How is it easier to pick up a new instrument? How does one become a good pianist? What does it mean in practice to be comfortable in one’s own skin and play the way you want to? These questions are relevant as we approach the centenary of the instrument.
It might seem odd to mention history on the occasion of a 500th anniversary, but I am compelled to do so. The instrument, which, as a matter of fact, still exists in substantial form in the UK, is an interesting topic because it is one of the very earliest of the classical music instruments invented in western Europe. The very name piano derives from the word “piano-bass”, which means the small, padded, wooden box which the pianist played on before his instrument, usually a harp. These were, and are now, a rare and delightful rarity.
The modern “pianochord” has its roots in the nineteenth century, with the arrival of the first “real” instruments such as the violin-guitar, a kind of “double-necked” instrument. In 1821 Antonio Stradivari patented a “double-bass”, which has a built-in baritone, and a soloist, so that a player could play all the parts of a large concerto at the same time. Stradivari was soon followed in the 1820s by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who used this instrument to teach his pupils how to play the symphony orchestra, and later on, the piano concertos
Around 1830, as the piano was being re-established as a major part of the art, its history was re-evaluated, when the British Library, London, issued a number of volumes of the Music in Antiquity, with annotations explaining what had been known up to then. These included a detailed list of the various instruments called “pianochords”, including the famous bassoon.
It was in this period of re-evaluation that Thomas Hart Benton, at the age of twenty-one, played his first concerto and wrote the first concerto piece called “Piano-Evalon”, which has to be ranked as the most important orchestral piece written for the piano. The first violin-guitar was the “double-bass”, invented in Paris in 1840, and the orchestra was formed in Europe in 1870. This marked the start of the “New York scene”, with its first concerts being held in New York on the 26
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