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Ode to the piano

The place, function and history of the piano in society.

Art by Claire Ollivain.

Maybe it’s the social isolation, or that I work in a piano shop, but I’ve been thinking about just how much my life revolves around the piano. My time at home is organised around practice–I’m in my final year of the performance degree at the Conservatorium, so this is somewhat expected. It consumes my waking hours. But even when I am away from it, the piano stands in the corner of the living room, a large brown figure on three legs, dominating the space. 

In a domestic setting, the presence of the piano brings to mind the heroines of Jane Austen novels, practising scales or entertaining guests, or the female subjects of Renoir’s paintings receiving lessons. Playing the piano was considered a necessary part of a young lady’s education (Austen’s heroines play the piano far more than any other instrument). This scene from ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813) summarises the traits of an ‘accomplished’ lady: 

“‘Oh! certainly,’ cried [Bingley’s] faithful assistant, ‘no one can really be esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.’

“‘All this she must possess,’ added Darcy, ‘and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.’”

The rise of the middle class meant that more people had access to music, and having a piano in the home was a sign of economic status. There was also more demand for printed music suitable for amateur musicians–music was no longer exclusive to the aristocracy and emperors’ courts. 

The piano was invented just over three hundred years ago by Bartolomeo Cristofori, a famed instrument maker who moved from Padua to Florence in 1690 to work for the Medici family. It was in Florence in 1700 that he invented the piano, although it took another seventeen years before the design had all the components of the modern piano. European musical life was already familiar with stringed keyboard instruments–clavichords and harpsichords, for instance, were played in private chamber settings for enjoyment and, at other times, used in court orchestras, choirs and opera pits. But by 1700, Cristofori had presented the new piano, or “Archicembalo … di nuova inventione, che fa’ il piano, e il forte” (a harpsichord, of new invention, that plays soft and loud.) Its defining feature? The hammer action.

In the new design, the hammers struck the strings within the piano’s body, allowing the player to control the volume via the force of their playing. This allowed for more expression in the control of the dynamics.  Over time, the range of the piano also expanded, from Cristofori’s four octaves to the seven octaves we have today. The development of a steel frame also gave the piano more power, which allowed for greater physical force when playing but also for more complex, emotionally forceful compositions. 

Vladimir Horowitz, considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time, believed that the strength of the piano lied in its adaptability. He said, “For me, the piano is the orchestra. I don’t like the sound of a piano as a piano. I like to imitate the orchestra — the oboe, the clarinet, the violin and, of course, the singing voice.” 

Alfred Brendel, also a highly renowned pianist, echoed this sentiment in his 2013 book ‘A Pianist’s A-Z’: The piano “serves a purpose,” he wrote; it’s an “instrument of transformation.” 

The piano can be a solo instrument, an entire orchestra, or the accompanying background, all within one instrument. In Anna Goldsworthy’s book ‘Piano Lessons,’ based on her own experiences as a developing young pianist, the teacher says in broken English, “Piano absolutely instrument of imagination, and we can create anything on it.”

For many composers, the piano was absolutely central to their imagination and ability to conceive large ideas. For instance, Stravinsky famously insisted on composing at the piano, and Beethoven’s virtuoso technique and improvisation skills at the piano were indispensable to his composition process. Furthermore, Beethoven was not interested in writing music merely ‘suitable’ for the piano. Rather, he was moved to write pieces that pushed the boundaries of musical forms and challenged his listeners, and often his works were deemed unplayable (though he would respond by declaring that the performer’s technique was inadequate, rather than compromise his ideas). In his piano works from roughly 1800 onward, there is a sense of expansion and innovation in both form and content. At the same time, there were rapid developments being made in the piano, and this is reflected in his compositional output. In his piano sonatas, there is a sense that they were conceived for a much grander orchestration, both in artistic scope and density of ideas. Key examples are his ‘Waldstein’ sonata (1804) and ‘Hammerklavier’ (1818), which in German literally means ‘hammer-piano.’ Although Beethoven’s inner ear allowed him to hear past technological advancements and musical trends, the features of the modern piano–extra notes, new sustain pedal, heavier action and wider dynamic range–certainly triggered his imagination in all parts of his oeuvre. 

In later years, when his deafness began to impair his compositional process, Beethoven sawed off the legs of his piano so that he could feel the vibrations of his compositions, orchestral in scope. Apparently, he would sometimes clench a stick in his teeth and hold it to the keyboard so that he could discern faint sounds through the vibrations of the piano, enabling him to continue composing, particularly in other genres of instrumental music.  Helen Keller (1880-1968), American author, lecturer and activist, was born deaf and blind. In 1924, she ‘heard’ a live recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall by pressing her hands against the radio receiver. The next day, she wrote a letter of gratitude to the New York Symphony Orchestra: 

“…What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. … I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. … Of course, this was not “hearing” but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. … I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.”

In general, Liszt’s compositions for piano exploit the instrument’s capabilities, and the extremes of piano technique. But he also arranged orchestral compositions for the piano, called his ‘transcriptions,’ among them the Beethoven symphonies, as well as his versions of other symphonies, opera excerpts, and songs. There has been a resurgence of interest in Liszt’s transcriptions, sometimes thought to be gimmicky displays of virtuosity. However, pianists of the younger generation are including his transcriptions in their recitals–last year in his New York recital, Behzod Abduraimov opened with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” and ended with Prokofiev’s transcriptions of 10 pieces from his own “Romeo and Juliet” ballet score. The dazzling transcriptions of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” are among pianists’ favourites, too. In performing these pieces, the pianist is not just the conductor but the entire orchestra. The pianist alone is responsible for evoking the woodwind lines, the warm brass sounds, while maintaining the bowed cellos. The textures, inner voices, and overall structure of the piece emerge from just two hands. As a result, the performance is at once both an act of sheer piano virtuosity and a declaration of the piano’s capacity to be one and every instrument. 

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