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.