Gottfried Silbermann
Gottfried Silbermann was an influential German constructor of keyboard instruments. He built harpsichord
A harpsichord is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It produces sound by plucking a string when a key is pressed.In the narrow sense, "harpsichord" designates only the large wing-shaped instruments in which the strings are perpendicular to the keyboard...

s, clavichord
The clavichord is a European stringed keyboard instrument known from the late Medieval, through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. Historically, it was widely used as a practice instrument and as an aid to composition, not being loud enough for larger performances. The clavichord produces...

s, organ
Organ (music)
The organ , is a keyboard instrument of one or more divisions, each played with its own keyboard operated either with the hands or with the feet. The organ is a relatively old musical instrument in the Western musical tradition, dating from the time of Ctesibius of Alexandria who is credited with...

s, and fortepiano
Fortepiano designates the early version of the piano, from its invention by the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700 up to the early 19th century. It was the instrument for which Haydn, Mozart, and the early Beethoven wrote their piano music...

s; his modern reputation rests mainly on the latter two.


Very little is known about Silbermann's youth. He was born in Kleinbobritzsch (now a part of Frauenstein, Saxony
Frauenstein, Saxony
Frauenstein is a town in the district of Mittelsachsen, in the Free State of Saxony, Germany. It is situated in the eastern Ore Mountains, southeast of Freiberg, and southwest of Dresden.- External links :*

) as the youngest son of the carpenter Michael Silbermann. They moved to the nearby town of Frauenstein in 1685, and it is possible that Gottfried also learnt carpentry there. He moved to Straßburg
-Places:*Strasbourg, a city in Alsace *Straßburg, Austria, in Carinthia*Strasburg, Germany, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania*the former name of Brodnica, became Polish after World War I*Strassburg, the German name for Aiud, Alba...

 in 1702, where he learnt organ construction from his brother and came in touch with the French-Alsatian school of organ construction. He returned to Saxony as a master craftsman in 1710, and opened his own organ workshop in Freiberg
Freiberg, Saxony
Freiberg is a city in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, administrative center of the Mittelsachsen district.-History:The city was founded in 1186, and has been a center of the mining industry in the Ore Mountains for centuries...

 one year later. His second project in Germany was the "Grand Organ" in the Freiberg Cathedral
Freiberg Cathedral
The Freiberg Cathedral or Cathedral of St Mary is a Lutheran church in Freiberg, Saxony. It is called a cathedral in English even though it has never been the seat of a bishop.-History:...

 of St. Mary, finished in 1714. In 1723 he was bestowed the title Königlich Pohlischen und Churfürstlich Sächsischen Hof- und Landorgelmachers ("Honorary Court and State Organ Builder to the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony") by Frederick I. Silbermann died in Dresden
Dresden is the capital city of the Free State of Saxony in Germany. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe, near the Czech border. The Dresden conurbation is part of the Saxon Triangle metropolitan area....

 in 1753, probably as the result of a tin-lead poisoning, while still working on the organ at the Hofkirche.

Silbermann's organs

The organs that Silbermann and his brother Andreas Silbermann
Andreas Silbermann
Andreas Silbermann was a German organ builder, who was involved in the construction of 35 organs, mostly in Alsace...

 built show a clear and distinctive style, both in architecture and in their music qualities. Silbermann never deviated from this style.

Silbermann's ability to earn money with organ construction was remarkable, leading him to uncommon wealth. His economic operation and slow consolidation of his position eventually created a near monopoly. His apprentices had to pledge never to work in Central Germany.

Silbermann's non-negotiable style was not welcome everywhere , an important example of an opponent being Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity...

, who, unlike Silbermann who tuned in meantone temperament
Meantone temperament
Meantone temperament is a musical temperament, which is a system of musical tuning. In general, a meantone is constructed the same way as Pythagorean tuning, as a stack of perfect fifths, but in meantone, each fifth is narrow compared to the ratio 27/12:1 in 12 equal temperament, the opposite of...

, preferred a more flexible tuning.

Silbermann designed and built approximately 50 organs, 29 of which are still in existence in Saxony
The Free State of Saxony is a landlocked state of Germany, contingent with Brandenburg, Saxony Anhalt, Thuringia, Bavaria, the Czech Republic and Poland. It is the tenth-largest German state in area, with of Germany's sixteen states....

, including the organ in the Hofkirche in Dresden. The Hofkirche organ and that of Freiberg Cathedral
Freiberg Cathedral
The Freiberg Cathedral or Cathedral of St Mary is a Lutheran church in Freiberg, Saxony. It is called a cathedral in English even though it has never been the seat of a bishop.-History:...

 are considered his greatest works. The organ in Freiberg Cathedral has three manuals and 41 stops divided between Oberwerk, Hauptwerk, Brustwerk and Pedal. Silbermann's organs are characterised by the use of strong reeds, a broad range of stops, and pipes with a high tin content, which adds a distinctive brightness to the tone.

