The story of the piano is the story of a superstar. Like most superstars of a certain age, it has had its fair share of face-lifts, and more than its fair share of implants. Unlike the average superstar, however, it has stubbornly refused to be typecast. What, after all, is the piano but the plaything of kings, and the bottle-scarred veteran of cheap saloons and dockland brothels (where Brahms earned his keep as a boy); the tender confidante of well-bred maidens, and a notorious agent of seduction; the fire-breathing dragon of the super-virtuoso, and the infinitely subtle voice of the poet; the very ornament of middle-class respectability, a triumph of industrial technology, a money-spinner in a million, and a victim of mass burnings in the streets (in New Jersey in 1904, the sentence being passed by the annual congress of American piano retailers on all instruments deemed to be "out of date")?
From the 1830s right up to the First World War, concert pianists on both sides of the Atlantic were the pop idols of their day, and their love affairs were the the talk of high society and low. Piano teachers swarmed like ants, and of their even more numerous pupils, nine out of ten would themselves become teachers. Publishers, of course, cleaned up. In the living rooms, salons and parlours of the world, pianos groaned beneath the weight of accumulated sheet music, 90 percent of which has long turned to dust. In the more sophisticated homes, however, that music included some of the greatest ever conceived:
It was for the piano that Mozart wrote his 27 piano concertos, most of which are widely held to be his finest instrumental music; that Beethoven wrote his epoch-making sonatas; that Schubert wrote his beautiful waltzes and impromptus; that Chopin and Liszt wrote music which opened up a whole new world of sound and raised virtuosity to heights never before imagined; that Mendelssohn wrote his "Song Without Words", and that Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf wrote arguably the greatest songs with words ever written. And where would the world of chamber music be without the piano? Without duo sonatas, the piano trios, quartets and quintets of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms, for a start.
And can anyone imagine ragtime and jazz without Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson? Or popular song without Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and his fellow song pluggers in New York's Tin Pan Alley? What would the cinema (and particularly the silent cinema) have been without the piano, or today's pop world without the electronic keyboard? The piano has been at the centre of almost every music development in Western music since the last quarter of the 18th century. It has weathered political and industrial upheaval, world wars and the computer revolution. Yet with the advent of electricity, the gramophone record, the radio and the cinema, there was no shortage of critics who were writing its obituaries.
When we talk of the "piano", however, we are not talking about one instrument, but many. Even today it is still evolving, though now very slowly, but with the potential alliance of the traditional piano and the computer; no one should write it off as having reached the end of the line at last. What began, in the very early 18th century, as a lightweight contraption that could be carried about by a single person has reached its maturity as a gleaming black titan, nine and a half feet in length and weighing more than a ton.
More than any other instrument, the piano has relied for its extraordinary success not only on its musical merits and uses, but on its acceptability as an item of furniture in homes ranging from those of the humblest labourer to the salons and palaces of the unimaginably wealthy. In the case of the former, a fantastic amount of ingenuity and expertise has gone into effectively "shrinking" the piano to the point where there was scarcely a household in the industrialized world that could not accommodate it. At the other extreme, the casework has received if anything even greater attention than the mechanism housed within it. Spouting gargoyles, bow-clenching Cupids, intertwining serpents, flute-playing automata, paintings by some of the best artists of the day, nothing has been considered too much for the adornment of this uniquely potent instrument - potent not only as a musical phenomenon and article of furniture, but as a spur to the imagination and aspiration of many different classes of many different societies, and, hardly less, as a symbol of social and industrial standing. The sheer snobbery (both horrifying and hilarious) that has been lavished on the piano, like the unscrupulousness of its shabbier manufacturers and salesmen, is sometimes breathtaking. So is the astounding inventiveness of some of its more eccentric pioneers, of whom there were more than a few.
Many spirits, then, have inhabited the piano. But the journey, for all its byways, has always been first and foremost a musical one. The star of the show, after all (and we should not forget this) is first, last and always a "musical" instrument.
- this excerpt was taken from The Piano, by Jeremy Siepmann, London: Carlton Books Limited, 1996. Click Here for info on purchasing this book.