Friday, July 14, 2017

Pianoforte! The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano by Elizabeth Rusch

The Italian city of Padua in the 1600s was filled with sound.

Horses' hooves and wagon wheels clatter down the cobblestone streets and workmen's hammers clang and bang all around. But Prince Ferdinando de Medici is oblivious to the cacophony as he leaps from his fancy carriage. A fine musician, the Prince is eager to hear the two famous musical instruments of Bartolomeo Cristoforo--the clavichord and the harpsichord.

But for Cristofori, the harpsichords and clavichords can only do so much.

The sound of the harpsichord is forte, always LOUD.

The sound of the clavichord is pianissimo, always SOFT.

If only Christoforo's keyboard instrument could fully express the music of life!

But in Italy, where the Renaissance is in full swing, many artists are also scientists, and Bartolomeo is likely the modern world's first mechanical sound engineer. He begins to experiment with the intensity of the sound of his two keyboard instruments. Their sound comes from the plucking of the strings connected to the keyboard, causing the strings inside, parts of a sort of harp lying on its side, to create the musical sounds. How about changing the metal of the strings? Bartolomeo observes materials used by the artisans and builders busy in Padua and tries different types of strings and different materials to strike those strings. He settles on brass strings and small wooden hammers. But will the volume vary when he strikes the keys gently and when he strikes them forcefully? Will the powerful Prince Medici be pleased?

Cristofori's invention, the pianoforte, can be played softly, loudly, and in between. It created the music of life in Padua around the inventor--from singing birds to crashing gongs--and it is an instant hit with the Medici's musician prince, and under its nickname, "the piano," it has been a hit ever since, in Elizabeth Rusch's The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano (Atheneum Books, 2017).

Author Rusch evokes the liveliness of the scene in old Padua with onomatopoeia, sibilant musical terms, and the intensity of the would-be pianist prince in this true story of the creation of the piano, ably assisted by artist Marjorie Priceman, a two-time Caldecott Honor winner, especially known for her hit companion book, Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin (Aladdin Picture Books). Priceman's illustrations flow sinuously throughout the well-designed text from page to page, mirroring the flow of musical sound itself.

This book is perfect for an elementary music teacher's personal class library, lends itself well to a little experimentation with assorted percussive and string instruments, and pairs well with an appropriate piano piece for a pleasantly satisfying literary music lesson. (For some piano and forte playing, hear "Fur Elise," here.)

Adds Kirkus Reviews, "Extensive backmatter further illuminates the text and invites readers to listen to recordings of surviving and replica pianos. Delightfully energetic, this will inspire young pianists."

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