The Piano In The Parlor

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When the historian James Parton declared in 1867 that the piano was only less important to the American home than the kitchen stove, he was pointing to a significant social phenomenon, if not necessarily an artistic one. The sale of twenty-five thousand pianos a year at the time, not counting imported ones, clearly indicated that the piano was the basic instrument for introducing musical knowledge to the new country. Its influence in the shaping of the genteel tradition appears very early.

“Almost every home included between the Delaware and the Schuylkill,” said the Philadelphia Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor in 1810, “has its piano or harpsichord. … Almost every young lady … can make a noise upon some instrument or other … we take it for granted that we are a very musical people.” Even at that date the perceptive commentator set forth a truth which has stood fast for all the generations when he noted that the attractions of amateur pianism among marriageable young ladies dropped oft sharply after mating. Or, as Grover Cleveland put it, more sentimentally: “In many an humble home throughout our land the piano has gathered about it the most sacred and tender association … with its music each daughter … touched … the heart of her future husband. …” Even when it stood silent in the parlor the piano had a dynamism about it which set the glossy instrument apart from the other furnishings—the carved love seats, the ottomans, the marble-topped tables, and the slippery horsehair-and-walnut sofas. The piano, the first luxury item to reach the mass market, epitomized family values and social aims. Its significance as one of the indicia of a “nice” family lasted until well within living memory.

The pianoforte made the transit to America in the eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson saw a forte piano in 1771 and was charmed with it. The French journalist Brissot de Warville recorded that he saw an occasional piano in Boston drawing rooms in 1788. All were London-made. By 1840 the American “piano girl” was a recognizable type. To the democratic conviction that every nubile maiden had the potentiality for at least a partial conquest of the instrument was added the Christian conception of man as a free agent, moving ever closer to perfection; although the diarist Philip V. Fithian termed what he heard from a good many harpsichords in Virginia country houses “the musical phase of original sin.” As a girl, precocious Margaret Fuller began her formidable day with a brisk walk between five and six in the morning, then piano practice from six to seven. More piano later, between philosophy and Greek. In the evening, after studying Italian, she sang to her own accompaniment, then wrote in her journal, and called it a day.

“A lady,” commented Florence Hartley, in The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette , published in 1860 and frequently reissued for the next twenty years, “a lady without her piano, or her pencil, her library of French, German, or Italian authors, her fancy work and tasteful embroideries, is now rarely met with. …”

American inventiveness and technology contributed many improvements to piano design and construction, notably the solution of the problem of metal bracing through the introduction of a one-piece cast-iron frame which gave the instrument a higher tension than had been known before. This development also made possible a successful resistance to the extremes of our climate and the pounding of healthy American girls who were working out on one of the popular battle pieces, a genre represented typically in James Hewitt’s “The Battle of Trenton.” This quaint composition was a test for any instrument. It undertook to depict musically such matters as Attack, Cannonading, Flight of the Hessians, General Confusion, Trumpets of Victory, and Articles of Capitulation Signed.

A composition of similar character which enjoyed an even greater vogue was Franz Kotzwara’s “Battle of Prague,” a showpiece largely responsible for making a pianophobe out of Mark Twain. This is the noisy, descriptive music which Huck Finn heard with astonishment when the young ladies of a distinguished military family—Colonel Grangerford’s—performed on the “little old piano … that had tin pans in it, I reckon.” The American piano became, indeed, so rugged that it appeared in the gold diggings when Leadville, Colorado, was still a tent city. It also, in numerous authenticated instances, withstood Kansas cyclones.

By 1886, seven out of ten pupils in the public schools of the United States were being taught to read music. According to a professional estimate made the next year, there were half a million piano pupils in the country. This meant that about eight per cent of American youth was engaging in this compulsory accomplishment, allowing for those who had “taken” but stopped.