In the great courts of Europe, up until the dawn of the 18th century, the even-tempered harpsichord held sway. And then, in Florence, Italy, where so many great ideas were born, there came another. One Bartolomeo Christoferi, working for the Medici family, came up with an amazing idea:
Why not make an instrument with keys attached to hammers that would hit the strings instead of plucking them the way a harpsichord did? That way, you could play softly (piano in Italian) or loud (forte).
Music would never again be quite the same.
The piano has 88 keys attached to 88 hammers hitting several hundred strings, which often are encased in a beautiful lacquered box with a graceful, clef-shaped curve, a shape unique and instantly recognizable anywhere in the world.
The piano is the most formidable of all the instruments, whether holding center stage in a concert hall, or as the grandest piece of furniture in any living room. It commands attention.
As imposing as it is, the piano is the most versatile of the musical instruments, lending its voice to the whole range of human emotion, from stormy passion to barely whispered longing.
A piano is elegant and opulent, or plain and upright - a little something for everyone.
This year, on the 300th anniversary of the piano, the celebrations certainly haven't stopped for a second.
In Washington, a constellation of piano superstars gathered to help the Smithsonian Institution blow out the candles with a television special that will air on PBS in November. At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, there is a yearlong exhibit to celebrate the 300 years of the piano. There, visitors can see - and hear - the piano that was played by virtuoso Franz Liszt.
"In many ways, we can say that Franz Liszt is the prototype of the modern musical superstar," says Patrick Rucker, one of the curators of the "Piano 300" exhibit. "Audiences went wild over his performances," he adds. "Women threw their jewels on the stage, men are said to have wept."
But then there also is Liberace's piano, covered with 600 pounds of Austrian rhinestones, and Duke Ellington's Steinway. There also is a combination piano and sewing table, once thought to be the perfect addition to any young lady's room.
And there is one of three existing pianos made by the inventor of the piano, Bartolomeo Christofori himself. It has only 49 keys, so it's a smaller keyboard than a modern piano, which has 88 keys, explains Rucker, adding, "The case is almost identical to what an Italian harpsichord of 1700 would have looked like. But in fact, the action inside, the moving parts, are the special invention. The key goes down, a hammer rises up and strikes the strings, and then rebouns. So that's what makes the ability of the player to play loud and soft."
Mozart was thrilled with this new instrument and was inspired by it. So were Haydn and Bach and, really, what would Beethoven's music have sounded like without loud and soft?
The piano changed the music, and vice versa. Some of the new designs were destined for obscurity, but not the Steinway concert grand, with its metal frame, ingenious method of stringing, and rich and beautiful sound.
This year, to celebrate the 300th birthday of the piano, the Steinway company has commissioned legendary furniture designer Dakota Jackson (himself a talented amateur pianist) to redesign the piano. He came up with a design called the Tricentennial.
"I took the assignment very seriously," Jackson says. "I thought it was a great honor. I've been approached by other companies,...but the thought that I could actually do one with Steinway!"
Henry Steinway was the fifth generation in his family to go into the piano business. The piano is 300 years old, and Steinway has been a part of it for 10 years.
"I do not really play the piano," he admits. "I'm the shame of the family....All the others play, but not me."
Henry Steinway is retired now, but he still keeps an office in Steinway Hall, right across the street from that other hall - Carnegie. And he is proud of his family history.
At the Steinway piano factory in Queens, N.Y., they make pianos pretty much the way they've been made for 150 years - by hand. Machines could do much of the work, and in some piano factories, they do. But at the Steinway factory, they do things the old-fashioned way. And it pays.
Steinway has become the preeminent piano of the world.
"Absolutely," says Henry Steinway. "We've stuck to one thing,...which is marking the best piano."
Is there some magic in a piano?
"Well, there's magic on so many levels in a piano, I think," says Dakota Jckson. "When someone plays it well, we're all transported.
"Magic is about the illusion of possibility," says Jackson. "The piano just opens up the door to any possibility."
Of course, times have changed since Liszt made the world swoon and Paderewsky thrilled audiences near and far. We have electronic keyboards now, and digital this and that. We can carry around music in the palms of our hand.
What use have we for this 300-year-old technology, this contraption made of wood and metal, hammers and strings? Except that it really is grand, and it opens the door to the heart and soul of music.