The Music of Life

Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano

Bartolomeo Cristofori treasures the quiet. It allows him to coax just the right sounds from the musical instruments he makes. Some of his keyboards can play piano, light and soft, others can make forte notes ring out, strong and loud, but Cristofori longs to create an instrument that can be played both soft and loud. An instrument to capture the music of life.


His talent has caught the attention of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, who wants his court to become the musical center of Italy. The prince brings Cristofori to Florence. The city is full of noise! Tink, tink go the tiny hammers of the goldsmiths. BANG, BANG pound the blacksmiths’ sledgehammers. Could hammers be the key to the new instrument?


In The Music of Life, award-winning biographer Elizabeth Rusch and two-time Caldecott Honor-winning artist Marjorie Priceman tell the inspiring story of the invention of the world’s most popular instrument: the piano.

Illustrations by Marjorie Priceman

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Year Published: April 18, 2017

ISBN-10: 1481444840
ISBN-13: 978-1481444842


~ Junior Library Guild selection ~

~ 2018 Best STEM Trade Book (NSTA-CBC) ~

~ 2018 Texas Topaz Nonfiction Gem ~

~ Orbis Pictus recommended (NCTE) ~

~ New York Public Library Best Book ~

~ Bank Street Best Book of the Year ~


Publishers Weekly, Starred Review


“A spirited, informative tale that will resonate with music aficionados young and old”


Rusch playfully weaves aural imagery throughout this engaging story of how Bartolomeo Cristofori came to invent the piano. Sounds of 17th-century Italian life abound as the instrument maker heads to the Medici court in Florence to work alongside other craftsmen: “Wool beaters thump and looms clatter—clack. Ka-chunk goes the printing press.” The auditory motif continues as dynamics notations headline each spread: a booming “forte (loud)” rises from a noisy harpsichord, while “pianissimo (very soft)” curls across a scene of Cristofori tuning a clavichord. Wanting an instrument that can be played either loudly or softly, he builds the pianoforte, later shortened to piano. Priceman’s bold brushstrokes and vibrant colors add energy and humor; an orange tabby cat, often comically startled awake by music, appears in most scenes. Extensive endnotes include a timeline, comparisons between the original and modern pianos, suggested listening (from Chopin to Tori Amos), and thorough discussion of the sources Rusch used. It’s a spirited, informative tale that will resonate with music aficionados young and old. Ages 4–8.

KIRKUS, Starred Review

“Delightfully energetic, this will inspire young pianists”


A bright, colorful introduction to a beloved instrument. Rusch pairs up with Caldecott honoree Priceman (Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin!, 1995) to produce this biography of the white Italian musician and craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori. In 1688, Fernando de Medici chose Cristofori to build and restore harpsichords and other instruments. Priceman's signature artwork is a perfect match for the words, which emphasize Cristofori's desire for a keyboard instrument capable of the nuance of the violins he hears at the opera and the color he sees in paintings. Banners defining musical terms run across the tops of pages. Throughout are visual and textual cues to the meanings of those terms. One page is headed "pianissimo (very soft)," while the narrative reads, "a hush envelops the room….Feet pad across the room. Cloth rustles. Sand falls silently through an hourglass." Here, soft purple watercolors surround the words, and a sleeping cat curls around the hourglass. Horses "whinny, snort, and stamp as a young prince and his entourage spring from the carriages to the cobblestones" in reflection of "crescendo (becoming louder)." By 1700, Cristofori's new instrument, the pianoforte, is complete. Colorful waves of sound pour out of the opened instrument. Source material for the story is effectively embedded in the pages. 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. (Picture book/biography. 4-8)

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Starred Review

“Priceman’s watercolors are zesty evocations of sound unleashed…anyone with earbuds dangling from her/his head need to listen to the Cristofori story.”


If you are a well-to-do musical enthusiast in the late seventeenth century, and you’re in the market for a new keyboard, your choices are pretty limited. Organs won’t migrate from churches to homes for another two centuries; clavichords play so softly that you won’t be able to entertain your friends; harpsichords are loud, but they lack the dynamic capability of the violin and wind families. If you can hold out for a couple of decades, though, there’s a man in Florence who’s working on the problem—Bartolomeo Cristofori—and his remarkable “pianoforte,” literally a soft-loud keyboard instrument, will take the musical world by storm.


Rusch’s picture-book account of the invention of the “piano” begins with the historical attestation to Cristofori’s birth in Padua, 1655: “Bartolomeo, son of Francesco Christofani and of Luara his wife, was baptized by me, Don Gagliardi his parish priest.” Then she cuts right to the chase. Adult Cristofori (yes, the spelling of his name varies considerably) has become a maker and repairer of fine musical instruments, and his skill catches the eye of Prince Ferdinando de Medici, a talented musician in his own right. Cristofori isn’t initially interested in leaving Padua, but “the prince makes an offer Cristofori can’t refuse,” and the Paduan is now a Florentine with a splendid salary, a well-furnished household, and full reimbursement for all the materials he needs for repairs, tinkering, and invention. Under the prince’s generous patronage, Cristofori turns to solving the problem of keyboard instruments’ dynamics, testing various hammers, strings, and mechanisms that would allow a musician to control volume simply by striking the keys with variable force. Cristofori debuts his “pianoforte,” the prince is delighted, and the public is enchanted. The new instrument is tricky to learn, so it doesn’t catch on immediately. However, when instructions (or perhaps a working model) make it to Germany, Haydn, Mozart, and others of their renown play and compose for the new instrument, and the rest is musical history.


