A Social History Of The Piano


20120923Michael Goldfarb explores the development and enduring appeal of the piano across social and geographic divides from Austrian aristocracy to the aspiring middle classes of China. Part of the Piano Season on BBC Radio 3.

The piano has always been more than a mere instrument. It doesn't hide away in a case, because the case is what makes it as much a piece of furniture as an instrument. It can be orchestra, accompanist, soloist and backing band, always maintaining, through the regimented keyboard and pristine mechanism, a sense of precision and decorum.

And as Michael Goldfarb discovers, throughout its development, from its origins in Italy and Austria to its astonishing success in 21st century China it has been making a making a mark way beyond the niche world of the professional musician. Michael talks to people who play, work on, fettle and sell these most expensive of instruments and gets a sense of their place in the aspiring societies of 19th century Europe, 20th century America and Asia and modern China.

Is there such a figure as a 'piano person?' What keeps the sales of these space-consuming instruments going and what impact has the movement Eastwards had on the cultures who have now taken the piano to their heart? Is it really, as many parents would have their offspring believe, the key to intellectual and artistic stimulation in later life? Michael visits piano showrooms, workshops, museums and, with due reverence - a piano knackers yard - to come to a greater understanding of an instrument that many thought wouldn't survive the onslaught of modernity.

And all the time he measures the story against his own fondness for an instrument that his Uncle Morty introduced him to and which he still cherishes in his North London home on Piano Road, a place amidst the ghosts of what was once the heart of London's, and therefore the world's, piano making business.