the musical world something for which it had long clamored: a keyboard that offered unhampered musical expression. Most instruments can bellow or sigh, or produce any volume in between.
A cello can begin a piece faintly, as if from a distance, and gradually inɻate its tones into a surging torrent. But early keyboards could accomplish such changes only through clunky mechanical devices that necessarily interrupted the ɻow of music. They couldn’t simply respond to changing ɹnger pressure, the way a piano does: No matter how hard a harpsichord’s keys are struck, the instrument’s quills pluck their assigned strings at a single, consistent volume, unleashing an unchanging, biting sonority.
The great composer and keyboardist François Couperin, for one, while appreciating the harpsichord’s brilliance, bemoaned that limitation. “I shall always be grateful,” he said, “to those who, by inɹnite art supported by good taste, succeed in making the instrument capable of expression.” The piano (which doesn’t pluck but softly strikes its strings with “hammers” covered in a soft material) was the answer to his plea. By changing the amount of strength she exerts on its keys, a pianist can modulate the instrument’s tones, making its sweet, nuanced shades of sound appear to “sing.” (The tiny clavichord, which strikes its strings with metal “tangents,” had the same ability, but its sound was so diminutive it was impractical as a performance vehicle.)
Despite the need for it, the instrument’s creation, in about 1700, was serendipitous, born of the odd pairing of a little-known instrument maker and a dissolute prince. Its oɽcial father was a keyboard technician named Bartolomeo Cristofori. But it had a godfather in Ferdinando de’ Medici, the Grand Prince of Tuscany. If it hadn’t been for the prince’s love of mechanical gadgets (he collected more than forty clocks, as well as keyboards) or, for that matter, his poor marriage and roving eye, the piano might not have been brought into existence. Ferdinando’s family had ruled Florence since the thirteenth century, producing popes, a bank of unrivaled power, and an astounding number of artworks commissioned from the greatest painters, including Masaccio, Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. Many of Florence’s architectural wonders, including the Uɽzi museum and the Boboli Gardens, were undertaken by the Medicis.
Galileo turned to them as protectors when the church bore down on him, and in gratitude, he named the four largest moons of Jupiter after the Medici children he had tutored. Of course, the family history also included less savory traits. Ferdinando’s shaky marriage was a Medici inheritance: his own mother had ɻed to Paris to escape his father, and when Ferdinando pleaded with her to return, she sent back word that she would rather next meet his father in hell. Such squabbles never interfered with the clan’s talent for lavish display—a quality that Stendhal, the great French writer, suggested was the basis for their ability to rule. They had managed to overcome the Florentines’ “passionate love for liberty and implacable hatred of nobility,” he claimed, only through the overwhelming aesthetic beauty they had fostered. Both sides of the Medici legacy, the beauty and the domestic grief, appeared to have played a role in the story of the piano. It began in the winter of 1688, when Ferdinando, looking for temporary escape from his burdens in Florence and not incidentally hoping for a good time, made his way to Venice for Carnival, the annual bacchanalian romp that made good the ɻoating city’s name, which was taken from Venus, divine goddess of love and seduction. As a rule, what happens in Venice stays in Venice. But travel writer Francis Misson attended the festivities that year, and though he expressed shock at what he found, he eagerly oʃered his readers a metaphorical peephole into the goings-on. The degree of wantonness he witnessed was truly impressive.
“They are not satisɹed with the ordinary libertinism,” he reported of the revelers, noting the universal use of masks to hide everyone’s identity. “The whole city is disguised. Vice and virtue are never so well counterfeited.” Apparently, the prince enjoyed himself thoroughly, and likely met Cristofori on his way back home. The timing was fortuitous. Ferdinando, who was, among other things, a keyboardist and musical connoisseur (Handel composed his opera Rodrigo for the prince’s theater), had recently lost his harpsichord maker and tuner, Antonio Bolgioni, and he needed someone to service his large collection of instruments at his court in Florence. It was probably while passing through Padua that he heard about a talented thirty-three-year-old local instrument builder and technician, Cristofori. When they met, the prince decided to make him an oʃer he couldn’t refuse. “The prince was told that I did not wish to go,” reported Cristofori some years later; “he replied that he would make me want to.” In the end, Ferdinando apparently returned home with two things of signiɹcance: both the future inventor of the piano and the venereal disease that would eventually claim his life.