Copyright Piano World 2021 - Theme by ThemeinProgress
MOZART’S CONCERTOS CHANGED the piano’s standing. Before long, the instrument’s inviting tones became a perfect conductor for the erotic current that ɻowed through the arts as the age of Romance took hold, serving the music of dreamy poets like Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760–1812)—the ɹrst to sit with his side to the audience, the better to show his profile)—and thunderous firebrands like Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), who could reduce the delicate, early instrument to splinters. In sheer usefulness, it easily trumped everything that had come before.
As time went on, the piano would also accommodate the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, the edginess of modernism, the spicy inɻections of world music, and the intensity of rock. But the utility of the piano explains only half the story of its success. Its ascendance at the end of the eighteenth century was also a matter of a shifting political and social climate.
The handful of leading craftsmen turning out pianos during that time produced only around thirty to ɹfty of them per annum. But by 1798, piano maker James Shudi Broadwood could barely keep up with demand, writing to a wholesaler, “Would to God we could make them like muɽns!” Five decades later, England had become the center of the piano world, with some two hundred manufacturers; by 1871 the number of pianos in the British Isles was estimated at 400,000. By then, piano fever had become an epidemic.
Why the piano?
Keyboards had long been considered a symbol of prosperity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, harpsichords adorned with beautiful paintings—of Orpheus charming the animals, or of battle scenes on horseback—were choice trophies of a charmed life, and essential accessories in any fine home. As emblems of civilized living, they often sported pithy mottoes as well. “Listen, watch and be silent if you wish to live in peace,” read one wise pronouncement on an instrument built by the famous Ruckers family of Antwerp.
Another, more wistfully philosophic, proclaimed: “I w a s once an ordinary tree, although living I was silent; now, though dead, if I am well played I sound sweetly.”
Sometimes, the message was more pointed: “To take a wife,” declared the decoration on one instrument, “is to sell one’s freedom.” Despite that cynical message, most of these keyboards were intended for the women of the household. Indeed, one of the best sources of income for professional musicians was teaching, especially of aristocracy’s daughters. These were fertile grounds —in more ways than one. Private music lessons were not only lucrative, they also oʃered certain opportunities against which the only defense was parental vigilance. In a satiric report that reveals the pervasiveness of concerns about this danger, a 1754 article in the Connoisseur announced the invention of a “female thermometer” for measuring “the exact temperature of a lady’s passions.”
The device, created by a Mr. Ayscough of Ludgate Hill, consisted of a glass tube ɹlled with a mixture of distilled extracts of lady’s love, maidenhair, and “wax of virgin-bees.” It could supposedly detect the full range of feminine response, from “inviolable modesty” to “abandoned impudence,” and was remarkably accurate, claimed the author, when used at the theater and the opera. Despite this wariness, all authorities agreed that musical training for young women was indispensable.
As an anonymous pamphlet written around 1778 explained, such musical accomplishment was critical so that young ladies could “amuse their own family, and [foster] that domestic comfort they were by Providence designed to promote.”
Those on the prowl for a husband knew that honing their skills at riding, reading, and especially music making oʃered a sure pathway; publications like the inɻuential periodical Godey’s Lady’s Book repeatedly told them so.
Critic Henri Blanchard in France could report in 1847 that
When it came to cultivating musical skills, a keyboard was the medium of choice for good reason. Writer John Essex pointed out in The young ladies’ conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage.
And advice to young wives (1722) that among the various musical instruments, some were “unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a Woman’s Mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion.” (Female “juices” seemed to be of special concern to such authorities. Dr. Edward Clarke, a Victorian-era Bostonian, cautioned the woman of his day against engaging in intellectual activity: too much thinking could place a strain on her energy, he claimed, which she otherwise needed for “the periodical tides of her organization.”)