H is for Pantaleon Hebenstreit: the development of the early piano
The man generally credited with the invention of the pianoforte is Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua (1655-1732), keeper of instruments in the Florentine court of the Medicis. Sometime around 1698-1700 he produced a gravicembalo col piano e forte (‘a harpsichord with soft and loud’) where the downward pressure of a key propelled a hammer upwards against a string. An escapement mechanism enabled the hammer to fall back, after it had struck a string, allowing the string to vibrate.
But the unsung hero in the development of the piano is the exotically named Pantaleon Hebenstreit (1668-1750), a virtuoso dulcimer player born in Eisleben, Germany. Parallel to Cristofori’s invention, in about 1703-4 Hebenstreit built a dulcimer more than nine feet long whose 180 strings were struck with hand-held double-faced hammers, each face covered with a different material enabling the sound to be produced and varied by the player’s touch: a dulcimer that could be played piano or forte. The Pantaleon, as it was called, was a predecessor to the fortepiano (see ‘S’).