Review: The Piano – A History in 100 Pieces

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There is a type of book which is often rather unkindly referred to, in my view, as a ‘coffee table read’. I suspect that in some quarters, Susan Tomes’ The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, would fall into that category.

I have to confess, I read relatively few music-related books. As I wrote in this month’s edition of Creative Notes, there comes a point when you’ve had enough of music. After a busy day’s work teaching and mentoring, I know I’m not the only one who looks forward to the occasional music-free evening.

But this book is quite different. Call it a ‘coffee table read’ if you like, but the book is much more personal than that. In the book, pianist and writer, Susan Tomes, takes readers on a journey charting the development of the piano from the late-18th century to the present day. You might be forgiven for expecting the book to consist of a list of 100 works for the piano. Indeed it does, but describing it thus would do it a great disservice.

Index of The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces by Susan Tomes

I wouldn’t describe this book as an ‘academic’ history of the piano, indeed, I don’t think that’s its intention, but rather, it offers a journey exploring the history of the piano through 100 personally-chosen works. It’s about the piano in context. Above all, this is a book about music.

As the blurb states:

“An astonishingly versatile instrument, the piano allows just two hands to play music of great complexity and subtlety. For more than two hundred years, it has brought solo and collaborative music into homes and concert halls and has inspired composers in every musical genre—from classical to jazz and light music.”

The book begins by exploring the pre-history of the piano and the way in which the harpsichord gave way to its child instrument. J.S. and C.P.E. Bach both feature here, as does Scarlatti. The next section deals with music for the fortepiano, covering Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Thus follows a much more expansive section on the development of the 19th century piano, covering composers as diverse as Fanny Mendelssohn, John Field, Clara Schumann, Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky.

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At that point, one might think the book is reaching its conclusion, but far from it. The next section covers the development of the piano into the 20th century, focusing on composers such as Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Amy Beach and Maurice Ravel. This is followed by a section focussing on the 20th century, with reference to Charles Ives, Alban Berg, Francis Poulenc and Luciano Berio.

It doesn’t end there because the jazz influence is covered also. Scott Joplin, Billy Mayerl, Art Tatum and Bill Evans all feature. The book concludes with a section focussing on minimalism and today’s piano styles: Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Judith Weir and Thomas Adès. Tomes finishes with a short exploration of where piano music is heading now.

I feel quite exhausted after typing all that!

An extract from The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces by Susan Tomes

Tomes explores each selected piece in turn, placing it within a historical, cultural and musical context. Whilst reference is made to the musical components of each work, this isn’t an analytical volume. It’s an absorbing, and often surprising, read. It’s easy to lose yourself in Tomes’ compelling and personal writing. Perhaps one of the book’s greatest assets is that it is very much written from the hand of an experienced pianist. Tomes knows many, if not all of these works intimately.

Whilst its primary audience is pianists, musicians and those interested in the great repertoire of the piano, it should also be of great historical and wider cultural interest. This is a book about music, and indeed the piano itself, in context.

To compliment the book, Susan Tomes has curated a Spotify playlist which you can access here.

I want to also make special mention of the beautiful cover design for the book which makes it both modern and eye-catching.

The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces by Susan Tomes, is published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300253924, RRP £16.99.

I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

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