My current brush with Bach’s Goldberg Variations has led me deep into the world of hammers, pins, dampers, levers, jacks, strings, regulating screws, pedal boards, lift rails, belly rails, wrest planks, escapements and the common or garden spring. This is the world of the oldfashioned, i.e. not electronic, keyboard.
We’re so used to the external shape of painted harpsichords, shiny black concert grands or knocked about family uprights that few delve inside. We employ special tuners to do that kind of thing and thank goodness for that. I’ve been having a good squint at the inside of my lovely Yamaha 6’ 6” grand. Though I study diagrams and read idiot guides, my piano’s innards remain as mysterious as my car’s. Were I to approach it with a lever and tuning fork, it would be well advised to slap down its lid and twang for help.
How on earth did anybody dream up instruments with such fantastically complicated action? It was not necessity. That's for sure. I mean, there was no music hanging around waiting for a keyboard. Music for the harpsichord followed the introduction of the instrument, the first pieces written down in the early sixteenth century to suit its particular idiosyncrasies. I wonder what it was that inspired Bartolomeo Cristofori to think ‘Hang on! What happens if we hit these strings instead of plucking them?’ Whatever, he certainly set something in motion. After the early eighteenth century, when pianos couldn't quite decide whether they were a species of organ, a species of harpsichord or a musical wrong turning, development was rapid. Pianos went from a giraffe piano
to this high spec, high tech Fazioli in less than two hundred years. The pictures don't tell the whole story, of course. The real story lies in those muddling innards.
Pianos get a raw deal on the historical fame front. We hear about venerable violins because of the violinists who play them: Yehudi Menuhin’s Soil Strad; Paganini’s ‘Il Cannone’ Guarnerius; and of course the Amati played, in a most unlikely way, by Patrick O’Brien’s hero, Jack Aubrey, brought to brilliant filmic life by Russell Crowe in Master and Commander.
We revere both the fiddles and the fiddlers.
Pianos are different. Since they don’t improve with age, once they've done their duty, they’re for the scrapheap. It’s fun to see a reconstruction of Mozart’s Walter piano, pedalboard and all.
It's a thrill to touch a piano played by Chopin who, incidentally, gave piano lessons to Emma Wedgewood, later Mrs. Charles Darwin. But you’d not want to play such an ancient old thing. The history of the piano is the history of the discarded.
Yet the piano is good for dramatic moments. In 1837, Paris was agog with the news that an Italian princess had orchestrated a pianistic duel between legato cantabile Thalberg and animatissimo vigoroso Lizst. The result was declared a draw, something Thalberg gallantly, or perhaps rather drippily, accepted. Since Liszt had labelled him a ‘failed nobleman who makes an even more failed artist’, the evening might have been enlivened by a jolly unpianistic punchup. Not that Liszt needed his fists or a poison pen to inflict damage. During one recital in Vienna, he crippled two grand pianos before the interval.
Rather less dramatically, although possibly more painfully, on 14th December 1921, in London’s Belgrave Square, Paderewski, ‘the most highly paid pianist of all time’* was giving a concert downstairs as my father was born upstairs. My grandmother always maintained that she stifled her cries in deference to the maestro. She couldn’t remember what he was playing, which I considered pretty feeble until I had a baby myself. Perhaps it was Paderewski's own charming minuet, here performed by the great man himself, or this Chopin waltz. I can't get over this performance being recorded in 1917. Hurrah for technology, but a more major hurrah for the piano, without which no house is, in my opinion, ever quite fully furnished.
Hamilton, K. 1998, in The Cambridge Companion to the Piano, ed. David Rowland, p.57