Piano Roles: Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano

Paperback (Print)
Buy New
Buy New from BN.com
Buy Used
Buy Used from BN.com
(Save 25%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $1.99
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 88%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (19) from $1.99   
  • New (6) from $14.85   
  • Used (13) from $1.99   


This delightfully written book examines every aspect of the history of the piano over the past three hundred years. It deals with the piano's place in classical and popular music cultures, its meaning in different eras, its acceptance in all parts of the world, and images it has inspired in literature, art, and the movies. This new paperback edition includes 47 halftone illustrations. Winner of the 2000 Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers Book Award in the Arts category
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Al Brumley
An audaciously impressive collection of essays beautifully illustrated and lovingly written. . . . Piano Roles is a book to be savored. Music lovers will probably be unable to help themselves from reading it from to back,but pick any section and you’ll be able to jump right back in.
Dallas Morning News
Al Brumley
An audaciously impressive collection of essays beautifully illustrated and lovingly written... . Piano Roles is a book to be savored. Music lovers will probably be unable to help themselves from reading it from to back, but pick any section and you'll be able to jump right back in.
Dallas Morning News
Andre Previn
In turns highly entertaining and very educational,full of extraordinary facts. An admirable addition to the literature on this subject.
Anthony Tommasini
A book that will tell you everything you want to know about the piano,except maybe how to play it. . . . [The book] is replete with artworks,photos,history,anecdotes,and reminiscences.
This book presents a wealth of historical information in a delightfully entertaining format. Parakilas treats both the history of the piano and the social and cultural changes of the past three centuries as they relate to and affect the development of the piano and piano playing.
Henry Sheen
A wonderful mosaic of the history of the piano and the diverse parts it has played in its three hundred years of life.
New Statesman
Henry Sheen
A wonderful mosaic of the history of the piano and the diverse parts it has played in its three hundred years of life.
New Statesman
Herbert Kupferberg
A book that will tell you everything you want to know about the piano, except maybe how to play it... . [The book] is replete with artworks, photos, history, anecdotes, and reminiscences.
Houston Chronicle
Marek Zebrowski
Without a doubt, anything and everything related to the piano will be found on these pages. A great number of facts (musical, stylistic, artistic, historic, cultural, political, commercial, mechanical, psychological, personal, medical, and more) have been presented in this coherent, well-written, and eminently readable treatise.
Boston Book Review
Marek Zebrowski
Without a doubt,anything and everything related to the piano will be found on these pages. A great number of facts (musical,stylistic,artistic,historic,cultural,political,commercial,mechanical,psychological,personal,medical,and more have been presented in this coherent,well-written,and eminently readable treatise.
Boston Book Review
Michelle Krisel
This elegant book is for those who struggle to master the instrument as well as for those who simply prefer to succumb to its beauty.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Michelle Krisel
This elegant book is for those who struggle to master the instrument as well as for those who simply prefer to succumb to its beauty.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Tamara Bernstein
This is a wonderful book—a delight to browse through, it will also change the way you hear and think about pianos, their players and their music.
National Post
Tamara Bernstein
This is a wonderful book—a delight to browse through,it will also change the way you hear and think about pianos,their players and their music.
National Post
William H. Prichard
A treasure book containing all I ever didn’t know about the piano.
Hudson Review
William H. Prichard
A treasure book containing all I ever didn't know about the piano.
Hudson Review
Library Journal
The piano turns 300 this year. To celebrate, Parakilas (music, Bates Coll.; Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade) has assembled a group of distinguished contributors and fashioned a lavishly illustrated social history of the piano directed at informed lay readers. Interweaving a chronological treatment of the piano's development with thematic essays, including how the piano is depicted in art, its manufacture and marketing, the role of the piano in motion pictures, the piano lesson, and its history in Japan, the authors share their warm regard and enthusiasm for this instrument central to so many facets of music-making. Exploring the piano's well-traveled avenues and little-known byways, this thoroughly entertaining and insightful book complements earlier titles like The Lives of the Piano (ed. by James R. Gaines; 1981. o.p.), Dieter Hildebrandt's Pianoforte: A Social History of the Piano (LJ 6/1/88), and David Crombie's Piano (LJ 1/96). Highly recommended as an exceptional value for all music collections.--Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Anthony Tommasini
Lavishly produced, richly illustrated…a substantive work on the cultural history of the piano…[that] reach[es] out to general readers as well as musical insiders.
The New York Times
Marek Zebbrowski
With an assembly of 15 authors and a foreword by Noah Adams, Piano Roles is a remarkable accomplishment worthy of its stated goal of celebrating 300 years of piano history.
The Boston Book Review
Marek Zebrowski
Anything and everything related to the piano will be found on these pages.
The Boston Book Review
Stephen Thompson
Sumptuous . . . . an obligatory addition to the book collection of anyone who loves or plays the instrument.—Tampa Tribune & Times
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300093063
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 922,815
  • Product dimensions: 5.08 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Piano Roles

Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano
By James Parakilas

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2000 James Parakilas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300083513

Chapter One

1700 to 1770s: The Need for the Piano

In 1700, the year by which the first piano had been built, European musical life was full of stringed keyboard instruments-spinets, virginals, clavichords, and harpsichords, among others-some providing quiet pleasure in private chambers, others holding their own in crowded opera pits, church choirs, and court orchestras. Why, then, was a new kind of stringed keyboard instrument needed? And once it was built, how did it come to displace its predecessors? Did the piano improve on what they did, or fulfill a different need?

The violin likewise was born into a world full of other bowed instruments. But because the violin was not invented at a single time and place, we cannot interpret that instrument as a particular person's response to a particular need. With the piano, though, we have not only an inventor to point to, but even an indirect report of his thoughts about his invention. That inventor was Bartolomeo Cristofori, who served as instrument maker to the crown prince Ferdinando Maria de' Medici of the grand duchy of Tuscany and who produced in Florence by 1700 a piano, or "Arpicembalo ... di nuova inventione, che fa' il piano, e il forte" (a harpsichord, of new invention, that plays soft and loud), according to a court inventory of that date. In some respects Cristofori's piano (it was to take more than a century for the name to be reduced to that form) was no more of a "new invention" than the violin had once been; it embodied no greater innovation or sophistication in acoustical design, for instance, than the violin. Why, then, was the phrase "di nuova inventione" applied, in a document as humble as an inventory, to the piano, as it is not likely ever to have been to the violin?

The difference is that in the time between the creation of the two instruments, a change of consciousness had occurred that historian of technology John Rae has called the "invention of invention." Cristofori himself embodied this new consciousness: he had a hand in publicizing the piano as his invention, and as a result of this publicity -not just of the design itself-the world accepts him today as the inventor. In accepting that claim, the world has also embraced the underlying, modern premise that allows the piano to be considered an invention at all: that the design of a musical instrument can be considered intellectual property.

Although it was a modern move for an instrument maker to put himself forward as an inventor, Cristofori did it in what seems like a bizarrely unmodern way. A modern inventor, after all, would take out a patent on his creation. Cristofori could have done that; in fact, Florence was the city where the first known patent in Western history had been granted, almost three centuries earlier. But a Florentine patent would have given his invention no protection outside Tuscany; international patent agreements lay far in the future. From our modern perspective, though, it is still surprising to find Cristofori allowing a prominent man of letters to print an article in a Venetian cultural journal announcing the invention of the piano, describing its musical virtues, and detailing its construction in word and drawing (see illustration). Why would an inventor give his secrets to the world in this way, without taking any steps to profit from them?

One part of the answer is that Cristofori's capacity to profit from his innovation was, from a modern perspective, severely limited by the means of production and marketing available to him. Cristofori's piano is one of the most impressive examples of machine design and construction from its age, but it was a machine built largely of wood and leather parts that needed to be cut and shaped and joined with hand tools by a skilled artisan. Further, it was a luxury furnishing enclosed in a case that was decorated by other expert hands. A piano of this kind is not an object that lends itself to mass production even today, and in 1700 neither the concept nor the tools of mass production had been devised. Like other complex machines of its day, the piano was a product that could be manufactured only in small workshops, where a single craftsman and a few assistants produced on a tiny scale.

Because Cristofori was fortunate enough to be in the service of a rich and music-loving prince, he had the luxury of building one piano after another over the course of several decades, adapting and developing his original design as he proceeded. He was able to train assistants, some of whom would in time carry on his project in their own workshops. Connected as he was to a prominent royal patron, he was even able to sell a few of his pianos to a monarch some distance away: the king of Portugal. But even if Cristofori had had the capacity to turn out pianos at a great rate, there was no commercial mechanism by which he could have marketed them on a wide scale. He may have lived at the beginning of the age in which a musical instrument could be thought of as an invention, but it was still a time when expensive musical instruments were produced on commission from individual patrons. It was to be more than another century before, in the words of Arthur Loesser-whose ageless book Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History will be cited here many times-"mankind speculated in the crazy custom of first making things on a vaguely huge scale and then trying to induce people to buy them."

