THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF PIANO TEACHING – PART 1

What do you know about the social history of piano teaching?

This new blog series, which originally formed a chapter in Sally’s PhD thesis, will trace the development of piano teaching in the UK from its inception, during the Victorian era, to the present day.

If you are wondering whether this social history still has relevance today you will see that, as the story unfolds throughout the installments, our current teaching has many deep, Victorian roots!

SETTING THE SCENE

The pianoforte made its appearance onto the world stage in the early 1700s. Various harpsichord makers have been credited with its invention, Bartolmeo Cristofori being the most prominent amongst these [1]. Yet, like many innovations, there was no ‘eureka’ moment when a fully formed instrument emerged, but a gradual development with various individuals responsible for different areas of its progress over the next 150 years.

One thing is sure: the piano quickly superseded the harpsichord and became very popular in Europe with both composers and the public eager to compose and play the instrument.

FROM HARPSICHORD TO PIANO – A YOUNG LADIES’ ACCOMPLISHMENT

The history of Western Art music is dominated by the work of male composers, with very few female musicians making it onto the world stage. By contrast, in the early 1700s keyboard instruments were played mostly by women and girls who were fortunate to come from wealthy families [2]. Learning to play a musical instrument had been considered a suitable accomplishment for a young, well-bred lady for some time and certainly playing the lute [3], spinet and virginals [4] were all popular Renaissance skills.

The choice of instrument was however limited, with woodwind instruments, which had to be put in the mouth, thought to be not at all appropriate! The violin and harpsichord on the other hand were viewed in a positive light and were seen as fitting activities for women [5 & 6] giving them the opportunity to both occupy themselves during the daytime and entertain their families in the evening. Additionally any household with an instrument was accorded a certain status: having a harpsichord or indeed a clavichord indicated that there was plenty of money to spare for these luxury items.

After a period of steady development and somewhat slow acceptance the pianoforte began to take over in popularity from the harpsichord in the 1770s. From this point onwards: ‘pianos enter a phase of rapid technical and commercial advance’ [7] so that during the late Georgian/early Victorian period: ‘the piano emerged as the tried and tested universal instrument’ [8].

BROADWOOD PIANOS

English pianos were at the forefront of this development with John Broadwood responsible for the redesign of both the square and grand piano. Broadwood is a pivotal figure in the success of the piano in Britain and his career is a: ‘classic example of pioneering craftsmanship and enterprise’ [9]. He combined his skills as a craftsman with enough scientific interest to make an instrument that was vastly superior to all previous English pianos. Furthermore, he was a shrewd businessman who saw clearly the vast potential of the piano in Victorian Britain.

With Broadwood leading the way the piano began to be mass produced in a way that the harpsichord had never been and the market grew rapidly leading to an explosion of piano makers [10]. Not all these makers produced instruments that were of the same quality as the Broadwood pianos, but overall there was a range of instruments from some of high quality to some cheap and shoddy instruments.

It is estimated that in 1850, 23,000 pianos were manufactured and this figure continued to rise until it peaked in 1910 at a staggering 75,000 (ibid.). To meet this demand there were 175 piano factories in London alone with 500 shops selling musical instruments at the start of the twentieth century [11].

THE VICTORIAN PIANO – A STATUS SYMBOL

The success and progress of the piano as an instrument of choice in Britain was due in part to the prevailing social conditions. The start of the nineteenth century in Great Britain heralded the beginnings of the consumer society with the steady rise of the affluent middle class, many of whom were anxious to display their wealth and social position [12]. The Victorian man prided himself on his ability to support his wife and daughter: ‘their leisure a sign of status’ [13]. The piano became an important symbol of the family’s social position, just as the harpsichord had been, and the preferred instrument for young ladies to learn and demonstrate accomplishment.

As the century progressed the popularity of the piano spread down through society so that: ‘even among small traders and artisans precious time and money was diverted to secure, at least for the daughters, piano sheet music, teachers and a musical education’ [14].

Ehrlich argues that the popularity of the piano was due in large part to the fact that for Victorians it symbolised: ‘respectability, achievement an status’ [15], and that: ‘it lent itself readily to self improvement, a cardinal Victorian virtue’ [16].

VICTORIAN NOVELS

The importance of the piano in society is evident by its many and significant appearances in pre-Victorian and Victorian novels. In Jane Austen’s Emma the piano plays a pivotal role as an anonymous gift to Miss Fairfax. William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair also places the piano at the centre of its early chapters whilst later in the century the farmer Gabriel Oak (in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd), promises Bathsheba Everdene a piano within a year or two if she will marry him: ‘farmers’ wives are getting to have pianos now’ [17].

At the height of the piano’s popularity, during the Edwardian period, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, Miss Lucy Honeychurch, shows her true character early on in the story with her performances of Beethoven sonatas: ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live life as she plays, it will be very exciting’ [18], exclaims the Reverend Beeb.

Who taught the piano to these various heroines is left to the reader’s imagination but it is to these hidden teachers that we will turn attention to in next week’s installment.

Click to to download the references

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder & Director The Curious Piano Teachers

2 thoughts on “THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF PIANO TEACHING – PART 1

  1. Susan P

    Sally, have you read Mr Langshaw’s Square Piano by Madeline Goold? Madeline acquired a square piano at an auction in 2004 and traced its history from its dispatch from John Broadwood’s London premises in July 1807. The social history as well as musical history is absolutely fascinating – and some well known names come up. The book is entertaining as well as factual and Madeline has done her research well. I’d love to do similar research, but I don’t have space for a square piano!

    Reply

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