Before the last rays of summer settle into the colours of autumn, let me tell you about this wonderful book, my summer holiday read, but equally suitable for the cozy evenings ahead, or for that matter as a Christmas gift.
Indeed, whether you find yourself wanting inspiration for fresh beginnings, a reboot in your piano journey, or simply a brilliant read, Susan Tomes’ The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is poised to perfectly hit the spot and deliver the tonic you are looking for.
It’s a book which very much delivers on the promise of its title, giving a chronological survey of the storied history of the instrument and, more particularly, the development of a glorious repertoire that is surely one of the pinnacles of human achievement.
So let’s take a closer look…
Susan Tomes: The Piano
Susan Tomes is well known as an award-winning concert pianist, both as a soloist and chamber musician. Perhaps best known to many as the pianist who has performed and recorded as a member of Domus and the Florestan Trio, Tomes has also in recent years become increasingly respected as a writer.
Tomes’ previous books Beyond the Notes, A Musician’s Alphabet, Out of Silence, Sleeping in Temples and Speaking the Piano have given a nuanced and welcome insight into the life and work of the touring and recording pianist, and of the committed piano educator, winning her a wide and appreciative readership.
For this new book, Tomes turns her attention more devotedly to the repertoire that she loves to perform, framing her discursive selection of 100 milestone pieces as a fascinating chronology that takes its cue from the 100-part radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects, written and presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor for the BBC, and his book of the same title.
As with all Tomes’ writing, the book can be enjoyed as an extended paean to the piano, and her respectful rapture is equally captured by the gorgeous cover and presentation afforded by publisher Yale University Press, London.
The hardback book has a stitched binding and 400 off-white pages within, spaciously presented and with Adobe’s highly readable Arno Pro font. The content is divided into the following sections, which neatly tell the arc-story of the piano’s development and the impact of its ever-evolving timbral and performance possibilities as an inspiration to the great composers of each age:
- Pre-History: From Harpsichord to Piano
- From Haydn to Schubert: Music for the Developing ‘Fortepiano’
- From Mendelssohn to Dvořák: The Growing Power of the Nineteenth-Century Piano
- From Grieg to Ravel: Into the Twentieth Century
- From Ives to Gubaidulina: ‘Stand Up And Take Your Dissonance Like a Man!’
- The Jazz Influence
- Today’s Piano Styles: Minimalism and Historical Awareness
Spread through these sections fairly evenly, but with an understandable glut in the nineteenth century, Tomes festoons us with her selection of 100 pieces which unpack a history of the piano which is rich in detail, anecdote, insight and personality.
A History in 100 Pieces
A hundred is of course a generous allocation: one which allows for both pleasant meandering and rich diversity, without either being exhaustive or becoming exhausting.
It is of course incredibly unlikely that a similar list produced by a different pianist would have many overlaps with this one, and Tomes’s own personal journey with this music looms large, both in her selections and in the main text, where happily her insights draw from her own abundant experience as well as from the history books.
It is therefore no surprise that many of the pieces Tomes selects are from the chamber and concerto repertoire. A case in point: Mozart is represented by his Sonata for Two Pianos in D major K448, Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat K454, Piano Quartet in G minor K478, Concerto in A major K488 and (the sole solo piece) Rondo in A minor K511.
Such quirky and distinctive selections continue throughout, but through them Tomes shows yet more clearly how the development of the piano was not simply the engine that drove composers to create wondrous solo music, but also how the instrument’s role within collaborative music-making significantly impacted the wider history of music.
Tomes notes with some regret that her list includes only a relatively small number of women composers. It is to her credit that despite her stated frustration, she includes only those she deems deserving of their place: Maria Szymanowska, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Amy Beech, Sofia Gubaidulina, Judith Weir, and a section considering the contribution that some have made to the predominantly male world of jazz piano. A pity that Bacewicz is missing, but Tomes has a broader story to tell, and narrowing down to a finite one hundred must have required considerable discipline!
A Narrative of 100 Parts
Were this book merely a glorified list, it would have value and much interest as such. But of course the selection of pieces is merely the skeleton on which the body of this book is brought to life.
The chapters dealing with each selected piece are generally three to four pages in length, giving them ample space for enjoyable storytelling alongside the broader historical narrative, and for humorous diversion alongside technical analysis.
As such, the book could equally be digested as a single excellent account of its subject, or dipped into for its 100 pithy and highly readable short chapters, which offer a reference work or even object lesson in how to write the most brilliantly engaging programme note.
Personally I have done both, enjoying the book as bedtime reading over a few weeks, as well as dipping back to remind myself of the delicious insights and contextual accounts with which Tomes has populated this fine book. And I cannot recommend highly enough that you do the same.
The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces is quite simply an essential purchase for any piano enthusiast, offering as it does a veritable feast of salient information and insight into the instrument and music which we love so much.
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