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Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History

Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History

by Arthur Loesser, Edward Rothstein (Foreword by), Jacques Barzun (Preface by)

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As the "social anchor" in middle-class homes of the nineteenth century, the piano was simultaneously an elegant piece of drawing-room furniture, a sign of bourgeois prosperity, and a means of introducing the young to music. In this admirably balanced and leisurely account of the popular instrument, the late, internationally known concert pianist Arthur Loesser


As the "social anchor" in middle-class homes of the nineteenth century, the piano was simultaneously an elegant piece of drawing-room furniture, a sign of bourgeois prosperity, and a means of introducing the young to music. In this admirably balanced and leisurely account of the popular instrument, the late, internationally known concert pianist Arthur Loesser takes a "piano's-eye view" of the recent social history of Western Europe and the United States.
Drawing on newspapers, music manuscripts, popular accounts, and other sources, Loesser traces the history of the piano from its predecessors, the clavichord and the harpsichord, to the modern spinet and concert grand. Chapter headings such as "Clavichords Make Weeping Easier," "The Harpsichord Grows Feet," "The More Pianos the Merrier," and "The Keyboards Go West" suggest the author's lighthearted approach to topics ranging from the piano's European origins and its introduction in the United States to the decline of piano manufacturing in the early twentieth century and the "victory of airborne music" by mid-century. A preface by historian Jacques Barzun and a new foreword by music critic Edward Rothstein enhance a volume rich in wit and knowledge — one that will delight any reader with an interest in the piano and on Western cultural history.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Books on Music Series
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Men, Women and Pianos

A Social History

By Arthur Loesser

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1990 Edward Rothstein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17161-6



ON OCTOBER 24, 1648, the treaties of Westphalia were published. As the bells tolled the event, Johann Crüger composed a tune to Martin Rinkart's words:

Nun danket alle Gott
Mit Herzen, Mund und Händen,
Der grosse Dinge thut
An uns und allen Enden.

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices
Who wondrous things hath done
In whom His world rejoices.

—Translation by Catherine Winkworth

It was destined to become one of the most famous of Lutheran hymns.

There was good cause for thanksgiving. For thirty years Protestant and Catholic, Swedish, Austrian, French, and German soldiers of all kinds had killed, burned, raped, and pillaged their way through the German lands. They did it in the name of the Empire, of Gustav Adolf, of Cardinal Richelieu, in the name of Justification by Faith, and in the name of the Holy Ghost. The warring princes could not pay the thugs they had hired or shanghaied, so they urged them to "live off the country." More often they had lived off the towns, which gave better meat for scientific plundering. It was the towns especially that the war had degraded and impoverished.

Even without the war the Germanies would have been a backward portion of Christendom. In the great European commercial expansion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Germany had taken little part. After the epoch-making voyages of Columbus and Da Gama the oceans became the great world trade routes; and it was the nations bordering on the Atlantic that had the opportunity and the capacity for taking advantage of them. It was the Spanish and the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, and the English who planted colonies in the Americas and who traded with the Indies. In all this tremendous traffic of wealth, in the burgeoning of enterprise, and in the intellectual tingle that went with it the Germans had little active share.

The violence had ceased now, but generations of small, mean living were ahead. Germany was broken: irrevocably split down the middle religiously, and politically shattered into three hundred fragments. Some of these were sizable realms such as the Kingdom of Saxony or the Kingdom of Bavaria, but most were pint-sized principalities—"duodecimo states" they were contemptuously called later. Some had curious names that came unscrewed in the middle, such as Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, Oettingen-Wallerstein, or Schaumburg-Lippe. Each was headed by an absolute sovereign princelet, who owed a theoretical and ceremonial allegiance to a Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, but who in practice did pretty much as he pleased with his domain. Each strutted about, affectionately coddling his ornamental army, his hunting apparatus, and his little orchestra.