Priceman’s watercolors are zesty evocations of sound unleashed—sunny golds predominate, with curls and coils of primary and secondary colors erupting from instruments, while whooshing banners frame musical directions appropriate to each scene. Touches of humorous exaggeration abound as frustrated keyboardists struggle with their single-volume instruments, opera singers bellow on stage, and grimacing porters lug bulky keyboards from venue to venue. Fluidly rendered figures are always in motion, and the most mundane actions of everyday life are depicted with the grace and spring of a dance.


Rusch supplies an amazing treasure trove of back matter that extends the title’s interest beyond an expected picture-book audience. A timeline of Cristofori’s life and invention, arrayed under a portrait of the inventor reproduced in black and white, recaps the text and adds additional information; notes on three extant Cristofori pianofortes address how each manifests a new phase of his tinkering; “Today’s Piano” compares technical differences between original and modern instruments. These features, along with the bibliography and quotation sources, would be ample addenda for most informational works. But there’s more. The book’s flexibility is significantly augmented by the copiously entitled (with a wink, no doubt) “How the Author Reconstructed Bartolomeo Cristofori’s Life from Primary and Secondary Sources,” in which Rusch shares, spread by spread, insights into her research process and contagious enthusiasm for the quirky resources she encountered. Finally, a playlist of classical and popular pieces engages readers directly in the range and color of the pianoforte/piano over the years, with links to the performances available at the author’s website. Kids taking music lessons or preparing for a school invention fair, teachers looking for high quality STEAM materials, and anyone with earbuds dangling from her/his head need to listen to the Cristofori story.


“Rusch’s latest offering brings the [piano’s] history merrily to the center stage…Fast-paced, lively, and informative, this book will appeal to music lovers as well as a wider audience.”


The modern piano is so ubiquitous, many might take its origin for granted, but Rusch’s latest offering brings the instrument’s history merrily to the center stage. Through extensive research and consultation with replica-instrument makers, Rusch pieces together the story of Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian harpsichord builder with the title of “master instrument maker and tuner.” While Cristofori builds much admired harpsichords, which play loudly, and clavichords with soft tones, he is frustrated that he cannot make an instrument that successfully does both. But while wandering around the city, he’s inspired by the ingenuity of artisans around him to build a wholly new kind of instrument. Priceman’s gouache-and-ink illustrations exuberantly fill all available page space. Musical terms are incorporated into the images to amplify what is happening in the text, and short excerpts from primary sources appear throughout the book to give it historical context. Fast-paced, lively, and informative, this book will appeal to music lovers as well as a wider audience, who may be creatively inspired by these passionate musicians and their instruments.

The Horn Book

“Rusch’s evocative text is underscored by Priceman’s breezy but detailed gouache-and-ink illustrations and the book’s dynamic design, including festive ribbon-shaped banners, labeled with musical terms for volume, which add a near soundtrack to the words….Bravo!”


Readers take a journey to Italy during the closing years of the Renaissance to meet a man whose invention is better known than his name. Hired by Prince Ferdinando de Medici to restore and build musical instruments in Florence, Bartolomeo Cristofori repairs sixteen instruments and builds a couple of spinets, an organ, and six harpsichords from 1690 to 1698. Even with this prodigious output, he dreams of creating a new instrument, one that will produce both the soft sounds of the harpsichord and the loud sounds of the clavichord. Surrounded by the opera, sculpture, and art, he is overwhelmed with “how much can be expressed with stone and paint and bows on strings. If only Cristofori’s keyboard instruments could so fully express the music of life!” With this dream in mind, he creates the first pianoforte, a precursor to today’s piano, in 1700. Rusch’s evocative text is underscored by Priceman’s breezy but detailed gouache-and-ink illustrations and the book’s dynamic design, including festive ribbon-shaped banners, labeled with musical terms for volume, which add a near soundtrack to the words. When Cristofori first arrives in Florence, for example, the banner reads “mezzoforte”; as Hayden (“crescendo”) and Mozart (“molto crescendo”) popularize the pianoforte, the dynamic level increases. Exemplary notes detail both the author’s research process and points of literary license. Additional back matter includes a timeline, further information about the piano and pianoforte, web sources for listening to distinctive piano selections, a bibliography, documentation, and an index. Bravo! betty carter

School Library Journal


“A well-researched, fascinating account of the father of modern-day pianos.”


A well-researched, fascinating account of the father of modern-day pianos. Bartolomeo Cristofori was a talented 17th-century inventor born in Padua, Italy, who loved the light and powerful sounds of the clavichord and the harpsichord. He longed to create an instrument that married both of these kinds of notes. With the patronage of Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, Cristofori was able to spend the rest of his life tinkering away in his quest for what would eventually become the pianoforte. Rusch’s energetic text is paired well with Priceman’s vibrant images, rendered in gouache and ink with bold strokes. Each spread is introduced by a musical term, defined in parentheses, that not only sets up the narrative that will be showcased on those pages but also introduces readers to piano-playing techniques (e.g., forte, pianissimo, crescendo). The curly and bold font used for these headings adds to the dynamic layout of each page and illustrates the lively music that the piano inspires. Quotations from and about Cristofori are peppered throughout. In addition to a detailed time line and source notes, the thorough back matter includes author’s notes on the few updates that have been made since Cristofori’s pianos, where children can find his remaining instruments, a list of classical and modern music pieces that make great use of the piano, and how Rusch was able to reconstruct the inventor’s life from primary and secondary sources.

VERDICT: A strong purchase for music lovers, budding pianists, and large biography and STEAM collections.

–Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal

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