With its expressive range, sheer physical presence and colossal repertoire, the piano reigns supreme. From Cristofori’s early 18th-century piano prototype to today’s gargantuan Steinway grands, the piano has been a constant presence in the concert hall, pub, jazz club and pop stadium – no other instrument is as versatile or wildly thrilling. Witness Beethoven’s tempestuous sonatas, the boundless colour in Debussy’s preludes and, of course, the technical gauntlets laid down by Liszt’s almost implausibly difficult output.
But it’s the piano world’s great practitioners too that seduce, many of us flocking to see them perform as much as to hear them. From the flamboyance of Paderewski and Martha Argerich to the cool perfection of Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida, there’s a magnetic aura that surrounds a master player.
With Institute français’s recent announcement of 'It's All About Piano', a festival dedicated purely to the piano, we would like to present our special A-Z guide that celebrates the world's most popular instrument.
Words: Jeremy Nicholas
A is for Aliquot and the piano strings
Aliquot? One of the word’s many definitions and uses is ‘a portion of a larger whole’. The quality of a piano’s strings is crucial to the sound and tone of the instrument. Strings are generally made from pure carbon steel, a material that can stand not only extreme tension, but repeated striking by the (felt-coated) hammers. When any piano string vibrates, it produces both tone and overtones. The treble register, with its three short, stiff strings per note, presents a particular challenge. To enhance the tone of these, in 1873, the Blüthner piano company introduced their system of aliquot scaling, where a fourth parallel but unstruck string vibrates in sympathy, increasing the sonority of each note. Steinway’s duplex scaling produces a similar effect.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of BBC Music Magazine