Music Media Review Print

A Trip Around the World of the Piano

February 20, 2012 - Williamsburg, MA:

Stuart Isacoff, A Natural History of the Piano; The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, ISBN 978-0-307-26637-8, Pp. xvi + 365, $30.00.

Isacoff is a pianist and a writer about music, mostly for The Wall Street Journal these days. The target audience for this book is the lay reader, the music lover who especially likes piano music but doesn’t have much historical background in it or the instrument’s development from the days of its invention around 1700. The main narrative is a capsule summary hitting the major highlights in this history and its slow but steadily increasing dominance of the classical music world, including its greater and greater dominance of the classical recital hall and presence in private homes, as the 19th century progressed, and then the jazz and popular music worlds in the 20th century. He believes it is “the most important instrument ever created” (p. 17), and that is probably correct, although we would be deprived without many others that are equally versatile across musical genres – think the guitar or the double bass, for example – as well; he almost writes an ode or a paean to the piano. The book is essentially a popularization, expansion, and updating of Harold C. Schonberg’s (NY Times writer) The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present Day (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963, Pp. 448), now a half-century old.

This narrative is interrupted regularly and fairly frequently with sidebars, set off from the main text, since this is a book and not a newspaper, by horizontal lines above and below and distinguished from it by the use of a different typeface. Some of these are authored by Isacoff; others are provided by contributors such as composers and famous pianists (who are identified as their authors, with capsule bios of them in an Appendix) with whom he has consulted, some of those being records of conversations and other excerpts from their writings. Their position occurs often, but not always at a logical break in the continuous narrative: occasionally the reader has to either go back and retrieve its thread, or learn to look ahead to what follows the sidebar and perhaps read it first, and then return to the digression. Because he couldn’t weave into his narrative all of the major pianists and pianist-composers, there is a 9–page Appendix of “Supplementary Notes” to cover ones who might otherwise be perceived by many as glaring omissions – Percy Grainger is covered thus, for example. Unavoidably, many individuals are merely named; this is a book, not an encyclopedia.

There are numerous quotes, all clearly attributed, but there is nary a foot- or endnote in sight; neither is there a bibliography. Instead there is an 8-page “Notes on Sources” in the Appendix where the sources are given, and there is an Index following that, so the book can serve somewhat as a reference. Thus, this cannot pass for a scholarly work, but the scholarship is nonetheless there, and I am confident that all the information is accurate and reliable – at least everything about which I know the details is. There are occasional oversights, for example: although Isacoff is very careful to give life dates or birth date for those still living of all the composers and pianists mentioned, he missed the latter for Louis Lortie (b. 1959), and apparently did not catch that Peter Lieberson died in April 2011 during the final editing/proofreading process – the book came out late in 2011 – though some other 2011 deaths are noted.

Isacoff’s style is very pleasant, often colloquial, light, and frequently tinged with bits of humor: he refers to “the cultural exchange known as the Crusades” (p. 26), for example, and in writing of Mozart’s performing for Marie Antoinette, quips: “She didn’t exactly lose her head over his artistry…” (p. 45).  The narrative is filled with anecdotes and tidbits of information that are interesting and entertaining, although some are not specifically related to the piano or pianists, and they are not always told in chronological order, which might be confusing to the reader who is unfamiliar with the territory. Some things are a bit on the gimmicky side, others are like sound bites. The text is amply illustrated with good black & white photos of personalities from all periods, with a few humorous sketches to spice things up, and some occasional illustrative bars of musical score. To help readers comprehend concepts, he uses many analogies throughout the narrative, with painting (p. 88), writing (p. 103), food (p. 117), scents/perfume (p. 129), for example.

In chapter 6, he divides the types of pianists into four categories: “combustibles,” “alchemists,” “rhythmetizers,” and “melodists.” Readers are invited to guess who is the greatest classical music pianist-composer in each category; answers are at the end. The next four chapters are devoted to the pianists in each of those categories, generally treated chronologically. Some pianist-composers overlap, of course, as in every neat over-simplification into categories, but this is an original and interesting perspective. The following chapter takes the reader into other realms, such as religious music. The next three chapters treat pianists who represent different national traditions and offer a sort of genealogy of playing styles: Russians, Germans and their “Close Relations,” and others, including English, Spanish, and Latin American; the French tradition is mostly absent.  The penultimate chapter takes us into technological innovations in post-WW II times, such as electronic instruments, and the final chapter closes the circle and suggests a lengthy future for the instrument in new incarnations and contexts that are not dissimilar to those of the instrument’s beginnings.

Isacoff’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and he weaves an amazing amount of information into the fabric of his tale. If you are one who is easily overwhelmed by ‘tmi’= ‘too much information,’ [Some readers may feel that my reviews fall into this category!] this may quickly overwhelm you. On the other hand, if you, like me, like finding as much information in as few words as possible, then this book is for you. It’s an easy and entertaining read, and the whirlwind guided tour of the world of the piano is a tour de force. Once you have completed this trip, you might want to read the aforementioned Schonberg book which offers more anecdotes and details, with even lengthier quotes, but also without any documentation whatsoever, especially for the late 18th and 19th century pianists. I missed a recommended discography, however, but Schonberg doesn’t give one either.

Answers: “Combustibles” Franz Liszt; “Alchemists” Claude Debussy; “Rhythmetizers” None, these are the jazz greats; “Melodists” Franz Schubert.