Was the Piano Once Called the Pianoforte?


The piano is an enduring musical instrument in the Western world that was devised in Italy in the early 18th century. Italian harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori is considered to be the inventor of the piano.

Snopes readers asked us if the piano was indeed originally referred to as the pianoforte. We learned that this is correct, and the two words are often interchangeable though piano is the most commonly used term for the instrument today. 

According to piano manufacturer Yamaha, the piano originally looked a lot like the harpsichord, and was developed when Cristofori was unsatisfied by the “lack of control that musicians had over the volume level of the harpsichord.” He then switched out the plucking mechanism of the harpsichord with the hammer. 

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first references to the “piano forte” took place in 1711. The piano was referred to by a few different names back then, notably as an instrument that could be “soft and loud”:

A 1700 inventory of Medici instruments mentions an “arpicimbalo,” i.e., an instrument resembling a harpsichord, “newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori” with hammers and dampers, two keyboards, and a range of four octaves, C–c”’. The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei, in his enthusiastic 1711 description, named Cristofori’s instrument a “gravicembalo col piano, e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte. A contemporary inscription by a Florentine court musician, Federigo Meccoli, notes that the “arpi cimbalo del piano e’ forte” was first made by Cristofori in 1700, giving us a precise birthdate for the piano.

Three of Cristoforo’s pianos survived, with the oldest one at the Met. 

According to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, which presents historically informed performances from Baroque, Classical, and Early Romantic periods of musical history, the terms “pianoforte” and “fortepiano” were interchangeable at the time. They added that the instrument was later referred to as the piano over time:

The name fortepiano derives from the Italian words forte (strong or loud) and piano (soft or level), an indication of the range of sound that could be provided. The terms fortepiano and pianoforte were used interchangeably in the 18th century, although in time the shortened name piano became common.

The instrument evolved into the modern piano during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This evolution occurred, in large part, because of the industrial revolution – which produced the materials and methods needed to create big, solid, heavy instruments. Today, the name fortepiano is generally reserved to designate instruments built according to 18th-century specifications.

The word “pianoforte” is still used, particularly in Italian. 

Given that the modern day piano and the pianoforte had the same origin, but the term piano is more commonly used today, we rate this claim as “True.” 


Sources:

“Bartolomeo Cristofori | Italian Harpsichord Maker.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bartolomeo-Cristofori. Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.

“Fortepiano.” Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale, https://philharmonia.org/learn-and-listen/baroque-instruments/fortepiano/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.

“Pianoforte.” Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/italian-english/pianoforte. Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.

Powers, Wendy. “The Piano: The Pianofortes of Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–., October 2003, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cris/hd_cris.htm. Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.

“The Origins of the Piano:The Story of the Piano’s Invention – Musical Instrument Guide.” Yamaha Corporation, https://www.yamaha.com/en/musical_instrument_guide/piano/structure/. Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.



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