Book review: A Natural History of the Piano

The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians – From Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between [Hardback]

Stuart Isacoff

Hardback/paperback: 382 pages
Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd
Language: English
ISBN: 9780285641129

Anyone who has read Charles Rosen’s intelligently-written Piano Notes will find plenty to enjoy in this new book on the “life and times” of the piano by Stewart Isacoff, writer, composer, pianist and lecturer, and founding editor of the magazine Piano Today.

This compact, well-designed book traces the history and evolution of the piano in a richly erudite and engaging narrative, from the unveiling of Mozart’s concertos through to Liszt’s fainting female fans, the rise of the modern travelling virtuoso pianist, to the ‘greats’ of the piano such as Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Gould, Peterson, Evans, Tatum, and many more. The book examines why the instrument has had such a fascination for generations of listeners and practitioners, how it can be used as a vehicle for emotional expression and individuality of style, and how it developed into the sleek, beautifully-crafted modern instrument of today. There are numerous sidebars and byways in the text, offering the reader a comprehensive survey of all aspects of the instrument, with plenty of amusing anecdotes, essays, and entertaining rambles around the subject.

Following a schematic course through the chapters, Isacoff’s wide-ranging and accessible text covers subjects such as the groundbreaking music of Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy to the breathtaking techniques of the great pianists, such as Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, Arthur Rubinstein and Van Cliburn. Asides to the main text serve to amplify and spotlight particular aspects: we have Murray Perahia on shaping the piano’s sounds, Brendel on the challenge of playing Mozart, a profile of Duke Ellington by Oscar Peterson, Garrick Ohlsson on playing Chopin, plus many other contributions by both contemporary commentators and pianists of today, including Piotr Anderszewski, Emmanuel Ax, Billy Joel, Yundi Li, Menahem Pressler and Gabriela Montero. (A section before the index gives further biographical details about all the contributors.)

Jazz, too often overlooked in more traditional histories of the piano and its music, is celebrated with great affection, and the author shows how it grew from the same sources of inspiration as classical repertoire. The text segues comfortably between subjects, enhanced by 100 black-and-white illustrations, and there are copious notes, bibliographical information and a comprehensive index.

This book will delight and enthrall pianists and pianophiles everywhere, and at c£20 is excellent value as a gift for the piano enthusiast.

One thought on “Book review: A Natural History of the Piano”

  1. Thanks for the review. I was looking for a book that explored delved deeper into the history of jazz piano. I’ll have to pick this up…

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