Skip to main content

A PIANO COULD BE A LOVESOME THING, GOD WOT, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 7th November 1959

Is the piano dying out, and if not, why not? These questions reverberate about the occiput of any thinking person.

Is there an imperceptible economic factor, such as the shortage of hard wood? We know that the oak is losing ground in Europe. There is more remuneration in planting fir-trees. The fir reaches maturity sooner than the oak, and can be chopped into matches. Twenty matches can be sold in a box marked “average contents forty” for the price of fifty, thus ensuring a very reasonable profit. But does a wood-shortage matter? Can we not have plastic pianos with aluminium frames (if we want pianos at all)?

Or are there domestic factors? There are! Nowadays most of us live in flats, which makes it hard to love one’s neighbour. If the neighbour has a noisy baby, it makes it harder; but babies are not a popular casus belli. That is why some blocks of flats prohibit progeny. Dogs and cats, though protected by public sentimentality, are more easily the subject of neighbourly complaint, for it is slightly less trouble to dispose of them. One merely has them “put down,” saying they had a cold, or were too expensive to keep, or had almost bitten someone. And with dogs one can speedily lose them, for their noses are so clogged with diesel fumes that they can scarcely recognise the scents of their own doggy acquaintance, let alone find their way home should you give them the slip in Fortnum’s. But pianos! They take up so much room, they may not fit up the stairs when you move to a new flat, they are too heavy to lug about when you suspect them of harbouring the worm, they are too loud if you play them, and you are too unskilled, for in a servantless world you have no time from the petty chores of existence for regular practice.

In the nineteenth century, with the din of carriage-wheels on cobbles, of flatulent horses, of men raising their hats to women, of birds singing, of street-vendors’ cries, German bands, prayer-meetings, hurdy-gurdies, monochords, church bells and dinner gongs, the sound of a mere domestic piano was lost in the counterpoint of daily life. Nowadays it is an outrage to our more sequestered souls, it is the prime basis of a neighbour’s complaint. The piano has always been at a disadvantage to the harpsichord for being a better instrument. Thus it cruelly reveals your wooden-ness of touch, your incapacity for co-ordination of the hands, your feckless pedalling, in fact your general lack of musicality. But if you are musical, it rewards you a hundred times more than any other instrument. The poor dear harpsichord is only suitable to those whose appetite is for manual exercise rather than sensuous pleasure and whose audience has some historical rather than musical preoccupation. The piano is the king of instruments, but in these days of republicanism looks like being unseated.

Another disadvantage of the piano is that it provides a gateway to knowledge of a great variety of music. Sooner or later great symphonies, cantatas, operas and quartets are transcribed for piano solo or duet; and it is a shame how well a good player can simulate the instruments of a band. Schumann said of Brahms that he could make it piano sound like a full orchestra,—though he omitted to say of what the orchestra was full. But a wide general knowledge (even of music) is reprehensible, as we all know, for we stigmatise the taste for such knowledge as “eclectic” or “dilettantistic”!

In bygone days the piano duet gave the opportunity for many a gentle flirtation on the double-stool. The touching of hands during passage-work, and the mutual kneeing for control of the pedals was an important ingredient for musicians amorously inclined. But this sort of thing has come to be frowned on. The Puritan spirit which gradually burgeoned throughout the nineteenth century now bids us regard any kind of sensuous pleasure as sinful. A whole-hearted enjoyment of music is as disgusting as is a genuine enjoyment of food or sex. Such things are wrong and nasty. Art can only do us any good if it is long, boring, and painfully depressing. And if Art does not do us any good, we must utterly reject it.

Hence the popular demand for a limitation of the repertoire, and for a mode of making music either unsensuous or downright unpleasing. The limitation is very successfully achieved by gramophone record companies from whom emanate recordings of relatively few works performed by simply innumerable different artistes. In case one should be tempted to strike up an acquaintance with a work, a long disquisition on mainly irrelevant matter is supplied on the disc-sleeve. One must read this during the playing of the record to avoid any direct attention to the music, and ruminate upon it during subsequent playings for the same purpose.

The unpleasing qualities of musical reproduction derive mainly from exaggerated softness, when one would need it louder for a proper appreciation of the music (this is for flat-dwellers), or from excessive loudness when loudness is unnecessary and may dull the ear (this is for non-flat-dwellers). The latter class might prefer to hire at reasonable expense a symphony orchestra to play in their drawing room. But no orchestra avails itself of such a gainful opportunity, for fear they might be expected to cook their own supper on arrival, or worse, to rehearse before arriving, a privation orchestral players will seldom countenance, in case they in turn should be in danger of getting to know a work too well. However, for a much larger expense, a man can get the next best thing,—stereo equipment. He can then mortify himself (and his family and guests) with the discomfort of having to sit all the while in some draughty central place in a room so that the different “speakers” may adequately “beam” on him their deafening fanfaronade.

The LP record is also a boon to the non-puritan and still amorous music-lover, who can relax on a sofa with his maiden during the music, and can forget about it, absolved from the refinements of piano-duet playing. Thus with its pseudo-educational sleeve of chitchat and its invitation to the mis-demeanours of idleness, the gramophone-record has advantages over the piano both of snobbery and snoggery.

So far we have considered reasons why the piano should disappear from the home. The next question is its retreat from the concert platform, a more difficult matter, for we are dealing with not music but mystique.

The public value of the piano is in itself negligible, but the player (or sometimes the composer) is all-important. We see cows congregated at a gateway regularly at the same hour each day: they have been trained to expect a regular milking time. In the same way there are human beings who expect a regular recital of all the works of Chopin once a month. They will moo until they get it. They seem not to care who is playing or how. The password “Chopin” stirs their appetite infallibly.

Alternatively it is the personality of the player that attracts, and in these days more so if he be familiar through TV appearances. Borge and Liberace attract as much as were they Paderewski or Pachmann. One asks oneself if the piano is here much more than a stage property.

But one must not underestimate the ill-effects of TV upon musical education, for it must pander to the common axiom which permits us to like what we know, as long as we do not know too much.

However, the real call to the concert comes from the magic word “concerto.” Everyone likes to see a man battling with the piano as if he were some dauntless St George bearding a monstrous dragon. But they are even better pleased to witness the throwing of a virgin to an arena full of a ravening orchestra. There she sits, treating the piano like some great defensive mechanism, amid the turbulent onslaughts of the band; and we are as delighted to see her come out of her ordeal radiant and unscathed, as if she were a Christian that had tamed a wild lion. The music and the performance are irrelevant. So (actually) is the piano, but until some other more suitable instrument turns up, the piano will have to do.

But let the same radiant virgin try a recital on her own, and she may spend her whole life failing to graduate beyond the Wigmore Hall.

Still, even if the piano eventually succumbs to progress in music-making, which it doubtless will, it may yet serve to enhance our gardens. Nothing looks better than a good big “grand” on the terrace, with the lid up, full of luscious soil, and sprouting with fragrant blooms. I have such a one in my own garden, but am not green-fingered enough to get anything to grow in it. Nevertheless I recommend the piano as an al fresco ornament infinitely superior to the garden gnome.

Peter Tranchell

[The title is a reference to the poem My Garden by Thomas Edward Brown. 1830–1897:

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Fern'd grot—
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not—
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
'Tis very sure God walks in mine.]