A Coveted Possession review: Michael Atherton's look at the piano in Australia
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A Coveted Possession review: Michael Atherton's look at the piano in Australia

MUSIC

A Coveted Possession: The Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia
Michael Atherton
LaTrobe University Press, $34.99

Michael Atherton's A Coveted Possession traces the socio-cultural history of the piano in Australia

Michael Atherton's A Coveted Possession traces the socio-cultural history of the piano in Australia

Chopin's Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism
Paul Kildea
Allen Lane, $55

Michael Atherton's A Coveted Possession traces the socio-cultural history of the piano in Australia. It is a history that began auspiciously when in 1788 the First Fleet's flagship, HMS Sirius, transported our first piano – a Frederick Beck-made square piano belonging to navy surgeon George Worgan. Miraculously it seems to have survived and is housed at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

A Covted Possession. By Michael Atherton.

A Covted Possession. By Michael Atherton.

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In the 19th century, wealthy settlers and an ever-expanding middle-class continued to import pianos from Europe, mostly from England. The piano represented "enhanced social status" while also providing a nostalgic cultural link to the old country. Many of these fragile instruments failed to survive the long and arduous journey. In one distressing instance, the Romeo, having successfully negotiated its way from Hamburg, sank somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney, its cargo containing 147 pianos.

European wood, however, was not suited to the rugged Australian climate and so it was inevitable that a home-grown piano-manufacturing industry would soon emerge. John Benham, a recently arrived carpenter, built the first Australian piano in Sydney in 1834. Based on an English design, its case was made of sturdier Australian red cedar while its soundboard featured local hoop pine.

Others followed in quick succession. John Williams, William King and Joseph Kilner had all trained with the famed Broadwood and Sons in London, and all successfully transported their craftsmanship here. Kilner later went into partnership with Broadwood-trained piano-tuner Joseph Wilkie, who was not only an excellent tuner, but an astute businessman who was later elected to the Victorian state Parliament.

The industry continued to grow, crossing social boundaries so that by mid-century, pianos were to be found in "goldfields singing tents, pubs and brothels". By the end of the century, Australia had more pianos per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Chopin's Piano. By Paul Kildea.

Chopin's Piano. By Paul Kildea.

The most successful local manufacturer was Octavius Beale, an ambitious and entrepreneurial Irish immigrant who patented several innovative design features, garnering numerous prizes at prestigious international exhibitions. Despite fierce competition from European manufacturers, Beale's company produced 95,000 pianos and both Sydney-based Beale and his Melbourne counterpart, Hugo Wertheim, became household names. Wertheim's pianos often featured ornate carvings featuring local flora and fauna. Australian piano manufacturing was thriving and was a source of national pride.

Not surprisingly the piano featured prominently in early Australian literature, notably in the works of Rolf Boldrewood, Henry Handel Richardson and Henry Lawson. More recently, and in different artistic disciplines, there's been the Academy-award-winning film Shine and Graeme Murphy's piano-focused ballet Grand.

The beginning of the 20th century, however, saw the arrival of the pianola, the gramophone, the wireless and the "talkies", and fewer people were inclined to devote the necessary time to learning the piano. These factors, combined with having to compete with cheaper and now sturdier European imports – there was a protracted and fierce debate over free trade versus protectionism – saw the inevitable decline of both piano sales in general and of the local piano manufacturing industry.

One extensive chapter details the significant role of the "goanna" in both world wars as communal singing boosted morale: "The importance of a piano on a troopship could not be underestimated: anything that could make their lot easier to bear and keep them happy … was organised." But pianos featured elsewhere too: on the battlefields, at camp-fire concerts, in Cheer-Up Huts, and in hospitals for wounded soldiers as an early form of music therapy. Some pianos, against insurmountable odds, were even smuggled into POW camps.

