'Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano' a leisurely stroll through the flea market of history
I've been reading Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution, which was published in Canada this fall by Blueridge (it came out in England 18 months ago -- and comes with a very informative website that you can access by clicking on the book image, above). The author is English visual artist Madeline Goold.
I've been trying hard to figure out what this book is. It is part cultural history, part history of private life (what in French is called "la petite histoire"), and part music history. But it isn't really any of those. It's more like a leisurely stroll through the flea market of history, with periodic pauses at different stalls to admire this or that small curiosity.
My mental image in trying to summarize the experience of reading the book is something like watching a child who is intensely engaged in some private playtime: there he or she is, manipulating toys with great intensity, making up conversations, creating a small world within a world -- full of meaning to them, but little more than a passing curiosity to the onlooker.
This is very much Goold's personal journey, expanded with piles and piles of detail, meticulously researched and sorted. If you share her passion for household and business ledgers, knowing that a guinea was 1 pound and 1 shilling, and the historical vagaries of the shipping trade in the English city of Lancaster, among other tidbits, this is a gently paced, nicely written outing that is all about smelling the flowers rather than reaching any particular destination.
Here is the book in a nutshell: Goold, who plays keyboard, decides she wants to get an early-19th-century piano so that she can play and appreciate the music from the period in the way it would have sounded originally. (Unlike modern pianos, the original ones had a wooden instead of metal frame, much lower string tension, and, therefore, a thinner, less powerful sound. They were also a lot less durable.)
While poking around in the back shed of a small auction house, Goold discovers an old, square piano (the mass-market equivalent of today's small upright) made by John Broadwood & Son, one of the three most famous piano manufacturers of the 19th century (along with Pleyel and Érard in France).
The serial number, 10651, sets Goold off on a detective mission that leads her to John Langshaw, father and son, keyboard musicians based in Lancaster. We get a peek inside the workings of the Broadwood offices and workshops in London. We witness the birth of piano culture and star pianists, beginning with Muzio Clementi. We learn how England's canal system distributed trade. And we get a glimpse of private life in turn-of-the-19th-century England.
There is much historical detail. There are some pictures, some reproduced maps and letters (between Charles Wesley and John Langshaw). But, in the absence of diaries, Gold has to imagine much of the actual private life of her protagonists.
This is a pleasant historical meander with a kind, patient, well-spoken and occasionally interesting guide.
Here is an example of a piano much like Goold's Broadwood in action (YouTube credits the player as Jonathan Mayerov) with a bit of a Mozart sonata: