Book Review : Playing a Verbal Melody on the Piano

Times Book Critic

Piano Forte, a Romance of the Piano by Dieter Hildebrandt, translated from German by Harriet Goodman (George Braziller: $19.95; 224 pages)

Picture the flute soloist coming out on stage, holding the burnished wand he has used for so many miracles. Or the violinist, with the amber jewel that always looks smaller than you'd imagined, tucked familiarly under his arm. Or even the cellist and his instrument as big as a St. Bernard; still, he and it have traipsed around the world together, baying regularly at their common moon.

What about the pianist? A gleaming, black, 10-foot behemoth is already on stage for him, its top open and the insides displayed like a monstrous gullet. In all likelihood, the two have barely met.

Dieter Hildebrandt describes the scene in "Piano Forte." The audience is there, waiting. The piano is there, waiting. And out trots the performer, his hands as invariably cold as the keyboard invariably turns out to be. "Suddenly," he writes, "the piano seems to belong to the auditorium rather than to the pianist, whose first job must be to recapture the instrument."

Bitten by a Piano

Hildebrandt, a German journalist, clearly was bitten by a piano when young. Only someone who has experienced the instrument's otherness, when pushed out to play before an audience of relatives and classmates, could find such images. There are tens of thousands of us; maybe hundreds of thousands.

Hildebrandt has written the oddest kind of book, perhaps in order to exorcise the terror and celebrate the exhilaration. Exhilaration, because anyone bitten by a dragon is likely to develop dragomania.

He calls it "Piano Forte, a Romance of the Piano," and you could think of it as being composed by a minor disciple of Liszt. It is extravagant, breathy, lush and entirely scattered; a collection of miscellany, stories and themes that fidget and break off before they even get started.

Its flickering talent is the author's enchantment with the quiddity of his subject. "It looks like a cross between an expensive piece of furniture, a lavish plant stand and an unmanageable sculpture," he writes. It is the most athletic of instruments, he goes on, and quotes Ferruccio Busoni on young pianists: "For them the piano is a sports field wrapped in a musical instrument."

19th-Century Piano Mania

Because of piano mania in the 19th Century, "it conquered more of Europe than Napoleon." And--we see regiments of unwilling children at practice--"no other general that century took so many prisoners."

It is the most orderly instrument, Hildebrandt concludes in a phrase that displays him at his best: "It is a pending file of sounds." Plainly, he has suffered sleepless childhood nights, thinking of all those notes in the downstairs parlor, waiting to be played.

This is fine, but Hildebrandt's excitement gets out of hand. He lays it upon Schubert, feverish with compulsive overwork and early mortality. "There was always that barrel-organ staring up at him, the old piano with its yellowed keys, those stinking stumps of teeth bared at him as if sneering: Compose us, then."

And he goes on to try to suggest the wildness in a late Schubert piano piece: "Make that fortissimo, why not, shout, roar, screech until the lungs burst through your throat, the brains through your skull, the blood through your breast . . . " and so on for another frenetic 15 lines. At such moments, his style suggests Beethoven trying to hear through his deafness and pounding so hard that he snapped the bass strings on his piano. Our patience tends to snap as well.

In quieter passages, Hildebrandt gives us an often engaging grab bag of piano anecdotes and musical lore. There is the American virtuoso, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, transcribing "Tannhauser" for 14 pianos for a San Francisco concert. The son of a local notable insisted on being one of the pianists; since his talent was meager, Gottschalk removed the strings on the assumption that the boy, deafened by the other 13 instruments, would not notice. Unfortunately, he decided to improvise a solo passage during a lull. The sounds of silence.

There is Queen Victoria chatting to friends throughout a command performance by Clara Schumann. At tea break, the queen arranged for her bagpipers to come in to vary what she plainly regarded as Mme. Schumann's tinkle-tinkle.

'Instrument of Bourgeoisie'

Hildebrandt touches upon a number of interesting subjects: the piano's peculiar difficulties, different performance styles, and the numerous bits of inspired tinkering that took it from a modest object you could carry across the street under your arm, to our present full-throated blockbusters.

He does bits on the piano as social history, the piano in literature, and the economics of the business. According to the author, Chopin was expected to play his concerts exclusively upon the English Broadwood, in exchange for free instruments and organized tours.

At the turn of the century, we learn, there were 130 different piano manufacturers in New York alone. No wonder they got together to launch a campaign urging people to turn in their old pianos for new ones; and went so far as to make a public bonfire of two decrepit specimens, hurling in a number of metronomes for good measure.

There were factories that specialized in cloth piano covers, in black keys, and even in the busts of Beethoven that no piano-owning household would be without, at least through the first couple of decades of this century. Middle-class households, of course; Hildebrandt quotes Max Weber on the piano as "the instrument of the bourgeoisie."

All these things are done in snippets and nothing is pursued very far. Hildebrandt is writing as an amiable amateur, detailing what he picks up and, once in a while, delighting us with a flash of inspiration. Perhaps the instability of his tone, and a tendency to be heavy-handed both in earnest and in fun, is due partly to a bumpy translation that manages to reverse the meaning of a stanza in Schubert's "Winterreise."

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