In Praise of Pianos…

It's impossible to imagine life without the piano. The automobile, the computer and the pizza, maybe, but not the pianoforte. Since its invention in Italy around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a keeper of musical instruments for the Medici, it has become indispensable to our survival as a civilized people. What else, after all, has enriched society in so many different ways?

It's not only a versatile musical instrument but also a striking work of decorative art, a handsome piece of furniture, a complex product that generated a worldwide industry, a status symbol, a prop for Presidents (Harry Truman) and performers (Liberace), a muse for classical composers and Tin Pan Alley songwriters alike and, not to be overlooked, a constant reminder for millions of fledgling pianists that there is more to life than pleasure — namely, practicing.

Over the years, the piano's impact has been as impressive as its size. It has been called "the single great factor in the development of musical art and the dissemination of musical knowledge." During the mid-1800s, it was the embodiment of Victorian attitudes toward music. In the early 1900s, it became a symbol of domestic bliss in the middle-class American home, where "Give us a tune, Sis," was an oft-heard request. Today it continues to command esteem among players and nonplayers all over the world. Everybody who enjoys music (and who doesn't?) loves the piano.

Elaborating on that theme, the National Museum of American History opens a fascinating exhibition on March 9, "Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos." The show features some two dozen historic pianos, including one by Cristofori and the rectangular 1850 Chickering shown above. The exhibition will run through March 4, 2001, at the Smithsonian International Gallery.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.