Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Piano Actions

The piano action is made up of thousands of components but its one single purpose is to present the pianist with an even and responsive touch. The repertoire of piano music can be played with so much more confidence and freedom when the pianist knows the full range of dynamic expression is at his fingertips. 

In the early days of piano history, fierce competition fuelled efforts to develop a strong, reliable piano action and to do it with efficient and economic methods of manufacture. The basic design of the piano action today is not significantly different from what it was 120 years ago. For a hundred years, generations of piano makers have been entrusted with a perfect working template.

Action makers in the early 1900s achieved an impressive degree of perfection - all  without the aid of computer technology. Even now, only minor variations in the comparative geometry of actions from different makers distinguish one from the other. Changes now, are restricted mostly to materials and glues. The use of carbon fibre is a most interesting development - clearly, the material's strength, coupled with its weight (or lack of it) opens exciting possibilities for its wider use in the construction of both piano and actions. 

The drawings of some of the early actions by the likes of Schroter (1717), Christofori (1707), and Stein (1780) are only primitive sketches. Very different from what the piano action has become. No doubt, these brave pioneers spent many tense hours thinking up new ideas and alternative ways to transfer the simple movement of the piano key through to the hammer and thus, to the string.

By 1850, Sebastian Erard had developed the piano action to the point of being recognised as more or less, the design used today. Further 'variations on the same theme' were tried, some proved useful, but many came to nothing. Herburger, Schwander, Langer, and Renner were among the best of the many action 'houses'. Actions made by these makers are found in many of the better quality pianos around today.

The recent rise of piano-making in China and the far east, has meant that the Piano Trade is now a truly global affair. It is sad for we nostalgic types in the west, where local piano-building traditions have all but died out, to accept that piano production has shifted almost entirely from the West to the East. This is the stark reality of our contemporary world. Materials are sourced from anywhere on the globe to make the piano a truly multi-national product. Perhaps it is too much to hope that peace and 'harmony' in the world might yet be a happy by-product from the manufacture of pianos!

The Piano World

© Steve Burden

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