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The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians--from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between

by Stuart M. Isacoff

Pub Date: Nov. 17th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26637-8
Publisher: Knopf

The subtitle accurately states the range of this lively, virtually all-inclusive survey of all things pianistic by Piano Today founder Isacoff (Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization, 2001).

The piano supplanted the harpsichord because the action of its hammers on the strings could create sounds both “piano e forte" (soft and loud)—hence the name pianoforte, eventually shortened to piano. Medici protégé Bartolomeo Cristofori came up with the design in the late 17th century, but it was the playing and compositions of Mozart in the 1780s, writes Isacoff, that first made the instrument popular. By the 19th century, a piano was a necessary accessory in middle-class homes across Europe and America, sparking a boom in their manufacture and a flood of touring performers. Isacoff divides the pianists who dazzled the cognoscenti and the masses alike into four categories: the Combustibles, turbulent artists ranging from Beethoven to Jerry Lee Lewis; the Alchemists, atmospheric musicians such as Claude Debussy and jazzman Bill Evans; Rhythmitizers like Fats Waller, who stress the instrument’s percussive qualities; and Melodists from Schubert to Gershwin, who give us the tunes we love to hum. Sidebars on everything from pedal technique to digital pianos further broaden the book’s scope, as do short contributions from celebrity pianists (Emmanuel Ax, Billy Joel). Isacoff also exhaustively surveys the two great pianistic “schools”: the flamboyant Russian style and the more intellectual German approach. Stuffing so much material into a single narrative occasionally leads to a loss of focus, particularly when dealing with composers, none of whom wrote exclusively for the piano. Nonetheless, the author's ability to convey his formidable erudition in the most engaging terms, coupled with his infectious enthusiasm for music of all kinds, make this a charming and highly readable potpourri.

Informative fun for every variety of music lover.