In terms of production and marketing, then, Cristofori lived in a not so modern world. But in terms of communication on a "vaguely huge scale," his world was rapidly assuming a modern form: the piano appeared just when Europe was beginning to conduct a good part of its intellectual life in the pages of periodicals. If Cristofori had no means of making and selling his pianos on a large scale, he seems to have discerned, or been persuaded, that through the medium of the press he could at least achieve glory across Europe for his invention. And in what Stewart Pollens has described as the "earliest known interview of a musical instrument maker," he made his bid for that glory by the means his age made available to him: he released such a detailed description of the construction of his invention that instrument makers far and wide could duplicate his work and discover for themselves what a remarkable achievement it was.

Cristofori entrusted this information to a writer whom the historian Eric Cochrane has called the "noisiest gadfly of the Italian Republic of Letters," Scipione Maffei, who gave Cristofori all the publicity he could have dreamed of. Maffei published his article on the Cristofori piano in 1711, not in his own journal, but in the most fashionable new intellectual journal on the Italian peninsula, the Giornale de' letterati d'Italia of Venice, and then reprinted his article eight years later in a collection of his own poetry and prose, also published in Venice. In 1725, appearing in German translation in Johann Mattheson's Critica musica, the article may have helped stimulate the making of pianos in the German lands.

Today this article is a godsend not just to scholars and builders of historic instruments, for whom it provides an invaluable complement to the evidence of the three surviving Cristofori pianos (which have suffered varying amounts of well-intended reconstruction over the centuries), but also to anyone trying to understand the need that this instrument had been built to fulfill. Given that Maffei was a visitor from northern Italy who had probably never heard the instrument or much about it until he walked into the Medici palace, it seems reasonable to assume that he was agreeing to serve as Cristofori's mouthpiece. In that role he explained and defended Cristofori's work, not just to those everywhere who had not yet heard of the instrument, but also to those who evidently had heard it and had pronounced themselves unimpressed.

Maffei's strategy is to compare the new instrument favorably to the traditional harpsichord, not on its own terms but on new ones: it succeeds in doing something that the harpsichord was never designed to do. He begins by reminding readers that one of the sources of singular delight that music lovers feel at hearing "grand concertos in Rome" is the effect of "the soft and the loud" that expert musicians make in performing those works, "either in the propositions and responses, or when the level of sound is allowed to drop little by little, through artful diminution, and then suddenly returns at full blast." But, he writes, whereas bowed instruments like the violin are excellent at creating "this differentiation and alteration of sound," the harpsichord is entirely incapable of such subtleties. It is just this want that Cristofori has supplied "perfectly" with his new instrument: by applying different kinds and degrees of force to its keys, the player can control "not only the volume, but also the diminution and variety of the sound, as if on a cello."

In these few sentences Maffei describes the need for a keyboard instrument that can take full part in the great stylistic revolution of music in his day. The effects that he mentions define the musical style that we now call Baroque-above all, the musical language of opera, which had swept all Italy and much of Europe off its feet in the century since its birth, and of other fashionable genres of the era, including the "grand concertos" of Arcangelo Corelli and others that at the time of Maffei's writing had distinguished the musical scene in Rome for several decades.

The first of the effects that Maffei describes is a Baroque rhetoric of musical phrases: a rhetoric of phrases that build on each other and engage each other like the sentences of an oration or the arguments of two speakers in a dramatic dialogue. These are the possibilities that Maffei (a dramatist himself) suggests in his phrase "propositions and responses." The harpsichord, with its plucking mechanism that attacked every string with a distinct ping and with unvarying force, was superb at creating a clear imitation of that complex overlapping and interweaving of functionally equal, sometimes melodically identical phrases characteristic of sacred vocal music as well as of madrigals and other secular music of the sixteenth century and earlier. But in attempting to contrast one phrase against the next in the "proposition and response" style, the harpsichord was at a disadvantage. By coupling and uncoupling the instrument's different sets of strings or by other mechanical devices, a harpsichordist could change the volume of sound between one phrase and another, but those were cumbersome devices appropriate only for special effects. The piano was much better suited for the pervasive changes in volume from phrase to phrase that the new Baroque style demanded.

