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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 8

The Piano in 19th-Century Society

by Gilles Cantagrel / May 10, 2004

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We live in an age in which we are surrounded by public music. If you're reading this in a taxi, subway, aeroplane, restaurant, train station, or shop--or even in the street--chances are that Muzak has followed you, whether you wanted it to or not. This banal ambient soundtrack is a very recent phenomenon, the extraordinary advances in music technology over the last 50 years having made such proliferation possible. But how were things before?

Until the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the gap between the aristocratic elite and the rural peasantry was firmly fixed. The former group had their harpsichords and private concerts en salon; the latter group had the fiddle in the evenings and, all too often, the fife and drum in times of war. But as the Industrial Revolution progressed in the 19th century, an educated middle-class arose--first in the urban areas of Britain, and gradually throughout northern Europe--with the means and cultural aspirations to invest in a new form of domestic art: the family piano. Since there were no means to reproduce music automatically, people played.

This new form of cultural consumption included both the public and the private sphere. Concert halls and orchestras were established, as well as new lyrical forms that rejected the mythological allegories so cherished by the ancien régime in favour of historical and sentimental tales that had relevance for a wider audience. These works were practised eagerly by the mothers and daughters of middle-class households, which included pianos as soon they could afford them.

Along with the new instrument came new methods and styles of music. Daring artists like Liszt, Hummel, Moscheles, Alkan, Thalberg, Kalkbrenner, all virtuoso players and composers, paved the way. Their music runs rampant in fantastic evocations of strange landscapes, atmospheres and moods, replete with fine lines of paraphrase or great shards of bravura. But the cost was high--many futile experiments exist alongside great works like Liszt's Années de pèlerinage or the Sonata for piano in B minor.

One method that saw vast improvements, especially in the hands of Liszt, was transcription. We have to recall that techniques of sound reproduction have completely altered our approach to music. Throughout the 19th century, only those who lived in large cities had the chance to hear an orchestra play. Public concerts were mostly small recitals, and the idea of transcribing the compositions of other eras was relatively new. Symphonies and musical societies took decades to grow, and a music aficionado in Paris, Vienna or London might hear the Symphonie pastorale only once in a lifetime. Liszt and other virtuosos devoted themselves to the creation of new scores, transcribing the nine Beethoven symphonies or Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique so they could be played on a piano--and then doing so on stages throughout Europe. Thus private or historical works could be renewed and disseminated in a variety of settings to new audiences.

The new methods also led to an explosive growth in the repertoire of piano works and variations intended for enjoyment in private salons--for dances, small gatherings and family occasions of all kinds. Music publishers raced to keep up with a huge public demand for transcriptions of symphonies, overtures, and operatic arias that could be played on solo or two-player piano, perhaps with violin accompaniment, in a domestic setting. The role of the two-player piano is especially telling--it allowed for much more of the power and richness of orchestral language. And, most of all, this is by definition a social instrument. It became a natural centre-point for conviviality among friends and relations, instruction between master and pupil, playing with a sibling, or flirtation between young adults. The two-player piano was, in sociological terms, the TV room of the 19th century.

In musical terms, it represented the orchestra in miniature. Its keys were the touchstone for teaching a new form of language, moving a party of dinner guests to dance, and delighting listeners with masterpieces that perhaps were written many years and many miles away--works by Beethoven and Schubert, Fauré and Debussy, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. The piano also found itself the centrepiece of a new, fervidly practised chamber music: duos with violin, trios, and quartets to which might be added a group of singers reproducing the popular operatic arias and melodies of the day.

The piano's central role endured right up to the Edwardian era. Thereafter the telegraph, radio and Gramophone began to dominate, since they could provide music that was ready-made--all you needed was electricity. In 1900 alone, five million records were sold. By the 1950s, the players of instruments had become the consumers of recordings. The development of electronics and digitally recorded music has brought us to the present era, in which recorded music is so ubiquitous and easily reproducible that we hardly notice it any more. Except, of course, if you're the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

[Translation: Tim Brierley]

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