The Piano as Vessel of Hope and Fear

The piano was at the center not only of the nineteenth-century drawing room, but of the home itself, literally anchoring the bourgeois family to its dwelling. To recognize this fact you simply had to look at the instrument’s legs: fluted, scrolled, or otherwise ornamented, they had to have the strength of Atlas simply to hold up the hulking thing with its heavy internal frame and gleaming case of rosewood, ebony or mahogany—tropical woods harvested to near extinction for the purposes of clothing these musical beasts of the parlor. No wonder that nowadays pianos inherited down the generations often get pitched into the dump rather than transported to the next luxury loft or McMansion.

The piano was the heaviest and most costly possession among household effects, a symbol of stability and refinement. As the nineteenth century wore on uprights were churned out in increasing number for those with upwardly mobile aspiration or a love of music—or both. Grand pianos got bulkier, the far end bulging out like the bustles worn by the fine ladies who played them. In contrast to early pianos that retained the slim contours of the harpsichord, the butt of the late-century grand had to be biggy-sized in order to accommodate the cross-stringing that allowed the bass strings to be longer and therefore louder. Now thunderous in the lower register, it was also less clear.

Around the time of the Civil War, as industrial production across the north was spurred by military expenditure, Steinway in New York manufactured the first “modern” piano that had a single metal plate which made the entire structure as sturdy as an ironclad gunboat of the Federal navy. The piano was now even more of an impediment to mobility: if you owned a big grand you had arrived—and you weren’t about to move.

The piano not only moored the family to its place, but also brought its members together, binding them to one another in diverse ways: there were lessons for the children; soirées musicales for friends and family; moments of domestic devotion; and four-hand romps through marches and exotic dances from the distant reaches of Europe and beyond. The piano elicited the tears to be shed for departures on voyages beyond the seas or to the life everlasting. The family piano consoled and united. In a word, the piano was the entertainment center of the nineteenth century. Like the vast acreage of the flat screens of today, and the even more vast ones of tomorrow, the piano kept on getting larger.

The increasing dimensions of its size and sound allowed for the incursion of piano sonatas and chamber music into the concert hall. In the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century the piano was brought out for concertos in large public venues, but never for sonatas or trios: these were considered fare to be consumed only in the salon. But when chamber music entered concert culture, the piano had to become louder to fill ever-larger halls. String instruments, too, had to respond to the imperialistic advance of the piano’s decibel-count: the violin was eventually kitted out with metal strings, a more vigorously buttressed body, a higher bridge and more steeply angled fingerboard that allowed for greater string tension and more sound production.

In both domestic and public spaces the piano-as-panzer disturbed the balance between the participating instruments in older works of chamber music—from Mozart’s sonatas for keyboard and violin through those by Beethoven and beyond.

Among the casualties of these shifting sonic relationships were Schumann’s three piano sonatas, the first two composed in the autumn of 1851, the third in 1853, the year before his suicide attempt. The reception of these works has been poisoned partly by the received critical opinion that the composer’s work from this last period was increasingly erratic, showing the effects of the mental illness and attendant delusions that increasingly plagued him until his death in 1856.

Hardly a mainstay of the already plentiful violin and piano repertoire dominated by Beethoven and Brahms, Schumann’s three sonatas have been neglected in the concert hall and on recording until late. The German duo of Christian Tetzlaff on violin and Lars Vogt on piano issued a disc in 2013 that is fired by the turbulent Romanticism of the set while also finding the disarming innocence in the more forthright moments and movements. As he demonstrated a year-and-a-half ago in Ithaca, New York in an electrifying performance of Joseph Joachim’s Second Violin Concerto, Tetzlaff can hold his own and more against an orchestra with that little wooden box perched on his shoulder. So squaring off against a single piano is hardly a challenge for this poised virtuoso.

But in spite of the sensitivity of the Tetzlaff/Vogt duo’s reading of the Schumann set, an aura of alienation clings to the performance as if there were too great a distance from the Düsseldorf parlor where Clara Schumann and the famed violinist Joseph von Wasielewksi premiered the first sonata in the composer’s presence. There is a coldness that has to do not with the musicians but with their instruments: though sensitively played, the modern piano and modern violin give off the efficient sheen of a later industrial technology embodied most capaciously in the big piano itself.

A still more recent recording released earlier this year at last allows listeners to enter the lush, sometimes lurid sound world of Schumann’s violin sonatas. The cover of the CD booklet advertises these ambitions: on the front is a reproduction of a picture by nineteenth-century French painter August Francois of an agitated landscape troubled by violent brushstrokes. On the back of the booklet is a pristine studio photograph of the piano used, an elegant mahogany grand made in Freeport, Maine by the American master R. J. Regier, who was inspired by the best Viennese builders of the first half of the nineteenth century. This is an instrument that is capable of a flashing brilliance, but also infinite grades of softness and emotional expression—from whispered confessions, to soothing assurances, to dreamy reverie, to pleading unease. Also capable of volcanic eruptions of feeling, this instrument’s strength is subtlety rather than bombast, and it never overpowers the violin, even one fitted with the gut strings that favor nuance over dazzle, though still capable of serving up large portions of the latter.

A gorgeous creature to lay eyes on, this piano also responds to the touch of sensitive musicians, and for this seminal recording of Schumann’s violin sonatas on an instrument of the kind known to the composer, we have such a player in Chi-Chen Wu. You can hear it right from start in the restive arpeggios of the first sonata, like a humid wind blowing across an autumnal landscape—or across a troubled mind. The playing is vivid and clear, unfettered in the way one can never be on an overpowered modern instrument heard with violin. In these first bars Ms. Wu unleashes a surging crescendo then retreats in doubting diminuendo. The sound is clear yet sumptuous, insistent but never overstaying its welcome—unlike the famous Steinway sustain that only reluctantly cedes sonic space to its collaborators.

This CD is a crucial addition to the library of any nineteenth-century chamber music devotee. Ms. Wu’s musical partner is the inspired Nicholas DiEugenio. He is equally adept at breathtaking virtuosity as he is at the regretful soliloquy, like that heard near the outset of the second sonata, dedicated to another famed violinist Ferdinand David. This arcing, ardent monologue follows the slashing chords of the movement’s opening—bold, almost violent brushstrokes indeed.

In the lavish décor of this drawing room there is the child’s silhouette, naïve and knowing, in one corner (the second movement of the first sonata), the lingering aroma of flowers and memory in the second sonata’s third movement (marked “soft, simple”) and the lush damask of the third sonata’s Intermezzo. And there are landscapes on each wall and on to either side of the engraved glass of the sliding doors are the entrance (the first movement of the first sonata) and exit (last movement of the last one), the prevailing darkness broken through by shafts of light. In the middle of it all stretches the piano that is the vessel of all those hopes and fears, not merely accompanying a treasured violinist visitor but welcoming him to a family in which music is the stuff of life.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at