Silbermann and the piano

Silbermann was also a central figure in the history of the piano
The piano is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It is one of the most popular instruments in the world. Widely used in classical and jazz music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal...

. He transmitted to later builders the crucial ideas of Bartolomeo Cristofori
Bartolomeo Cristofori
Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco was an Italian maker of musical instruments, generally regarded as the inventor of the piano.-Life:...

 (the inventor of the piano), ensuring their survival, and also invented the forerunner of the damper pedal.

Evidence from the Universal-Lexicon
Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon
The Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschafften und Künste is a 68-volume German encyclopedia published by Johann Heinrich Zedler between 1731 and 1754...

of Johann Heinrich Zedler
Johann Heinrich Zedler
Johann Heinrich Zedler was a bookseller and publisher. His most important achievement was the creation of a German encyclopedia, the Grosses Universal-Lexicon ,...

 indicates that Silbermann first built a piano in 1732, only a year after Cristofori's death. Silbermann may have found out about Cristofori's invention as follows. In 1709, Scipione Maffei did research on the newly invented piano, including an interview with Cristofori, and published his findings (with a ringing endorsement of the instrument) in a 1711 Italian journal article. In 1725, this article was translated into German by the Dresden court poet Johann Ulrich König, who was almost certainly a personal acquaintance of Silbermann.

In his mature pianos, Silbermann scrupulously copied the complex action found in Cristofori's last instruments, failing only to produce a correct copy of the back check. Silbermann also copied another ingenious Cristofori invention, the inverted wrest plank (see Bartolomeo Cristofori
Bartolomeo Cristofori
Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco was an Italian maker of musical instruments, generally regarded as the inventor of the piano.-Life:...

 for the function of this device). In other respects (case construction, choice of wood species, string diameters and spacing, keyboard design), Silbermann relied on his own experience as a harpsichord builder.

During the 1740s, King Frederick the Great
Frederick II of Prussia
Frederick II was a King in Prussia and a King of Prussia from the Hohenzollern dynasty. In his role as a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, he was also Elector of Brandenburg. He was in personal union the sovereign prince of the Principality of Neuchâtel...

 of Prussia became acquainted with Silbermann's pianos and bought a number of them (the early 19th century musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel
Johann Nikolaus Forkel
Johann Nikolaus Forkel , was a German musician, musicologist and music theorist.-Biography:...

 claims this number was 15, though Stewart Pollens (reference below) believes this to be "certainly exaggerated"). Two of Silbermann's pianos are still located in Frederick's palaces in Potsdam
Potsdam is the capital city of the German federal state of Brandenburg and part of the Berlin/Brandenburg Metropolitan Region. It is situated on the River Havel, southwest of Berlin city centre....

 today; they stand out for their elegant but plain and sober design amid the elaborate splendor of their surroundings.

The forerunner of the damper pedal

Silbermann invented a device by which the player could lift all of the dampers off the strings, permitting them to vibrate freely, either when struck or sympathetically when other notes were played. This is the function in later pianos of the damper pedal. Silbermann's device was different from the modern damper pedal in two respects. First, it was not actually controlled by a pedal, but rather was a hand stop, which required the player to cease playing on the keys for a moment in order to change the damper configuration. Thus, it was a device for imparting an unusual tonal color to whole passages, rather than a means of nuanced expression as the pedal is today. Second, Silbermann's device was bifurcated, permitting the dampers of the treble and bass sections to be lifted separately. This latter feature has recently been reintroduced to the piano, in the form of the fourth and fifth pedals of pianos made by the Borgato firm; see Innovations in the piano
Innovations in the piano
Piano construction is by now a rather conservative area; most of the technological advances were made by about 1900, and indeed it is possible that some contemporary piano buyers might actually be suspicious of pianos that are made differently from the older kind...


There are at least two possible reasons for why Silbermann invented his damper-lifting mechanism. First, as an organ builder
Organ builder
-Australia:* William Anderson * Australian Pipe Organs Pty Ltd* Robert Cecil Clifton * William Davidson* J.E. Dodd & Sons Gunstar Organ Works* Fincham & Hobday* Geo. Fincham & Son* Alfred Fuller * Peter D.G. Jewkes Pty Ltd...

, he may have favored the idea of providing the player with a variety of tonal colors. The same impulse led German harpsichord builders of the time occasionally to include two-foot (two octaves higher than normal pitch) and sixteen-foot (one octave lower) choirs of strings in their instruments.

