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John Broadwood Battles Increasing Tension!

The popularity of the piano grew throughout the 1700s. Mozart was soon composing for the German-Viennese version of the instrument. By the century’s end the piano had replaced the plectra instruments in the public’s affections. The development of factory manufacturing, as distinct from workshop production, had reduced prices; ownership of a pianoforte soon became a desirable symbol of respectability.

But as Western music left behind the delicacy of the Baroque and light Classical eras for the more florid & forceful pieces of the Romantic Era, and as composers like Beethoven and Franz Liszt performed in larger halls, requiring richer, louder broadcast from the piano, the next era of pianoforte development was entered in earnest.

Composers and pianists wanted pianos that would reach large audiences with full and rich tone. In order to achieve this, several evolutions had t take place in the pianos components. Hammers, originally pea-sized leather, had to grow in girth and be made of other, more resonant materials (which would, of course, make them heavier, resulting in a harder key pressure.)The strings they struck had to grow from 2 to 3-string unisons across much of the scale, and be made thicker and heavier for more resonant vibration. The thicker the string, the greater the tension pulling on the frame of the piano, so something had to be done to keep the whole instrument from buckling to splinters under the increased tension.

In England, John Broadwood attacked many of these engineering feats, and virtually re-invented the “grand” piano.

First he added a screw-regulator for the repetition, quickening the piano’s touch. He displaced the bass and treble wires across two separate bridges, as seen in modern-day pianos, allowing for more individual tension control over the ever-thickening bass-wires. This layout also allowed for more strings across a smaller area, and by 1794, Broadwood’s pianos boasted a range of over 6 octaves. He also invented a foot pedal to lift the dampers off the strings to provide long sustain, a process formerly activated by pushing a lever with the knee…ouch! These improvements alone allowed Broadwood pianos and England to dominate the new piano industry, and become the piano of choice for expressive composers like Beethoven.

beethoven’s piano small_resize_1

But Broadwood’s most important contribution lie in the strengthening of the piano’s frame. All these increases in hammer-weight, number of strings, string weight and tension, etc. conspired to put frightening demands on the perimeter of the piano.

Like it’s keyboard predecessor, the harpsichord, the early pianos were all strung against a wooden frame. This was fully sufficient to bear the tension and tuning stability of the light string load found in these instruments. But as the string number and tension grew, it threatened to ruin all attempts at stable tuning, at least, and pull apart the entire piano at worst. Throughout the late 1700s, attempts to bolster to frame were made with wooden struts and beams. But by the beginning of the 19th century, the emergence of the industrial revolution brought forth the age of working in iron, and by 1821, the Broadwood Company’s pianos featured 5 iron bars reinforcing the piano’s frame across it’s full stinging scale. France’s Sebastian Erard added the invention of brass string-length terminators called “agraffes” to keep the string properly bearing against the bridges, and from that point onward, the partial or full iron-frame, or “plate” was a fixture in every evolving piano

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