A kind of cultural stasis marked the German latter seventeenth century. The propertied townspeople of Reformation times may have shown a trend toward an improvement in their social influence, but the war had humbled them and diminished their pretensions. The ancient European estates—nobility, citizenry, peasantry—had frozen into a sort of caste system. The noble lords of the land, as well as their landless relatives, looked down with distant disdain upon the burghers of the towns. Their very pronouns and verb-endings changed when they had to talk to those lower forms of life. But the burghers faithfully reflected the same distance and disdain when they in turn confronted peasants and menials.

The inflexible stratification of society was an unquestioned rule of life, an unassailable dogma for everybody. In schools and churches segregation of classes was an unbreachable canon. It would have been the height of indecency to think of baptizing the infant heir to a noble title in the water that had been used to besprinkle the young of a tradesman. There were even some who hopefully speculated that a divinely appointed separation of ranks would be continued in the blessed life beyond the grave. The three estates of society differed profoundly from one another, ethically. In their sense of values, their ideals, and their unthinking habits, the members of each group represented separate kinds of human beings. If we wanted to describe the difference by means of an oversimplified slogan, we might say that the nobility lived by authority and personal prestige; the peasantry by obedience and labor; while the middle classes lived by persuasion and special skills. Among these, the purely mental skills were judged far superior to the manual.

Many persons, even among those who were not the greatest beneficiaries of the prevailing social scheme, nevertheless found in it a certain peace of mind. It fulfilled their craving for order and symmetry. If everything in the world were dissected into readily distinguishable parts, neatly defined, classified, ranked, and labeled, why, everything could seem to be understood, controlled, and possessed; and the torment of uncertainty could appear to be evaded. One could behave better if one knew one's exact place in life; the universe could be grasped by a handy separation of God, nature, and man; and fencing or ballet dancing could be mastered by five or six tidily numbered "positions."

The Latin language was a particularly happy vehicle of this systematizing mentality. German intellectuals of the seventeenth century delighted in the multiplicity of its categories, its accusativus cum infinitivo, its verba deponentia, and its "epexegetical genitive." Latin was, of course, the common means of intercourse among the learned all over Europe, but the Germans drenched themselves in it with a particular devotion. In some schools the boys were urged, under threat of penalties, to eat their meals and play their games in Latin. Ability to handle its complexities made a man feel and act superior, besides also establishing a communion with remote demigods such as Julius Caesar and Tullius Cicero. In 1660, of all books published in Germany, those in Latin outnumbered those in German by four to one. But even the authors who wrote in German felt obliged to preserve their learned loftiness by interlarding every sentence with Latin words and phrases. Moreover, these Latin words were obliged to wear the insignia of their origin at all times; thus in German publications of the period bland lumps of Roman type bespot every page, sometimes every line, of the schnörkeled black-letter of the vernacular.

The prevailing rationalism also possessed the Protestant clergy. The Lutheran revolt had petrified into a new orthodoxy. Not Christian conduct, not living faith, but purity of doctrine seemed to be the main concern of the preachers. God and His ways could be calculated and proved by clever deductions from His Scriptural revelations. "Aberrations from the true doctrine were considered to be chiefly errors in logical reasoning and were to be answered and cured only by means of the instruments of logic," says one historian aptly. Pettifogging theological disputes, displays of rhetoric and learning were the main content of many sermons. In 1664 a well-known theologian, Johann Christian Koenig, on his deathbed, preparing to meet his Maker, was less concerned with whether he had ever been guilty of pride, meanness, or hypocrisy, than with whether he could be assured that his teaching had never departed from the Augsburg Confession.

