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A Natural History of the Piano
The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians - from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between

Stuart Isacoff

Souvenir Press. £20.00

ISBN 9780285641129

A Natural History of the Piano

A Beggar's Opera performance in London's Covent Garden in 1767 was the first production to feature the new instrument called the Piano Forte. The next year a recital by J.C. Bach marked the piano's London debut as a solo vehicle. At first, only thirty to fifty pianos were made per year. By the mid-eighteenth century pianos, like harpsichords, were fitted with special stops to add exotic colours to the instrument's sound, including janissary, or Turkish military band, effects, such as bass drum, triangle, and cymbals. In 1790 J.S. Broadwood ceased harpsichord production. By 1798 Broadwood could barely keep up with piano production, writing to a wholesaler: “Would to God we could make them like muffins!” “The piano makes a girl sit upright,” wrote one commentator, adding that: “A good play of the piano has not infrequently taken the place of a good cry upstairs.”

Erik Satie, once imprisoned for sending an insulting postcard to a critic, said: “Jazz speaks to us of its suffering and we don't give a damn. That's why it's beautiful, real.” George Gershwin hadn't been sure what to call a new piece until his brother told him about an afternoon spent at an art gallery studying the paintings of J.A.M. Whistler. Ira liked some of Whistler's descriptive titles, such as Nocturne in Black and Gold and Arrangement in Grey and Black (better known as “Whistler's Mother”). Why not a Rhapsody in Blue? he asked George. Rhapsody in Blue set off a chain reaction that can be felt to this day.

A popular aphorism has it that every small American town can claim both a Walmart and a student of Nadia Boulanger's. When he was studying in Paris with Boulanger, Astor Piazzolla was reluctant to admit his involvement in the tango style. Initially he showed Boulanger his symphonies and sonatas, trying to hide the fact that he was a bandoneĆ³n player who performed tangos in cabarets. “I can't find Piazzolla in this,” Boulanger told him. When he played her a tango of his own she exclaimed: “You idiot, that's Piazzolla.”

Stuart Isacoff has given us a diverse overview of the piano, its composers and its players, managing to achieve this without short-changing the jazz side of the story, a rare and welcome achievement. With a selection of delightful photographs - which include a lovely shot of Arthur Rubenstein dancing in the street and Evan Shinners performing from inside a Bechstein at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 - Isacoff has created a most attractive book.

John Robert Brown

Review first published in Classical Music Magazine, Autumn 2012. Used by kind permission. No reproduction without permission.
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