The Piano – A string instrument that was an emblem of money, status, and class during the antebellum period. The parlor, the centerpiece of the antebellum estates of the well-heeled, was not complete without a piano, preferably one imported, specially made, hand-crafted and well-tuned. A piano, the ultimate status symbol, represented cultural refinement, educational accomplishment, and of course wealth. The average piano sold for about $300.00 at a time when the average antebellum American yearly household income was about $290.00.
PIANOS AND FAMILY PARLORS
Families gathered around their pianos in the evenings and the instrument was the focal point of their interaction. The piano was key in courtship, as couples would dance at balls to piano music and provide opportunities for male-female interaction that was otherwise forbidden by the current mores of the time.
Private piano concerts were popular and though there are notable male virtuosos on the instrument, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Gottschalk, Thomas Bethune, etc., it was every young lady who was expectant of marriage who was required to have a full repertoire from proper training on the instrument, as the piano was regarded mostly as a lady’s instrument during antebellum times.
“PIANO. n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by pressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.” – Ambrose Bierce (American Writer, Journalist, 1842-1914)
The social history of the piano is the history of the instrument’s role in society. The piano was invented at the end of the 17th century, had become widespread in Western society by the end of the 18th, and is still widely played today.
At the time of its origin around the year 1700, the piano was a speculative invention, produced by the well-paid craftsman and inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori for his wealthy patron Ferdinando de Medici, Grand Prince of Florence. As such, it was an extremely expensive item. For some time after its invention, the piano was largely owned by royalty (e.g. the kings of Portugal and Prussia); see Fortepiano for details. Even later on, (i.e. throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries), pianos were financially beyond the reach of most families, and the pianos of those times were generally the property of the gentry and the aristocracy. Visiting music masters taught their children to play the piano.
Pianos and women
Both Parakilas and Loesser emphasize a connection during this period between pianos and the female sex. Piano study was apparently more common for girls than boys. It was also widely felt that ability to play the piano made young women more marriageable.
Women who had learned to play as children often continued to play as adults, thus providing music in their households.. For instance, Emma Wedgwood (1808–1896), the granddaughter of the wealthy industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, took piano lessons from none other than Frédéric Chopin, and apparently achieved a fair level of proficiency. Following her marriage to Charles Darwin, Emma still played the piano daily, while her husband listened appreciatively.
A number of female piano students became outright virtuose, and the skills of woman pianists inspired the work of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who dedicated difficult-to-play works to their woman friends. However, careers as concert musicians were typically open only to men (an important exception was Clara Schumann).
The spread of the piano
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the middle class of Europe and North America increased in both numbers and prosperity. This increase produced a corresponding rise in the domestic importance of the piano, as ever more families became able to afford pianos and piano instruction. The piano also became common in public institutions, such as schools, hotels, and public houses. As elements of the Western middle class lifestyle gradually spread to other nations, the piano became common in these nations as well, for example in Japan.
To understand the rise of the piano among the middle class, it is helpful to remember that before mechanical and electronic reproduction, music was in fact performed on a daily basis by ordinary people. For instance, the working people of every nation generated a body of folk music, which was transmitted orally down through the generations and sung by all. The parents of Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) could not read music, yet Haydn’s father (who worked as a wheelwright) taught himself to play the harp, and the Haydn family frequently played and sang together. With rising prosperity, the many families that could now afford pianos and music adapted their home-grown musical abilities to the new instrument, and the piano became a major source of music in the home.
Amateur pianists in the home often kept track of the doings of the leading pianists and composers of their day. Professional virtuosi wrote books and methods for the study of piano playing, which sold widely. The virtuosi also prepared their own editions of classical works, which included detailed marks of tempo and expression to guide the amateur who wanted to use their playing as a model. (Today, students are usually encouraged to work from an Urtext edition.) The piano compositions of the great composers often sold well among amateurs, despite the fact that, starting with Beethoven, they were often far too hard for anyone but a trained virtuoso to play perfectly. Evidently, the amateur pianists obtained satisfaction from coming to grips with the finest music, even if they could not perform it from start to finish.
A favorite form of musical recreation in the home was playing works for four-hand piano, in which the two players sit side by side at a single piano. These were frequently arrangements of orchestral works, and in the days before recordings served to spread knowledge of new orchestral music to places lacking an orchestra. Sometimes members of the household would sing or play other instruments along with the piano.
Parents whose children showed unusual talent often pushed them toward professional careers, sometimes making great sacrifices to make this possible. Artur Schnabel’s book My Life and Music vividly depicts his own experience along this lines, which took place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century.