Inevitably the music of the period took on the general flavor of the atmosphere into which it was projected. There, too, intellectual principle tended to be more important than musical feeling as we understand it. Not that music was supposed to be devoid of emotion; but the passion for compartmentization, for mental consistency, had to be assuaged at all costs, regardless of what other effect the tones achieved. There was, for instance, the "doctrine of the affections" to which many musical thinkers of the period adhered. According to one phase of this idea, an emotion could be represented or symbolized—we cannot say "expressed"—by one or more appropriate types of musical figures or motives. The figures having been established at the beginning of a piece of music, consistency would require that the entire composition stick to them. There might be some more or less ingenious "treatment" of these motives, within limits, but unity of theme and movement had to be preserved, for logical reasons. All this explains the "monotony" that many a sincere nineteenth-century music lover felt in the presence of a work by Bach or Buxtehude.

Peasants and menials in those days had their own music, their simple songs and dances. They could not write it down for the most part, and the learned and the noble affected to treat it with the disregard they showed toward anything associated with the lower classes. Still, the lowly musical idiom must have been familiar to the higher burghers and even to the nobility—familiar enough to recognize and contemn. Class segregation was an ideal and a powerful convention, but it could not become a total physical reality. Through their own servants, or through casual contacts in field and street, the upper classes were exposed to the attractions of the vulgar tunes; just as a century later, in the American South, the music of the Negro slaves got its hold upon their white masters.

Of the kings and dukes, the greater and richer ones maintained their own opera establishments. These were very expensive, fancy luxuries, requiring incredibly complicated stage machinery; and their vocal departments were mostly staffed by Italians singing in the Italian language. The very foreignness of the institution gave it an added prestige: how great must a sovereign be who could command such marvelous imported extravagance! The opera texts themselves were an elaborate costumed flattery of the exalted personage who was paying for them. No one less than a Greek god, a Roman emperor, or a Babylonian potentate would do as the central character of the plot. An air of high-flown artifice exuded from these shows, and low-class people could be portrayed in them only in order to provide the relief of laughter.

Princelets who could not afford their own operas contented themselves with keeping little chamber orchestras. The music which these provided also had a strong foreign savor. Concertos and sonatas were based on Italian models, while the suites of courantes, minuets, and bourrées bore the stamp of France.

In particular the glamour of the French court, with Louis XIV at its head, had a dazzling effect upon these minor German princes. The grand monarque had everything, in their idea, that a ruler ought to have: absolute power, a vast domain, a huge, powerful army, and millions in money to advertise his magnificence. By aping the least of his ways, perhaps they could borrow a little of his splendor. Thus the rulers of Hanover, Württemberg, or Krähwinkel-Binsensumpf, together with their cousins and aunts, spoke bad French, wore French clothes and wigs, and even built orangeries à la Versailles. They tried hard to look like little Sun Kings.

Some of the opera and chamber music composed for these aristocratic palaces may have occasionally filtered down into the experience of a few of the burghers, through the grapevine of the professional musicians; but in general it was heard only by the invited guests of the noble lords. As for the merchants, doctors, and aldermen of the towns, their chief musical resource, if they were Protestants, was their church. The Lutheran churches did, indeed, in the late seventeenth century, make much of music. The simple, dignified traditional chorale melodies, often of popular origin, formed the essential musical phase of the service itself; but somehow, too, between the reading of the Gospel and the sermon, an elaborate musical performance developed, a sort of sacred concert known as the cantata. It included elaborations of the chorale of the day and might contain choruses, arias, ensembles, recitatives, or even purely instrumental interludes. Need we recall that Johann Sebastian Bach, a late-comer to this musical manifestation, devoted a great portion of his genius to it?

