Stringed Keyboard Instruments

First and foremost, Gottfried Silbermann is known as the builder of world-famous organs. Apart from organs, however, he also built more than 200 stringed keyboard instruments. In addition to the popular harpsichords and clavichords widely played in his time, he devoted himself in particular to the continual advancement of the fortepiano – the forerunner of the modern piano – invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori. This new type of keyboard instrument, in which the strings were no longer plucked as in the harpsichord but rather struck with hammers, was still largely undiscovered in Germany at the beginning of the 18th century.

Silbermann devoted many years to improving the action mechanism and had his work assessed by none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. Thus, both Silbermann and Bach played an integral role in the development of the fortepiano and its distribution throughout Germany. Prussian King Frederick the Great (1712 – 1786) acquired several of the innovative Silbermann fortepianos, two of which have survived (found today in Potsdam – Neues Palais and Sanssouci). Yet another instrument is in the collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.

Silbermann also invented a so-called “cembal d’amour”, a clavichord with amplified sonority, whose strings of doubled length were struck at their mid-point. Silbermann also created a pantalon, a hammered dulcimer. Recently, a two-manual harpsichord in Schloss Pillnitz near Dresden has also been attributed to him.

Despite his innovative spirit, Silbermann’s stringed keyboard instruments remain significantly less famous than his organs. For the organ workshop with its many workers, however, the construction of stringed keyboard instruments was an important part of their business, especially in times when few orders were placed.

Left: Fortepiano by Gottfried Silbermann, 1746, in Sanssouci in Potsdam.
Source: Janstoecklin – own image, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Middle and right: Two-manual harpsichord. Freiberg, workshop of Gottfried Silbermann (attributed), around 1740, Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Inv.-Nr. 37413
Photographs: Kunstgewerbemuseum, SKD