Magazine article The Spectator

All You Need to Know -- and a Great Deal More

Magazine article The Spectator

All You Need to Know -- and a Great Deal More

Article excerpt

PIANO ROLES: THREE HUNDRED YEARS OF LIFE WITH THE PIANO

by James Parakilas and others Yale, L26, pp. 461

Except by those who hope to be mentioned, an index should always be consulted before a word of the book is read. Whatever the game is, the index gives it away. A highly scholarly book about the piano, solemn to the point of hilarity, which lists Hugh Hudson and Ingmar Bergman and Perry Como (twice), but not once Francis Poulenc or Alfred Brendel or Glenn Gould? With 32 references to Women but none to Men? Giving nine lines to Broadwood several columns before writing off Steinway in only eight? It all seems quite scandalous, this heady mixture of nicely academic omission and excess, but at least the reviewer knows he's in for a feast. How about the poor starving reader?

At first glance the book is with stiff elegance composed in wooden prose and, like a piano, heavy enough to consitute an item of furniture in any room of decent size. It is physically easy to read only if pinned back on a music stand, and even then inner sides of the print disappear deep into the gutter. Sitting on my desk, it keeps shutting on my fingers like a piano lid in a Marx Brothers (one reference) film. It is literally unreadable without the use of force, thanks to Nancy Ovedovitz, whose design favours the pictures, which are supremely well selected, a social summary for the eye of a cultural history of the ear. `The piano,' says one of the authors, of whom there are 15, `has always exhibited a unique power to act as a cultural go-between, as a medium through which social spheres that stood in opposition to each other could nonetheless nourish each other.' The point is well put, if boringly, as in a seminar.

Thus far the critical tone of this notice springs from a lifelong desire to out the piano teacher of my boyhood. I need review only two habits of his. One was to ask me whether I thought the quavers I was missing out were `fly-shit', which trained me to attribute unforced errors by Horovitz (not mentioned) to flies. His other habit (unmentionable) was to finger my own flies during lessons, my revulsion at which put me off ever trying to follow Lipatti (unreferred to) into his chosen profession. Nonetheless, the heart of this more and more absorbing book does associate the instrument with sex.

It seems Jane Austen ruthlessly used the piano in her novels as `a means of seduction'. Her pages, and these, are sultrily haunted by men leaning over women at the keyboard. Holman Hunt is painting lascivious lips and a male hand fingering the bass notes on one page, while Cezanne's brushstrokes are gloating over his wife on the next. …

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