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The Piano in America: 1890-1940.

The Piano in America, 1890-1940 The piano provides a subtle entry into the value systems of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Craig Roell has combined a study of the piano industry, with all of the production, sales, and advertising figures that anyone might want, with a consideration of the piano as a cultural artifact. He is not the first to take on either task. Arthur Loesser's classic Men, Women, & Pianos: A Social History (1954) superbly told a story that began before the piano even existed and brought it down to about the same ending time as Roell's. Cyril Ehrlich's magisterial The Piano: A History (rev. ed., 1990) begins what is basically an industry study in about 1850 and comes close to the present, with more attention to the piano's technology.

Roell gives himself the advantage in confining his attention to a crucial fifty years in the industry's history that he can present in a detail that those covering longer periods cannot. He draws a much more textured picture of piano advertising and its changes, and he pays more attention to the cooperation between the industry and educational leaders and institutions than any other work of which I am aware. There is space to describe the workings of the most influential companies, especially a finely nuanced account of the Baldwin company and its leaders. Even here, Roell presents not merely facts but also the biographical detail that allows us to see the long shadow of D.H. Baldwin's moral system across the company.

There is, however, a disadvantage in a focus on fifty years of a single industry in a single country. As Roell correctly perceives, everything bears on everything else. Design is connected to values, values to advertising, advertising to sales, sales to administration, administration to production, production to design, and so on in any configuration one might imagine. Even when Roell sets up his history in a series of slightly overlapping time periods, each with its dominating theme, he cannot avoid rerunning material he has dealt with an earlier passages. The result is, unfortunately, an effect less of pleasure at recognizing old friends than of mild monotony at trudging through the same scenery.

The repetitions are not irrelevant to the discussions in which they appear, but perhaps Roell could have found different ways of expressing them the second and third times. The irritation may be mine alone, and others may enjoy his interweavings. But he has certainly quoted too many fatuous speeches delivered at meetings of the National Bureau for the Advancement of Music, and I confess to advancing weariness over his concern about the moral dangers of the consumer culture, as if the values of the Victorian age were a given and departures from them showed that Western culture was on the wane. Roell's initial chapter is an extraordinarily revealing account of the ways in which the American piano industry in 1890 was imbued with Victorian values; later chapters make it seem that he mourns their passing.

Still, he tells the story of an irony. The industry sought to provide American piano buyers with instruments of the highest musical quality, but it fell prey to a consumerism that emphasized quick product turnover, low price, and ease of use. Good pianos were expensive to produce, and annual model changes, made believable for automobiles by real or pretended technological advances, were not an option in an industry that prided itself on old-fashioned craftsmanship to last a lifetime. Cheap pianos were no easier to play than expensive ones, but player pianos, radios, and televisions provided high-quality musical entertainment (or low quality, at the listener's whim) without one's having to endure the ministrations of the local tyrant of the piano lesson. Roell seems to think that the industry might have adapted more effectively to the consumer culture, but at the same time, that the culture's structure undermined the system of values in which the piano functioned and offered it no corresponding place.

A reader curious about the social state of the piano in 1990 might be bemused by examining any current issue of Keyboard magazine and noticing how little reference is made there to keyboard instruments not driven electronically. "The Piano--Symbol of a Past Age" is the title of Roell's Epilogue. As a performing pianist, I wish it were not so; pondering what I perform, I find little evidence to contradict it. But some salient reasons for this probably lie closer to the present than to 1940, and I think Roell has covered only part of the ground. Our superstar culture differs from the one that surrounded, say, Franz Liszt not because Liszt's era did not adulate superstars, but because our electronic means of presenting them (and it is electronic, even when they are present in person) has constructed an immensely more complex set of social and technical institutions than the past one. This circumstance was hardly even adumbrated before the Second World War; perhaps Roell stopped too soon. But he has told an interesting story, and it is no doubt an essential step before the more current episodes can be detailed.

Edwin M. Good is professor of religious studies at Stanford University. In addition to publications in that field, he has written Giraffes, black Dragons, & Other Pianos: A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand, which won the Kinkelday Award of the American Musicological Society in 1983, and several articles on pianos and music. He is presently editing the diary of William Steinway (1835-96), the financial genius of Steinway & Sons in the nineteenth century.
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Author:Good, Edwin M.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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