The destiny of one piano reveals changing attitudes about romantic music.
Composer, pianist, and music historian Kildea (Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, 2013, etc.), former artistic director of London’s Wigmore Hall, crafts an engrossing narrative focused on a singular piano on which, in 1838, Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) composed 24 astonishing preludes. Living in Majorca with his lover, George Sand, Chopin found a piano made from local woods by artisan Juan Bauza. “Bauza’s instrument was out of date before it was completed,” writes the author, technologically more primitive than pianos constructed by the respected company Pleyel, in Paris, Chopin’s subsequent instrument of choice. The Bauza piano, Kildea asserts, contributed significantly to the unconventional sound of the Preludes, which garnered little attention when they were published in 1839. Robert Schumann was among the few who noticed, writing a “perplexed though ultimately admiring” review, calling them “ruins, eagle wings, a wild motley of pieces,” poetic, passionate, yet also containing “the morbid, the feverish, the repellent.” Chopin performed selections at private gatherings, eliciting similarly puzzled responses. Kildea offers a close technical and formal analysis of the pieces, concluding that “Chopin really did invent a new genre,” constructing patchworks “from the most brilliant but unexpected juxtapositions.” Suffering from stage fright, Chopin reluctantly gave public concerts; with the Bauza piano left behind in Majorca, he preferred “the soft attack, the hazy harmonics, the fine gradations between dynamics,” and the varying tones in different registers of the Pleyel instruments. Kildea also examines the evolution of piano construction in the 1830s and ’40s, “a Wild West” of experimentation and innovation. By the late 19th century, powerful new pianos, such as those made by the American firm Steinway, proved irresistible to pianists aiming for drama rather than the “thoughtful, intimate communications between composer, performer, and listener initiated by Chopin.” As the author chronicles many pianists’ interpretations of Chopin, Wanda Landowska emerges as an important champion. Besides performing and writing about Chopin’s works, she acquired the Bauza piano, whose later provenance Kildea carefully traces.
A deeply researched, gracefully told music history.