The Piano In The Parlor

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The more serious or well-heeled students read the advertisements of German conservatories of music. A few of the piano girls actually made it to Berlin, living decorously in Königgrätzer Strasse, practicing five and six hours a day, searching for the magic touch, the passages that purl, the octaves performed from the lightly held wrist. “Let the fingers fall naturally,” Der Musiker roared, “ Spielen Sie mit dem Gewicht .” There was so much to think of—the chord, the well-sustained trill, the broken octaves and sixths, the chromatics, pedal work, the delicacy and refinement to be mastered in the kleine Passagen . The climax of four years of hard work and the expenditure of several thousands of dollars was a modest debut in the salle of a quiet hotel at some spa, the folding chairs occupied by an audience whose attendance the maestro could command. There was a pretty bouquet, a little champagne supper, congratulations, and Fräulein returned to Ohio to disappear forever from the pages of history. She had, at least, strolled in the Tiergarten, heard Clara Schumann play, glimpsed Bismarck, and attended Mrs. George Bancroft’s Washington’s Birthday parties at the American legation.

Amateur performers have ever been charged with coyness. “All singers,” Horace wrote, “have this fault, that they never can be found ready to sing.” As the diffusion of music through American society increased, the books on decorum took notice of the problems in behavior involved. Lady singers were admonished to sing or not to sing, but they were never to complain about their cold or hint that acquiescence might place an intolerable strain upon delicate vocal chords. If they did sing, songs “descriptive of masculine passion” were to be avoided. The piano girl was advised not to show up at a party with her music, or indicate that she expected to be asked to perform. Do not give evidence of anxiety to play, the etiquette writers said, yet do not insist upon being coaxed. If it is your unalterable intention to play—play. The nearest gentleman offers his arm, escorts the pianist to the instrument, holds her bouquet and gloves while she plays, and turns her music if he is a good sight reader. The musician is further informed that it is impolite to compare the hostess’ piano unfavorably with another or to point out what was probably true—that it needed tuning. In her playing she should avoid dramatic tricks or whimsicalities. Oddly enough, a search through an extensive collection of books dealing with the conduct of life does not produce any counsel on the important topic of when to stop, although Jane Austen touched upon it with her own special irony when she had Mr. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice , dissuade his daughter from further performance on the ground that she had “delighted us long enough.”

Between 1890 and 1900 the number of pianos in use in American homes increased more than five times as fast as the population, and at the beginning of the new century the public owned a million pianos. One must see the deep yearning for a piano in the context of the life of the rural family. Few Americans living within even a hundred miles of a metropolitan center visited the city in the course of a year. There was no telephone, no phonograph, no radio, no automobile, no newspaper except the local weekly. Amusement, then, was generally confined to the short time between supper and bedtime, when the kerosene lamps were lighted and the daughter of the house played on the “pump organ” or the piano. What did she play? She ran through the well-loved hymns and such parlor pieces as “Hearts and Flowers” or Ethelbert Nevin’s lyrical “A Day in Venice,” out of which popped, when the music was first opened, a supply of fancy doilies.

In the cities of the eastern seaboard pianos of the highest quality continued to be produced, as they always had been since there was an American piano industry. But factories to turn out pianos in the medium price range were springing up closer to the mass market, in such furniture centers as Jamestown, New York, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Rockford, Illinois.

Rest the fingers lightly …

The great inland center for the manufacture of the $200 piano was Chicago, home of the Bush & Gerts, the Crown, the Washburn (“That’s my Washburn!”), and the Kimball, whose name was said to be as well known in the granger states as General Grant’s. These were the pianos, together with numerous others in the same price range—the Wing, the Everett, the Vose, the Fisher, the A. B. Chase, the Weber—which became the pivot of parlor life. There was a “Piano Row” in most large cities—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Here the dignified showrooms were all serenity and red brocade. Grands with noble names on the fallboard—Steinway, Chickering, Henry F. Miller—were displayed and dramatized like Cartier necklaces. There were busts of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Hofmann on pedestals, and a painting of Schubert in the very frenzy of musical creation. Imitating this atmosphere as much as possible, most piano dealers in smaller communities acted as though they sold objets d’art . (Many of them also ran undertaking businesses oil the side.)