A further chapter has an honour-roll of Australia's greatest (classical) pianists, beginning with the iconoclastic Percy Grainger, followed by sometime film star Eileen Joyce, and the too-soon-lost Noel Mewton-Wood. One curious omission, though, is Leslie Howard, whose 100-CD survey of the music of Franz Liszt represents a unique and stellar achievement in recording history.

Finally, Atherton visits the workshop of Wayne Stuart who almost single-handedly is trying to revive the Australian piano-manufacturing industry.

Now based in Tumut, NSW, Stuart makes aesthetically stunning, handcrafted instruments using Tasmanian Huon pine. They have four pedals (instead of the usual three), and come in models that feature 97, 102 and most recently 108 keys instead of the usual 88. Stuart is an innovator challenging the European hegemony of piano manufacturing and design, and his instruments deserve to be represented in every conservatory and major concert hall in Australia.

A Coveted Possession is a well-researched and lavishly illustrated book. It will interest anyone who has ever played, or enjoyed listening to, the piano.

Paul Kildea's previous book was the much-lauded and somewhat controversial biography Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. Chopin's Piano: A Journey through Romanticism is centred around a single work by the Polish emigré composer Frederic Chopin. The 24 Preludes Opus 28 comprise one of the piano masterworks of the 19th century and a certain mythology has arisen around them, largely due to George Sand's A Winter in Majorca and A History of My Life.

The backstory is that in November 1838, the unwell Chopin together with his companion Amantine Dudevant – nom de plume George Sand – fled the harsh Parisian winter, as well as the prying eyes of Parisian society, seeking warmer climes and privacy and creative inspiration on the Mediterranean island Majorca. In Chopin's Piano Kildea lifts the veil enveloping the preludes, tracing their inspiration (Bach), their composition (partly though not exclusively in Majorca), their performing history, and most interestingly the instruments on which they were composed.

The book's structure neatly mirrors that of the preludes and their initial publication – 24 chapters divided in two parts – and two leitmotifs recur throughout the book.

The first is the preludes themselves. Kildea explores Chopin's painstaking compositional process – an amalgam of "unrestrained improvising" followed by an obsessive working and reworking through of musical ideas. Kildea also seeks to unlock what it is that makes an inspired interpretation of the preludes – a sense of mercurial spontaneity and improvisation being the sine qua non.

Interestingly, while they tend to be heard in recital today played as a complete cycle, Chopin himself never performed the 24 preludes as a whole, and seemingly never intended them to be played as such. Kildea traces Chopin's documented (and all too rare) performances of selected preludes from his Paris years through to the depressingly sad final performances in the last year of his life in London and Scotland.

Subsequent noted interpreters are critiqued: from Russian Anton Rubinstein to Pole Arthur Rubinstein, legendary French pianist Alfred Cortot and finally modern-day Italian Maurizio Pollini, a celebrated winner of the coveted Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Not all are rated favourably. Perhaps the most interesting observations are reserved for the recorded legacy of Chopin's "grand-pupil", the Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski.

The main premise of the book, however, is the Juan Bauza piano on which Chopin composed a large number of the preludes while staying in the mountain village Valldemossa, and while awaiting the delivery of his preferred Pleyel piano from Paris. Kildea traces its history from 1838 – it was perhaps the one and only piano built by the Majorcan Bauza of whom little is known – through to today.

For the remainder of the 19th century, the piano sat unassumingly in the former Carthusian monastery where Chopin and Sand lived during that fateful and unexpectedly harsh Majorcan winter. In 1913 it came into the possession of legendary Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska before being sequestered by the Nazis in 1940. After the war, Landowska, by then living in America, spends considerable effort trying to locate and recover her prized harpsichords as well as the treasured Bauza Chopin piano.

Chopin's Piano is meticulously researched and suavely written. Illustrations are plentiful. It is sure to pique the interest of those curious about the music of Chopin, his artistic milieu, his compositional process, as well as his rich musical legacy and how it has been appropriated and interpreted by various Chopinists throughout the past 180 years.

Glenn Riddle is a pianist and lecturer in keyboard at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.