The second effect Maffei mentions has to do with contrast within phrases as well as between them: gradual as well as sudden changes in the volume of sound. The particular effect he describes-letting the sound diminish gradually and then coming back abruptly to full volume-could be achieved by violins, or by singers, either on a single note or chord or in a succession of notes or chords. With both the harpsichord and the piano, there is no way to manipulate the volume of a single note or chord once it has been played. The difference between the two comes when a change of volume is wanted in the course of successive notes or chords. Here, the harpsichord is helpless because its quills pluck a string with fixed force, no matter how hard the key is struck. The piano, on the other hand, has hammers that can strike its strings as forcefully or gently as the player strikes the keys, so that each note or chord can be a little or a lot softer or louder than the one before.

Though Maffei describes here a particular and sensational effect, his description of it can be understood as raising the larger issue of how a keyboard instrument can "shape" a melodic phrase. The solution depends utterly on the style of melody under consideration. If it is a question of reproducing plainchant on a keyboard instrument, for instance, the organ is better suited than any stringed keyboard, because its constancy of air supply suits a melodic style that demands comparatively little differentiation in volume or other sound qualities either during a note or from one to the next. But the style that Maffei is referring to depends on extreme differentiation, and of many kinds, between one note of a melody and another. Any single "proposition" or "response" in an opera or concerto of his day may use a variety of contrasts-of long and short notes, sustained and gasping breath, dissonant and consonant harmonization, bright and dark color, as well as loud and soft volume-to create suspense and resolution, to provide emphasis at a certain point, and to give the whole phrase a distinctive stamp.

When it came to reproducing melodies of this sort at the keyboard, harpsichordists were not lacking in resources. Even though the notes at their disposal all sounded with equal force, they could emphasize one over another with ornaments. Even though those notes all died away very quickly from the instant they were plucked, the player could sustain a single note, in effect, by trilling on it. And speeding up a scale could create the illusion of a crescendo, just as accompanying a single note of a melody with a thick chord could make it seem louder than the others in the same phrase.

But the piano offered more resources for this purpose. Being able to play one note louder than the next gave the player the means not just to emphasize one note over another, but also to make it audible longer than another. In fact, for the purpose of sustaining a note, the piano had an advantage over the harpsichord quite distinct from its control over volume: whereas the harpsichord string, plucked by a quill, pings sharply and then decays abruptly, the piano string, glanced against by a rounded and relatively soft-surfaced hammer (covered with leather on the earliest pianos, later with felt), has both less ping on the attack and a slower decay thereafter, so that a single held note can give an impression of being "sung." This difference, perhaps subtle in Cristofori's and other very early pianos, became considerable as the instrument developed. In fact, the responsiveness of the hammers to the keys allowed players on the piano, by varying their "touch" -the character and not just the force of their stroke-to produce a tremendous range of characters and colors as well as volumes of sound on a single note-as if on a cello, as Maffei suggests.

Besides these advantages in shaping a contrast-laden melody, the piano gave its player the means to highlight a melody over its accompaniment.



Excerpted from Piano Roles by James Parakilas Copyright © 2000 by James Parakilas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 1700 to 1770s: The Need for the Piano 9
2 Designing, Making, and Selling Pianos 31
The Player Piano 72
3 1770s to 1820s: The Piano Revolution in the Age of Revolutions 77
4 The Piano Lesson 133
The Metronome 143
Le Tabouret (The Piano Stool) 153
5 1820s to 1870s: The Piano Calls the Tune 181
The Piano Tuner 187
The Image of the Composer at the Piano 212
6 The Concert and the Virtuoso 237
7 1870s to 1920s: The World's the Limit 283
Preview: Silent Movies with Piano 324
8 Hollywood's Embattled Icon 329
9 1920s to 2000: New Voices from the Old Impersonator 359
Afterword: Making the Piano Historical 403
Notes 409
Recommended Readings 433
Contributors 437
Acknowledgments 441
Illustration Credits 443
Index 447
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2000

    Beautiful, but uneven

    This newly published book is actually a set of articles by a number of authors loosely held together by Parakilas' general framework. While Arthur Loesser's 'Men, Women and Pianos' presents a comprehensive history, the articles in 'Piano Roles' jump from subject to subject based on the specialized knowledge of the author, and the quality (and accuracy) of the writing varies considerably. 'Piano Roles' suffers from several common maladies of modern writing, including pseudo-intellectual psycho-babble, factual distortions and omissions in the pursuit of 'political correctness', and a tendency to take itself too seriously. Fortunately, there are some wonderful sections in the book that redeem its faults, including a fascinating account of the introduction of the piano to Japan and a breezy, well-written section on jazz. This is a beautiful book, printed on thick paper and full of excellent pictures. As an overall history of the instrument, it cannot compete with Loesser's definitive book, but it is one of the better 'coffee table' decorations I've purchased.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)