Keeping time

Piano Roles: three hundred years of life with the piano

James Parakilas et al <em>Yale University

In late 17th-century Florence, Bartolomeo Cristofori created his first arpicembalo con piano e forte (harpsichord with soft and loud). To celebrate the tercentenary of an instrument that, according to George Bernard Shaw, had an impact on music comparable to that of printing on poetry, the music professor and pianist James Parakilas has collaborated with 15 academics to write a history of the pianoforte in relation to the industrial, social and philosophical changes of the past 300 years. The result is a book with a diversity of reference and detail that will inform anyone, be they musicologist, performer, composer, amateur or the musically illi-terate. The multiple authorship works well: each chapter focuses on a particular role of the piano at a particular time and is different in approach to the previous or following chapter. Illustrations em-bellish the pages: drawings, paintings, photographs and cartoons, ranging from the contemplative order of court and family in the 18th century to the intense rage of a schizophrenic murderer being burnt alive at the keyboard (from the 1945 film Hangover Square). This shift from self-effacing accompanist to brazen pianist-hero resulted from changes in design and manufacture that produced a machine capable of a vast dynamic range and sensitivity to touch. The most interesting part of the book is its detailed and succinct treatment of the developments that transformed Cristofori's "harpsichord with hammers" into the modern grand piano.

These mechanical improvements, brought about by external forces such as the industrial revolution, enabled piano playing and performance to achieve pre-eminence. Piano Roles presents the diverse influences with clarity and detailed reference: when London, owing to events such as the migration of German musicians and the rise of the English action, became the major centre of piano production in the late 18th century, the piano-maker John Broadwood produced 500 pianos a year, ten times more than anyone else. By 1870, Britain, the United States, France and Germany produced 85,000 pianos. By 1910, this had increased to 600,000, but then declined over the 20th century with the electronic production and reproduction of sound. Much is made of the irony that the facelessness of the Machine Age should have given rise to an instrument with a dynamic range appropriate for the highly individualistic flamboyance of the pianist-hero, the apotheosis of Romantic self-expression, of which Franz Liszt was the paradigm. The chapter on the pianist-hero is full of memorable hyperbole: his fingers are "ten steel hammers"; the keys "seem to bleed" at the touch of the Magyar, this "Aurora Borealis of musical effulgence" who plays through the chromatic scale of the passions . . . and then passes out. What a shame that recorded sound became possible only in the 20th century.

The virtuosity of Liszt was founded, above all, on demoniacal technique, the words that strike the fear of God into the amateur. Brief accounts are given of the leading technical ogres: Muzio Clementi was the first, spending seven years in Dorset perfecting the speed and accuracy of passages in thirds, sixths and octaves (Mozart called him a "mere machine"). Karl Czerny, another name to torment the amateur, insisted on perfect uniformity and mechanistic regularity, the qualities that were to characterise teaching at the new conservatories. It was here that the standard repertoire evolved, the establishment of a musical canon which elevated composers to the heroic status that persists today.

Ideal for transcriptions, reduced scores, musical dissections, the piano in the 19th century became the sine qua non of composer, teacher and amateur. The principal means of spreading music, it was ubiquitous in public and personal life, as its many appearances in literature and painting testify. All the contributors to Piano Roles draw upon these references, and the result is a wonderful mosaic of the history of the piano and the diverse parts it has played in its 300 years of life. Although it has fallen from its peak, the piano has an enduring capacity to evoke wonder.

This article first appeared in Driving back to happiness

2000-06-05