In addition, Silbermann had until 1727 built very large hammer dulcimers, called pantaleon
The pantalon was a large variation on the hammered dulcimer, invented by Pantaleon Hebenstreit in the early 18th century and briefly popular in France and Germany.-Description:...

s, on behalf of Pantaleon Hebenstreit, who achieved a sensational career with virtuosic playing on this demanding instrument. The pantaleon, like any other hammered dulcimer, had no dampers and thus created a wash of sound. Silbermann later had a falling out with Hebenstreit and was blocked by a royal writ from building any further pantaleons. Stewart Pollens conjectures that in adding the damper-raising stop to the piano, Silberman may have been attempting to partially circumvent this restriction.

Silbermann and Bach

The 18th century musician Johann Friedrich Agricola
Johann Friedrich Agricola
Johann Friedrich Agricola was a German composer, organist, singer, pedagogue, and writer on music. He sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Flavio Anicio Olibrio.-Biography:...

 tells a story about the relationship of Silbermann, Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity...

, and pianos. After Silbermann had completed two instruments, Agricola says, he showed them to Bach, who replied critically, saying that the tone was weak in the treble and the keys were hard to play. Silbermann was stung and angered by the criticism, but ultimately took it to heart and was able to improve his pianos (exactly how is not known, but it may have been the result of Silbermann's encountering Cristofori's most mature instruments). The improved Silbermann pianos met with Bach's "complete approval" ("völlige Gutheißung"), and indeed a preserved sales voucher dated May 8, 1749 shows that Bach acted as an intermediary for Silbermann in the sale of one of his pianos.

Silbermann's pupils

Silbermann's most important contribution to the piano may have been as the teacher of other builders. His nephew and pupil Johann Andreas Silbermann
Johann Andreas Silbermann
Johann Andreas Silbermann was an 18th century organ-builder, as were his father Andreas Silbermann and his paternal uncle Gottfried Silbermann....

 was the teacher of Johann Andreas Stein
Johann Andreas Stein
Johann Andreas Stein, was an outstanding German maker of keyboard instruments, a central figure in the history of the piano...

, who perfected the so-called "Viennese action", found in the pianos used by Haydn
Joseph Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn , known as Joseph Haydn , was an Austrian composer, one of the most prolific and prominent composers of the Classical period. He is often called the "Father of the Symphony" and "Father of the String Quartet" because of his important contributions to these forms...

, Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , baptismal name Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart , was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music...

, and Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic eras in Western art music, he remains one of the most famous and influential composers of all time.Born in Bonn, then the capital of the Electorate of Cologne and part of...

. Another group of Silbermann pupils were the so-called the "twelve apostles". These builders fled Germany during and after the time of chaos created by the Seven Years' War
Seven Years' War
The Seven Years' War was a global military war between 1756 and 1763, involving most of the great powers of the time and affecting Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines...

 (1756-1763), migrating to England, where economic prosperity was creating new opportunities for instrument builders. The "twelve apostles" included Johannes Zumpe
Johannes Zumpe
Johannes Zumpe was a leading maker of early English square pianos, a form of rectangular piano with a compass of about five octaves. The pianos sounded like mellow harpsichords, and had a damper stop in the left cheek of the case....

, whose invention of an affordable small square piano
Square piano
The square piano is a piano that has horizontal strings arranged diagonally across the rectangular case above the hammers and with the keyboard set in the long side. It is variously attributed to Silbermann and Frederici and was improved by Petzold and Babcock...

 greatly popularized the instrument. They also included Americus Backers
Americus Backers
Americus Backers , sometimes described as the father of the English grand pianoforte style, brought the hammer striking action for keyboard instruments from his master Gottfried Silbermann’s workshop in Freiburg to England in the mid-18th century...

, one of the inventors of the "English action", which was a modified version of the Cristofori action.

Silbermann's role was crucial because, unlike other builders of his day, he refused to compromise on the quality of the action. Cristofori's action was complex and hard to build, leading many builders (e.g. Zumpe) to use instead a simplified, but clumsier action. Through Backers and others, the original conception of a complex but effective action survived. The English action was later modified and improved further by Sébastian Érard and Henri Herz
Henri Herz
Henri Herz was a pianist and composer, Austrian by birth, and French by domicile.Herz was born Heinrich Herz in Vienna...

to yield the action used in all grand pianos today. With the advent of industrial methods of manufacture, it ultimately became economical to include the complex modern action even in inexpensive pianos, thus vindicating Silbermann's original decision.

Silbermann's fame as a builder and teacher was such that for many decades he was regarded as the inventor of the piano; it was only with nineteenth century scholarship that this honor was restored to Cristofori.

External links

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