The North German communities set great store by this cantata of the week, this superadded musical enhancement of their worship. Indeed, it was the town council, as much as the church itself, that took responsibility for it, and helped to select and hire the singers and players. It reflected a fondness for oratorical ceremoniousness on the part of educated German burghers; and their propensity for declaiming pretentious verses at birthdays, wedding anniversaries, New Year's celebrations, installations of officers, and housewarmings was thereby translated into the calendar of the Lutheran church—music effectively substituting for the orotund voice in which the words were expected to be delivered. The cantata music was of a formalized complexity that gave it an air of importance; it abounded in fugues, polyphonic devices, and da capo arias. It was intended to have a flavor of learning, to be related to the theology and the iura—"law" we call it, not quite accurately—whose paradigms and principles were conned at the universities and which were regarded as the corpus of higher education. Latin-schoolboys were engaged as choristers, and university students with musical abilities often formed the string-instrument complement of the performing group. Cantata texts were in German; but Latin jargon seemed right for musical concepts, and there was an affinity of atmosphere between a "tonus peregrinus" or "canon in motu contrario" and a "futurum exactum" or "coniugatio periphrastica." Johann Beerens, writing in 1719, discussed the question of whether a composer "necessario" must have studied at a university and answered it decisively in the affirmative. Thus the cantata may be seen as a self-assertive exercise on the part of a German town's "Honoratioren"—the collective name given to those of its citizens who both owned the most property and belonged to the learned professions. Burghers as a class were unalterably inferior to nobles; but a citizen who could afford to have had himself soaked in Latin as a child, to become a "studiosus" and then maybe a "Doctor Utriusque luris," could achieve a kind of urban and local aristocracy within his estate and thereby climb out on a balcony from which he could look down upon the smaller shopkeepers and handicraft pliers beneath him.

However, non-Latinizing residents—butchers, bakers, and blacksmiths, not to speak of drovers and housemaids—also went to church regularly. It appears that they sometimes complained that apart from the familiar chorale hymns the music was incomprehensively complicated, way over their heads. But no town councilor in his right mind would ever have entertained the outrageous, subversive thought of adapting the music to the lower or duller-witted members of the congregation. Enough, said one spokesman, that simple people realize that they are in the presence of a sacred exercise, whether they fully understand it or not; and besides, "God could not be praised artificially enough," that is, with the utmost expenditure of means and effort.

The instrument most suitable for artificial God-praising was the organ. It could sound both grand and intricate, like the Lord's own works. Moreover, the organist's hands did not, by vulgar muscular effort, themselves make the sounds they evoked; for his fingers merely released valves that permitted great numbers of air columns, mechanically and menially produced elsewhere, to pass through the pipes at his exclusive will and discretion. He was not a mere player, subject to the limitations of a human body, but rather a superpersonal operator, a commander and disposer of a thousand interacting sounds, a special image of the Lord himself. His right hand on one manual, his left on another, his feet busy on the pedal keys, he would often play a so-called "trio": three clearly drawn melodic lines, independent, congruous, and rigorously segregated; and if we wished to borrow the vocabulary of Leibniz, the age's most representative philosopher, we could call them three windowless monads building the best of all possible worlds by pre-established harmony.

The organist's fingers, as we have said, did not themselves make the tones which they called forth; neither directly nor by mechanical contrivance did the hands have any contact with the source of sound. Neither the volume nor the quality of the tone could be affected by any bodily impulse; neither crescendo, diminuendo, nor stress accent was possible. Pounding the keys or caressing them was quite useless—indeed, such procedures would have seemed disorderly and carnal to the musical devotees of the time. They had no interest even in a mechanically simulated crescendo, and the German organs of the period were not provided with a swell box. Clearness and evenness of tones were the desirable qualities in an instrument and in an executant. Changes of volume and quality could indeed be brought about, by the throwing in and out of "stops," that is, complete sets of pipes, each set differing from the others in timbre and loudness. All such changes, however, had to be made with a certain abruptness; they were calculated applications of variety, and the changes had to correspond with the formal divisions of the composition being played.


Excerpted from Men, Women and Pianos by Arthur Loesser. Copyright © 1990 Edward Rothstein. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

American classical pianist and author Arthur Loesser (1894–1969) served on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1926 to 1969. He wrote program notes for the Cleveland Orchestra and liner notes for Vladimir Horowitz and other internationally famed musicians.

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