Listen to part of a lecture in a music history class.
Up until now in our discussions and readings about the Baroque early Classical periods, we’ve been talking about the development of musical styles and genre within the relatively narrow social context of its patronage by the upper classes.
Composers, after all, had to earn a living, and those who were employed in the services of a specific patron, well—I don’t have to spell it out for you—the likes and dislikes of that patron—this would have had an effect on what was being composed and performed.
Now, of course, there were many other influences on composers—uh such as the technical advances we’ve seen in the development of some of the instruments—uh you remember, the transverse flute, the clarinet, and so on.
But I think, if I were asked to identify a single crucial development in European music of this time, it would be the invention of the piano… which, interestingly enough, also had a significant effect on European society of that time—and I’ll get to that in a minute.
Now, as we know, keyboard instruments existed long before the piano—the organ, which dates back to the Middle Ages, as do other keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord, which is still popular today with some musicians.
But none of these has had as profound an impact as the piano.
Uh the piano was invented in Italy in 1709.
The word “piano” is short for “pianoforte”, a combination of the Italian words for “soft” and “loud.”
Now, unlike the harpsichord, which came before it, the piano is a percussion instrument.
You see, the harpsichord is actually classified as a string instrument, since pressing a key of a harpsichord causes a tiny quill that’s connected to the key to pluck the strings that are inside the instrument, much the same as a guitar pick plucks the strings of a guitar.
But, pressing the keys of a piano causes tiny felt-covered hammers to strike the strings inside the instrument, like drumsticks striking the head of a drum.
This striking action is why the piano is a percussion instrument instead of a string instrument.
Okay, so why is this so important?
Well, the percussive effect of those little hammers means that the pianist, unlike the harpsichordist, can control the dynamics of the sound—how softly or loudly each note is struck—hence the name pianoforte—“soft and loud.”
Now artistically—for both composers and performers—this was a major turning point.
This brand-new instrument, capable of producing loud and soft tones, greatly expanded the possibilities for conveying emotion.
This capacity for increased expressiveness, in fact, was essential to the Romantic style that dominated nineteenth-century music—uh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Uh, before we get back to the musical impact of this development, I want to take a look at the social impact that I mentioned earlier.
Now, in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, the development of the piano coincided with the growth of the middle class in Western Europe.
Of course, folk music—traditional songs and dances—had always been part of everyday life.
But, as mass-production techniques were refined in the nineteenth century, the price of pianos dropped to the point that a larger proportion of the population could afford to own them.
As pianos became more available, they brought classical music—the music which previously had been composed only for the upper classes—into the lives of the middle-class people as well.
One way in particular that we can see the social impact of this instrument is its role in the lives of women of the time.
Previously, it was uh, quite rare for a woman to perform on anything but maybe a harp, or, or maybe she sang, but suddenly, in the nineteenth century, it became quite acceptable—even, to some extent, almost expected—for a middle-class European woman to be able to play the piano… partly because, among upper-middle-class women, it was a sign of refinement, but it was also an excellent way for some women to earn money—by giving piano lessons.
And some women—those few who had exceptional talent, and the opportunity to develop it—their lives were dramatically affected.
Uh, later we’ll be listening to works by a composer named Robert Schumann, but let’s now talk about his wife, Clara Schumann.
Clara Schumann was born in Germany in 1819.
She grew up surrounded by pianos; her father sold pianos,and both her parents were respected piano teachers.
She learned to play the instrument when she was a small child, and gave her first public recital at age 9.
Clara grew up to become a well-known and respected piano virtuoso—a performer of extraordinary skill—who not only gave concerts across Europe, but also was one of the first important female composers for the instrument.