The fortepiano is the earliest version of the modern piano. It was developed by a Italian harpsichord-maker named Bartolomeo Christofori, who was employed by the Medici family of Florence. Christofori seems to have produced the first of these instruments before 1700, and he continued to develop his great invention over many years.
Unlike the earlier harpsichord, the strings of the fortepiano were struck instead of plucked. The leather-covered hammers produced a sound whose volume could be varied depending upon how the keys were played. Christofori’s hammer mechanism was a brilliant innovation, one that would have a tremendous impact on music.
The fortepiano grew increasingly popular, ultimately displacing the harpsichord. The instrument’s octave range expanded, and continuing innovations provided damper mechanisms to sustain sound. Hand and knee pedals – rather than the foot pedals of a modern piano – were among these early enhancements.
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.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote for the fortepiano, and his personal instrument is preserved in Salzburg, Austria. Beethoven’s practices changed with his instrument – he composed for the 18th-century fortepiano during his early career, and later for versions of the modern piano.