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Piano Roles

Piano Roles
Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano
by James Parakilas and Others
New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, c1999
461 pp.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 433-435) and index.

A Valentine to the Piano

Like most conservatory students, I took full-year courses on music literature and music history. Being a piano major, I also studied keyboard history for one year. After three years’ classroom study and a lifetime of informal reading, what could Piano Roles have to offer that would be new? Just about everything! This book is a history of the piano plus all of the interactions that it had with (a) society (class, entertainment, education, leisure time, family structure, other cultural angles); (b) the music industries (sheet music, instrument construction, concerts, instruction, and recording); (c) artistic creation (composing, arranging, performing, rehearsals of ensembles); (d) globalization (i.e., the piano as the cultural ambassador of Europe to the rest of the world);  and (e) the economy (various industries and jobs created, not to mention the introduction of new types of work considered appropriate for single women, such as piano teacher).

Even more than the guitar, the piano changed everything around it even as it was changing in response to the demands placed upon it. In the days before recordings or radio, nothing changed the nature of home entertainment as much as the spread of the piano, and there were few skills more sought after by or expected of a woman in the middle classes than playing the piano. No other instrument allowed families to hear the latest symphonies, the latest dances, or excerpts from the latest operas, thus providing a type of cultural backbone to European countries. In fact, most sheet music sold in the nineteenth century was orchestral transcriptions. This was a new one to me. So was the incredible preponderance of female pianists at that time. One of the essays on these topics is an analysis of the piano in the novels of Jane Austen.

Another interesting story taken up by this book is the role of the piano in the Westernization of Japan. At the beginning of the Meiji period (“Enlightened Rule”, 1868-1912), Japan’s interest in negotiating more favorable treaty terms with Western powers led it to many musical endeavors, but it was the piano that was the spearhead. Japan quickly embraced the piano as a fast route to understanding Western culture. It was also a tool creating cultural environments comfortable to Western guests, not only by providing music but also dance accompaniments. The demand for pianos eventually resulted in the formation of many famous piano manufacturers, including Yamaha.

Other cultural stories include the development and phenomenon of the virtuoso; the piano’s role in jazz; the piano and pianist as symbols in the cinema; and the piano’s role in silent films. There was such a demand for live music – usually satisfied by a piano – to accompany silent films, that a major portion of the sheet music industry before “talkies” was music for films. Entire books were sold that were indexed by terms describing scenes, such as “Chase”, “Romance”, “Tragedy”, etc. Hundreds of pianists supplemented their income – or even supported themselves – in this market. So did many composers, though much of the music was not new. Another now-obsolete source of employment for pianists was working at music stores playing sheet music for customers, which occasionally included singing the numbers.

Another fascinating stream in this history is the development of popular pianos – such as uprights and players – not usually covered in keyboard history texts. The authors also document intriguing variations that did not survive – including some pedals or stops not included on 20th century pianos. Yet another story is that of the “art” pianos – pianos made much more valuable by the works of art embedded in or painted on them. These arose partly as a reaction to the popularization of the piano – as a way of distinguishing the piano as an expensive item.

Most of the chapters are collections of essays and most of these essays are in-depth and display a deep knowledge of the material. This quality is made possible by the contributions of many different writers, and the book is dedicated to their first piano teachers. And it is, in the end, a valentine to the piano, to be enjoyed and joined by the millions of us whose lives have intertwined with the instrument.

Oh – and the illustrations are wonderful! Be sure to read this, either under its original title and subtitle (the ones cited in this review), or the 2nd edition (2002) which is subtitled A New History of the Piano.


-- Stewart Kautsch (more on the author)