Monthly Archives: October 2018

Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument that Transformed Music

by Paul Kildea

In the winter of 1838-1839, Frederic Chopin stayed on the island of Majora with George Sand and her two children. Struggling with chronic health issues, a bleak winter, and less-than-ideal musical instruments, Chopin set about composing his 24 preludes. Although he had ordered a fine Pleyel piano to be constructed and shipped to Majora, the instrument did not arrive until late in his stay there. In the interim, he tinkered on the little pianino in the apartment they rented in an old monastery. The pianino was built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza, and though Chopin disliked the limited range and tone, he produced incredible work. His preludes transformed Romatic music and performances, garnering both praise and controversy in an era of artistic and political transition. Later, performer and collector Wanda Landowska acquired this unusual instrument through much persistence. However, when she was forced to flee her home in France due to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Lankowska’s marvelous collection of musical history was scattered. Many of her treasures were reclaimed during reconciliation work and the efforts of the Monuments Men, a division of armed forces tasked with recovering plundered artifacts. However, the Chopin/Bauza pianino has yet to be found.

“Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument that Transformed Music” by Paul Kildea traces the history of one instrument across centuries of political, cultural, and social change. Chopin defied convention in many ways. His style of composition differed from the previous era of names like Bach and Beethoven, but neither did it quite align with the standards of romanticism. His interpretations stretched the limits of what was considered acceptable practice for the day, and though caused criticism in some circles, he also developed a devoted band of followers and students who strictly followed his musical practices. Chopin also defied the limits of nation and country. Polish by birth, Chopin spent much of his adult life composing and performing in France. With the outbreak of World War II and the importance of establishing national identity, Poland, France, and Germany all claimed Chopin’s work as a credit for their own country. Similarly, Wanda Landowska became ensnared in political turmoil in her exile from France during WWII. Landowska found a new home in the United States a carved a niche for herself in the world of music by focusing on early and forgotten instruments, particularly the harpsichord. Both artists broke with convention, partly by choice and partly by force, contributing to growth and legacy in Romantic music.

This book claims to focus on the history and importance of a single piano across decades of musical, political and social change, which sounds very interesting. However, I didn’t get that sense from the book until the final chapter offered a broad overview of all the content covered in the entire book. Instead, this read like a jumbled collection of events from the Western European art scene during the mid-1800s, followed by an extended discussion of the political and social tensions leading up to WWII. When looking back on the book as a whole, this provides a lot of additional context. When reading the book chapter-by-chapter, it feels abstruse and pedantic. I didn’t feel well-versed enough to understand all elements of this book. Though I can think of some people who might enjoy it, it doesn’t seem like it was written with the general populace in mind.

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Kon-Tiki

By Thor Heyerdahl

In 1947, when nobody in the academic world believed it was possible that the South Pacific islands could have been settled from South America, Heyerdahl, who put forth the article that was rejected time and again, decided his only option to prove it was possible was to do it himself. With plenty of conviction and an unrealistically short timeline, Heyerdahl set out to garner funding, material support, and a crew to set out on an unpredictable journey across 4,300 nautical miles using nothing other than ocean currents and wind patterns. Intent on providing it would have been possible centuries earlier, Heyerdahl and his crew cut down enough balsa trees to build a raft in traditional style a cabin large enough for the 6-person crew to sleep in, and a mast, sail, and steering oar as their only means of directing their travel. Putting their fate in the hands of nature, the crew set out from Peru with hopes that the Humboldt current would take them to the South Pacific. Through calm seas, massive storms, and a veritable universe of unknown sea creatures, the crew made landfall on an uninhabited island paradise after 101 days at sea. This book tells the unbelievable journey.

“Kon-Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl is the true story of how a handful of people managed to survive across vast stretches of ocean on nothing more than a bunch of logs tied together with woven ropes. Their singular experience offered them unique opportunities: the first to see species of fish that were unknown before, an acute awareness of the massive expanse of nature, and the technological solitude to an almost unfathomable degree in Western society today. Heyerdahl writes a narrative of the adventures that includes a few particularly notable snippets from the ship log (more accurately called the raft log), but is generally compiled of the adventures of the team, his observations, and some meandering thoughts about the journey. Other than a few densely nautical passages, his writing style is easy and compelling to read. Chapters are broken up according to segments of the journey, starting with the initial conception of the adventures, through planning, all the way until they are taken off the South Pacific islands to be returned to Western society after months of isolation. Although the weight of evidence in recent decades has shown that the South Pacific islands were settled from Asia rather than South America, their journey is nonetheless remarkable and fascinating.

As someone who is highly skeptical of any sea-faring story since reading the supposedly true (but actually fictional) story of “Life of Pi,” I was well into details of how they planned the journey and built the raft before I accepted that this might be a true story. And what a story! Although I skimmed some of the details about what happened astern of the boat and checking the lines beneath the boat, I was absolutely captivated by every aspect of the journey. I highly recommend this book, and might even consider lending you my copy.

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