From grand to upright to electronic, the piano has undergone a number of reinventions over the past three hundred years as musical tastes and needs have changed. With the start of National Piano Month on September 1, the IDHH would like to explore the history and influence of this versatile instrument on the wide world of music. Most sources point to the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco as the inventor of the early piano. While the exact timeline of Cristofori’s work is murky, he undeniably had mastered the elements of modern piano action and created a piano (the fortepiano) by the early 1700s. While older keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord allowed for either dynamic control over individual notes or access to a loud, resonant sound, Cristofori’s fortepiano was revolutionary because it enabled players’ greater command of the instrument’s expressive tone and volume.
Over the next three centuries, variations in piano shape and design would multiply as renowned composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Frédéric Chopin wrote pieces specifically for the instrument, bringing greater attention and demand for the piano. By the 1860s, the upright piano had become a more practical and accessible musical option for use in private homes, as groups could now listen to simplified piano arrangements of popular music and enjoy an evening of tuneful entertainment together. Further innovations to piano design and construction were developed in the 20th century with the advent of electric and digital instruments, applying the technological advances of the era to the art of music making. Illinois has had its own role in the history of the piano, from William Wallace Kimball’s successful Kimball Piano Company in Chicago, to the numerous talented pianists such as Lillian (Lil) Hardin Armstrong who made Illinois their artistic home and contributed to the vibrant musical culture of the state.
Below are a few of our favorite items featuring the versatility of the piano:
July 21 marks the 120th birthday of Illinois-born, internationally-acclaimed author, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). To celebrate, the IDHH highlights collections that include materials on several Illinois literary giants, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, and Hemingway himself.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is one of the most celebrated U.S. poets, poet laureate of Illinois, and longtime Chicago resident. In 1949, She became the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks has a deep connection to African American history and culture, public life, and academics in Illinois. Throughout her life, Brooks spoke at libraries and campuses throughout the state, as demonstrated below in the photographs from the Lake Forest Academy and Ferry Hall Archives collection and Elgin Community College’s campus history collection. Gwendolyn Brooks came to Ferry Hall in 1969 and Lake Forest Academy in May of 1994 to speak to classes and give a reading of her poems. She visited Elgin Community College in 1995 to speak to high school and college English students. Brooks has perhaps the strongest connection to Illinois Wesleyan University, visiting the campus five times from 1972-1999, receiving an honorary doctorate there in 1973. See materials from her visits to Wesleyan here. See all of material in the IDHH on Brooks here.
Coincidentally, July also marks the death of another of the most celebrated writers in the state and the U.S., Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). Though best known for his poetry, especially his breathtaking naturalist and modernist pieces on urban life in Chicago, he was also a musician, editor, and prose author. One of his three Pulitzers was awarded for a biography on Lincoln. Sandburg was an advocate for civil rights and received an award from the NAACP in 1965. In the photo below from the Chicago History Museum’s Prints and Photographs Collection, Sandburg sits with his biographer, Harry Golden. Sandburg lived most of his life outside of Illinois but occasionally returned to his home state, including a visit to Knox College in 1958. Search all of the materials in the IDHH relating to Sandburg here.
Finally, the remarkable photographs below from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, digitized by the Oak Park Librarycollection in the Illinois Digital Archive, showcase the early life of the author and his family in his hometown, a suburb of Chicago. Hemingway authored more than a dozen novels and short story collections throughout his life, receiving a Pulitzer for The Old Man and the Sea in 1953 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He is pictured below with his siblings, two of whom, Marcelline and Leicester, also became talented writers. Check out all of the IDHH materials on Hemingway here.
The Elgin Community College History collection includes images from Elgin-area Black History Month celebrations often involving prominent figures in African American history and culture. In particular, Tuskegee Airman Andrew Lane met with Larkin High School students for Black History Month in 1994.
The McLean County Historical Society’s collection chronicles African American communities and notable residents as well as Black-owned businesses in the Bloomington-Normal area from the turn of the 20th century through the 1990s. Featured below are, clockwise, beginning in the top right, photos of Ike and Lue Anna Brown Sanders’ Working Men’s Club, Harry Bell’s Tailor Shop, Robert Gaston’s Upper Cut Barbershop and Richard Bell’s amusement park.