T. E. Carhart
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. Published by Vintage 2001.
During the holidays I drove a Ferrari. It wasn’t very easy to find in the labyrinth of São Paulo “Capital”, but we had instructions from the owner about the route to take, and we set off by car in good heart. But, as happens often with those little familiar with São Paulo, we missed a key turning, and felt ourselves getting further and further away from the right place. So we started doing what is always enormous fun – stopping to ask people the way. The variety in accents and clarity in the instructions is always amazing – but you have to try and pick people who look as if they would know your destination, and who won’t mix up right and left! But the third person we asked (at a gas station, which is usually a good choice) sent us comprehensively the wrong way. After we retraced our steps, and still couldn’t get close – we resorted to modern technology and used the mobile phone to call the owner every two street corners.
But finally we reached the atelier, and wound our way past pianos filling every inch of floor space, and a workshop with pianos’ inner guts on workbenches (a surprisingly indecent sight) – to the owner’s inner sanctum. And there, tucked in a corner, woodwork gleaming was the Steinway, a beautifully preserved model K-52 upright. Invited to play, I tried Chopin’s Prelude Op. 45, Schumann’s Arabesque, some Bach. For even a moderate amateur pianist like me, this is like driving a Ferrari. The thrill comes from the sonority of the bass notes, the cleanness and evenness of tone through all the range, the contrasting of loud and soft which is possible…..
How much does this dream cost? One of the extraordinary things about pianos, and Steinways in particular, is that a piano produced 100 years ago may have such quality of materials and workmanship that it is better today than most contemporary similar pianos. So it depends on the particular piano, but in Brazil (for an upright piano in good condition, not a grand) you are talking R$ 20,000 to 30,000. In the United States US$ 15,000 to 25,000 and in the UK say ₤10,000-20,000. Precious…. and fascinating.
The development of the piano
The principle innovations which led to the piano are held to have been invented by an Italian, Bartolomeu Cristofori in about 1700. Up until then keyboard instruments were the clavichord or harpsichord, where the sound is produced by plucking the string. Depressing the key for a note causes a plectrum to twang the string (or strings). Lifting the key makes a damper fall on the string, stifling the sound. The principle limitation of this is that there is little variation possible in the volume of sound.
The major difference of the piano is that there is a felt-covered hammer which strikes the strings when a key is depressed, and the speed of the hammer depends on the force with which the key is played by the finger. Hence the original name pianoforte – which means softloud in Italian. Although the mechanism today is basically the same, perfection of design and materials means that a piano is sensitive to touch, and a good pianist can play not only softly and loudly, but also with different touches to produce different kinds of notes – long and smooth, short and sharp, light or heavy, and so on. (This however, does not get over the basic limitation of the piano, in that you cannot make a note louder while it sounds, or alter its pitch slightly, or alter its timbre, as you can with a violin, or a wind instrument, or the voice. A piano cannot really “sing” in the same way).
The piano was originally made entirely of wood, and gradually became more robust and held its pitch better. By 1800, the principal manufacturers were in Vienna and in London (Broadwood). Viennese pianos produced a softer, pliable tone (as we associate with Haydn and Mozart) while the English pianos were more robust (as in Beethoven’s later Sonatas). Two Frenchmen, Erard and Pleyel spent a period in England, and when the fires of the French Revolution died, returned to Paris, where they produced many important technical innovations, such as the sustaining pedal. Hence many of the subtleties in Chopin’s music!
But piano manufacturers in America too began to produce their innovations – the iron frame to hold the strings (such as in Chickering pianos) and later diagonal cross-stringing of the bass notes (Steinway in 1857).
From the 1850s to the 1900s, the piano was the universal instrument of social entertainment – you could find it in as many places as a television today – homes, schools, hotel foyers, bars, trains…. to get over a lack of pianists, there were pianolas, which got their notes from a roll of paper, the “player” only pedalling to provide the mechanical energy! But pianos were not only musical instruments, they were also often the most important item of furniture in the home, and so some wonderful examples of woodworking and decoration can be found.
With the advent of radio in the 20th Century, then cinema, then television, the importance of the piano for entertainment went into sharp decline in Europe and the US. In the 1920s the USA was still the leading manufacturer, but by the 1970s this post was held by Japan, together with Korea. As from the 1990s, the leading producer has been China – reportedly producing 375,000 pianos in 2006. Today the leading Asian producers Yamaha and Kawai (Japan) Young Chang and Samick (Korea) and Pearl River and Beijing Piano (China) produce not only for their domestic markets, but also export all over the world. Brazil too, has a good manufacturer (Dobbert).
This time, instead of a CD, I want to draw your attention to a book, “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank”. This is an absolutely charming account of the experience of an American amateur pianist in getting to know the owner of an atelier in Paris – and his craft of repairing, buying and selling pianos. Apart from the stories about pianos and people, there is a tremendous amount of history, and threading through it all, a delight with the instrument itself. Pianos are highly individual, and after some use, no two are exactly the same. A given piano may be “right” for one person, but another person may not respond to it. And there is always the possibility of an absolute treasure of an old instrument coming to light, with its impeccable craftsmanship from another era…….