What is history, anyway—a sober recital of names and dates, with weighty analyses of economic forces and political trends woven in, or a simple attempt to introduce the past to the present in understandable human terms? The answer, probably, is that it is both; but it must be remarked that the professionals have left the second field wide open and that the amateurs occasionally come in and do a job that might otherwise be ignored altogether.
Thus we have Arthur Loesser, a first-rate concert pianist by trade, who doubles in brass (so to speak) as music critic for the Cleveland Press , writing Men, Women and Pianos , with so much wit, perception and general clarity that the result is a genuinely first-rate examination of the habits, customs and emotional and industrial development of European and American society over the last two centuries.
The very invention of the piano, Mr. Loesser says, occurred because late in the Eighteenth Century men wanted an instrument that could be played “with feeling,” which was impossible with the piano’s parent instrument, the harpsichord—and the mere existence of that demand reflects the rising romanticism of an age that was breaking out of the rigid formalism of earlier years. Similarly, the piano was presently being made cheaply and in quantity, because factory methods were displacing handicraft producers. In turn, the best piano manufacturers were presently to be found in those least musical of nations, England and America, simply because those two countries first mastered the techniques of mass production.
In other words, Mr. Loesser has done a great deal more than merely write a history of the piano. He has written the best kind of social history and he has done it extremely well. Men, Women and Pianos is not only entertaining reading; it helps one to understand many of the profound changes in the economic and social climate of western Europe and America in the last 200 years.
Men, Women and Pianos: a Social History, by Arthur Loesser, with a preface by Jacques Barzun. 654 pp. Simon and Schuster.