Book review: The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, by Susan Tomes

This wide-ranging history of the piano takes in everything from Bach, Haydn and Mozart to the the jazz styles of Joplin, Waller and Tatum, writes Ken Walton

Susan Tomes
Susan Tomes

There was a time when just about every household you knew, family or friends, had a piano in the living room. In some cases it was simply a musty heirloom of likely questionable quality, unused, unloved, destined eventually for the knacker’s yard. Where it still functioned, though, it could be the life and soul of the home, the mind-numbing repetitiveness of persistent practising like a throbbing, omnipresent cog in the cacophonous domestic production line.

Not surprisingly, the piano in Susan Tomes’ home is, and probably was throughout her Edinburgh childhood, a symbol of pleasurable industry. It’s what has informed her long career as a concert pianist, most notably as a chamber musician. And it’s what she’s most often successfully reflected upon in a series of personable books, the latest of which is The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces.

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She follows what is currently a popular “chart-topper” formula with publishers. Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces is a recent example, condensing a major composer’s life to a minuscule playlist. Tomes, you’ll note, allows herself a framework of 100 works on which to hang the entire history of piano music, except she goes further and wider. Her starting point is the pre-piano age, or at least those Baroque and Classical époques – Bach to Haydn and Mozart – in which the emerging fortepiano, with its more flexible hammer action, took time to assert precedence over the plucked-string harpsichord. Which gives Tomes perfect licence to open on thoughts of Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations, and to explain the still-delicate tonal nuances Mozart or Haydn were faced with on fortepiano, compared to the weightier expansion and construction adjustments that fed the passions of Beethoven and the ensuing Romantic onslaught.

The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, by Susan Tomes

All this could become heavy going in a writing style that flits between historical context and programme note-style analysis, but we have Tomes’ decision to include pieces that “involve piano” – sonatas with additional solo instrument, piano trios, even concertos – to thank for alleviating potential overkill. She even addresses the jazz styles of Joplin, Waller and Tatum as a counterpoint to the 20th Century seriousness of Bartók, Messiaen, Cage, Ligeti and the like.

Full marks for remembering such oft-forgotten female composers as Fanny Mendelssohn and the influential Pole, Maria Szymanowska. If passion wanes slightly in Tomes’ appraisal of more recent times, it’s perhaps through honesty and a simple matter of taste.

It is, after all, a book of personal choice, and it’s clear, especially within the chamber music selection, where Tomes is most comfortable. Yes, there’s a complete absence of illustrations, musical or otherwise. But with modern-day streaming, the easy solution is to listen to the music as you read about it.

The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, by Susan Tomes, Yale University Press, £16.99

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